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Murder of Milly Dowler

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Murder of Milly Dowler
Photograph of Dowler
Background information – victim
BornAmanda Jane Dowler
(1988-06-25)25 June 1988[1]
Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, England
MonumentsAmanda Dowler Memorial Garden
Heathside School, Weybridge, Surrey, England[2]
Case information
TypeKidnapping and murder
Date21–22 March 2002 (2002-03-21 – 2002-03-22)[3]
LocationWalton-on-Thames, Surrey, England, UK
Abduction21 March 2002 (2002-03-21)
Station Avenue,
Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, England, UK
Murder22 March 2002 (2002-03-22)
Collingwood Place,
Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, England, UK[3]
Cause of deathStrangulation[3]
Body discovered18 September 2002 (2002-09-18)
Yateley Heath Woods, Yateley, Hampshire, England, UK[4]
Perpetrator(s)Levi Bellfield
Convicted23 June 2011 (2011-06-23)
  • Abduction
  • Murder
SentenceLife imprisonment
TariffWhole life

On 21 March 2002, Amanda Jane "Milly" Dowler, a 13-year-old English schoolgirl, was reported missing by her parents after failing to return home from school and not being seen since walking along Station Avenue in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, that afternoon. Following an extensive search, her remains were discovered in Yateley Heath Woods in Yateley, Hampshire, on 18 September.

On 23 June 2011, Levi Bellfield, already subject to three life sentences with a whole life tariff imposed for the murders of Marsha McDonnell and Amélie Delagrange and the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy, all of which had taken place after Milly Dowler's murder, was found guilty of abducting and murdering Milly Dowler. He received another whole-life sentence. On 27 January 2016, Surrey Police announced that Bellfield had admitted to abducting, raping and murdering Milly Dowler.

Following their daughter's death, Milly Dowler's parents established a charity called Milly's Fund to "promote public safety, and in particular the safety of the children and young people." The case generated debate over the treatment of victims and witnesses in court after Dowler's family criticised the way they were cross-examined during Bellfield's trial.

Dowler's murder played a significant role in the News International phone hacking scandal. In 2011, reports revealed how journalists at the News of the World newspaper had accessed Dowler's voicemail after she was reported missing, giving her parents false hope she was still alive. The resulting outcry from the British public contributed to the closure of the newspaper and led to a range of investigations and inquiries into phone hacking and media ethics in British media.


At 3:07 p.m. on 21 March 2002, 13-year-old Amanda “Milly” Dowler left Heathside School in Weybridge, Surrey, and walked to Weybridge railway station with a friend. The girls travelled to Walton-on-Thames railway station, one stop before Dowler's usual stop of Hersham, and went to eat at the station café.[5] After Dowler telephoned her father at 3:47 p.m. to say she would be home in half an hour, the girls left the café at 4:05 p.m., with Dowler walking home alone.[5] She was last seen three minutes later[5] walking along Station Avenue, by a friend of her sister, who was waiting at a bus stop.[6]

A closed-circuit television camera located further along the road showed no images of Dowler.[6] A red Daewoo Nexia, which belonged to Levi Bellfield's girlfriend Emma Mills, was photographed driving past by the same camera at 4:32 p.m.[5] In an April 2009 interview, Bellfield said that he was driving this car.[7]

When Dowler failed to return home, she was reported missing to the police at 7:00 p.m.[8] A nationwide search for her followed, with 100 police officers and helicopters searching fields,[9] streets and rivers around Hersham. Detectives who had investigated the abduction of Sarah Payne were called in to help.[10] Police and the Dowler family made many appeals for information, including a reconstruction on the BBC's Crimewatch UK.[11] A plea was also made by Pop Idol winner Will Young, whose concert Dowler had attended shortly before her disappearance.[10]

The Crimewatch UK appeal included a direct appeal to Dowler, suggesting that she may have run away from home rather than fallen into the hands of an abductor or murderer. Her mother expressed hope that her daughter had run away, but said that she could not think of a reason why she would want to do so.[12] The Independent reported in 2011 that Dowler had, some time previously, written a mock leaving-home letter and notes showing she had been unhappy.[13]

A week after Dowler's disappearance, the police stated that she was probably not taken by force. They reasoned that while she was unlikely to have gone off with someone she did not know of her own free will, no-one had come forward who had witnessed a struggle despite a number of apparent sightings of her prior to her disappearance. This suggested the possibility that she had willingly entered the home or vehicle of someone she knew.[14]

