Archive by Author | HOLLIE GREIG JUSTICE

101 years ….not enough

Rotherham grooming gang are jailed for a total of 101 years after sexually assaulting young girls including one who had sex with ‘at least 100 Asian men’ by time she was 16

The men targeted girls who were ‘easy to exploit because they wanted to be loved’ – sexually abusing them in parks, abandoned buildings and secluded locations in the Rotherham area

kill him

Care worker, 24, ‘was in a relationship with 13-year-old Lucy McHugh when he raped and murdered her then left body in woodland where he had taken another girl, 14, for sex’

  • Stephen Nicholson has been charged with rape and murder of Lucy McHugh, 13 
  • Court heard today he was familiar with woodland where her body was found 
  • Nicholson, 24, is accused of taking another underage girl there for sex in 2012
  • Care worker was remanded in custody today at Southampton Magistrates’ Court 

A care worker accused of murdering schoolgirl Lucy McHugh ‘left her body in secluded woodland where he had previously taken another underage girl for sex six years earlier’, a court heard today.

Father-of-one Stephen Nicholson allegedly had sex with a 14-year-old girl in the quiet wooded area when he was 18.

A court heard today Nicholson, now 24, returned to the location six years later with 13-year-old Lucy McHugh – with whom he was in a relationship with – and allegedly raped and murdered her.

Nicholson, of Southampton, Hampshire, today appeared before a district judge at Southampton Magistrates’ Court charged with murder, rape, and one count of sexual activity with a child under 16.

Lucy McHugh, whose body was found at Southampton Sports Centre on July 26
Stephen Nicholson, 24, who was initially arrested on suspicion  of murdering Lucy McHugh

Care worker and tattoo artist Stephen-Alan Nicholson, right, has been charged with the rape and murder of Lucy McHugh, left. A court heard today he was familiar with the woodland area where her body was found because ‘he previously took a teenage girl there for sex’

Lucy, pictured, 13, was found dead in woodland at Southampton Sports Centre in July

Lucy, pictured, 13, was found dead in woodland at Southampton Sports Centre in July

He is also charged with a second count of sexual activity with a child under 16 which relates to the 14-year-old girl – who cannot be named for legal reasons – in 2012.

Wearing a grey tracksuit, Nicholson, who has tattoos on his neck and above his right eye, spoke only to confirm his name, date of birth and his nationality at the short hearing today.

He was not asked to enter a plea to any of the alleged offences.

Lucy’s disappearance in Southampton on July 25 this year sparked a frantic search by family, friends and police, with her mother pleading with people on social media to look out for the teen.

Her body was discovered in woodland at Southampton Sports Centre the following day by a dog walker.

Detectives have trawled through thousands of hours of CCTV footage to piece together Lucy’s final movements the day she went missing, as well as scouring woodland, bushes and drains to find the weapon used to kill her.

CCTV from earlier in the investigation captured Lucy walking past a Tesco Express store a day before she was found dead

CCTV from earlier in the investigation captured Lucy walking past a Tesco Express store a day before she was found dead

Prosecutor Sital Mond told the court today: ‘The defendant was living with his friend, her partner and children.

‘The oldest child is the alleged victim. She goes missing and her body is later found.

‘The second allegation of sexual activity happened in the same place where the body was found.’

District Judge Lorraine Morgan told Nicholson he would be remanded in custody until November 19, when he is due to appear at Winchester Crown Court.

Timeline of the Lucy McHugh murder investigation so far…

July 24 – Lucy told ex-neighbour she had ‘older boyfriend’

July 26 – Schoolgirl’s body was found in a wooded area of Southampton Sports Centre at 7.45am

July 29 – Police reveal Lucy was stabbed to death in woodland – possibly with scissors – as her heartbroken mother pays tribute to ‘my precious baby girl’

July 31 –  Stephen Nicholson, 24, is arrested on suspicion of the murder and sexual assault of Lucy. He is bailed and ordered not to visit Southampton  

August 9 –  £10,000 reward offered for murder probe information

August 16 – Detectives hunting Lucy’s killer release new CCTV of 13-year-old walking ‘purposefully’ past a Tesco Express hours before she was stabbed to death in secluded woodland

