When two schoolgirls were found murdered, a caretaker revealed his guilt in three words.

Clad in matching red footy shirts, best friends Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, both 10, looked like two peas in a pod.

It was late afternoon on August 4, 2002 – a Sunday – and the girls were at a barbecue at the Wells’ family home in Soham, Cambridgeshire in the UK.

Giggling, they’d decided to change into the matching Manchester United jerseys. United was their team and David Beckham was their favourite player – both of them had his name and his squad number ‘7’ emblazoned on the back.

Holly’s mum, Nicola, snapped a photo of the girls in their identical ensembles. Not long after that, around 5.30pm, Holly and Jessica, who’d been friends since they were four years old, linked arms and went for a walk to buy lollies from the local shop.

They were captured on CCTV on their way back from the shop just before 6.30pm but by 10 they still hadn’t returned home and their frantic parents raised the alarm, the Daily Mail reported.

The photo of them in their Manchester United shirts quickly became the image distributed to police and media outlets in the desperate search for the girls. It would later become a haunting symbol of evil.

It turned out that Ian Huntley, caretaker of the local Soham college, had been the last person to see the girls. Huntley was a engaged to a woman called Maxine Carr, the teaching assistant at St. Andrews primary school, where Holly and Jessica were pupils.

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He told police he’d been in his front yard washing his dog around 6.30pm when the girls had walked past, as reported in the Telegraph. Holly and Jessica, who loved Maxine Carr, asked if she was around. Huntley said he’d told them she was upstairs taking a bath because she was feeling sick so the girls had wished her well before walking off in the direction of the local library.

For the following 13 days, the police and their families searched tirelessly for them, while the nation watched and waited in horrified suspense. It was one of England’s biggest ever manhunts.

Huntley was a key figure in the investigation and seemed keen to help police. He took part in searches and put out chairs and tables for press conferences. He did several TV interviews, telling one network: “It doesn’t help the fact that I was one of the last people to speak to them. I keep re-living that conversation and thinking perhaps something different could have been said, perhaps I could have kept them here a little bit longer and maybe changed events.”

Carr also spoke to the media, describing Holly and Jessica as “two of the brightest, loveliest little girls in the world”. She showed off an end of term card they had made for her that was covered with hearts and kisses.

Huntley’s closeness to the case ignited suspicion. He’d pestered police with questions, curious to know how wide the search was going to be and if any clothing had been found.

On August 6, Huntley and Carr were brought in for questioning and their home and the surrounding grounds were searched. Although it was not revealed until much later on, it was then that police recovered the girls’ Manchester United shirts, which had been partially burnt and were in a bin behind the property.

Later that day, a games warden walking through the woods in Lakenheath, around 10km away, made a far grislier discovery. The girls’ decomposed bodies, lying in the nettles and the mud beside the perimeter fence of an RAF base.

An autopsy revealed the most probable cause of death was asphyxiation.

Evidence was mounting against Huntley. He’d been known to go plane spotting in the area where the girls’ bodies had been found. Some of his hairs and fibres from his clothes were found on the girls’ football shirts, his fingerprints were on the black plastic bag containing the girls’ clothing.

Three days later, Huntley was formally charged with two counts of murder Maxine Carr, was also arrested for assisting an offender, as well as conspiring to obstruct the course of justice.

It turned out, Carr had provided Huntley with an alibi, telling police she’d been at home on August 4, when in fact she’d been in Grimsby, a town 180km away, visiting her mum.

The trial opened at the Old Bailey on November 5, 2003. Huntley denied murder, but admitted conspiring to pervert the course of justice.

He claimed that the girls had died in a freak accident at his home.

His account of events was so far-fetched, so stunningly ludicrous it would have been laughable had this case not been so unutterably tragic.

Choking back tears, he told the jury: “I wish I could do things differently. I wish none of this had ever happened.”

Huntley claimed that when the girls had arrived outside his house, Holly had suffered a nosebleed and so he had allowed them to enter his home.

He said that Holly had sat on the edge of his bath, which was full of water since he’d just bathed his dog, and he went to get tissues. He claimed that as he approached the bath to dampen the tissues, he lost his footing and knocked Holly into the bath, as reported by The Daily Mail

He said: “I was stood there waiting for some movement or for her to get up … there was no movement, I just panicked and froze.”

His next memory, he claimed, was of putting a hand over Jessica’s mouth to silence her screams and he used another hand to “restrain her”.

Next thing he knew, he claimed, both girls were dead.

He described panicking, wondering how he would explain the “accident” to the police. He admitted removing the girls’ clothing and bundling their bodies into the trunk of his red Ford Fiesta and driving to Lakenheath where he dumped them in the ditch.

Back at the house, he burned and dumped the clothes. He denied ever touching the girls “sexually”.

Unsurprisingly, under cross-examination, his account was cracked wide open.

Huntley was convicted of two counts of murder and was handed two life sentences.

Carr admitted she’d lied for Huntley but maintained she’d had no idea he’d killed the girls, claiming she’d provided the alibi so he wouldn’t be “fitted up” for a crime he didn’t commit, according to The Guardian. She was also found guilty of conspiring to pervert the course of justice but cleared of two counts of assisting and offender. She received a three and a half year prison sentence.

Addressing Huntley, Justice Moses said: “You are the one person who knows how you murdered them, you are the one person who knows why.”

Because that’s the thing; Huntley’s motive was never clear. Because the girls’ bodies were so badly decomposed, a sexual motive could never be confirmed or ruled out. Some suggested that an argument on the phone with Carr just minutes before the girls arrived at his house could have sent him into a rage that was hot enough to kill.

Indeed, it emerged Huntley had a temper – and a murky past. Huntley had on several occasions been accused of having sex with underage girls, according to The Mirror. He had also been charged with raping a 17 year old girl in 1999, but police had dropped the charges due to insufficient evidence.

Carr had said that it was because of this allegedly false allegation that she had been so willing to provide her partner with an alibi; she had not wanted him to once again be accused of a crime he supposedly had not committed.

Later, forensic psychologists and criminal experts analysed footage of Huntley’s police interviews about Holly and Jessica and concluded his behaviour had proven his guilt, as reported by The Mirror.

When asked if he had had any physical contact with the girls, Huntley replied: “Physical contact? No.”

Analysing the clip on Faking: Tears of a Crime, a British TV show, aired on Investigation Discovery, body language expert Cliff Langley said: “There are multiple things wrong. He has clamped his hands. He is rubbing and manipulating his fingers to try and comfort himself. And his shoulder is raising slightly on the right-hand side.

“Then when he says ‘no’, the volume of no comes down fifty per cent and he synchronises his head one to two seconds afterwards.

“So, there are seven, eight indicators of deception here when he is using just three words.”

It’s been 16 years since the crime shook the nation. Maxine Carr has long been released under the guise of a new identity. Huntley will likely die behind bars.

But the pain will live on with the Wells and the Chapmans; with everyone who knew and loved Holly and Jessica. They should be young women now, perhaps working, perhaps dating, perhaps travelling the world. Making their families proud.

But those two happy little girls, who on 4 August 2002, had their whole lives firmly ahead of them will, thanks to Huntley, forever remain 10-years-old.

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