On 23 April 2002, the discovery of a body in the River Thames prompted media speculation that the body might be that of Dowler, but the body was identified the following day as that of 73-year-old Maisie Thomas, who went missing in March 2001 and whose death was not believed to be suspicious.[15] In June 2002, despite further searches, the offer of a £100,000 reward by national tabloid newspaper The Sun[16] and her parents continuing to send text messages to her mobile telephone in hope of a reply,[17] Dowler remained missing. That month, police told her parents that she was probably dead.[18]

Body discovery and murder investigation[edit]

On 18 September 2002, human remains were discovered by mushroom pickers in Yateley Heath Woods near Yateley, Hampshire.[4] They were later confirmed through dental records as Dowler's.[6][19] Due to the severity of the decomposition, the cause of death could not be ascertained. No items of Dowler's clothing or possessions—the purse, rucksack, or mobile phone—she had with her at the time of her disappearance have ever been recovered.[1][20][21] The discovery of the body led the police to reclassify the case as a homicide investigation. Undertaken by Surrey Police, the investigation was code-named Operation Ruby.[22]

On 22 November 2002, police set up a road block near the spot where the body was found. Some 6,000 motorists in the area were questioned, but no leads were discovered.[23] Initially the Surrey Police had considered Dowler's father a suspect, as police have often found that family members are implicated in such cases. They later apologised for the missed opportunities their attention to this track may have caused.[13][24] On 23 March 2003, DNA of an unidentified male was discovered on an item of Dowler's clothing in her bedroom, suggesting that her killer may have met her before. This link was ruled out within three months, around the same time that a DNA link to a church robbery in Sunderland was also ruled out.[25]

Paul Hughes was convicted of making death threats and was jailed for five years after sending letters to Dowler's sister threatening to kill her and claiming to have killed Dowler. Hughes sent the letters while imprisoned for indecently assaulting a 12-year-old girl; the prison service apologised for not screening mail effectively.[26] Lianne Newman, of Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, repeatedly phoned Dowler's parents, school and the police, pretending to be Dowler. Newman was jailed in April 2003 for five months after pleading guilty to five counts of making phone calls to cause annoyance, inconvenience, or needless anxiety.[27] Gary Farr, of Retford, Nottinghamshire, repeatedly e-mailed Dowler's parents, friends, and police officers working on the case, claiming that she was still alive and had been smuggled out of the country to work as a prostitute and stripper at nightclubs in Poland, and that her alleged death had been a cover-up. Farr was sectioned indefinitely under the Mental Health Act on 19 October 2006 for being a serious psychological danger to the public after admitting a charge of harassment.[28]

In March 2008, an unnamed man was arrested over the 'disposal' of a car linked to the murder investigation, but was released later that same day.[29] In October 2009, Bedfont Lakes Country Park in West London was searched by police in the hope of finding the red Daewoo Nexia, but they recovered neither the car nor anything else of interest to their inquiry. The car has yet to be found.[30]

On 25 February 2008, Surrey Police confirmed that Levi Bellfield was their prime suspect in the murder inquiry and that they were "very interested" in questioning him following his conviction of the murders of two young female students and the attempted murder of a third.[31] On 30 March 2010, Bellfield was charged with Dowler's abduction and murder.[32] As a result, the inquest into the death was adjourned.[33] On 6 October 2010, Bellfield appeared in court via video link, as he was already serving three life sentences for murder and attempted murder, and was formally charged in relation to the Dowler case.[34]

Trial of Bellfield[edit]

Bellfield's trial began on 10 May 2011 at the Central Criminal Court before Mr Justice Wilkie[4] and concluded on 23 June 2011; the jury found him guilty.[35] He was sentenced to life imprisonment[36] the following day, and the trial judge recommended a whole life tariff in line with his previous murder convictions three years earlier.[37] The trial of Bellfield on another charge for the attempted abduction of Rachel Cowles, an 11-year-old girl known to have been offered a lift in the Walton area by a man in a red car on 20 March 2002, was abandoned due to newspapers publishing prejudicial material.[24] The judge ordered that the charge should remain on file.[38]


Following Bellfield's trial, the murder of Dowler, investigation, and trial were the subject of a special Crimewatch programme, titled Taken: The Milly Dowler Story, which was broadcast on BBC One on 30 June 2011. It featured interviews with witnesses, Dowler's family, and investigators. The programme explored how Bellfield was caught, and featured a reconstruction of how the crime was believed to have unfolded based on court transcripts.[39]