August 17 – Lucy’s mother bans her father from her funeral after a family rift and says the schoolgirl ‘wanted nothing to do with him’

August 21 – Teenager’s dad says he will not attend her funeral

August 27 – Family and friends of Lucy honour their ‘hurricane of smiles and lip gloss’ at her funeral  

Met police chief Cressida Dick says Facebook should make evidence available to detectives ‘in minutes’

September 7 – A number of students at the school attended by Lucy go to police with information, according to their head teacher

September 14 – Police have now waited 18 months for evidence from social media firms

September 18 – Officers empty drains as they continue search in murder probe

September 21 – Facebook chief admits company is slow in getting information to police

September 25 – Plans for ‘I Love Lucy Day’ tribute revealed

October 12 – Police announce fresh search of play park

November 14 – Police charge Nicholson with murder, rape of a child under 13 and two counts of sexual activity with a child under 16

November 15 – Nicholson appears in court and is remanded in custody

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‘Socially inadequate’ pervert used Instagram to stalk the same girl he’d previously groomed

John Freer, 39, was warned by Teesside’s top judge he faced a long sentence for stalking and breaching court orders meant to protect children

App to tackle modern slavery at car washes gets council backing
Sex offender John Freer acquired a phone without telling police and stalked a girl (Image: PA)

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A sex offender used Instagram to stalk a teenage girl he had groomed years ago, a court heard.

Teesside’s top judge has warned 39-year-old John Freer he faces a long prison sentence.

Freer groomed an underage girl and tried to meet her and incite her into sexual activity in 2016.

He was jailed for eight months and was given a 10-year sexual harm prevention order (SHPO) for those offences in July last year.

Now he has appeared at Teesside Crown Court again for stalking the same girl and flouting court orders designed to protect children.

Appearing in court via video link to Durham Prison, he was told he faced a long prison sentence.

Prosecutor Harry Hadfield said: “The Crown says this defendant was subject to a SHPO which had stringent prohibitions.

“He is subject to sex offender management unit monitoring.

“What this defendant has done is acquire a mobile phone without the knowledge of the police.”

Sex offender ‘set up Instagram account and traced girl’

He said Freer used someone else’s Wifi connection to set up an Instagram account and trace the girl he had groomed two years ago.

She did not know who he was as he was using aliases, added the prosecutor.

Freer, of Leamington Grove, OrmesbyMiddlesbrough, has admitted stalking the girl causing her serious alarm and distress by sending her a Facebook friend request and accessing her Instagram account between June and July this year.

He also admitted breaching the SHPO and failing to comply with notification requirements as a sex offender.

According to these charges, he created and used multiple online aliases without disclosing them and used an internet-enabled device failing to keep its internet history between March and September.

Nigel Soppitt, defending, described Freer as a “socially inadequate and vulnerable individual”, a chronic alcoholic with a learning disability unable to read or write.

He said: “He got a phone which he didn’t disclose and he has on the internet used a pseudonym, John Andrew rather than John.

“He contacts the girl who was the victim of the previous grooming offence.

https://get.convrse.media/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.gazettelive.co.uk%2Fnews%2Fteesside-news%2Fsocially-inadequate-pervert-used-instagram-15414879%3Futm_source%3Dtwitter.com%26utm_medium%3Dsocial%26utm_campaign%3Dsharebar&cre=bottom&cip=25“She says she had to move because of that.”

He requested a pre-sentence report for the sex offender.

‘Facing a substantial sentence of imprisonment’

Judge Simon Bourne-Arton QC, the Recorder of Middlesbrough, said: “It might indicate the danger that this man poses to the community.

“I don’t think it’s going to help him but it may help me.

“He is facing a substantial sentence of imprisonment on any view.”

Judge Simon Bourne-Arton QC

He adjourned the case for a report, warning the defendant: “The fact that I’m doing that should not lead you to the view that anything other than a significant sentence of imprisonment is going to be imposed in your case.

“You may be helped by a pre-sentence report, as may I.

“But it may be that probation will deal with the danger you pose to members of the community, particularly vulnerable young women.”

He remanded Freer in custody until sentencing on November 23.

