By Neville Thurlbeck & Lucy Panton
THE HUNT for the killer of Billie-Jo Jenkins took a shock twist yesterday after a jailed murderer told a cellmate HE bludgeoned the schoolgirl to death.
During a series of lengthy discussions, the prisoner confessed to battering the 13-year-old with a metal tent peg before fleeing the scene.
Police were tipped off by a prison supergrass after the inmate, doing life for murder, revealed his dark secret. They believe he could be telling the truth and are checking his story for fatal flaws.
So far, they have found none.
The new evidence could finally clear the name of Billie-Jo's foster-dad, Sion Jenkins, who was acquitted after a third murder trial ended in a hung jury earlier this month.
Last night officers from the Sussex force were preparing to travel to Wakefield jail in Yorkshire to question the convict. Police think he may well have been in the area of Billie-Jo's home town
Hastings on the day she was killed, February 15, 1997. The probe is in its early stages but plans are being made to take his DNA and check it against evidence found at the crime scene.
Last night a police source told the News of the World: "This could be the big breakthrough we've been waiting for.
"His story seems highly credible and everything has checked out so far. It seems to be a heartfelt confession from a man who wants to unburden himself of a disturbing secret.
"He is not mentally ill, he is cogent and articulate.
"If this information checks out it could finally piece together the murder puzzle."
Police will compare the killer's previous modus operandi with the murder of Billie-Jo in a bid to discover any similarities.
If the new suspect is charged and convicted, it will bring to an end a nightmare nine years for Sion Jenkins.
Because he was only acquitted when two juries failed to agree on a verdict, the finger of suspicion still points at him. Last week he refused to take a lie detector test.
But the new confession could clear his name for good, paving the way for him to start a new life.
Jenkins was found guilty of killing his foster-daughter and sentenced to life in 1998.
The jury heard that Billie-Jo's skull was smashed with a metal tent peg as she painted patio doors at the Jenkins' home in Hastings. The main evidence against him was that his clothing contained 148 spots of Billie-Jo's blood that were invisible to the naked eye. The prosecution said they could only have got there if he had killed her. No motive was ever established.
After serving six years in prison, Jenkins had his conviction quashed at the Court of Appeal in 2004.
New scientific evidence suggested the blood could have soaked into his clothing as he bent down to see if Billie-Jo was breathing, or as he cradled her in his arms.
A retrial was ordered but a jury failed to reach a verdict. Jenkins, 48, now married to millionaire heiress Christina Ferneyhough, finally walked free ten days ago after a jury failed to reach a verdict at a second retrial.
But a cloud still hung over him after it was revealed his first wife Lois left him because, she claimed, he was a violent bully who beat her and the kids.
If the confession is true, it will be a huge embarrassment for Sussex police.
Bob Woffenden, a campaigning journalist and close friend of the Jenkins family, said of the jail confession: "Sion will be delighted.
"We have always believed he is innocent. It is extremely encouraging that this new information is being treated seriously by detectives."
It is not unusual for cell confessions to be used to convict killers. The evil paedophile ring which snatched and killed seven-year-old Mark Tildesley in 1984 was nailed after a cell confession.
Leslie "Catweasel" Bailey was sentence to life in October 1992 after evidence from a cellmate. He was murdered the following year.
A prison service spokesman said last night: "We are not going to comment on this story."
A Sussex police source said: "We will follow up all fresh information."