On 27 January 2016, Surrey Police announced that Bellfield had admitted to the abduction, rape, and murder of Dowler. This was after another arrest in the Dowler case had been made and Bellfield was interviewed about whether he had had an accomplice. After his confession, the police released the individual they had arrested, without charge.[40] On 12 February 2016, Bellfield changed his story, denying that he had confessed to Dowler's murder.[41]

Reactions to court proceedings[edit]

After Bellfield's sentencing, the Dowler family strongly criticised their treatment during the trial. Dowler's sister Gemma described the day that her parents were cross-examined by Bellfield's defence lawyer as "the worst day of my life".[42] Her mother told reporters outside the Old Bailey:

For us, the trial has been a truly awful experience. We have had to hear Milly's name defamed in court; she has been portrayed as an unhappy, depressed young girl... the Milly we knew was a happy, vivacious, fun-loving girl. Our family life has been scrutinised and laid open for everyone to inspect. We've had to lose our right to privacy and sit through day after harrowing day of the trial in order to get a man convicted of this brutal murder. The lengths the system goes to protect his human rights seems so unfair compared to what we as a family have had to endure.[42]

Dowler's father, Bob, commented on Bellfield's refusal to give evidence in court, and to appear for sentencing. He added:

My family's had to pay too high a price for this conviction. The trial has been a truly mentally-scarring experience on an unimaginable scale; you had to have been there to truly understand. During our questioning, my wife and I both felt as if we were on trial; we despair of a justice system that is so loaded in favour of the perpetrator of the crime.[43]

Chief Constable Mark Rowley, who oversaw the investigation, joined the Director of Public Prosecutions in calling for changes and for greater protection of victims and witnesses during court cases.[44] Rowley said it was a "most bizarre and distressing coincidence" that the Dowler family had their privacy "destroyed", at a time when footballers and celebrities were being granted super-injunctions to protect details of their personal lives.[45]

Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke rejected calls for a review of criminal cases. Clarke said that, while Bellfield had been convicted of previous murders, he had to be presumed innocent in the Dowler case and found guilty by a jury in a full court process. To avoid prejudicing the trial, the court did not allow evidence to be introduced of Bellfield's "obsession" with schoolgirls, and his attempts to procure sex from them.[46]

Voicemail tampering investigation[edit]

The Guardian reported on 4 July 2011 that Scotland Yard had discovered Dowler's voicemail had been accessed by journalists working for the News of the World and the newspaper's private investigator Glenn Mulcaire.[47] The Guardian also reported that, during the police investigation into that newspaper's phone hacking activities, detectives discovered that journalists had deleted some messages—potential evidence—in Dowler's voicemail box because it was full, in order to free up space for new messages, to which they could listen. The deletions after Dowler was missing led family and friends to think that she was still alive.[48] It was later reported that Dowler's phone automatically deleted messages 72 hours after they were listened to.[49]

Dowler's parents announced via their solicitor that they would pursue a claim for damages against the News of the World.[50] In September 2011, it was reported that the Dowler family had been offered £2 million (equivalent to US$3.2 million at the time) in personal damages.[51] In January 2012, it was reported that Surrey Police and other police forces knew soon after Dowler's death that News of the World staff had accessed her mobile phone messages, but did not take issue with this. Instead a senior Surrey officer invited newspaper staff to a meeting to discuss the case.[52]


Dowler's parents, Sally and Bob Dowler, launched a charity called Milly's Fund on the day of her memorial service in October 2002.[53] Its mission was "to promote public safety, and in particular the safety of the children and young people".[54] The charity provides risk assessment advice to teenagers, youth workers, and educators. Its work includes the "Teach UR Mum 2 TXT" campaign, which encourages children and parents to stay in contact via text messaging, including a glossary for parents of commonly-used SMS abbreviations.

The campaign was awarded "Best Use of Mobile for Accessibility" at the 2004 GSM Association Awards.[55] Milly's Fund commissioned a five-part soap opera titled Watch Over Me (2003), which encourages personal safety for teenagers,[56] to be distributed to every school in the UK.[56] In 2005, the family announced that the charity would be transferred to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust.[57] Milly's Fund was wound up that year.[58]

At the 2005 Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, a garden designed in memory of Dowler by Penny Smith won the Tudor Rose award, the show's highest honour.[59] Its design was supported by the Surrey Police and Milly's Fund.