Socially inadequate’ pervert used Instagram to stalk the same girl he’d previously groomed

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‘Socially inadequate’ pervert used Instagram to stalk the same girl he’d previously groomed

John Freer, 39, was warned by Teesside’s top judge he faced a long sentence for stalking and breaching court orders meant to protect children

App to tackle modern slavery at car washes gets council backing
Sex offender John Freer acquired a phone without telling police and stalked a girl (Image: PA)

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A sex offender used Instagram to stalk a teenage girl he had groomed years ago, a court heard.

Teesside’s top judge has warned 39-year-old John Freer he faces a long prison sentence.

Freer groomed an underage girl and tried to meet her and incite her into sexual activity in 2016.

He was jailed for eight months and was given a 10-year sexual harm prevention order (SHPO) for those offences in July last year.

Now he has appeared at Teesside Crown Court again for stalking the same girl and flouting court orders designed to protect children.

Appearing in court via video link to Durham Prison, he was told he faced a long prison sentence.

Prosecutor Harry Hadfield said: “The Crown says this defendant was subject to a SHPO which had stringent prohibitions.

“He is subject to sex offender management unit monitoring.

“What this defendant has done is acquire a mobile phone without the knowledge of the police.”

Sex offender ‘set up Instagram account and traced girl’

He said Freer used someone else’s Wifi connection to set up an Instagram account and trace the girl he had groomed two years ago.

She did not know who he was as he was using aliases, added the prosecutor.

Freer, of Leamington Grove, OrmesbyMiddlesbrough, has admitted stalking the girl causing her serious alarm and distress by sending her a Facebook friend request and accessing her Instagram account between June and July this year.

He also admitted breaching the SHPO and failing to comply with notification requirements as a sex offender.

According to these charges, he created and used multiple online aliases without disclosing them and used an internet-enabled device failing to keep its internet history between March and September.

Nigel Soppitt, defending, described Freer as a “socially inadequate and vulnerable individual”, a chronic alcoholic with a learning disability unable to read or write.

He said: “He got a phone which he didn’t disclose and he has on the internet used a pseudonym, John Andrew rather than John.

“He contacts the girl who was the victim of the previous grooming offence.

https://get.convrse.media/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.gazettelive.co.uk%2Fnews%2Fteesside-news%2Fsocially-inadequate-pervert-used-instagram-15414879%3Futm_source%3Dtwitter.com%26utm_medium%3Dsocial%26utm_campaign%3Dsharebar&cre=bottom&cip=25“She says she had to move because of that.”

He requested a pre-sentence report for the sex offender.

‘Facing a substantial sentence of imprisonment’

Judge Simon Bourne-Arton QC, the Recorder of Middlesbrough, said: “It might indicate the danger that this man poses to the community.

“I don’t think it’s going to help him but it may help me.

“He is facing a substantial sentence of imprisonment on any view.”

Judge Simon Bourne-Arton QC

He adjourned the case for a report, warning the defendant: “The fact that I’m doing that should not lead you to the view that anything other than a significant sentence of imprisonment is going to be imposed in your case.

“You may be helped by a pre-sentence report, as may I.

“But it may be that probation will deal with the danger you pose to members of the community, particularly vulnerable young women.”

He remanded Freer in custody until sentencing on November 23.

Beecholme Survivors and Justice Group‏ @Beecholme12 17

“I am a victim, but I won’t be beaten” – Beechholme children’s home abuse victim tells his story 07539508349

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A paedophile who took upskirt pictures of children in Piccadilly Gardens has walked free from court

Gordon Dreghorn, 48, was spotted wandering around the city centre area popular with children

Gordon Dreghorn

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A paedophile who secretly took pictures up young girls’ skirts in Piccadilly Gardens has walked free from court.

Gordon Dreghorn, 48, brazenly walked around the iconic city centre spot with a camera and managed to take pictures of the youngsters’ underwear – one of whom was only four years of age.

However, he was not sent to prison as a judge said Dreghorn, who was himself ‘horrifically’ abused as a child, ‘needed help.’

He was arrested and hauled before the courts in August after he was spotted hanging around Piccadilly Gardens – an area popular with parents and children as it has a playground and fountains.

