Lawyer: UK police suspected phone hacking in 2002

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Local British police suspected more than 10 years ago that a missing schoolgirl's phone had been hacked by people associated with Rupert Murdoch's now-defunct News of the World tabloid, an attorney said Wednesday.

Police lawyer Neil Garnham said at least one officer with southern England's Surrey Police believed in April 2002 that missing girl Milly Dowler's phone had been hacked — the latest example of police's failure to investigate the rogue tabloid, which long avoided sanction despite years of illegal behavior.

Victims' lawyer David Sherborne said Wednesday that many phone hacking victims might have been spared "if Surrey police had prosecuted this activity in 2002." He quoted Milly's parents as blaming "police neglect" and their deference to the nation's powerful press for the lack of action.

Last year's revelation that the News of the World had violated the privacy of the 13-year-old Milly, whose disappearance had drawn national attention, rocked Murdoch's News Corp. and ignited public outrage. It prompted the paper's closure, sparked a scandal that has led to dozens of arrests and more than 100 lawsuits and trimmed some $250 million from News Corp.'s bottom line.

Dowler was eventually found dead, and the notion that tabloid journalists had been trawling through a murdered child's private messages in their search for scoops — possibly even hampering the police investigation into her disappearance — remains one of the scandal's darkest episodes.

The Guardian, a rival U.K. newspaper that broke the story in July, claimed the News of the World had deleted messages from Milly's phone — reporting that has been challenged by News Corp. and the police.

Garnham said an exhaustive investigation had not turned up any definitive proof of voicemail deletion on Milly's phone. Although he said it was clear that the tabloid had accessed Milly's messages "it's not possible to state with any certainty whether Milly's voicemails were or were not deleted."