Senior Surrey Police detectives investigating the disappearance of Milly Dowler held two meetings with journalists from the News of the World and were shown evidence that the newspaper held information taken from the voicemails of the murdered schoolgirl.
An investigation by The Independent which focuses on this crucial period of the phone-hacking scandal reveals that the force subsequently failed to investigate or take action against the News International title.
One of the officers who attended the meetings was Craig Denholm, currently Deputy Chief Constable of Surrey. He was the Detective Chief Superintendent in charge of Operation Ruby, the code name for the investigation launched following the disappearance of the teenager on 21 March 2002.
The Independent has confirmed the identity of the officer, who is still a member of the Surrey force. But his name is being withheld following a claim from his lawyers that revealing his identity could prove "catastrophic" for him and his family because of public anger at the hacking of the schoolgirl's phone.
The extent of the Sunday paper's meddling in the Dowler inquiry raises new questions about how far up the executive ladder at News International knowledge of phone hacking had spread at this early stage, and why Surrey Police decided not to follow up evidence that the NOTW had illegally obtained information relevant to one of the most high-profile inquiries in its history.
The failure to pursue the Sunday tabloid meant that phone hacking by its journalists continued for another four years until Scotland Yard arrested the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire and the NOTW royal editor Clive Goodman in August 2006. Both were later jailed. Mark Lewis, the Dowler family's lawyer, said: "Questions have to be asked as to whether Surrey Police were more concerned with selling papers than solving crimes. What was it with them that, when the public dialled 999, the police dialled NOTW?"
The Independent has established that, in April 2002 as police followed multiple leads, the NOTW approached the Surrey force and arranged two meetings during which it was made clear that the paper had obtained information that could only have come from messages on Milly's phone.
The meetings, which took place at a Surrey police station, were attended by at least two journalists from the Rupert Murdoch-owned paper and two of the force's most senior detectives, Mr Denholm and Detective Chief Inspector Stuart Gibson, who had day-to-day control of the inquiry. A third Surrey officer also attended.
Mr Denholm declined to comment on the meetings when approached by The Independent. Mr Gibson, who has retired from the police, could not be reached for comment despite repeated requests made to Surrey Police.
One former Surrey officer said: "The meetings were clearly significant. It was obvious that the newspaper had got hold of details from Milly's phone messages."
The Independent has been told that the minutes of at least one of the meetings feature among up to 300 items of unused evidence submitted for the prosecution of Levi Bellfield, the former bouncer who was convicted this summer of Milly's murder.
The revelation that the NOTW had accessed and then allegedly deleted some of the schoolgirl's voicemails, providing false hope for her family and friends that she was still alive, proved a tipping point in the hacking scandal, forcing the closure of the Sunday tabloid. It emerged last month that NI is near to finalising a £3m settlement with the Dowler family, including a £1m payment to charity made personally by Mr Murdoch.
The contacts between the NOTW and Surrey Police in the early weeks of Operation Ruby are alleged to have begun after the officer under investigation by the IPCC revealed to an individual outside of the inquiry details that were being pursued by the Operation Ruby team. The IPCC is looking at whether the officer gave away confidential material and, if so, whether he received payment for it.
Surrey Police has acknowledged that a detective was removed from the investigation and given "words of advice" – the lowest form of admonition – before being transferred to duties at another police station.
The Independent has established that, prior to the disciplinary action, executives at the NOTW requested the first of two meetings with the officers leading the Dowler inquiry. Mr Gibson – who later left the investigation – and Mr Denholm met the paper's journalists on two occasions within a number of days.
It became clear that the paper had obtained Milly's phone number and accessed her voicemails when the journalists revealed they knew about an apparent offer of a job interview to Milly made on 27 March 2002 at a Midlands factory. Subsequent inquiries by detectives established that the message had been mistakenly left on the schoolgirl's phone.
Despite this knowledge, Mr Denholm and his force appear to have taken a decision not to investigate the evidence of phone hacking.
The Independent has not been told the identity of the journalists who attended the meetings. However, one of them is understood to be a senior newsroom executive. Surrey Police's lack of action may be due to officers on Operation Ruby wanting to avoid being distracted from the task of locating Milly.