A magenta sweet pea was named after Dowler and made publicly available by Matthewman's Sweetpeas.[60]

On 29 June 2017, Dowler's sister Gemma released a book dedicated to Dowler, titled My Sister Milly.[61]

The investigation that led to Bellfield's arrest was dramatised in the three-part 2019 television series Manhunt, with Martin Clunes playing Colin Sutton, the detective in charge of the Delagrange investigation.[62]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Timeline: Milly Dowler". BBC News. 20 September 2002. Retrieved 14 May 2011.
  2. ^ "Milly's memorial garden opens". Get Surrey. 9 July 2004. Retrieved 14 May 2011.
  3. ^ a b c "Milly Dowler's final 14 hours revealed: Levi Bellfield raped and tortured teen before finally strangling her". The Daily Telegraph. 10 February 2016. Retrieved 10 February 2016.
  4. ^ a b c d "Milly Dowler torment revealed by family". BBC News. 10 February 2016. Retrieved 12 February 2016.
  5. ^ Robson, Steve (11 February 2016). "Was Milly alive in car caught on infamous CCTV images?". mirror. Retrieved 12 February 2016.
  6. ^ Edwards, Richard (30 March 2010). "Milly Dowler murder: reconstruction". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 30 March 2010.
  7. ^ "Massive search for missing girl". BBC. 25 March 2002. Retrieved 19 July 2011.
  8. ^ a b "Payne police help in Amanda hunt". BBC News. 30 March 2002. Retrieved 14 May 2011.
  9. ^ "TV appeal for missing Amanda". BBC News. 28 March 2002. Retrieved 5 August 2006.
  10. ^ "Parents fear Amanda was abducted". BBC News. 27 March 2002. Retrieved 5 August 2006.
  11. ^ a b "Milly Dowler's dad was original suspect". The Independent. London. Press Association. 16 May 2011. Archived from the original on 18 June 2022. Retrieved 6 July 2011.
  12. ^ "Amanda 'not taken by force'". BBC News. 30 March 2002. Retrieved 5 August 2006.
  13. ^ "Amanda family's anguish goes on". BBC News. 24 April 2002. Retrieved 5 August 2006.
  14. ^ "£100,000 reward 'to find Milly'". BBC News. London: BBC. 4 May 2002. Retrieved 4 July 2011.
  15. ^ "Parents texting Milly's mobile". BBC News. 25 June 2002. Retrieved 5 August 2006.
  16. ^ "Milly's parents told: 'Expect the worst'". BBC News. 22 June 2002. Retrieved 5 August 2006.
  17. ^ "Man to face Milly Dowler murder charge". BBC News. 30 March 2010. Retrieved 30 March 2010.
  18. ^ "Milly's body found". BBC News. 21 September 2002. Retrieved 5 August 2006.
  19. ^ "Milly police seek fresh clues". BBC News. 21 September 2002. Retrieved 5 August 2006.
  20. ^ Edwards, Richard (19 August 2009). "Convicted killer Levi Bellfield may face charges over Milly Dowler killing". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 18 May 2011.
  21. ^ "Milly: 6,000 drivers questioned". The Daily Telegraph. London. 22 November 2002. Retrieved 13 May 2011.
  22. ^ a b Joshua Rozenberg (27 June 2011). "The Dowler family's ordeal is no case for silent witnesses". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 28 June 2011.
  23. ^ Goodchild, Sophie (23 March 2003). "Party outfit may hold clue to Milly murder". The Independent. London. Archived from the original on 18 June 2022. Retrieved 14 May 2011.
  24. ^ Evans, Simon (16 May 2005). "Prisoner hate mail blunder". The Scotsman. Edinburgh, UK. Retrieved 14 May 2011.
  25. ^ "Milly hoax caller jailed". BBC News. 1 April 2003. Retrieved 5 August 2006.
  26. ^ "Section order for man who targeted Milly's parents". 25 October 2006.
  27. ^ Johnson, Wesley; Greenwood, Chris (6 October 2009). "Divers fail to find Milly Dowler car". The Independent. London. Archived from the original on 18 June 2022. Retrieved 8 October 2010.
  28. ^ "Bellfield linked to Milly Dowler's killing". BBC News. 25 February 2008. Retrieved 25 February 2008.
  29. ^ "Levi Bellfield to be charged with Milly Dowler murder". mirror.co.uk. 29 March 2010.
  30. ^ "Levi Bellfield trial delays Milly Dowler inquest". London Evening Standard. London. 7 May 2010. Archived from the original on 16 May 2010. Retrieved 8 October 2010.
