Milly Dowler murder: Surrey Police say mistakes made

Levi Bellfield
Image caption Bellfield was interviewed about Milly's disappearance in July 2004

Surrey Police has apologised to the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler for failings in its initial investigation.

Operation Ruby was launched following the disappearance of the schoolgirl in Walton-on-Thames in March 2002.

The force admits "mistakes were made" during the investigation.

It said a report into the attempted abduction of another Surrey schoolgirl the day before Milly disappeared had not been passed on to Operation Ruby.

In addition, officers knocked at her killer Levi Bellfield's flat 11 times following Milly's disappearance but got no reply.

Sex offenders

Assistant Chief Constable Jerry Kirkby said he accepted the house-to-house inquiries should have been more exhaustive.

He said: "With the benefit of hindsight there were aspects of the investigation we would have handled differently."

Milly disappeared on 21 March 2002 in Station Avenue, Walton-on-Thames, near where Bellfield lived in Collingwood Place.

The subsequent investigation was the largest in the history of Surrey Police, costing an estimated £6m.

More than 100 police officers were involved in the search.

They carried out 3,500 house-to-house inquiries, searched more than 350 sites and took 5,600 statements.

Image caption Police said they knocked at Bellfield's flat in Collingwood Place 10 times

The force said there had been 50 registered sex offenders living within a five-mile radius of Walton-on-Thames at the time, who were interviewed and eliminated from the inquiry.

Officers pursued sightings of Milly from around the country and further afield.

One caller said they had seen her on a ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao in Spain. Another sighting came from Fiji.

Despite a huge manhunt, police admit a key piece of information was initially overlooked.

The day before Milly disappeared, Rachel Cowles, 11, was offered a lift in a red car in Shepperton, Surrey.

Her mother, Diana Cowles, reported the incident to police.

The 999 handler who took the call and the member of staff who handled the information did not forward the information to Operation Ruby.

Image caption Milly was last seen along Station Avenue, near to where Bellfield lived in Collingwood Place

Police did not take a statement from Miss Cowles until three years later, when her mother wrote to the chief constable after watching a police appeal for a red car.

Mr Kirkby described it as a "missed opportunity".

'Benefit of hindsight'

He said had the incident been pursued, "it would have potentially provided a line of inquiry."

But he added it was difficult to know how much information about the incident would have helped the Operation Ruby team.

Levi Bellfield was tried for the attempted abduction of Miss Cowles but the jury was discharged before a verdict was reached.

Image caption Officers pursued sightings of Milly from around the country and further afield

In the early days of the investigation, Milly's father, Bob Dowler, became a suspect "in all but name", according to police. Officers had found bondage equipment in the loft and pornographic videos in the lounge.

Surrey Police refused to confirm or deny whether Mr Dowler was placed under surveillance.

Victims Commissioner Louise Casey said the treatment of the Dowler family throughout the legal process had been "appalling".

It was not until Bellfield was arrested by the Met Police in November 2004 that a connection was made between him and the flat in Walton-on-Thames.

The former club bouncer was convicted at the Old Bailey in 2008 of killing two women and attempting to murder a third in west London.

Bellfield was charged with Milly's murder in April 2010 and convicted on Thursday.

'Painstaking detective work'

Mr Kirkby said Sussex Police had carried out two reviews of Surrey Police's investigation but had not identified significant failings.

"Questions will be asked of the early days of the inquiry," he said. "We must accept that mistakes were made.

Image caption Rachel Cowles was offered a lift as she walked home from school

"Having said that, even a perfect initial investigation may not have identified Bellfield as a suspect.

"It's been long, complex and challenging and taken many years of painstaking detective work."

Mr Kirkby praised the dignity of the Dowler family throughout the investigation. "None of us can appreciate what they have suffered", he added.

Mr Kirkby said the Chief Constable Mark Rowley had met the Dowler family and apologised for failings into the investigation.

He said Mr Rowley intended to meet the families of Bellfield's other victims.

The force's investigation has not been referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission and no formal complaint has been received.