However, Dreghorn, from Accrington in Lancs, aroused the suspicions of some members of the public who were ‘concerned about his activities’ and tipped off police officers in the area, William Donnelly, prosecuting, told Manchester Crown Court.

Dreghorn was arrested after members of the public became suspicious at what he was up to in Piccadilly Gardens

CCTV operators began watching him and he was seen to walk away and ‘conceal’ something by stuffing it into his sock, Mr Donnelly said.

Officers followed him and he was stopped and searched and a memory card from a camera was found inside his sock.

He was arrested and the memory card and his phone were seized.

Read today’s top stories here

On the memory card a photo of an unidentified girl, said to be aged between nine and 10, was found.

She appeared to be tying her shoelace and it was taken at an angle up her skirt, Mr Donnelly said.

On the phone a similar photo was found, but of a much younger girl, around four years-old.

He was charged, and pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing to two charges of taking indecent images of children.

He was apprehended near Piccadilly Gardens with a camera memory card in his sock (Image: Manchester Evening News)

He was previously sentenced to three years in prison in 2003 after being convicted of taking and distributing indecent images of children the previous year.

However, Judge Martin Rudland said the fact these two images were in the lowest category of seriousness meant his latest conviction did not cross the custody threshold.

Judge Rudland revealed Dreghorn himself suffered ‘horrific’ abuse as a child which was ‘persistent and peverse.’

https://get.convrse.media/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.manchestereveningnews.co.uk%2Fnews%2Fgreater-manchester-news%2Fpaedophile-who-took-upskirt-pictures-15416594%3Futm_source%3Dtwitter.com%26utm_medium%3Dsocial%26utm_campaign%3Dsharebar&cre=bottom&cip=23He said: “It’s little wonder your attitudes to women and relationships, normal sexual development and social interaction have been contaminated, and it is little wonder you have ended up committing offences of this kind.

“Whatever was the driver for you loosening your inhibitions on this occasion, you were surreptitious in your capturing of these images.

A judge said Dreghorn had been affected by his own childhood abuse

“These children were blissfully unaware of what you were undertaking and they have been caused no harm by it. The images were immediately seized.

“You need assistance. And you need assistance in dealing with the dreadful legacy that your childhood abuse has had on you.”

He was sentenced to a three year community order where he will have to take part in a number of probation service treatments and rehabilitation programmes.

He was also made subject to a sexual harm prevention, which contains a number of rules around his access to children, and access to the Internet etc, for five years.

Belgium’s silent heart of darkness

Belgium’s silent heart of darkness

Waiting for justice
Something is rotten in the state of Belgium. Six years after the arrest of Marc Dutroux, the country’s notorious paedophile, no date has been set for his trial and the case remains painfully unresolved.In 1995, when two eight-year-old girls were kidnapped, Dutroux, a convicted sex offender, was a prime suspect from the start, yet he wasn’t arrested for 14 months. By that time, four of his captives – including the two girls – were dead. Since his arrest, 20 potential witnesses connected with the case have died in mysterious circumstances, fuelling suspicions of a cover-up reaching the highest levels.

I have spent the last six months making a documentary about the investigation. Early on, I was told by one senior government adviser: ‘You must not underestimate the terrible record of our Belgian justice system.’

It’s a system which today appears paralysed, unable to prosecute the accused, his wife and an alleged accomplice. With each successive year in jail without trial their case against the Belgian authorities for a breach of human rights grows stronger. The official explanation for the delay is that hysterical conspiracy theories forced investigators to search for paedophile networks which didn’t exist. But far from being investigated, leads pointing to a network seem rather to have been ignored or buried.

Dutroux’s wife, Michele Martin, a former primary school teacher and the mother of his three children, has admitted that, in 1995, she knew two small girls were incarcerated without food or water in a secret dungeon in the cellar of a house they owned in Charleroi. She told police she visited the house to feed their dogs while her husband was in jail on car-theft charges, but she was ‘too frightened’ to feed the girls.

