TWENTY-EIGHT years ago today, two Brighton school girls went missing. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the horrific discovery of their bodies found raped and murdered in Wild Park. As the prime suspect is considered eligible for parole for another brutal attack – the Babes in the Wood families prepare to mark the day they lost their loved ones. FLORA THOMPSON reports

THE BABES in the Wood double murder remains one of the most notorious unsolved crimes in Britain.

Nicola Fellows and Karen Hadaway, both nine, were found raped and murdered in Wild Park, Brighton, on October 10, 1986, after going missing the day before.

Their two families were torn apart by the crime and have remained vigilant in their pursuit of justice ever since.

The prime suspect in the murders, Russell Bishop, was found not guilty by a jury but was later jailed for the brutal attempted murder and rape of another young girl.

The Argus has now learned that after his case was reviewed by the parole board, he is being considered for release.

Bishop was jailed for life but his case has now been approved for review by Secretary of State Chris Grayling and a decision will be made on whether he should be released within six months.

In a statement, the parole board said: “The parole board can confirm that it has received a referral of Russell Bishop’s case from the Secretary of State for Justice and that his case is currently under review.”

It will be a bitter blow as Nicola and Karen’s families mark 28 years since the deaths. They continue their tradition of remembering them at the scene of the discovery.

Nicola’s uncle, Nigel Heffron, 60, said the families plan to surround the memorial dedicated to the children in Wild Park.

The former hospital controller, from Whitehawk, said: “Each year we hold a vigil in the park by the memorial. We will go there to remember them.

“The memorial is in a special place by a Hawthorn tree, which was the only part of the scene we were allowed by police to get close to. And we know that as Nicky and Karen’s tree.

“What is so touching is the respect of the neighbourhood. Decorations like ribbons that we put up last year are still there untouched.”

Today the memorial, centred around a tree in Wild Park, features pictures of the girls, trinkets, lanterns, flowers, cards and messages.

Signs placed at the scene call for justice and state the girls are at rest but never forgotten.

Mr Heffron said he was “beyond frustration” at the lack of progress in the case but felt supported by his family.

He said: “It is a cold case. We haven’t had any updates from the police. Each year goes into the other and we still look for answers. But there is always hope. And now my daughter is my hope, which helps me look to the future.”

The girls, who were neighbours on the Moulsecoomb estate, were last seen alive at 5.30pm on October 9, 1986, after going out to play.

Relatives and friends, including Russell Bishop, joined more than 150 police officers in a hunt for the children.

Their bodies were found in Wild Park at 4.20pm the next day, huddled together with Karen’s head resting on her friend’s lap.

Police believed the girls knew their killer and arrested Bishop, a teenager who lodged at Nicola’s house for a short time, three weeks later.

The Hollingdean roofer was charged with the murder of the girls but was later cleared during a trial at Lewes Crown Court in December 1987.

Double jeopardy The jury deliberated for two hours before finding the 19-year-old not guilty of the murders.

A repeal of double jeopardy laws in 2005 meant Bishop could face a fresh trial if substantial evidence came to light. But in 2006 the High Court ruled there was not enough evidence.

Yesterday, a police spokesman said: “This unresolved case is important to Sussex Police and is regularly under review. We are continuing to explore advances in forensic technology and any significant leads will be reviewed in the context of the whole of the investigation.

“We will maintain contact with the victims’ families so they will be aware of any significant developments, as we all seek justice for the two girls.

“Anyone with new information can always contact us in confidence by calling 101 or emailing, quoting Operation Salop.”

In 1990, Bishop was sentenced to life imprisonment after being convicted of the abduction, molestation and attempted murder of another seven-year-old girl at Devil’s Dyke.

He is still serving a life sentence and remains one of the longest-serving prisoners in the country not convicted of murder.

However, he became eligible for parole in August.

Last year, Mr Heffron called for Bishop to remain behind bars for the rest of his life.

Nearly 3,500 people signed a petition in support of the campaign and there were plans to present this to Prime Minister David Cameron at 10 Downing Street. Mr Heffron’s brother, Ian, a retired Metropolitan Police officer, told The Argus the families had obtained new evidence not presented to the original jury, which they were urging police to investigate in hope of a retrial.

