British tabloid News of the World illegally accessed the messages left on the cellphone mailbox of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler, then deleted them to allow more to arrive. According to The Guardian, its staff interfered with the police investigation, destroyed evidence, and gave her family the false hope of seeing their desperate pleas being accessed and read.
The Dowler family then granted an exclusive interview to the News of the World in which they talked about their hope, quite unaware that it had been falsely kindled by the newspaper's own intervention. Sally Dowler told the paper: "If Milly walked through the door, I don't think we'd be able to speak. We'd just weep tears of joy and give her a great big hug."
The deletion of the messages also caused difficulties for the police by confusing the picture when they had few leads to pursue. It also potentially destroyed valuable evidence.
According to one senior source familiar with the Surrey police investigation: "It can happen with abduction murders that the perpetrator will leave messages, asking the missing person to get in touch, as part of their efforts at concealment. We need those messages as evidence. Anybody who destroys that evidence is seriously interfering with the course of a police investigation."
The newspaper, described as "heinous" and "despicable" by the family, is at the center of a cellphone "hacking" scandal in the U.K., in which the remote mailboxes of politicians, celebrities and everyday people were tapped by reporters. One of the curiosities of the scandal was the Metropolitan Police's refusal to launch a substantial investigation until embarrassed by reports in The Guardian and The New York Times, which found insiders willing to admit being influenced by "fear" of reprisals from Rupert Murdoch, owner of the News of the World.
One of serial killer Levi Bellfield's victims, Dowler disappeared at the age of 13 in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, in 2002.
Missing Milly Dowler's voicemail was hacked by News of the World [The Guardian. Photo: Wikimedia]