Milly Dowler: New evidence suggests the murdered schoolgirl's voicemail messages were accidentally deleted by police investigators
Incendiary claims that News of the World journalists erased the missing teenager’s messages provoked public uproar and drove the phone-hacking scandal into the open.
Her mother Sally gave a heart-rending account of how the discovery led her to believe the 13-year-old was still alive.
But documents submitted as part of a civil case appear to show that the defunct Sunday newspaper was not to blame.
Instead the messages were probably deleted automatically by her mobile phone provider 72 hours after detectives listened to them.
Many mobile phone operators at the time of Milly’s disappearance automatically deleted voicemail messages after after they had been accessed.
The time between them being listened to and then deleted varied from 72 hours to 21 days. Operators still delete messages unless they are manually saved by the user.
One of the first moves of investigators after Milly went missing on 21 March 2002 was to check her mobile phone account and social networking sites for clues.
Three days later, on March 24, Mrs Dowler discovered that messages had been deleted from the full voicemail box.
After serial killer Levi Bellfield was convicted of Milly’s murder this year, it was reported that the News of the World was responsible.
Parents: Bob and Sally Dowler were given false hopes by the deleted messages
The news sparked a political furore that added fresh momentum to criminal inquiries into phone-hacking and the creation of the Leveson inquiry into media standards.
The News of the World was shut down as Rupert Murdoch personally apologised to the Dowlers and paid out £3million to them and several charities.
But evidence provided by Surrey Police as part of a civil case by hacking victims against News International has revealed the newspaper did not delete the messages.
The force has unearthed detailed logs of deleted messages from tearful friends and family members, suggesting they were compiled by police after being listened to.
But evidence remains that the News of the World went on to intercept messages left on Milly’s phone as her disappearance became a national mystery.
Its actions also hampered detectives at the time, prompting a wild goose chase and leading to a behind-the-scenes meeting between police and journalists.
The News of the World is still accused of deleting messages left on Milly’s phone later in her disappearance. It has not denied the claim.
Apology: Rupert Murdoch paid out £3million in compensation for the scandal, but private investigator Glenn Mulcaire (right) denies deleting Milly's messages
It is not known whether journalists did this immediately or unintentionally by setting the automatic deletion clock running.
It has already emerged that Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator responsible for phone-hacking on an industrial scale, was not commissioned until after March 2002.
He has furiously denied being responsible for deleting the messages and has offered the Dowler family his ‘sincere personal sympathy’.
There are now legal discussions as to whether the fresh evidence should be admitted to the Leveson inquiry.Mark Lewis, the Dowlers’ solicitor, said it was ‘not known’ who had deleted the phone messages.
He said: ‘There is no doubt that there had been deletions by someone other than Milly, and the deletions had not been triggered by Milly’s own actions.
‘It remains unchallenged that the News of the World listened to Milly Dowler’s voicemail and eavesdropped on deeply personal messages which were being left for her by her distraught friends and family.’
Meanwhile, police have revealed the total number of phone hacking victims will be about 800, far lower than previously estimated.
Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, who is leading Operation Weeting, said every victim has now been contacted.
Thousands of others, whose names appear in material seized from Mulcaire in 2006, will be contacted but are not thought to have been hacked.
The cost of Operation Weeting, related inquiries and representation at the Leveson inquiry, is now expected to cost the Metropolitan Police £8million a year.
An external review led by Durham Chief Constable Jon Stoddart has been completed and is understood to have made up to 30 recommendations.
It is likely to mark its first anniversary in January without anyone being charged as the majority of suspects have been released on bail until March.
Surrey Police declined to comment. The Metropolitan Police said: ‘We are not providing a running commentary on the inquiry.’
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