Soham murders 20 years on: How every parent’s nightmare became a reality for two families

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The murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman captivated and horrified Britain (Pictures: Reuters/PA)

Each day hundreds of pupils file past an empty plot of land bordering Soham Village College.

There’s no trace of the building which once stood there, nor a memorial to the two young girls murdered inside.

None were alive when Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman died on this day 20 years ago, but for the town’s older residents it’s a tragedy they’ll never forget.

The case captivated and horrified Britain, evoking an outpouring of national grief which hasn’t been witnessed since.

Ian Huntley’s name was added to those of Peter Sutcliffe, Ian Brady and Fred West on the list of the UK’s most evil killers.

Soham would become a place remembered chiefly for the evil crimes committed there, with 5 College Close later demolished in a bid to help the grieving community heal.

Back in 2002, it was an ordinary town, and the families of the two young girls were typical inhabitants.

On Sunday, August 4, the Wells were hosting a barbecue for friends. That morning, Holly’s pal Jessica, whom she had known since nursery, came over to give her a necklace she had bought on a recent holiday.

The girls were called down for their tea just before 5pm and the now famous photo showing them smiling in their matching Manchester United shirts was taken minutes later.

Holly’s mum Nicola told police: ‘That was the last we saw of them.’

Holly Wells (L) and her best friend, Jessica Chapman, pictured in their Manchester United shirts shortly before they disappeared. Holly and Jessica, both from Soham, Cambs, vanished on 4 August 2002. Their bodies were found near a track in Wangford, Suffolk, on 17 August 2002. Ian Huntley, the caretaker at their school, was found guilty of their murder.
The now famous photo of Holly (left) and Jessica (right) in their Manchester United shirts shortly before they disappeared (Picture: PA)
Soham murders 20 years on: How every parent's nightmare became a reality for two families
Their favourite footballer, David Beckham, observes a minute’s silence during the Premiership match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on August 23, 2002 (Picture: Getty)

By the following morning, Monday August 5, one of the biggest manhunts in UK history was underway.

The next day, David Beckham – the girls’ favourite player whose name and number seven were on the back of their shirts when they disappeared – issued a personal plea for them to ‘go home’, promising: ‘You are not in any kind of trouble.’

During press conferences and public appeals at Village College, caretaker Huntley, then 28, helped arrange the chairs and set up the screens which showed the girls’ last known movements before they wandered into his clutches.

After one, he brazenly approached Holly’s dad Kevin Wells and told him: ‘Kev, I just wanted to say I did not realise it was your daughter.’

Both Huntley and his 25-year-old fiancée Maxine Carr, who had been a teaching assistant in the girls’ class at St Andrew’s primary school, were eager to speak to the media descending on the town.

It would eventually prove to be their undoing.

The caretaker told reporters he had been washing his dog in the front garden of 5 College Close when the two friends stopped by to ask how she was.

He also commented: ‘To think I was the last friendly face that those girls have spoken to before something happened to them.’

Reward posters outside St Andrew’s Church in Soham, Cambridgeshire (Picture: Getty)

Debbie Davies, then deputy editor of the Ely Standard, recalls feeling ‘sick’ when it later emerged Huntley had already murdered the girls by the time she stopped by to hand a ‘missing’ flyer to Carr.

She said: ‘Of course at the time I was just “Oh, great, she’s put the poster up”.

‘It’s only obviously since then that I’ve thought about the horrors of what went on in that house and the poster was there and the Manchester United t-shirts, I believe, were already in their bin outside – that’s where they were found later.

‘A horrible moment that was only revealed in the course of time.’

The press camped out in the town soon grew suspicious of Huntley, with several tipping off police to worrying remarks he made when they spoke.

One of those was the Press Associations’ East Anglia reporter, Brian Farmer. After interviewing Huntley and Carr at their home, he went to detectives and told them: ‘He’s your man.’

He recalled: ‘The first thing that seemed strange, I remember quite distinctly, was that I asked Maxine if at school they’d done stranger danger, and “don’t get into cars”.

‘I asked her from her knowledge of Holly and Jessica how she thought they might have reacted if, for example, a man had pulled up alongside in a car and said: “Would you like a lift, girls?”

‘The odd thing was that she didn’t answer the question because Ian Huntley jumped in straight away and he answered the question.

‘He said that he thought Holly would probably get in the car and quietly go, but Jessica wouldn’t. She’d put up a real fight and a real struggle. He was quite agitated and emotional.

