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Murder of Milly Dowler

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Murder of Milly Dowler

Amanda Jane "Milly" Dowler was a 13-year-old English girl who was abducted on her way home from school in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, on 21 March 2002, and subsequently murdered. Her body was discovered on 18 September 2002.

On 23 June 2011, Levi Bellfield was found guilty of Dowler's murder and sentenced to a whole-life prison tariff. Bellfield had been found guilty in 2008 of murdering Marsha McDonnell and Amélie Delagrange, and the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy, over the two years after he murdered Dowler.[1]

Following her death, Dowler's parents established a charity called Milly's Fund to "promote public safety, and in particular the safety of the children and young people". The case also generated debate over the treatment of victims and witnesses in court, after Dowler's family criticised the way they were cross-examined during Bellfield's trial.

Dowler's murder also played a significant role in the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. It was revealed in 2011 that News of the World reporters had accessed her voicemail while she was reported missing. The resulting outcry from the British public contributed to the closure of the newspaper and led to a range of investigations and inquiries into phone hacking and media ethics in British media.


  • Disappearance 1
  • Body discovery 2
  • Police investigation into disappearance and murder 3
  • Trial of Bellfield 4
    • Post-trial 4.1
      • Reactions to court proceedings 4.1.1
  • Voicemail tampering investigation 5
  • Legacy 6
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9


At 3:00 pm on 21 March 2002, Dowler left Heathside School to go home on the train. She got off at Walton-on-Thames railway station, one stop before her usual stop of Hersham, to visit a cafe with friends. After telephoning her father at 3:47 pm to say she would be home in half an hour, she left on foot. She was last seen 18 minutes later,[2] walking along Station Avenue, by a friend of her sister Gemma, who was waiting at a bus stop.[3] A closed-circuit television camera located further along the road showed no images of Milly, indicating she was abducted within minutes of passing the bus stop.[3] It is believed she was killed and her body dumped shortly afterwards.[4] Her parents reported her missing to the police at 7:00 pm that evening.[5]

A nationwide search followed the disappearance, including 100 police officers and helicopters searching the fields,[6] streets and rivers around Hersham. Detectives who had worked on the abduction of Sarah Payne were called in to help.[7] Police and the Dowler family made many appeals for information, including a reconstruction on Crimewatch UK.[2] A plea was made on the ITN news programme[7] by Pop Idol winner Will Young, whose concert Dowler had attended shortly before her disappearance. The Crimewatch UK appeal included a direct appeal to her in the hope that she had run away from home of her own accord, though the day before her father had already expressed fears that his daughter had been abducted. Her mother expressed hope that her daughter had indeed run away, but admitted that she could think of no reason why her daughter would want to do so.[8] It was later revealed that Dowler had, some time previously, written a mock leaving-home letter and notes showing she had been unhappy.[9]

A week after Dowler's disappearance, the police stated that she was probably not taken by force. They reasoned that while she was unlikely to have gone off with someone she did not know of her own free will, no-one had come forward who had witnessed a struggle, despite a number of apparent sightings of her prior to her disappearance.[10]

On 23 April, the discovery of a body in the River Thames prompted media speculation that the remains might be those of Dowler. However, the body was identified the following day as 73-year-old Maisie Thomas, who had gone missing a year earlier, and whose death was not believed to be suspicious.[11] In June 2002, despite further searches, the offer of a £100,000 reward by national tabloid newspaper The Sun[12] and her parents continuing to send text messages to her mobile telephone in the hope of a reply,[13] she remained missing. At this stage police told her parents that she was probably dead.[14]

Body discovery

On 18 September 2002, decomposed human remains were discovered by mushroom pickers in Yateley Heath Woods near Yateley, Hampshire.[15] They were later confirmed through dental records as Dowler's.[3][16] Advanced decomposition meant that no cause of death could be ascertained. The body had not been buried. The remains were unclothed, and neither her clothes, nor any of the possessions—the purse, rucksack or mobile telephone—she had with her at the time of her disappearance have ever been recovered.[17][18][19] The discovery of the body led the police to reclassify the case from a missing person investigation to a murder investigation. The investigation was undertaken by Surrey Police and code-named Operation Ruby.[20]

Police investigation into disappearance and murder

On 22 November 2002, police set up a road block near the spot where the body was found. Motorists in the area were questioned, but no leads were discovered.[21] Initially the Surrey police considered Dowler's father a suspect, though they later apologised for the missed opportunities this may have caused.[9][22]

On 23 March 2003, DNA of an unidentified male was discovered on an item of Dowler's clothing in her bedroom, suggesting that her killer may have met her before. This link was ruled out within three months, at the same time that a DNA link to a church robbery in Sunderland was also ruled out.[23][24]

Paul Hughes was convicted of making threats to kill and was jailed for five years after sending letters to Dowler's mother threatening to kill her and claiming to have killed Dowler. The letters were sent whilst Hughes was in prison for indecently assaulting a twelve-year-old girl; the prison service apologised for not screening mail effectively.[25]

Lianne Newman, of Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, repeatedly phoned Dowler's parents, school and the police, pretending to be Dowler. Newman was jailed in April 2003 for five months after pleading guilty to five counts of making phone calls to cause annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety.[26]

Gary Farr, of Retford, Nottinghamshire, repeatedly e-mailed Dowler's parents, school friends and police officers working on the case, claiming that Dowler had been smuggled out of the country to work as a prostitute and stripper at nightclubs in Poland, and that her death had been a cover-up. Farr was sectioned indefinitely under the Mental Health Act on 19 October 2006 for being a serious psychological danger to the public after admitting a charge of harassment.[27]

In March 2008, a man was arrested over the 'disposal' of a car linked to the murder investigation but was released later that same day.[28] On 4 August 2009, a 40-year-old man from west London was arrested in relation to the disposal of a red Daewoo Nexia,[29] but later released without charge. Two months later, Bedfont Lake in west London was searched by police in hope of finding the car, but neither the car nor anything else of interest to their inquiry was recovered. The car has yet to be discovered.[30]

On 25 February 2008, Surrey Police confirmed that Levi Bellfield was their prime suspect in the murder inquiry and were "very interested" in questioning him.[31] On 30 March 2010, Bellfield was charged with Dowler's abduction and murder.[32] As a result, the inquest into the death was adjourned.[33] On 6 October 2010 he appeared in court via video link and was formally charged with one count of attempted abduction, one count of abduction, one count of disposal of evidence and one count of murder.

