Police in the North have pledged to do everything they can to recover the body of a murdered schoolgirl as fresh searches for her remains began 17 years after her disappearance.
Arlene Arkinson, 15, from Castlederg, Co Tyrone, went missing after a night out in the seaside town of Bundoran, Co Donegal. Police believe she was abducted and killed.
The teenager was last seen in a car driven by convicted child killer Robert Howard.
In 2005, he stood trial for her murder despite the fact her body had not been found.
He was acquitted by a jury which was not aware he was serving a life sentence for the 2001 murder of schoolgirl Hannah Williams, 14, from south London.
Forty sites in and around the Castlederg area are to be searched by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in an operation set to take months.
The officer leading the new searches, PSNI Detective Superintendent Raymond Murray, said the aim was two-fold – to find Arlene’s body and progress the investigation.
“On a personal level, Arlene’s family has been in torment for 17 years,” he said.
“We want to do everything we possibly can to reunite Arlene with her family. Arlene’s sisters and brothers have suffered for too long. Despite the considerable time gap and the challenges involved in locating remains, we will do everything we possibly can to achieve this.
“On a policing level, the recovery of remains may represent a significant opportunity to progress the investigation, as knowledge of any remains or the location of a body deposition site may provide evidence to further our inquiries.”
The first search got under way on what would have been the 70th birthday of the teenager’s late father Willie.
Arlene’s sister Kathleen Arkinson said she was scared to be too optimistic.
“This is the biggest search so far and our hopes are built up,” she said. “I just hopes she’s found, I don’t know what way we’ll react if she’s not.”
The search will take place on land at Scraghy Road between Castlederg and Ederney, Co Fermanagh, close to where Arlene was last seen in the early hours of August 14, 1994.
As well as specialist forensic officers and sniffer dogs, the operation is being assisted by geologists, archaeologists and psychological profilers.
Mr Murray said: “Arlene disappeared near her home in Castlederg after attending a disco in Bundoran. The police investigation has been extensive and there has been a court case but I would not rule out the possibility that there is information in the local community which still has not been provided to detectives.
“This may be for a variety of reasons: people may not have had confidence in police all those years ago or they may have been frightened for other reasons. I want to assure anyone with information that they can talk to detectives who will engage with them sensitively and professionally.”
He made three specific appeals for information.
“Did anyone see a blue Metro car in the area of Scraghy Road in the early hours of 14 August 1994?” he asked.
“Did anyone see any suspicious activity during the early hours of 14 August in the wider Scraghy/Castlederg area?
“Did anyone see Arlene in Castlederg in the early hours of the 14 August?
“We owe it to Arlene and to her family to do our utmost to bring her home and to bring her killer to justice. This series of searches and related investigative activity are the latest phase in our efforts to achieve these objectives.”
Mr Murray said he wanted to thank landowners, in the public and private sectors, for their co-operation with the search operations.