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One balmy afternoon 20 years ago, Christine Jessop stepped off a bus full of noisy schoolchildren outside her rural Ontario home and simply vanished into the autumn air.

The nine-year-old girl's disappearance -- on Oct. 3, 1984 -- would end up testing Canada's justice system in extraordinary ways and spawning the wrongful murder conviction of Guy Paul Morin, a massive public inquiry and a three-year reinvestigation.

Two decades later, however, the trail could scarcely be colder. The case is confined to 300 cardboard boxes filled with yellowing documents in a police vault -- plus an all-important DNA sample that might some day be matched to her killer.

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"She is with the cold squad now," said Janet Jessop, Christine's mother, in an interview yesterday. "It bothers me tremendously that she is down in 'the basement.' If there is the slimmest chance in heaven of solving this, we deserve it. But most of all, Christine deserves it. I think it's time we got her justice."

It seemed clear from the start that Christine, a shy child, knew her abductor and got into his car willingly. But weeks of frantic searching failed to turn up a single promising clue. By late fall, the hunt had become a death watch.

On Dec. 31, 1984, a horrified farmer discovered her weathered remains 50 kilometres away in a field on the boundary between York and Durham regions northeast of Toronto. A botched police investigation swiftly homed in on Christine's next-door neighbour, Mr. Morin.

Mr. Morin was acquitted at his 1986 trial, but the Crown appealed and won the right to retry him. That time, he was convicted and spent eight months in Kingston Penitentiary. Mr. Morin was finally exonerated when DNA extracted from semen stains on Christine's underwear proved he was not the killer.

While Mr. Morin has long since been released and compensated for his ordeal, the Jessops remain in limbo, struggling to maintain confidence that the murderer will some day be found.

Mrs. Jessop said that not a morning goes by when she doesn't visualize Christine skipping through the cemetery behind their former home in the tiny village of Queensville, Ont., about 60 kilometres north of Toronto. It's the same cemetery where the child is buried.

"I miss her company," Ms. Jessop said weeping. "I miss her terribly. I still find special occasions the worst -- Christmas, Halloween, Easter. I can't picture her grown up; I still see her as she was. She would be 29 years old now. This crime basically wiped out a whole family: Christine, her [future]husband and their children."

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Toronto Police Superintendent Neale Tweedy and Detective Steve Hulcoop, who headed the Christine Jessop task force until it was disbanded in 1998, still confer regularly with its other seven officers.

"It stays with us," Supt. Tweedy said. "It becomes personalized. Nobody wanted to solve this crime more than us, and we were very confident it was solvable."

The task force obtained blood samples from a total of 325 potential suspects to analyze their DNA. "But you can't bleed everybody; you have to create some fence lines," Supt. Tweedy observed.

Most of the suspects were sex offenders with a connection to either the Jessop family, the area where she was abducted, or the area where her body was found.

"There were about five cases where we became really, really excited, but we were able to prove that it wasn't them," Supt. Tweedy said. "You could say that after 20 years, there is little hope left, but I don't think that."

Now registered in the national DNA data bank, the sample is regularly compared with that of recently convicted killers and pedophiles. Policy changes that may be on the way could lead to it being compared with DNA from sex offenders who have been in custody for many years. "If they broaden that data bank, I think we've got a solid chance," Supt. Tweedy said.

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Meanwhile, the Jessops have gone their separate ways.

Mrs. Jessop rents an apartment in Keswick, just north of Queensville, and does volunteer work. Her estranged husband, Robert, lives and works in nearby Sutton. Their son, Kenneth, is a construction worker who lives in Keswick. Separated from his wife, he has a nine-year-old son.

With almost $1-million in compensation, Mr. Morin bought a farm, got married and has two young sons. His father, Alphonse, died several years ago. His mother, Ida, still lives in Queensville.

"I've often been asked if I feel sorry for the Morins," Mrs. Jessop said. "In a way, I do. But he [Guy Paul]was young enough to get on with his life and have a family. We weren't. We lost the ultimate. Don't think there aren't days when I close the door and think: 'Stop the world, I want to get off my bike.' But you just can't."

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