Trial of Bellfield

Bellfield's trial began on 10 May 2011 at the Central Criminal Court before Mr Justice Wilkie[15] and concluded on 23 June 2011 with the jury finding him guilty.[34] He was sentenced to life imprisonment[35] the following day and the trial judge recommended that his life sentence should mean life – just as the judge at his trial for the other crimes had done three years earlier. The trial of Bellfield on another charge of attempted abduction of Rachel Cowles, an 11-year-old girl offered a lift in the Walton area by a man in a red car on 20 March 2002, was abandoned due to newspapers publishing prejudicial material,[22] and the judge ordered that the charge should remain on file.[36]


Following the trial of Bellfield, the investigation, trial and murder of Dowler was the focus of a special Crimewatch programme, entitled Taken: The Milly Dowler Story which was broadcast on BBC One on 30 June 2011. It featured interviews with witnesses, the family and investigators and detailed how Levi Bellfield was caught and featured a reconstruction of what is now believed to have occurred.[37]

Reactions to court proceedings

After Bellfield's sentencing, the Dowler family strongly criticised the way they had been treated during the trial. Dowler's sister Gemma described the day that her parents were cross-examined by Bellfield's defence lawyer as "the worst day of my life". Her mother Sally told reporters outside the Old Bailey: Bob Dowler commented on Bellfield's refusal to give evidence in court, and for refusing to appear for his sentencing. He added:

Chief Constable Mark Rowley, who oversaw the investigation, joined the Director of Public Prosecutions in calling for changes and for greater protection of victims and witnesses during court cases.[40] Rowley said it was a "most bizarre and distressing coincidence" that the Dowler family had their privacy "destroyed", at a time when footballers and celebrities were being granted super-injunctions to protect details of their personal lives.[41] The Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke rejected calls for a review of criminal cases saying "it is just an unfortunate anomaly in the application of a fair and balanced judicial system". Clarke also referred to the fact that while Bellfield had been convicted of previous murders he had to be presumed innocent and found guilty and not presumed guilty. To avoid prejudicing the trial, evidence of Bellfield's "obsession" with young schoolgirls, and his attempts to procure sex from young girls, were not mentioned during the trial.[42]

Voicemail tampering investigation

The Guardian reported on 4 July 2011 that Scotland Yard had discovered Dowler's voicemail had been accessed by journalists working for the News of the World and the newspaper's private investigator Glenn Mulcaire.[43] The paper also reported that, during their ongoing investigation into that newspaper's phone hacking activities, police detectives discovered journalists had deleted some messages – potential evidence – in Dowler's voicemail box because it was full, thus freeing up space for new messages, which they could listen to. The deletions misled family and friends into thinking that Dowler was still alive.[44] However, it subsequently emerged that Dowler's phone automatically deleted messages 72 hours after being listened to.[45]

Dowler's parents announced via their solicitor that they would pursue a claim for damages against the News of the World[46] and in September 2011 it was reported that the Dowler family had been offered £2m in personal damages.[47]

In January 2012, it was revealed that Surrey Police and other police forces knew soon after Dowler's death that News of the World staff had accessed her mobile phone messages, but did not take issue with this. Instead a senior Surrey officer invited staff to a meeting to discuss the case.[48]


Dowler's parents, Sally and Bob Dowler, launched a charity called Milly's Fund on the day of her memorial service, in October 2002,[49] "to promote public safety, and in particular the safety of the children and young people".[50] The charity provides risk assessment advice to teenagers, youth workers, and educators. Its work includes the "Teach UR Mum 2 TXT" campaign, which encourages children and parents to stay in contact via text messaging, including a glossary for parents of commonly-used SMS abbreviations. The campaign was awarded "Best Use of Mobile for Accessibility" at the 2004 GSM Association Awards.[51]

At the 2005 Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, a garden designed in memory of Dowler by Penny Smith won the Tudor Rose award, the show's highest honour.[52] A magenta sweetpea was named after her and made publicly available by Matthewman's Sweetpeas.[53] A five-part soap opera entitled Watch Over Me was commissioned by Milly's Fund encouraging personal safety for teenagers,[54] to be distributed to every school in the UK.[54]

In 2005, it was announced that the charity would be transferred to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust,[55] and Milly's Fund was wound up that year.[56]


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  40. ^ James Robinson "Milly Dowler phone hacking: Family shocked by NoW revelations", The Guardian, 4 July 2011
  41. ^ Nick Davies and Amelia Hill "Missing Milly Dowler's voicemail was hacked by News of the World", The Guardian, 4 July 2011
  42. ^
  43. ^ "Milly Dowler's phone was 'hacked by News of The World'", Daily Telegraph, 4 July 2011
  44. ^ Gordon Rayner and Andrew Hough, Phone hacking: Milly Dowler family set for £3 million News International payout The Daily Telegraph 20 September 2011
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  53. ^ Milly's Fund, Registered Charity no. 1094006 at the Charity Commission

Further reading

External links

  • Murder of Milly Dowler collected news and commentary at The Guardian
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