Thursday May 30 2013
– The abduction and murder of five-year-old April Jones was swift and slick, the disposal of her body chillingly efficient.
Just before 7.15pm on Monday 1 October last year April broke off from playing with a friend close to her home on the Bryn-Y-Gog estate in Machynlleth. She walked over to Mark Bridger’s Land Rover and clambered in. Bridger drove the little girl away via a back road and sped out of town.
It was the last anyone ever saw of April. The only remains that have been recovered are spots of her blood found at Bridger’s cottage and tiny bone fragments discovered in his log burner that the police – and April’s family – believe are pieces of her skull.
The lack of a body means that April’s family will probably never know the full story of what happened to the little girl in the minutes, or hours, before she died. However, the detectives that probed Bridger’s background and studied the forensic evidence have reached a horrific conclusion.
Detective Superintendent Andy John, the senior investigating officer, said he believed April was probably sexually assaulted by Bridger either at a remote spot or at his cottage, Mount Pleasant.
John’s hypothesis is that she went into the cottage alive and was killed there – possibly smothered – before being dismembered and her body parts scattered. Bridger’s skill as an abattoir worker familiar with knives and as an outdoorsman with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the mountains and valleys around Machynlleth meant he was able to conceal most of April’s remains with dreadful skill.
“I think the body has been dismembered and various parts have been placed in different areas,” said John. “Possibly those remains would have been small and damaged. That’s why we’ve had such difficulty locating them.
“We’ve got fast-flowing rivers close by. At the time this offence occurred the river was very high and we can’t rule out that parts may have gone into the river; we can’t rule out that parts could have been burned on the fire.”
Police also discovered Bridger had driven 400 miles since his Land Rover was serviced two weeks before the abduction. John said it was possible he had travelled “significant distances” to dispose of body parts, “but based on the research and best advice, it would all point towards him going to areas he was comfortable with”.
John said he thought the abduction of a child was “premeditated”, though he did not believe April was a specific target. He said images found on Bridger’s laptop – including pictures of sadistic child sexual abuse – suggested the killer was building up to the crime.
“For me the computer evidence points towards an individual who is evil, manipulative and has premeditated this,” said John. “The unhealthy interest he has in indecent images of children for me is a clear indicator that this individual was going to commit something as horrific as he did.”
Though he had a string of convictions for violence and deception going back to when he was a teenager, Bridger had no convictions for sexual offences against children or for having indecent images.
But John believes that at the time of April’s disappearance he felt his life was spinning out of control. “I think Mark Bridger was losing control. He is someone who likes to be in control. He was losing that control on the day in question.”
Bridger’s relationship with a long-term partner had broken down, he had financial problems and was worried he was going to lose his home. “I think April Jones happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
A picture of a man on the edge did indeed emerge during the police investigation.
Bridger, 47, who had six children by four women, had just split up with his partner, Vicky Fenner. On the morning of the abduction they exchanged emotional text messages. “You were my love. I just can’t do it,” she wrote. Bridger replied: “You were my life babe. You were everything.”
Bridger took the day off work and by noon was on his computer, asking women out on dates. “Do you fancy meeting up? No strings attached. Sorry I hurt you,” he messaged one woman.
More disturbingly, at 12.11pm Bridger looked at a cartoon image from his collection of pictures showing young girls being sexually abused. This one showed a girl bound with gaffer tape being forced to have sex with an adult. When his vehicle was recovered later, there was a roll of gaffer tape on his dashboard.
He also viewed images from Facebook of a friend’s teenage daughter and saved 20 of them. Police later found he had images of local teenagers, including April’s half-sisters, and eight of April herself.
Shortly before 5pm, Bridger drove his Land Rover the three miles from his home, Mount Pleasant, in the village of Ceinws, to Machynlleth to attend a parents’ evening for one of his children.
He took his computer and a dongle with him and continued to browse the internet that afternoon, though it is not known what he was looking at because the device has not been found.
After leaving the school, Bridger began prowling Bryn-Y-Gog. He wound the window down and invited one of his daughter’s 10-year-old friends to have a “sleepover” at his home.
Witnesses saw Bridger behaving oddly. One woman spotted him driving up and down the same stretch of road. Another saw Bridger walking near the garages dressed in camouflage trousers. He strode past her without acknowledging her, which she felt was “strange”, as he was normally so polite. He appeared to have gone into a world of his own.
By about 7pm he was sitting in his car parked near the garages and at 7.20pm was heading out of town with April in the Land Rover. The next confirmed sighting of the vehicle is an hour and 20 minutes later, at around 8.30pm, when a neighbour saw his vehicle reversing on to the drive of Mount Pleasant.
John said it was possible that after leaving Machynlleth Bridger drove April to a “remote location” and sexually assaulted her there, though there is no forensic evidence of an attack taking place in his Land Rover.
