Murdoch Tabloid Accused Of Hacking Murdered Schoolgirl's Phone

March 21, 2002, should have been an ordinary day for Milly Dowler. The 13-year-old English girl was headed home from school, and had called her father that afternoon to let him know she was on her way.

She never made it.

A high-profile search fueled by the media followed her disappearance, and Milly's parents and friends repeatedly left messages on her cell phone, desperate to hear from her.

Six months later, Milly's remains were found dumped in the woods 25 miles from her home. Her badly decomposed body was naked, and had not been buried.

It took nine years to convict her murderer, Levi Bellfield, a serial killer who targeted schoolgirls. Just weeks ago, he was sentenced to life in prison for abducting and murdering Milly.

Yet the case took another cruel twist yesterday, when the Guardian reported that Rupert Murdoch's News of the World tabloid -- currently under fire for allegedly hacking into the voicemails of celebrities, politicians and royals -- also hacked Milly's phone after she disappeared, apparently in search of juicy exclusives. Even worse, Murdoch's “journalists” deleted messages from Milly's phone “in order to free up space for more messages,” according to the Guardian, giving the family false hope that their daughter was still alive and impeding the police investigation.

The Guardian reported:

As her friends and parents called and left messages imploring Milly to get in touch with them, the News of the World was listening and recording their every private word.

But the journalists at the News of the World then encountered a problem. Milly's voicemail box filled up and would accept no more messages. Apparently thirsty for more information from more voicemails, the paper intervened - and deleted the messages that had been left in the first few days after her disappearance. According to one source, this had a devastating effect: when her friends and family called again and discovered that her voicemail had been cleared, they concluded that this must have been done by Milly herself and, therefore, that she must still be alive. But she was not. The interference created false hope and extra agony for those who were misled by it.

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.

For the past several years, news of Murdoch's ballooning hacking scandal has been largely confined to the U.K., even as his journalists have been jailed, lawsuits have been filed, and apologies and settlements have been made.

Reportedly, thousands may have been illegally hacked by the tabloid, and basic questions are still unanswered regarding leadership at News of the World, News International, and News Corporation, namely: what did they know, and when did they know it?

The first News of the World journalists implicated in the scandal were arrested in 2006. In 2009, it emerged that James Murdoch -- then heading up News Corp.'s European businesses -- had approved a £700,000 payout to a high-profile hacking victim the previous year. This March, following his father's 80th birthday, James was promoted to “Deputy Chief Operating Officer and Chairman and CEO, International” and officially relocated to New York. Presumably, he is being groomed to take over the company.

Though it escaped notice in the U.S., late last week, as news spread that News Corp. had won regulatory approval for its takeover bid of the largest pay-tv broadcaster in the U.K., Member of Parliament Tom Watson sounded a warning about the deal in a scathing floor speech:

[Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt] has granted the acquisition to an organization that is currently the subject of three separate police inquiries. An organization that a parliamentary select committee found guilty of a collective amnesia when it came to criminality at one of its newspapers. There is emerging evidence that News International conspired with convicted criminals to pervert the course of justice by hacking serving police officers and detectives, their families, and the families of the victims of serious crime. At least one senior executive even collaborated with at least one career criminal whilst he was serving time in prison. And most appallingly of all, Mr. Speaker, whilst the nation grieved, the criminals that were contracted to News International illicitly targeted the phone of a parent of the children [Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman] who were murdered by Ian Huntley in Soham.

This was several days before the Guardian's story on Milly Dowler.

However, News Corp.'s response to yesterday's allegations that Milly's phone was hacked is seemingly one of surprise. The company issued the following statement to CNN earlier today: “News International executives are shocked and are meeting with the police today to see how they can assist with the enquiries.”

But how shocked can they possibly be?