When Missing Turns to Murder probes a number of shocking, heartbreaking cases where the search for a person who had mysteriously disappeared eventually evolved into the hunt for a murderer. Lead detectives, writers and those left bereaved all offer their personal insights into this dark and painful events. And among the darkest of all is the story of schoolgirl Danielle Jones, who vanished so abruptly one morning in June, 2001.
Danielle was on her way to school near her Essex home when she disappeared. Witnesses saw her talking to a man with a blue van – a key observation that led police to the door of a man called Stuart Campbell, who was certainly no stranger to Danielle. He was actually married to the schoolgirl’s aunt and was regarded as a trusted member of the family. An affectionate uncle. Perhaps overly attentive, but not any kind of sinister threat.
The family were unaware that Campbell had a very murky history...
Yet, Stuart Campbell was a known danger to women and girls, and led an ominous double life preying on those who took his fancy. All the while he was, in the words of a senior detective, ‘waiting for Danielle to reach an age of interest to him’.
The family were unaware that Campbell had a very murky history indeed. In 1989, he’d been handed a suspended jail term for holding a teenage girl captive at his home. Years before that, in the late 70s, he’d been put away for robbing and indecently assaulting a girl in the street. Yet, as these offences occurred long before the introduction of the sex offenders’ register, he was free to roam and strike up friendships with younger women and girls without any kind of monitoring by the police.
Campbell, who owned a blue van, was a prime suspect from the off. But, during the initial phases of the investigation, detectives were still optimistically treating it as an abduction rather than a murder. Which begged the question: when to actually make a move and arrest Campbell?
There was damning forensic evidence to be found, including stockings stained with blood.
As DS Peter Coltman later said, ‘In the context of a belief that Danielle was still alive, and being held against her will, this was an extremely difficult decision. Would such action locate Danielle, or could it put her life in danger?’
They eventually reasoned it was better to have Campbell in custody, and they struck one day at his home, just days after Danielle had gone missing. There was damning forensic evidence to be found, including stockings stained with blood, and DNA traces that matched with Danielle. Diary entries were also found which established Campbell’s fixation with Danielle: he would record every meeting he had with her, chronicling a growing obsession with the girl who thought of him as an uncle.
There was a big problem, though. While police were certain by this point that Danielle had been killed, the lack of a body meant it would be difficult to secure a conviction. Hundreds of sites were searched, but Campbell remained stoically uncooperative in interviews. He knew full well that as long as there was no body, there would be a lingering doubt over whether there had even been a murder. The possibility that Danielle had simply run away from home would potentially sway the jury his way in court.
The Crown Prosecution Service decided to proceed with a trial, with a spokesman later explaining that it was a compelling case: ‘Danielle was a young, vulnerable girl who would not have gone off on her own. The reason she did not contact her parents was that she was dead. The only conclusion you could come to was that Stuart Campbell killed her.’
Despite the glaring absence of Danielle’s body, there was strong forensic evidence against Campbell. Crucially, Campbell’s claim to have been far away at the time of Danielle’s disappearance was proven to be false, thanks to data proving his phone was within range of a local mobile phone mast.
As it turned out, mobile phones played a vital part in the case. Specifically, in terms of a text which he claimed Danielle had sent him after ‘running away’. The text read:
HI STU THANKZ 4 BEIN SO NICE UR THE BEST UNCLE EVER! TELL MUM I'M SO SORRY LUVYA LOADZ DAN XXX
This text was to prove his undoing, for the simple reason that Danielle wrote her texts in lower case. The use of all capitals was so unlike her that this, along with the phone mast data, made it highly likely he had sent the fake text to himself.
Campbell was found guilty and handed a life sentence for Danielle’s murder. But the mystery of her body’s whereabouts remains. A major excavation of several garages was carried out as recently as 2017, to no avail. The anguish of uncertainty will continue as long as Campbell, languishing in jail, continues to remain silent.