‘I remember thinking: “Why is he so agitated? Why is he so emotional?” The main thing that struck me when he answered the question was, well, how can he possibly know how they would react?’

IAN HUNTLEY, 28, former school caretaker, who was convicted of the murders of Soham schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. See PA story COURTS Girls. PA Photo: Toby Meville....A...LONDON...UK
Huntley soon aroused the suspicions of the press camped out in Soham (Picture: PA)

The reporter, who was later called as a prosecution witness during Huntley’s trial, said: ‘I think the way he described how Holly and Jessica would react is exactly how they did react.

‘That’s why he knew how they’d react – because that’s how they reacted when he killed them.’

Carr also set alarm bells ringing when she kept referring to the girls in the past tense while there was still hope of finding them alive.

Showing off a leaving card Holly had given her the previous month with a poem written inside, she told a reporter: ‘That’s the kind of girl she was.’

Days before they were arrested, Huntley approached police special constable Sharon Gilbert and asked: ‘How long does DNA evidence last?’

Ms Gilbert later told a TV documentary about the murders that ‘everything about [Huntley] made [her] feel uneasy’.

The pair, who met in a Grimsby nightclub in 1999 and moved to Soham in 2001, were taken in to be interviewed as significant witnesses on August 16.

Huntley’s alibi that Carr had been with him all weekend quickly crumbled when phone records proved she had been with her family 100 miles away in Grimsby on the night of the murders.

Detectives decided to search the couple’s home in College Close while the pair were being quizzed and found keys to a storage building at the secondary school which Huntley previously denied having access to.

Inside, they made a devastating discovery – Holly and Jessica’s burned clothing inside a bin hidden by a plastic liner with Huntley’s fingerprints on.

On August 17, nearly two weeks after they vanished, their bodies were found lying side by side and badly burned near RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk.

Huntley looking anxious in his Ford Fiesta, which was used to dispose of the girls’ bodies (Picture: PA)

It emerged Huntley used his old Ford Fiesta to dispose of them. Using a photo taken of him after his interview with Mr Farmer, detectives were able to spot that Huntley tried to cover his tracks by getting new tyres fitted.

He even paid an extra £10 to have a fake reg number scrawled on the invoice.

However, forensic geologists were able to detect tiny fragments of chalk on one of the suspension arms which matched that on the trail near to where the bodies were found.

Huntley has never revealed what really happened when the girls stepped inside his home, and it was not until the eve of his trial that he offered an account.

He admitted they had died there but claimed it had all been a ‘terrible accident’.

His one slim hope appeared to be the ambiguity around the cause of their deaths. The pathologist said it could have been smothering, suffocation or strangulation.

After taking the girls inside when Holly got a nosebleed, Huntley said she fell backwards into a filled bath and when Jessica screamed at him, he put a hand over her mouth to silence her.

Before he realised what had happened, he told jurors, both girls were dead.

COURTS 13 Girls/Chapman...The parents of Jessica Chapman - Sharon and Leslie Chapman - with family liasion Gaye Mallows (centre back)-arrive at Ely Cathedral, Cambs, for the service in remembrance of the lives of murdered Cambridgeshire schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, Friday August 30, 2002. See PA Story COURTS Girls. PA Photo: Andrew Parsons/Pool....A...Ely...UK
Jessica’s parents Sharon and Leslie Chapman (Picture: Andrew Parsons)

But the court heard Huntley tried and failed to meet a woman in Soham that evening, while telephone records showed he and Carr had rowed just minutes before Jessica’s was switched off.

Its signal was last picked up near to College Close.

Richard Latham QC, prosecuting, told the Old Bailey’s Court No. 1 that Huntley found the two 10-year-old girls ‘too tempting’.

He said: ‘This whole incident was motivated by something sexual, that whatever he initiated with one or the other or both of the girls plainly went wrong.

‘Thereafter in this ruthless man’s mind both girls simply had to die, they simply had to die in his own selfish self-interest. Each was a witness, a potential complainant. He was quite merciless.’

Carr, who distanced herself from Huntley while being hounded with shouts of ‘nonce’ and ‘Myra Hindley mark two’ during her time on remand, then torpedoed any hope Huntley had of acquittal when she stepped into the witness box.

Challenged by his QC over her claims that he was ‘abusive’ and she ‘was scared of him’, Carr snapped that she would not be ‘blamed for what that thing has done’.

