Image: Emma Alice Smith
Sussex Police  /  AP file
This undated photo shows Emma Alice Smith, 16, (back row, far left), who disappeared in 1926. British detectives began looking into her case after hearing of a deathbed confession in what is believed to be one of the country's oldest cold cases to be reviewed.
updated 2/4/2009 10:03:34 PM ET 2009-02-05T03:03:34

The teenage girl disappeared in 1926. But a deathbed confession supposedly made decades ago has led detectives to open what might be one of Britain's oldest-ever cold case reviews.

Emma Alice Smith was 16 when she disappeared while cycling between her home and a nearby railway station. Her disappearance has been unsolved — and her body has remained missing — ever since.

But that could soon change: David Wright, the teenager's great-nephew, said Wednesday that he had at last told police about the confession, the existence of which had long been a family secret.

Wright said his mother told him that in the 1950s, a man whose identity has not been revealed claimed responsibility for the teenager's death, but the confession was never made public. Police were not told at the time, either.

Wright's mother was told about the confession by her aunt — Emma Alice's sister Lily — who died in 1995.

"A gentleman, on his deathbed sometime in 1952 to 1953, had confessed to killing her sister. But she felt she was unable to bring it to light because her own father had just passed away," Wright said. "It was also a very small community and to make an accusation like that would have been scandalous in those days.

"Those sorts of things were hushed up or brushed under the carpet."

Breaking the silence
In December 2007, Wright broke the silence and went to police in Sussex, asking them to look into his great-aunt's disappearance. Last month, they said they planned to reopen the case.

"I was very, very surprised when they said they would investigate it. I didn't think anyone would be interested," he said.

Emma Alice had worked as a servant in a large house near her home in the village of Waldron, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of London. She was the second of eight children; Wright's grandfather was her older brother.

Police said they want to find Emma's body for her family's sake rather than to make an arrest.

"The family are keen to trace the body of Emma, if that is possible, in order that she can be given a proper burial and laid to rest with her close family," said Detective Chief Inspector Trevor Bowles, of the Sussex Police Major Crime Branch. "A number of local people have already assisted us and have been able to fill in some of the many gaps which exist.

"Given the years which have passed, this is inevitably a difficult task."

Detectives are fitting the cold case investigation around their existing caseload, Detective Inspector Mike Ashcroft said.

He said officers, using maps of the time, have already identified the likely path Emma Alice would have taken, and they will begin searching the ponds along the 2.5 mile (4 kilometer) route between her home and the railway station.

Experts have assured the detectives that human remains will still be present, even after more than eight decades of decomposition. "I'm pretty certain that if there's a body in a pond, we'll find it," Ashcroft said.

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