Just how the NOTW obtained Milly's phone number remains unclear.
The Independent has been told that the schoolgirl was using an unregistered SIM card, meaning her details could not have been "blagged" from her mobile-phone provider by Mulcaire.
There is also no suggestion that the information could have been provided by her family, leaving only friends and the police as potential sources.
In a statement, Surrey Police said it was prevented from discussing allegations surrounding the Dowler inquiry because of the ongoing IPCC investigation and Scotland Yard's investigation into phone hacking.
It added: "In 2002, Surrey Police's priority was to find Milly and then find out what had happened to her and to bring her killers to justice. Clearly, there was a huge amount of professional interaction between Surrey Police and the media throughout that time."
Surrey Police said it had taken the decision to refer the conduct of the detective constable involved in the Dowler murder to the IPCC "in order to be open and transparent".
The police watchdog told The Independent its inquiry terms were limited, stating: "The terms of reference ... are specifically in relation to the actions of one detective constable and do not cover whether senior Surrey officers knew about the News of the World hacking Milly Dowler's phone in 2002.
However, if during the course of our investigation ... we uncover any evidence of wrongdoing by anybody else in the force, we would of course deal with that."
The NOTW made little effort to conceal its success in accessing Milly's voicemails from the public.
On 14 April 2002 – within a few days of the meetings with Surrey Police – the paper printed a remarkably candid story in its first edition which detailed three separate voicemails left for the missing schoolgirl between 27 March and 2 April. By this time Bellfield is likely already to have murdered her.
The paper reported a voicemail message from a woman purporting to be from a Midlands employment agency. It concerned a job interview. By the time the later editions of the paper came out the story had been radically altered, removing all direct quotations from the voicemails.
In evidence to MPs this summer, News International identified four people who, it said, had primary responsibility for reviewing articles in April 2002. This was the then editor Rebekah Brooks, the legal manager Tom Crone, the paper's news editor Neville Thurlbeck and the night editor Peter Smith.
It was revealed by The Wall Street Journal in August that Mr Thurlbeck, who has been arrested and bailed on suspicion of conspiracy to intercept voicemails, authorised a stakeout by NOTW journalists of the Epson factory referred to in the 27 March voicemail. Ms Brooks, who resigned as NI chief executive in July, has said she was on holiday when the 14 April story was published.
Crone suggested to the Commons Media Select Committee this summer that the changes to the article between editions could have been made because the details of the voicemails were supplied by Surrey Police officers who then changed their minds about the extent of the disclosures when they saw the first
The Independent understands that NI has identified the journalist who commissioned Mulcaire to target Milly's voicemails, but his or her name is being withheld for legal reasons.
In a statement, a News International spokesperson said: "We are unable to comment on any of the detail in the case. We continue to co-operate fully with the police."
Tom Watson, the Labour MP on the Commons committee investigating phone hacking, said The Independent's investigation pointed to one unanswered question: "Who knew at News International?"
Under scrutiny: The officers who knew
As a Detective Chief Inspector, Mr Gibson was in charge of the hunt for Milly Dowler, responsible for co-ordinating the inquiry into a number of leads and theories about her disappearance.
As Deputy Chief Constable he found himself in overall charge of one of the biggest inquiries in Surrey's history when the 13-year-old vanished.
Timeline: Dowler case
21 March 2002 Milly Dowler vanishes.
27 March A mystery caller leaves a message apparently inviting Milly to a job interview in the Midlands.
Early April The News of the World requests meetings with officers on the case, at which it becomes clear that the newspaper has information from voicemails on Milly's phone. A detective is taken off the case after claims that he disclosed confidential information to a friend ("not a journalist") outside the force.
14 April In its first edition, the NOTW details three voicemails left on Milly's phone, including the message about the job interview. In later editions the details are removed.
20 September Milly's remains are found in woodland in Hampshire.
30 March 2010 Levi Bellfield accused of Milly's murder.
4 July 2011 A fortnight after Bellfield is convicted, The Guardian reveals that Milly's voicemails were hacked by the NOTW. After an outcry the title is closed.
12 August 2011 The Independent Police Complaints Commission announces an investigation into the suspended detective's actions.