Months later Dutroux led police to the emaciated bodies of Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo, the two eight-year-olds who had been kidnapped more than a year before. They were buried in the garden of another of Dutroux’s homes. An accomplice, Michel Lelievre – a drug addict and petty thief – told police soon after his arrest that the girls had been kidnapped to order, for someone else. The chief suspect was Jean Michel Nihoul, a Brussels businessman, pub-owner and familiar face at sex parties. While they had been in prison, Lelievre told police, Dutroux and Nihoul met frequently in the exercise yard, making plans. The judge investigating the case, Jean-Marc Connerotte, believed Nihoul was the brains behind the operation. But, as the network began to unravel, Lelievre suddenly stopped co-operating, saying he had been threatened.

I met Nihoul in a restaurant in Brussels. ‘I am the Monster of Belgium,’ he roared at me by way of greeting. He is confident he will never come to trial and that the evidence against him will never be heard by any jury. During the course of our meal he, apparently playfully, grabbed me, tickling, and finally pulled me over on to him in the restaurant booth until I had to appeal to my colleagues for rescue.

He will never come to court, he said, because the information he has about important people in Belgium would bring the government down. The Monster of Belgium denies he’s a paedophile but seemed to enjoy his notoriety and demanded £1,000 for his story. We declined his offer. Every documentary likes a monster but we don’t pay for interviews and frankly I’d already had enough.

But we did need to offer Nihoul a right to reply to the accusations made by Regina Louf, a woman now aged 33 whose testimony has divided Belgium. Louf came forward after Judge Connerotte made an appeal to victims of paedophiles to tell police what they knew. Connerotte, the man who had arrested Dutroux and saved two teenage girls from his dungeon, was a hero in Belgium. Louf was the first of 10 to come forward.

She told investigators how from the age of 12 she’d been ‘given’ by her parents to a family friend, Tony Van den Bogaert, who’d had a key to their house. He would collect her from school and take her away for weekends to sex parties where she was ‘given’ to other men and secretly filmed having sex with them. ‘It was highly organised,’ she says. ‘Big business. Blackmail. There was a lot of money involved.’

In 1996 she related her experiences to a police team under carefully filmed and supervised conditions. She described certain regular clients including judges, one of the country’s most powerful politicians (now dead) and a prominent banker. She gave the police the names by which she knew these men, detailed the houses, apartments and districts where she’d been taken with other children to entertain the guests.

This ‘entertainment’ was not just sex, she told the police. It involved sadism, torture and even murder, and again she described the places, the victims and the ways they were killed. One of the regular organisers of these parties, she claimed, was the man she knew as ‘Mich’, Jean Michel Nihoul, ‘a very cruel man. He abused children in a very sadistic way’, she said. Also there, she said, was the young Dutroux.

‘Dutroux was a boy who brought drugs, cocaine to these parties – he brought some girls, watched girls. At these events Nihoul was a sort of party beast while Dutroux was more on the side.’

Louf’s testimony was vitally important. If true, it placed Dutroux and Nihoul, suspected accomplices in the latest child abductions, together at the scene of similar crimes 10 years before. Police began to check her story. But then something changed.

In October 1996, Connerotte, the only man who has ever advanced the Dutroux investigation, was sacked from the case. He had attended a fund-raising dinner in support of the victims’ families and was accused of a conflict of interests.

A crowd of 400,000 marched on the Palace of Justice in Brussels to protest. The father of one of the murdered children, Gino Russo, spoke for the demonstrators. ‘It was like spitting on the grave of Julie and Melissa,’ he said.

Connerotte was replaced by Judge Jacques Langlois, for whom this case would be his first assignment. Langlois has spent the last five years in constant conflict with the public prosecutor assigned with him to the case, Michel Bourlet. Since Connerotte was sacked, according to the Russos, the Dutroux file has acquired no new evidence.

Next to be dismissed, a few months later, was the special team of police officers who had interviewed Louf and the other witnesses. By now the police believed they had verified key elements of Louf’s story. At least one of the murders she described matched an unsolved case. One of the police officers in the team, Rudi Hoskens, had been assigned to re-examine that case and was convinced she had witnessed the murder: ‘She gave us some details that made us think it’s impossible to give without having been there at that place – the way the body was found at that time, and the way she described the person who was killed.’

