On a wet, cold wintry night on 2 November 1996, 16yr old Damien Nettles went missing in Cowes, Isle of Wight. His movements were well documented up to 12:02hrs on 3 November when he was last seen on CCTV in the High Street.
Damien went to a party at a friend’s house on the Saturday night in East Cowes and had permission to stay out until midnight. Damien and his friend left the party early and headed over to West Cowes, having bought some cider. They wandered around the high street for a couple of hours before parting company at 10.30pm. The rest is only known in hindsight from witness statements and his family joining pieces of the story together.
He was reported missing the afternoon of 3 November when all avenues had been exhausted to locate him. Hampshire Police did not take his disappearance seriously and mistakenly listed him as 19yrs of age. They refused the family’s desperate requests for land & air searches and the deployment of search dogs. The family implemented their own searches with the help of friends and visited local businesses to acquire CCTV. When Mrs Nettles phoned the station a few days later for an updated, she was deemed a hysterical mother. She was told she was hampering the investigation by keep calling them.
Initial Misper procedures were not implemented, so the case got off to a bad start, where critical evidence was lost. Unfortunately, Hampshire Police lost the last CCTV footage of Damien walking along the High Street. They took another CCTV of Damien surrounded by strangers, later identified as Army men, in a chip shop. The police edited that tape, splicing the beginning and end off, and the middle of the tape which showed a police car passing the plate glass window.
The case rumbled on for many years with many change of officers and atrocious mishandling of the case by police. Despite the passage of time, his mother Valerie Nettles vows never to give up in the search for her eldest son.
Ivor Edwards got in touch with Mrs Nettles in 2007. He introduced himself as a private investigator and published author and criminologist. He wrote Jack the Ripper, Black Magic Rituals in 2002. He offered his help, pro-bono as he had been following the case for some time and was interested to help. Ivor made no apologies for himself. He was blunt, to the point and he was clear about his background, which was “colourful”. He knew the police system intimately, from two sides.
His efforts to raise a reward in 2007 were defeated by the negative connotations by police who suggested to interested businesses that it would not be in their interest to participate. It was shot down. He was advised to go his way and leave the case alone. That was the wrong thing to tell Ivor. That only served to make him more determined. Ivor located new witnesses that police later spoke to, but they continued to be less than enthusiastic about his involvement. He spent the next five years knocking on doors, finding witnesses, including the tenant of the drug den, who persistently claimed the main suspect was involved in Damien’s death.
Mr Edwards remains active in Damien’s case to this day and holds vital evidence and statements from various members of the drugs fraternity.
After a local drug dealer, died in 2002, rumours started to surface that he may have been responsible. From this point forward, the case has been plagued by rumours, lies, cover-ups and misguided information.
Following a complaint to Police Standards in 2005, a Major Investigation Team were deployed and a review was performed. Some of the recommendations raised have been actioned, but a lot remain outstanding. It was determined that Damien was likely murdered, but while this can not be ruled out, it remains a Missing Persons (Misper) Case.
In 2011 Hampshire Police made eight arrests for conspiracy to murder, but after an extensive bail period, all suspects were released without charge. Until new corroborative intelligence is forthcoming, police are unwilling to carry out any further searches. As a result of their unwillingness, a group of local people banded together to try and excavate an area identified as a possible deposition site. It proved to be a huge undertaking by generous people who wanted to find Damien for his mother. The police still refused to assist in any way with searches.
In October 2012 Hampshire Police offered a £20,000 reward for any information that potentially could lead to the discovery of Damien’s body and conviction of the perpetrator. This reward remained in place for a year. The media went into a ‘frenzy’ and his mum was inundated with requests for interviews. Unfortunately, despite pleas from Damien’s family, once the reward ran its course, it was retracted.
Completely out of the blue in August 2013 a local business man gave the family fresh hope by offering a £10,000 reward for further information. He wished to remain anonymous and despite them wanting to thank him publically, they had to respect his wishes.
Unfortunately, neither of the rewards collated sufficient information to progress the case and the CPS did not accept the critical evidence that had been obtained to press charges.
Over the many years since Damien has been missing, his family have never given up hope of finding out what happened to him. They have been told numerous stories about where Damien's body has been buried. Many of them are obviously rumours, however, there remain other suggestions the police have refused to investigate. The site divulged by the paid informant was totally dismissed. Damien’s remains must be buried somewhere, and until his family are satisfied all scenarios have been eliminated they will never give up hope and maintain the same stance.
The Hampshire Constabulary and the Forestry Commission both refused to provide permission for the family to dig in the site in Parkhurst Forest. The family decided to pursue the leads themselves. A small team of friends began digging in area at the copse where a paid informant divulged Damien is likely buried. They gave up their time and resources to dig for hours at a time in bad terrain and all weathers.
In 2016 BBC Three released an eight-part documentary Unsolved - The Boy Who Disappeared. The investigative journalists secured interviews with some of the people rumoured to be involved. They also revealed that a key suspect has obtained copies of witness statements and has been known to intimidated those witnesses.
The films are available on iPlayer.
If you are unable to view iPlayer, the series is also viewable on YouTube.
With increased interest, a petition was raised for Damien's case to be heard in Parliament, with a view to obtain extra funding for Hampshire Police for a dedicated team to move the case forward. Unfortunately, despite getting thousands of signatures, we did not meet the 10,000 signature target to get a Government response.
In the Autumn of 2016, Ian Brownhill from No5 Chambers announced his involvement with the campaign to try to bring the case to a conclusion. He was responsible for securing the additional funding for the Ben Needham enquiry.
Mrs Nettles filed another complaint to Police Standards (PSD) in November 2016 that was referred voluntary by Hampshire Police to the IPCC. This complaint listed in excess of 30 unacceptable key facts that needed addressing. Unfortunately, they have handed the case back to Hampshire for ‘Local Investigation’. An officer was only allocated the investigation in March 2017, some four months later. Should the investigation not be to Mrs Nettles expectation, the IPCC have recommended she appeal direct to them for a full independent investigation.
If you have any information that could help, please contact Hampshire Police on 101, quoting ‘Operation Ridgewood’. If you would prefer to remain anonymous you can contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.
To help raise awareness of Damien’s case, please join the Facebook group
Missing People charity has been a lifeline to Mrs Nettles over the years and she is an advocate for them, helping with fundraising events and raising awareness of long-term missing children and young adults. They have an appeal poster available on their website.
Formed after the brutal killing in Japan of Lucie Blackman in 2000, The Lucie Blackman Trust exists to support British nationals in crisis overseas. Providing families with information, liaison, advice and support throughout a missing person's case overseas remains a core part of their operations.
By Valerie Nettles