Schoolgirl Arlene Arkinson was a forgotten victim who was failed by the State, a former high profile detective has told her inquest.
In a stinging attack on police hierarchy, retired chief superintendent Norman Baxter said the prime suspect could have been charged with murder years earlier.
He told Belfast Coroners Court: "She was a forgotten victim and that's quite a terrible thing."
Mr Baxter was brought onto the Arkinson inquiry in March 2002 and despite not having any new evidence, decided within a few months to pursue the paedophile Robert Howard.
He said the investigation had been in a "vague" status - neither active nor closed, adding: "It was in the ether."
Fifteen-year-old Arlene, from Castlederg, Co Tyrone, disappeared in August 1994 after a night out at a disco across the border in Co Donegal.
The teenager, who had a troubled background, was last seen being driven off late at night by Howard. Her body has never been found.
Howard was acquitted of her murder in 2005 by a jury which was not told of his previous conviction for murdering teenager Hannah Williams, whose body was found in Kent in March 2002.
Mr Baxter said he believed the dysfunctional Arkinson family were not seen as a priority for police between 1994 and 2002.
"I think the Arkinson family were seen as people who had no standing and therefore society did not bother with them and therefore she was not of importance and not a priority," he said.
"I think it is a terrible case that a 15-year-old just vanishes and after a period of statutory obligation you park it and move on."
The decision to charge Howard with murder, in May 2002, was made while he was being held at Belmarsh Prison on suspicion of killing Hannah Williams.
Although there was nothing new evidentially, Mr Baxter's approach differed from previous investigators who believed that a prosecution could not go ahead without a body.
He added: "Robert Howard could have been charged years earlier. If there was a recognition that this was a family and this was a victim."
"If proper steps had been taken in 1994 then Hannah Williams would be alive, potentially."
Howard was described as a "menace", able to roam across the UK and Ireland committing horrendous, depraved offences.
While some officers believed passionately that he had to be stopped they were "lone voices in the system", according Mr Baxter.
There were institutional failures across a range of responsibilities and the State was "ineffective" in dealing with him, he added.
Meanwhile, the court also heard of the animosity that existed between some police and members of the Arkinson family who were perceived as pests and troublemakers.
"All they were trying to get was some resolution," said Mr Baxter, who claimed he had a better understanding because he was from the same country area.
During examination by Kevin Rooney QC, representing the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), Mr Baxter rejected suggestions he was being critical of the original investigation.
The s tatement that Hannah Williams could potentially be still alive was a dangerous generalisation, the lawyer said, adding that Mr Baxter failed to secure a conviction in 2005.
However Mr Baxter hit back: "There was a large timespan between 1994 and 2002 and the work that was done by people at that time who were responding collected evidence which formed the foundation of the prosecution.
"The issue lies with what happened in the time gap. I do not have an issue with the investigative steps, it is the issue about what was being done to move the thing forward.
"I think, if there had been a constant review of cold cases, if this thing had been looked at again - there was the potential that he (Howard) could have been charged earlier."
There were some heated exchanges between Mr Rooney and Henry Toner QC, a lawyer representing the Arkinson family.
At one point Mr Toner sprang to the police officer's defence accusing the PSNI of attempting to throw him to the wolves.
Earlier, the inquest heard that when charged with Arlene's murder Howard "lost control" and hinted he would co-operate with police if he could be transferred to a jail in Northern Ireland.
Howard believed Maghaberry prison had single cells with en suite facilities while at Belmarsh he had to "slop out", the court was told.
"He was thinking of his personal conditions," said Mr Baxter.
On another occasion he suggested he might co-operate if he could to be sent to a prison in Scotland, it was claimed.
The hearing has been adjourned until Monday, May 16.