What Louf had described was a macabre torture which had eventually killed a 15-year-old girl she knew as Chrissie. ‘It was a sort of bondage,’ she told me, ‘so her legs and her hands and her throat were connected with the same rope, and so when she moved she strangled herself.’ Louf insists both Nihoul and Dutroux were there that night. Nihoul, she claims, took part in the murder, a charge he denies. Dutroux, she says, watched.

Christine Van Hees’s body had been found in 1984 dumped in the grounds of a disused mushroom farm on the outskirts of Brussels. The farm was later demolished but in 1996 Louf described to the police team its intricate details, the wallpaper, the sinks, hooks on the ceiling, a network of stairs and adjoining rooms unique to that building.

When I put this evidence to Anne Thily, Prosecutor General of Liège, in overall charge of the Dutroux affair, she gave me a shrug and repeated the official line in Belgium, that Louf is a fantasist and has invented everything.

This is not the view of the man who grew up at the farm, the son of the former owner, who showed me photographs of the house and the mushroom factory. He said: ‘I have never met Regina Louf. All I know is that she could not have described the house as well as she did unless she’d been there. It was two houses joined together in a strange way. It would be impossible to invent it.’

For 12 years the unsolved murder of Van Hees gathered dust in the Brussels files under the direction of Judge Van Espen. Two years ago a Belgian journalist revealed the close relationship between Judge Van Espen and Nihoul and his then wife.

As a lawyer, Van Espen had repre sented Nihoul’s wife. Van Espen’s sister was the godmother of Nihoul’s child. Yet, when Louf accused these two of the murder, Judge Van Espen saw no conflict of interest, no reason to resign. Nor was he sacked, as Connerotte had been. Instead he was allowed to order the police officers to stay out of the case. Van Espen only resigned as the judge in charge of the mushroom factory investigation in early 1998 after his relationship with Nihoul was exposed.

In the spring of 1997 Louf’s interrogators had been sent home without explanation and a new team was assigned to ‘reread’ her testimony. The press was briefed that the previous team had been removed because they had manipulated the evidence of Louf, who was then known by the code name X1. It is a charge which the police team has always vigorously denied and which has never been substantiated.

And then the media campaign began. Louf’s name was leaked to the press. The government-owned TV station RTBF began a campaign designed to prove that Dutroux was an ‘isolated pervert’ kidnapping girls for himself, that there was no network, that Nihoul was innocent and Louf was a liar.

Belgium’s flagship current affairs television programme, Au Nom de La Loi , floated Louf’s face over a backdrop of crows pecking over debris orchestrated by a Blair Witch-style soundtrack. Her ageing parents appeared as tragic victims of a deranged fantasist, whose false memories had blighted their last years.

What the programme makers knew but didn’t say was that the parents had already admitted to police that a family friend in his forties, Tony Van den Bogaert, had had a key to their home and unlimited access to their 12-year-old daughter. Nor did they tell their viewers that Van den Bogaert had himself admitted his relationship with Louf to police. Van den Bogaert lives freely on the borders of Belgium and Holland unmolested by the law or the press. Au Nom de La Loi has never attempted to track him down and expose this self-confessed paedophile. Instead they have devoted hours of air-time to destroying the name of his victim, Louf, whose only offence appears to be that she was prepared to testify about the organised abuse she’d suffered as a child.

This campaign has succeeded. Judges have announced that Louf will not be called as a witness in any future trial of Dutroux or his associates. Her testimony and that of all the 10 witnesses who came forward to Judge Connerotte has been declared worthless.

Noone has ever followed the Dutroux investigation more closely than Gino and Carine Russo, the parents of Melissa. What alarms them more than anything is the dearth of evidence or independent witnesses in the whole affair.

The Russos have access to the dossier of evidence which will, eventually, be presented to a jury. What alarms them, they say, is that it contains little more than the highly suspect version of events offered by Dutroux and his wife. This is crucial because while Dutroux admits incarcerating their daughter in his home, he denies her kidnap, rape or murder. Dutroux even claims he tried in vain to save the girls and that Melissa died in his arms.

The Russos have lived this nightmare ever since Melissa disappeared with her friend Julie in June 1995. Although Dutroux was a known paedophile, police didn’t search his house for five months, and when they did they failed to find the girls, despite the sound of children in the cellar.

