A former slaughterhouse worker was jailed for life yesterday for abducting and murdering five-year-old April Jones, whose disappearance in Wales last year sparked the biggest search in British history.
Mark Bridger, 47, had claimed that he accidentally ran over April, who had cerebral palsy, as she played near her home in October and could not remember what he did with the body. But a jury at Mold Crown Court in Wales unanimously convicted Bridger of abducting and murdering April, and of unlawfully disposing of and concealing her body with intent to pervert the course of justice.
April's body has never been found despite hundreds of members of the public joining the police search of the mountainous area criss-crossed by rivers near her hometown of Machynlleth in mid-Wales.
Judge Griffith Williams ordered the "pathological liar" to spend the rest of his life in jail.
"You set out to find a little girl to abuse," Williams said as he sentenced Bridger at the end of a trial lasting more than a month.
"There is no doubt in my mind that you are a paedophile who has for some time harboured sexual and morbid fantasies about young girls."
The trial heard that Bridger, a father of six children by four different women, was a "fantasist" who pretended to have served in Britain's elite SAS unit but had in fact never been in the army.
Police found a huge cache of pornographic images of young children on his computer, and the trial heard that he had watched a cartoon of a girl being raped hours before April went missing. He also had images downloaded from Facebook of April's teenage half-sisters.
April's mother Coral Jones said the family were "relieved" by the guilty verdict.
"However, we still do not know where [April] is, and this will always be a very painful thing for us to deal with," she said.
April went missing on October 1 after her parents allowed her to play out late on her bike as a treat for getting a good report from her teachers. After a frantic emergency call from her mother - a harrowing recording of which was played during the trial - police within hours triggered Britain's first ever national Child Rescue Alert.
Police said the subsequent search, in which local residents hung pink ribbons on trees in a sign of solidarity, was the biggest of its kind in the country in terms of numbers involved and the area scanned. Bridger, a friend of April's father, was arrested the next day after one of her friends told police she had seen the girl getting into a car matching the description of his Land Rover.
Bridger told police he had run over April by accident but did not recall what had happened next.
Blood and tiny bone fragments found at Bridger's cottage were a near-perfect match with April's DNA, the court heard.
The judge said that a combination of heavy drinking and the ending of his relationship with a local woman earlier that day may have prompted Bridger to live out his violent fantasies.
"You were on the prowl for a young girl," the judge said.
Police believe Bridger dismembered April's body and may have disposed of it in the fast-flowing rivers in the area.