Could research have helped the Milly Dowler investigation?

Milly Dowler was abducted and killed in 2002. PA/ Surrey Police

The recent information released by the parents of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler is shocking and adds yet another layer to the suffering of this family.

They revealed that last May the police had informed them that Levi Bellfield had finally admitted to abducting, raping and strangling Milly during a 14-hour ordeal. They were obligated not to reveal this information at the time as it was obtained as part of an ongoing investigation into the possibility that Bellfield may have had an accomplice. Now that this suspect has been interviewed and released without charge, they want the world to know the true extent of the torment their daughter suffered.

The case stands out as exceptional for many reasons but it also conforms to known patterns in child abduction. Knowing this could have made a difference – if not to Milly, then to Bellfield’s other victims.

Missed opportunity

In hindsight, there is no doubt that mistakes were made in the investigation. Surrey Police admitted that despite calling at Bellfield’s home numerous times they were unable to establish who lived at the property. Had they done so it is highly likely he would have been identified as a potential suspect early in the investigation, as he was known to the police.

The Dowlers read a statement following Bellfield’s conviction. PA/Stefan Rousseau

Such an error is concerning, although, it must be said, not particularly unusual. There is always potential for information to overwhelm even the best prepared investigation teams. This is especially true during the early hours or days of a high-profile child abduction.

There has been wide speculation about what the consequences of the oversight in the Milly Dowler case might have been. In hindsight, it may well have prevented the early identification of Bellfield as a suspect in Milly’s abduction and murder and potentially prevented him from murdering other women.

Applying what research tells us

Investigating the abduction of a child by a stranger is a complex process. It depends on the quality of the information gathered during the early stages and the various hypotheses formed by the investigators.

Research into solved child abduction murders in America suggested that in as many as 80% of these cases the initial contact between victim and offender was within a quarter of a mile of where the victim was last seen.

Bellfield went on to kill several other women. PA/Metropolitan Police

Remarkably 18% of offenders lived within 200 feet of the initial contact site and 35% lived within a quarter of a mile. This relationship appears to be unique to this type of crime. This shows just how important house-to-house enquires can be in identifying the initial point of contact.

In fact, the lack of house-to-house enquiries was “one of the most critical factors uncovered in the whole of the research project”. In half of cases, investigators had contact with the offender about some aspect of the murder before that person became the prime suspect in the case.

Clearly efforts were made to identify who was living at the property we now know was occupied by Bellfield at the time of Milly’s abduction, it is simply that they do not appear to have delved deeper to trace and speak to the owner of the property.

Given what has transpired during the 14 years since Milly Dowler’s death, her case appears destined to become synonymous with the prolonged suffering of her parents as much as the murder of their daughter. But the case highlights a number of important issues, not least how research that could be useful to the police in these cases is not well known and rarely used as a basis for investigative policy.