An undated hand-out file photograph shows Maxine Carr who faces a three-and-a-half year jail term for her role in the deaths of schoolgirls Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells following the conclusion of her trial at the Old Bailey in London December 17, 2003. Carr was found guilty of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice but cleared of assisting an offender, and her ex-lover Ian Huntley was given two life sentences on after being found guilty of the murder of the10-year-old schoolgirls. EDITORIAL USE ONLY REUTERS/Cambridgeshire Police/HO
Maxine Carr was jailed for three-and-a-half years and now lives under an assumed name (Picture: Reuters)

Huntley was convicted of the murders and handed two life sentences with a minimum term of 40 years, while Carr was jailed for three-and-a-half after she was found guilty of perverting the course of justice.

The judge, Mr Justice Moses, told Huntley his claim to have been ‘the last friendly face’ the girls saw ‘was a lie which serves to underline the persistent cruelty’ of his actions.

He went on: ‘On the contrary, one of those girls died knowing her friend had been attacked or killed by you.

‘After you had murdered them both, you pushed their bodies into a ditch, stripped them and burned them, while their family searched for them in increasing despair.

‘And, as Kevin Wells called out their names, you pretended to join in the search. Three days later you demonstrated the extent of your merciless cynicism by offering that father some words of regret.

‘Your tears have never been for them, only for yourself.’

The parents of murdered Soham school children Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman (Left-right) Kevin and Nicola Wells and Sharon and Leslie Chapman give their reaction during a press conference held in central London, December 17 2003 on the day Ian Huntley was sentenced to life for the murders of their daughter's. Maxine Carr was sentenced to three and a half years for conspiring with Huntley to pervert the course of justice. She will serve half that sentence as time in custody will be taken into account.See PA story COURTS Girls. PA Photo: Johnny Green.
The girls’ parents (left to right) Kevin and Nicola Wells and Sharon and Leslie Chapman speak to the media after Huntley was jailed for life (Picture: PA)

Rather than fade into obscurity as most killers do, Huntley has remained in the headlines in the years since he was sent away to serve his life sentence.

He was in the news in 2005 after being attacked by a fellow inmate, in 2006 following a failed suicide bid and in 2007 after a reported hunger strike.

His throat was slashed by another lag in 2010 and in early 2018 one newspaper reported that the double child killer had been recorded confessing and saying he was ‘genuinely, genuinely sorry’.

Carr, on the other hand, lives under an assumed name as a result of the rare ‘Mary Bell’ anonymity order imposed upon her release from prison.

Nowadays, we are reminded of these awful events any time we apply for a job involving contact with children or vulnerable adults.

The case led to the setting up of the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) and Police National Database (PND).

During the investigation it emerged Huntley had been quizzed by police several times in the late 1990s in relation to allegations of sex with underage girls, rape, and indecent assault.

But because he was never charged, he had no criminal record. Hundreds of known sex offenders were tracked down in the early stages of the investigation. Huntley’s name wasn’t on the list.

On the database’s first anniversary, Jessica’s parents Sharon and Leslie, who rarely spoke publicly, said: ‘We hope its use will mean other families don’t suffer the same loss and heartbreak we did.’

In the years that followed, Mr Wells published a book about his family’s ordeal, titled Goodbye Dearest Holly.

In it, he describes heart-rending details such as the ‘emotional argument’ he and his wife had over whether to leave their daughter’s favourite soft toy in her casket.

Kevin Wells and his wife Nicola, parents of murdered 10-year-old Holly Wells, during a press conference in London, Wednesday Dec. 17, 2003, after Ian Huntley received two life sentences at the nearby Central Criminal Court, for the murder of their daughter and Jessica Chapman in August 2002.(AP Photo/Max Nash)
Holly’s parents Kevin and Nicola Wells (Picture: AP)

Mr Wells is also a founding partner of the charity Grief Encounter, which supports bereaved children and young people.

Appearing on Good Morning Britain to highlight his work with the organisation in 2015, he revealed that the family was still living in Soham and had moved back into the home Holly grew up in.

He went on: ‘We think of Holly every day. Her pictures are in and around the house. It’s not a shrine. We are very much embracing our life, our business, and our community.

‘We don’t live in the past, but we hope that we can learn and make a difference from it.’

Mr and Mrs Wells are also grandparents to son Oliver’s children.

Holly’s brother previously to the Radio Times he thinks about his sister often, adding: ‘I wish I could see her now, see what she’d have looked like.

‘We do chat about her quite regularly, which I think is a very nice thing. It’s strange being three of us, when there used to be a fourth.’

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