  31. ^ "Man accused of Milly murder to stand trial in May". Surrey Live. 2 July 2013 [6 October 2010]. Retrieved 9 April 2023.
  32. ^ "Levi Bellfield guilty of Milly Dowler murder". BBC News. 23 June 2011. Retrieved 23 June 2011.
  33. ^ "Levi Bellfield trial jury discharged". BBC News. 24 June 2011. Retrieved 24 June 2011.
  34. ^ "Bellfield given 'whole life' term". BBC News. 26 February 2008. Retrieved 2 July 2014.
  35. ^ Roy Greenslade (24 June 2011). "Were the media wrong to report on serial murderer Bellfield?". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 28 June 2011.
  36. ^ "Taken: The Milly Dowler Story webpage". BBC. 30 June 2011. Retrieved 8 July 2011.
  37. ^ "Milly Dowler: Levi Bellfield admits abducting, raping and killing schoolgirl for the first time". The Independent. 27 January 2016. Archived from the original on 18 June 2022. Retrieved 27 January 2016.
  38. ^ "Levi Bellfield 'denies Milly Dowler murder confession'". BBC News. 12 February 2016. Retrieved 13 February 2016.
  39. ^ a b "BBC News – Milly's mother on Bellfield: 'I hope his life is a living hell'". BBC. 24 June 2011. Retrieved 8 July 2011.
  40. ^ "BBC News – Milly Dowler's father speaks about his family's 'horrifying ordeal'". BBC. 24 June 2011. Retrieved 8 July 2011.
  41. ^ Clive Coleman (25 June 2011). "BBC News – 'Changes needed' to system after Milly Dowler trial". BBC. Retrieved 8 July 2011.
  42. ^ Gray, Richard (25 June 2011). "Levi Bellfield trial: Milly Dowler police chief attacks 'incongruous' justice system". The Telegraph. London. Retrieved 8 July 2011.
  43. ^ Caroline Davies (24 June 2011). "Levi Bellfield: obsessed with schoolgirls and sexual violence | UK news". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 8 July 2011.
  44. ^ James Robinson "Milly Dowler phone hacking: Family shocked by NoW revelations", The Guardian, 4 July 2011
  45. ^ Nick Davies and Amelia Hill "Missing Milly Dowler's voicemail was hacked by News of the World", The Guardian, 4 July 2011
  46. ^ Fiveash, Kelly. "NoW didn't delete Milly Dowler 'false hope' voicemail". The Register. Retrieved 12 December 2011.
  47. ^ "Milly Dowler's phone was 'hacked by News of The World'", The Daily Telegraph, 4 July 2011
  48. ^ Gordon Rayner and Andrew Hough Phone hacking: Milly Dowler family set for £3 million News International payout, The Daily Telegraph, 20 September 2011
  49. ^ Gordon Rayner (23 January 2012). "News of the World reporter played police Milly Dowler voicemail". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 24 January 2012. Retrieved 18 April 2012.
  50. ^ "Milly's parents launch new charity". BBC News. 8 October 2002. Retrieved 5 August 2006.
  51. ^ "Milly's Fund". Wasp Sports. Retrieved 18 May 2011.
  52. ^ "GSM Association Awards Winners Take Centre Stage at Cannes". GSM Association press release. Archived from the original on 4 September 2006. Retrieved 5 August 2006.
  53. ^ a b "Teenagers targeted with Milly safety video". The Daily Telegraph. London. 18 June 2003. Retrieved 14 May 2011.
  54. ^ "Special Announcement". Milly's Fund. Archived from the original on 17 December 2005. Retrieved 5 August 2006.
  55. ^ "Milly's Fund, registered charity no. 1094006". Charity Commission for England and Wales.
  56. ^ "Surrey Police and Milly's Fund join forces for award-winning garden at Hampton Court Flower Show". Surrey Police. 7 May 2005. Archived from the original on 20 May 2011. Retrieved 15 May 2011.
  57. ^ Desborough, Julian (20 May 2006). "Remembering Milly". The Times. London. Retrieved 14 May 2011.
  58. ^ "Milly Dowler sister reveals family trauma". BBC News. 28 June 2017.
  59. ^ Mangan, Lucy (6 January 2019). "Manhunt review – a sober, responsible drama about the murder of three young females by Levi Bellfield". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 January 2019.

Further reading[edit]

  • Wansell, Geoffrey (2011). The Bus Stop Killer: Milly Dowler, Her Murder and the Full Story of the Sadistic Serial Killer Levi Bellfield. London: Penguin. ISBN 9780241952818.

External links[edit]