When a parliamentary commission examined the series of failures in the Dutroux investigation the police officer responsible, René Michaux, claimed it was a genuine mistake, that the entrance to the dungeon was well hidden and that the children’s voices seemed to come from outside. He found a speculum on the floor which he lifted, handled and returned to Dutroux’s wife without forensic analysis.

They found films which went undeveloped and videos which they didn’t watch. Had they done so, they would have seen Dutroux building the dungeon. Instead Dutroux continued to abduct girls. In August 1996, four days after his last kidnap, he was arrested. He showed police the dungeon from where two girls were freed and then he led them to where Melissa and Julie were buried.

Carine Russo was not allowed to see her daughter’s body. ‘I begged and pleaded. I went with my lawyer but they refused. They told me the law did not permit it. “But who will identify my daughter?” I asked them. “Who will confirm that it’s her?” “Dutroux has identified her,” they told me.’ Then Carine looks at me. ‘It is stupefying,’ she says.

The autopsy report reveals Melissa was raped repeatedly over a prolonged period. But there is nothing, no DNA evidence, no witness sightings, no forensics of any kind to show whether it was Dutroux, or anyone else.

Carine Russo points to a wall of files in her office. ‘Where are the results of the swabs taken from Melissa’s body for analysis? We know swabs were taken. It says so in the reports. But there are no results. I’ve asked the prosecutor repeatedly and no one seems to know.’

After their years of grief and their betrayal by the Belgian police and judiciary, the Russos barely believe a word of the official version: that Dutroux, the lone paedophile, kidnapped the girls for his personal use and kept them in the cage in his cellar until their death of starvation the day he returned home after four months in jail. How, they ask, could two children survive alone with virtually no food or water for four months?

The Russos suspect the girls weren’t there at all. A number of reported sightings of Melissa, one in an upstairs room of a Charleroi nightclub, which were never followed up, have convinced them that someone else had access to the girls while Dutroux was in jail. Why else, they ask, were the hairs which detectives gathered from the dungeon in Dutroux’s cellar never sent for DNA analysis? Why did Judge Langlois, Connerotte’s replacement, refuse to have them tested despite pressure from his prosecutor, Michel Bourlet, who believed that a DNA identification of those hairs might reveal who else was involved.

Langlois’s boss, the Prosecutor General of Liege, Anne Thily, says: ‘There was no need to get the hairs analysed as no one else entered the cage. There was no network so there was no need to look for evidence of one.

‘In any case,’ she continued, ‘the hairs have all now been analysed – all 5,000.’ And the results of this analysis? ‘Nothing.’ Thily flashed me a triumphant smile. ‘No evidence of any relevance in the Dutroux affair. Which proves, of course, that Langlois was right all along.’

But this is not true. Sources central to the investigation confirm that to date the hairs have still not been analysed. How can such a senior figure lie so brazenly? Another Belgian mystery.

‘Who raped the children?’ I asked Thily. ‘Dutroux of course.’

‘But he denies it. How will you prove it to the jury? There was no DNA test?’ Now she was indignant. ‘There were DNA tests, Madame.’

‘And the results?’ ‘Inconclusive. The bodies were too decomposed to test for DNA,’ she says.

But this too makes no sense. The autopsy states clearly that the bodies were not decomposed. Samples were taken. But no one seems to know what has happened to the results.

Bruno Tagliaferro was someone who knew, or claimed to know, about the abduction of Julie and Melissa and the car which was used. The Charleroi scrap metal merchant told his wife in 1995 that Dutroux was trying to get him killed. It was something to do with the car in which girls had been taken.

When he was found dead, apparently of a heart attack, his wife Fabienne Jaupart, refused to accept the verdict. Samples of his body sent to the US for analysis showed he’d been poisoned. Jaupart told reporters she was determined to find her husband’s killer, but soon she too was found dead in her bed, her mattress smouldering. It was declared suicide. Since 1995, there have been 20 unexplained deaths of potential witnesses connected with Dutroux.

‘In Belgium,’ says Regina Louf smiling, ‘if you’re a potential witness you’re either dead, or like me, mad.’

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