But it was equally feasible that he drove straight back to Mount Pleasant and assaulted her in the cottage before killing her, dismembering her body and driving away with her remains soon afterwards. It is possible that the 8.30pm sighting was of Bridger returning home after disposing of April’s body parts.
Police believe he spent the rest of the night trying to get rid of all traces of April from Mount Pleasant and sterilising the knives and other tools that he had used, including the boning knife that was found with a burned blade. As he worked he may well have thought he had got away with his crime. He did not know he had been spotted by April’s seven-year-old best friend.
Back at Bryn-Y-Gog the hunt for April and her abductor was under way. The only police officer on duty in the town, Fiona Evans, reached the estate at 7.37pm and spoke immediately to April’s seven-year-old friend, who gave a hugely impressive account of what had happened. She reported that April had got into what she thought was a grey van.
Crucially, the girl also told the officer that the brother and sister of another friend may have been in the vehicle the day before. She named the friend and the fact was recorded in the storm report – the police’s running record of the investigation – at 8.27pm. It turned out to be vital.
The brother and sister referred to were two of Bridger’s children, but his complicated family life meant it took hours for officers to work out the links.
John said the police investigation in the early stages was ironically hampered by the fact that so many people were out looking for April. People who may have been able to explain that the young witness was talking about Bridger’s children were not in when police knocked on their doors.
Dyfed Powys deemed April’s disappearance a “critical incident” and instigated the UK’s first nationwide child rescue alert (CRA). This was a tactic copied from the US in which high-profile appeals designed to warn the whole country of a child’s disappearance are made.
Speed was critical. Most victims of abductions are dead within hours. April also had a mild form of cerebral palsy and needed medication, making a speedy resolution vital.
By 9am on Tuesday 2 October police had Bridger’s name and designated him as a person of interest. Officers began working on his addresses and vehicles. At about that time Bridger was spotted near his home close to a riverbank carrying a black bin bag. A witness thought there was something in the bag.
Later, Bridger took his Land Rover into a garage to be repaired and pretended to help look for April. “I do not get the impression we have an individual who was panicking and was extremely concerned about what he had done the night before,” said John. “He was in hope that this has gone by and he’s got away with it.”
But by noon Bridger was officially a suspect and at 3.03pm police searching for him – and April – kicked in the door of Mount Pleasant. There was no sign of either. Police were struck by how the wood burner was belting out heat and by the smell of detergent and air freshener.
Bridger was arrested near the river at 3.32pm. He told the arresting officer the basic story he was to stick to during 13 police interviews and his three days in the witness box. He said he had accidentally crushed April in a car accident, and had forgotten what he did with the body.
The key challenge for police has been running a murder inquiry without a body. Gradually the horrors of Mount Pleasant were revealed. April’s blood was found in the bathroom and hall but, most importantly, on the underside of the carpet in front of the wood burner in the living room.
Bridger’s cleanup job had been reasonable, but he had not been able to get rid of the blood that had soaked through the carpet.
During police interviews Bridger maintained April had not been to his house but – confronted in court by the overwhelming forensic evidence – he told the jury that images of laying her down in front of the fire had come to him in dreams.
Also crucial were the 17 pieces of bone found in the ash of the wood burner and one piece in the bath plughole. Scientists could not extract DNA from them but some suggested they could have come from a child’s skull. Police do not believe April’s whole body was burned, but believe the fragments of bone got into the fire and bath during the cleanup.
While scientists worked on samples from Mount Pleasant, computer experts delved deep into Bridger’s laptop. What they found will haunt April’s family.
As well as adult images of hardcore pornography, there was a library of graphic images, some depicting very young girls suffering sadistic sexual abuse by adults.
He had also filed away images showing the corpses of children and collected pictures of girls killed in notorious murder cases, including the Soham victims Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman.
In addition, Bridger had combed social networking sites for innocent images of girls from Machynlleth. Among them were April Jones and her three teenage half-sisters, which again he carefully filed.
Forensic analysis of Bridger’s clothing revealed more worrying details. Scientists were not able to eliminate the possibility that April “contributed DNA” to a sample taken from the inside of the crotch area of his tracksuit bottoms.
Perhaps more damning were his remarks following his arrest that if April’s DNA was found on his penis it could have got there if he had a “wee” while he was carrying her.
The seven months since April was murdered have been difficult ones not just for her family and friends but for the whole town of Machynlleth.
Police and social services have been visiting the estate since April vanished to care for children scarred by what happened to her, but also trying to establish if any other youngsters may have been victims of Bridger in the past. John said no allegations had come to light.
The search for April continued through the winter and became the biggest in British history. More equipment, including drones, was brought in. The number of search areas – within a box of 60 sq km – reached 650. The police even abseiled search dogs into mines shafts and cave systems.
A week before the start of Bridger’s trial, Dyfed Powys police announced that the search was finally over. A “reactive team” of searchers are on standby in case they receive any fresh information. For now, though, the torment of not knowing what happened to April continues.
– Steven Morris