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TV no preparation for witness box

Sky News’ Jeremy Thompson was one of dozens of reporters camped out in Soham last year. Here he recounts his experience and tells how he ended up being a witness at the Old Bailey trial of Ian Huntley and Maxine Carr

Ian Huntley looked me straight in the eyes and said: “They just seemed like normal happy kids. Chatty and cheerful. They seemed fine.”

Little did I know then that I was talking to a killer – the man who’d murdered those two “happy, cheerful girls”, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, 11 days before. He didn’t even flinch as I interviewed him on Sky News, yet almost every word he uttered turned out to be a lie.

Within 24 hours he was being interviewed again, this time by the police. The following day he was arrested in connection with the murders of Holly and Jessica.

It was to be the dramatic climax of a sad trip down memory lane for me. Some 30 years before I’d learned my trade as a young journalist on the Cambridge Evening News, reporting on Soham parish council and local soccer matches out on the windswept Fens. I well remember the kind and friendly folk of Soham.

But when I returned in August 2002, gone were the smiling faces. You could sense the growing anxiety and fear in this small country community; Soham was a town in trauma. There were police everywhere, searching backyards and bushes, drains and ditches. And in almost every window were those now familiar posters of Holly and Jessica in their bright red Manchester United shirts. The word above their pretty little faces: “MISSING.”

At least there was still hope in that first week. We broadcast the CCTV footage of the girls walking to the sports centre on the evening they disappeared. The police appealed for more information. Most people in Soham still believed they’d be found safe and well.

But when I returned one week later, the mood was very different. Things were looking desperate. To jog people’s memories we decided to broadcast a timeline of the girls’ last movements, and that meant talking to the last person to see them the night they disappeared – the school caretaker. Ian Huntley.

When I walked up to interview him with the camera rolling, I sensed a dark and somewhat troubled man. The first thing I noticed were the dark grey rings under each eye. But I still had no reason to suspect he was the murderer.

He told me: “I don’t know the girls. They just came across and asked how Miss Carr was, because she used to teach them at St. Andrews. They then walked off in the direction of the library. I didn’t see anything untoward.”

A few minutes later I interviewed his girlfriend, Maxine Carr, on Sky News Live at Five. She showed me a card Holly had made for her on the last day of term.

“It’s what Holly gave me. She was very upset because I didn’t get my job and she sent this with a poem on the inside, saying you’re a very special teaching assistant. Really, I miss her a lot and I’ll see her in the future. That’s the kind of girl she was. She was lovely. Just really lovely.”

Afterwards my producers, Ed Fraser and Cait Fitzsimmons, mentioned it seemed a little odd that Maxine had talked about Holly in the past tense. We all agreed, and thought it might be worth mentioning to the police the next day. But again we had no reason at the time to suspect her of any wrongdoing.

In the end, we never did have that chat with the police. Suddenly events began to accelerate at a dramatic pace. First thing the following day – the morning of Friday August 16 – the police arranged a news conference. It was to be another heart-breaking appeal for help from Holly and Jessica’s parents.

It was the first time I’d spoken to the Wells and the Chapmans. I was immediately impressed by their courage and composure as they faced the world and once again asked for help to find their little girls, now missing for 12 days. It was hard for any of us to imagine how two regular couples managed to handle with such dignity the demands of the media and the loss of their children.

At least one person in Soham already knew that appeal was to be in vain. As yet, we didn’t know his name.

But within hours police called yet another news conference – this time at very short notice. We raced into the assembly hall at Soham Village College with cameras running live, wondering what it was all about.

Moments later, Detective Chief Inspector Andy Hebb announced that two people were voluntarily helping police with their inquiries – a man aged 28 and a 25-year-old woman. He mentioned no names. Immediately I caught Ed Fraser’s eye and mouthed the words – Huntley and Carr. He did a thumbs up. Instinctively we knew it was them.

As the press conference ended I picked up, presenting live from the hall, explaining the bombshell the police had just dropped. As I reported on air, Ed was swiftly trying to confirm the names. Within minutes we were able to broadcast that the two people being questioned were indeed Ian Huntley and Maxine Carr.

Luckily our Sky News mini-link outside broadcast was very mobile and the crew nimbly followed as I walked backwards out of the hall, reporting live all the time, across the green and to the front of No 5 College Close – Huntley’s home, where I’d interviewed him less than 24 hours before.

As I spoke to the viewers I could hear in my earpiece the chatter of producers, directors and bosses as they attempted to get clearance from our lawyers to run the interviews with Huntley and Carr.

It seemed an eternity to me as I had to keep broadcasting while legal decisions were made. Suddenly we were given the go ahead. We replayed those taped interviews. Now they had much more meaning and menace. Everything was falling into place.

That night police released them from custody. I had Maxine Carr’s mobile phone number. So I gave it a call. To my surprise Maxine answered. Then she handed the mobile to Huntley. They said they were “OK” and “pleased to be free”, but they sounded tired and strained. They didn’t want to talk much. Within hours they’d been arrested in connection with the murder of Holly and Jessica, though there was still no sign of the bodies.

Then, on that sweltering summer Saturday, came the news we’d all been dreading. Two bodies had been found in a remote fen ditch near the US air base at Lakenheath.

The day couldn’t have been hotter or more humid, yet I swear we all shivered in horror as an unnatural chill spread through Soham. And you could almost sense the whole country slump in sadness as the last vestiges of hope evaporated.

For two weeks millions had followed the search for the missing girls on television, drawn in by the drama of this very local tragedy and backing those brave parents and willing a happy outcome. It wasn’t to be.

Soham will never be quite the same again, though my abiding impression was of the extraordinary decency and dignity of the people of this little Cambridgeshire town, who even found time to thank the media for their coverage while suffering under their intense glare. Few of us will forget the story of Holly and Jessica.

Though – much to my surprise – my role in this extraordinary story was far from over. Three months after the arrests, Cambridgeshire Police rang to say they’d like to take a statement; they felt the TV interviews could be an important part of the prosecution case. They spent two hours with me going through every word of the transcripts and asking what I’d made of Huntley and Carr. But that wasn’t all.

Almost a year later I was called to give evidence in person at the Old Bailey.

Now, as a veteran journalist of some 30 years, I’ve covered a few high-profile trials in my time – including like the Black Panther and the Yorkshire Ripper in this country and OJ Simpson and Louise Woodward in the USA. But I’ve never been asked to give evidence before.

And I promise you, working on television every day for a living still doesn’t prepare you for an appearance before judge and jury at a murder trial. The witness room was a jittery old place as I sat with several other reporters who’d met Huntley, all waiting for their turn in the box. I guess the truth is journalists much prefer asking questions than answering them.

In the end I was in Court No 1 for no more than 10 minutes. I remembered to speak up. (I was told the fear of the occasion reduces many witnesses to croaky whispers.) And I remembered to take it all in – the judge, the jury, the families, the press, the public gallery and, above all, the accused – sometimes staring at me, at other times just checking their notes. A very different Huntley and Carr to the couple I’d interviewed 15 months earlier. And then they played those interviews I’d done on big screens all around the court – technology had finally caught up with justice.

It was just a brief appearance, but a reminder that I’d been involved in this case in a closer and more unusual way than any other I’d ever covered. And when the trial ended and the verdicts were announced where else could I be, but in Soham.

This Report was taken from the MediaGuardian 2003.

MediaGuardian.co.uk © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003

Updated: Saturday 20 December 2003