Friday 23 February 2018

Ribbons still flutter but hope wanes for missing April

Police ask locals to leave search to the experts as hunt for girl turns into murder probe

House searched: A policeman outside the home of murder accused Mark Bridger
House searched: A policeman outside the home of murder accused Mark Bridger
April Jones
A pink ribbon tied to a tree in Machynlleth – a symbol of hope for April
Chief suspect Mark Bridger

Patrick Sawer and Cole Moreton

The pink ribbons have become a sign of mourning. They were tied to gate posts, trees and railings all over Machynlleth in mid-Wales after five-year-old April Jones went missing, as a way for local people to show their hope and determination that she would be found alive.

But yesterday, after five long days of frantic searching that involved the whole town, a man was charged with her murder.

The police confirmed that 46-year-old Mark Bridger, a former lifeguard who knew April and her family, had also been charged with abduction and perverting the course of justice.

Last night it became official: the forensic experts in the graveyard of the church of St Peter were looking for clues to a killing. The specially trained police dogs afloat in a dinghy on the swollen River Dyfi were trying to sniff out an underwater body, not a living child.

But still people kept putting the ribbons up.

"It's a way of doing something, of showing we care and that we are still thinking of April and her family," said Leigh Munton, 39, who works in the local library. It was all they could do.

Hundreds of people from the town and across Powys have helped in the search, day and night, since April went missing on Monday. But in the light of the murder charge, the police have asked locals to let the experts do the work.

"It's made me feel sick at the thought they could find her body in the fields near my home," said Mrs Munton, who lives in the same hamlet as the suspect, Ceinws, five miles north of Machynlleth. "It's so horrible. I don't have children of my own but I can imagine just how dreadful it is for April's parents. We all can."

Today the people of Machynlleth will gather in their hundreds and march in silence through their town in memory of the child they have lost, and who most now believe is dead.

"I am not giving up hope," her mother Coral Jones insisted even when the charge was changed from abduction to murder. Hope had kept her going since that terrible moment just after 7pm on Monday when she realised her daughter was missing.

April had been allowed to play out later than usual as a reward for a good school report. She was with a friend near her home on the Bryn-y-Gog estate, but was seen to get into a vehicle which drove away.

Mrs Jones could only wait at home as one of the largest searches ever seen in Wales began to take shape. Her husband Paul, 43, was advised not to go out looking for his daughter, despite all that his instincts as a parent must have told him, because of a degenerative eye condition.

So they could only wait at home as long hours became sleepless nights and agonising days. Wait and hope. But April needs daily medicine for mild cerebral palsy. And as darkness came again last night, the charge was announced.

Just before the news broke, a middle-aged woman was sitting on a bench in Celweis, staring down at the river. Close to tears, the woman who did not want to be named, said: "You don't know the effect this is having on our village. It's absolutely devastating. This is normally such a happy place, we wave at strangers as they walk or drive through. But now many of us have become suspicious, we've retreated into ourselves.

"What has happened to April has had such terrible repercussions for everyone who lives around here."

Leigh Munton, who also lives in Ceinws, said: "This kind of thing just doesn't happen here. At first we hoped that she'd just got lost and would soon turn up. But as each day went by we began to fear the worst."

Dyfed and Powys Police region boasts the lowest levels of recorded crime and the highest total detection rate in the whole of England and Wales. April's abduction is without precedent in an area where petty vandalism is still significant enough to be reported in the local paper.

But on the river near the hamlet yesterday, just by the main bridge into Machynlleth, the police were encouraging their sniffer dogs to work. One officer said the dogs were being used to make sure "no stone was left unturned" -- but warned that it did not mean a sudden breakthrough in the search was imminent.

Other crews were using sonar to examine the river bed. Officers in waders plunged batons into the water, or searched under bushes along the bank. A helicopter flew overhead, carrying thermal imaging cameras.

Ten miles downstream, towards an estuary, a boat from the Royal National Lifeboat Institute was doing what it could. Elsewhere, teams from Mid-Wales Cave Rescue were looking in abandoned mines and quarries, where rain swollen underground streams made conditions treacherous.