Speaking in March 2013, he said the families believed there were six witnesses who could link Bishop to a sweatshirt containing the girls’ DNA found near the scene of the murders.

Ian said: “Our first priority is to keep him in jail for the rest of his life, but we also need justice for Nicky and Karen.

“The probation service has been in touch with us asking where we would not want Bishop to live if he was released at a parole hearing.

“This is something that stops Nicky and Karen’s families from being able to get on with their lives, even after this long.

“Every two years we have to go through this. We need him to be locked up for life and to get justice for Nicky and Karen to ever get any closure.”

Russell Bishop’s connection to the schoolgirls

ON December 10, 1987, the eight women and four men took only 129 minutes to find Russell Bishop not guilty of murdering nine-year-olds Nicola Fellows and Karen Hadaway.

Bishop was described by his own mother as an attention-seeker, a dreamer and a petty criminal.

He was 21 when he stood trial for the murders, which were committed in October 1986.

Bishop knew both girls, was in the area on the afternoon they disappeared and was among the first on the scene when they were found.

On the night of the discovery he even told police he felt he was a suspect.

But his protestations of innocence were undermined by a string of inconsistencies, according to newspaper archives and court reports. However, other key witnesses were inconsistent as well.

Amid fears of intimidation, three were allowed to give evidence under pseudonyms.

Police were convinced the girls would only have gone to the spot with someone they knew, and there was no sign they went unwillingly. And Karen’s mother said she had told her daughter to stay away from Bishop and his girlfriend.

Bishop, then living in Stephens Road, Hollingdean, gave conflicting accounts of why he was around the park the afternoon the girls vanished.

The bodies were found by two 19-year-olds, who told police that when they raised the alarm they had to stop Bishop trying to get to the bodies. Police said Bishop, without seeing the bodies, gave details only the killer would know. It was reported he detailed what position the girls were lying in and their injuries.

Memorial vandals

IN June 2007, the memorial for the murder victims was destroyed by vandals.

The Argus reported a metre-long strip of wood was sawn from the bench in Wild Park, Brighton, only yards from where the girls were found strangled.

The plank had been cut out with a saw and appeared to be a deliberate removal of a specific length of wood.

The family branded the damage a heartless attack on a memorial which had been left respectfully untouched for 20 years.

The bench was put up in memory of the two girls after hundreds of donations were made by members of the public.

Innocent until proven guilty

RUSSELL Bishop has always maintained his innocence of the 1986 Wild Park murders.

After his acquittal in 1987, he sued Sussex Police for compensation.

But in April 1989, a firebomb was thrown into Bishop’s one-bedroom flat in Hollingdean, forcing him and his family to move to a council house at Preston Barracks.

And in court in 1990, police said they felt he had been wrongly acquitted of the crimes, although the director of public prosecutions rejected claims the case was mishandled.

Bishop himself joined calls for the case to be reopened, marching alongside the girls’ parents.

But then another girl was snatched as she roller-skated in Haybourne Road, Whitehawk.

Her attacker threw her into the boot of a car and drove off with her. She was found naked and shivering by bushes near Devil’s Dyke.

She had been throttled to the point where she passed out and then sexually abused. A suspect was arrested within hours – Russell Bishop.

The girl picked him out at an identity parade. He had changed his appearance by wetting down his hair, which made it darker and changed the style, but police continued the line-up until it had dried.

By this time, forensic science had advanced to the point where DNA matches could be made.

A sample from a pair of tracksuit bottoms linked to the crime was a one-in-80-million match for Bishop’s.

The girl also remembered a hammer, spray can and spanner in the car boot with her. All were found in a car outside Bishop’s house.

And tyre tracks at the scene matched those of a stolen red Cortina used in the crime which was fitted with false number plates.

And fibres from the girl’s jumper were found on adhesive tape in the boot, while paint from the car was on her roller-boots.

Despite claims from Bishop’s defence that police had the opportunity to contaminate evidence, after four hours and 22 minutes, the jury found him guilty.

He was convicted of abduction, molestation and attempted murder – and sentenced to life.