Detectives investigating the disappearance of missing schoolgirl Tia Sharp are questioning her grandmother’s partner on suspicion of murder.
Stuart Hazell, 37, was arrested in the south London borough of Merton yesterday evening, hours after police launched a manhunt for the suspect and warned members of the public not to approach him.
It came after investigators discovered a body at the home Hazell shares with Tia’s grandmother Christine Sharp in New Addington, near Croydon, south London.
The 12-year-old girl, who was reported missing on Friday, was last seen alive at the property.
Police reportedly removed the body, which is yet to be identified, from the terraced house late last night after Hazell was taken into custody. A post-mortem examination is expected to take place in the coming days.
Hazell was detained in a public place – believed to be a park – at 8.25pm after he was identified by a member of the public, police said.
Following his arrest he was filmed by news cameras being driven into Sutton police station in south London handcuffed to a police officer in the back of a car.
The murder suspect, who has said he was the last person to see Tia, was interviewed by police as a witness on Wednesday but then released.
A team of forensic officers discovered the body during a fourth search of Tia’s grandmother’s home, prompting some to ask questions about Scotland Yard’s handling of the case.
Commander Neil Basu, the area commander responsible for south-east London, was quick to defend the police investigation and said the priorities were to support Tia’s family and identify the body as quickly as possible.
“Clearly there will be many questions about the investigation into Tia’s disappearance and I want to take this opportunity to clarify some of the speculation,” he said yesterday.
“When police investigate cases as difficult and challenging as this, it is important that we do not just focus on one line of inquiry.
“For example we had over 60 reported sightings of Tia, 800 hours of CCTV footage to examine and 300 plus calls into the incident room. All of these lines of inquiry were in the process of being followed up.”
Stressing that a number of searches took place at the address, he continued: “When Tia was first reported missing, officers searched her bedroom as is normal practice in a missing persons inquiry.
“A further search of the house took place in the early hours of Sunday morning by a specialist team. This was then followed by another search of the house by specialist dogs on Wednesday lunchtime.
“What we now need to establish is how long the body had been in the place where it was found.
“This will be subject of the ongoing investigation and it would be wrong to jump to any conclusions until all the facts have been established.”
Police did not reveal where the body was discovered, but officers were seen taking a ladder into the property yesterday afternoon, sparking rumours that it may have been in the loft.
A dark holdall was later seen being removed from the house.
Locals, who had congregated near the scene during the day, grew in number as news broke of the discovery.
Alston Millington, 32, said: “Personally, I was hoping she had a bit of trouble at home and had run off, rebelling against the family, maybe.
“I was hoping she would be found somewhere with somebody.
“It is very hard to get out of Addington without being seen in either a car, tram or bus. It is such sad news.”
Tia’s grandmother, who left her home with police shortly before yesterday’s search, told reporters her boyfriend was out helping in the hunt for Tia.
She said that Tia’s mother Natalie was “in bits” and she did not know where she was as “she needed to get away”.
After she left, a cordon was placed around the house on The Lindens and white-suited forensics officers were seen going inside.
Until then, journalists were able to approach the house, although at times reporters were met with hostility from family members.
Between 80 and 100 officers were involved in searches for Tia, including in woodland near the house.
Members of the local community also helped with the hunt.
Three police vans arrived at the scene this morning, while more than a dozen officers entered the cordoned off area around the house.
Flowers, teddy bears and candles remained near the house after neighbours and friends left tributes to Tia last night.
One message read: “Rest in peace Tia. Justice will be served.”
Another read: “Tia Sharp, beautiful angel, taken too soon, our thoughts are with all of you.”