A fingertip examination of Mr Bridger's home was also taking place, for the second time. The house, which overlooks the river, was first sealed off by police on Thursday morning. They lifted paving slabs and examined rubbish bags and boxes of recycling at the rear of the cottage and searched a hedgerow bordering the road opposite, but would say nothing about what as found.

Specialists clad in white boiler suits went in again on Friday night and a white and yellow plastic tent was erected at the entrance.

Today many of the policemen and women, mountain rescue workers and members of the other emergency services who are off duty will join the procession in April's honour, which will begin close to where she lived. Friends and members of the family will also be there, although it is not known whether her parents will have the strength to attend.

The march along the main road into town and then the High Street will be led by the Bishop of Bangor, the Rt Rev Andy John. It will finish at the 15th Century church of St Peter, where a service will take place.

There the songs, hymns and readings -- and the memories of April -- will provide a setting for people to release the emotions that have been building up all week.

"There will now be a mixture of anger and despair, but also a strong pulling together of people, not a pulling apart," said Bishop John after a candlelit vigil on Friday night. "People in this town have a strong commitment to each other and they want to show that Machynlleth is not like this. They want to show the world that we are better than this."

The service on Friday was attended by children who knew April. They stepped forward in the silence, each with an adult holding their hand, and lit candles.

When the last of the congregation had sat back down, Bishop John, read the story of the good Samaritan. Like the people of Machynlleth, he refused to walk by on the other side but instead helped a stricken neighbour.

"We have seen that outpouring of love and compassion in our own community and among the rescue workers and for that we give thanks," said the bishop, inviting those gathered to remain inside the church as long as they wanted. Many left in tears.

The hunt for April has involved more than 60 officers in eight teams, along with the ambulance and fire services, the coastguard, the RNLI and RAF mountain search and rescue teams.

Hope died for many at 11.30am on Friday, when Chief Inspector Robyn Mason stood before 200 volunteers to say police were now looking for a body. There was stunned silence.

Local men and women had assembled at Machynlleth Leisure Centre to receive their daily instructions for the ongoing search through fields, woodland and rivers for the missing five-year-old. Now they were being told their efforts were no longer needed. The search for April's body would be left to the specialist agencies.

"People started to crack at that point," said Scott Roe, 40, a woodland manager who had spent the previous four days helping to scour forests for any sign of April. "Until then we had held it together really well. We had still been hopeful of finding her alive, even though time was passing and the chances were getting more remote. It was the searching that gave us hope.

"But to be told it was now a murder inquiry and we were no longer needed to help the search was a real blow. Some people were in tears. Everyone was very upset."

Many of the volunteers had searched through the nights, or risen at dawn each day to begin again. This weekend, many are back with their own families -- although some refuse to accept that all hope is lost, so continue with their own private searches.

Mr Roe, whose own daughter is five and was at school with April until recently, sat slumped for a while on a bench in the town's High Street. "It's hard to take in," he said.

"I don't really want to go home because that would well and truly mean the end of trying to find April still alive."

He described the moments of hope, such as when one of the volunteer teams came across a child's water bottle. Another found a shoe. But each find was examined by police specialists and ruled out. "Everyone was hoping for some sort of breakthrough, but it's not looking at all good now."

There is still no body. There is still some chance of a miracle. The lives of the Jones family will be in suspension until they know what happened to April and where she is.

The people of Machynlleth feel for them, and feel something like the same.

They gave their all to find her. Lives were put on hold. People lived on adrenalin and very little sleep.

Now, as the detectives do their work, and the experts search, they must go on living as before -- but with many more questions than answers.

And the parents in this shocked and grieving community must work out what to say to their children. Mr Roe and his wife Ruth have been trying to talk to their daughter about April in as reassuring manner as possible.

"It's very tricky," he said. "She asks why we're looking for her and up until now I've been able to be pretty positive with her.

"Her questions are going to be more difficult to answer now."

© Telegraph

Sunday Independent

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