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Unsolved – The Boy Who Disappeared

Damien’s mother Valerie Nettles was approached in 2015 by BBC Three with a view to producing Damien’s story

Over a series of eight short episodes, Bronagh Munro & Alys Harte brought a fresh and energetic perspective to this unsolved case, with the hope of perhaps catching a killer and bringing peace to Damien’s tormented family.

The online report of Bronagh Munro and Alys Harte’s findings can be found http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-36865349.

The Guardian described the series as the UK’s answer to US Making a Murderer serial. Their reporter Filipa Jodelka published the following critique:

“Sometimes, you have to say enough is enough. When something is truly broken – rickety Ikea shelves, shonky standard lamps, the entire criminal justice system – you just have to pull it apart and start again. In the case of the police, there’s a strong line of reasoning that the Taser-happy zealots we currently have should be replaced by upstanding people who embody honesty and integrity. But who could that be? If you believe investigative programming like Serial, Making A Murderer and now,Unsolved: The Boy Who Disappeared (from Monday, 10am, BBC3), those people turn out to be journalists. I, for one, see no problem at all with this situation.

Unsolved will likely live in the shadow of its US cousins, but the parallels are easy to draw. Alys Harte and Bronagh Munro have embedded themselves on the Isle of Wight to gather information on Damien Nettles, a boy who disappeared in 1996 at the age of 16. On the night of his disappearance, Damien shows up on CCTV in a chip shop, apparently the worse for wear. Another camera captures him walking along Cowes’s quiet high street. And then he’s gone. No body, no convictions and no clear picture of what happened (though there are plenty of rumours; about drugs, ruthless backwater dealers and punitive lessons gone wrong). Damien was, and still is, regarded by police as a missing person. Over eight episodes, Harte and Munro try to make things less murky. They interview Damien’s old friends, chase leads and draw lots of impressive-looking stuff on a whiteboard. The BBC blurb describes it as a forensic serialised investigation.

It’s really the only way Unsolved could be made. Bung all of Harte and Munro’s work into one Panorama-type show and it would be buried. Particularly right now, given the unending tide of horrific news. Cutting it up and sticking it online, however, makes Unsolved quite different. Breaking it up into eight episodes encourages the instant, loyalty card gratification of binge-watching them all in quick succession, while the 10-ish minute running time per episode makes it manageable for even BBC3’s attention span-deficient audience. A deliberate DIY style gives the sense of being let in on a secret; as you watch the Isle of Wight police’s total uselessness there’s even a cheeky edge of conspiracy. This all makes for compelling viewing, until Damien’s mum and brother return to the island, still raw 20 years later, and we’re reminded that in the middle of all this is a missing child and a painfully empty space where there should be answers.

Such a moment of realisation raises questions beyond those surrounding Damien’s disappearance. Are stories like this told to help investigations reach their just conclusion or are they for our entertainment? When Damien’s younger brother, visibly upset and understandably desperate, presses Damien’s best friend for explanations he hasn’t got, are we bearing witness or shrinking down our own decency in exchange for 10 minutes of juiciness? Or, most likely, are we as viewers placing ourselves somewhere in between?

These are bloody heavy questions, to be honest. So allow me to end on a pettier note. Unsolved has a score of twanging, southern gothic guitar bookending each episode. It’s just like Making A Murderer and doesn’t seem right. Clearly a hectic waltzer-inspired bit of DJ Shadow would be the thing to accompany a story of mid-90s drug dealers? Even some vintage Sash! would be more appropriate Like I say, more questions than answers”.

Filipa Jodelka - The Guardian

The series covers right from the night Damien disappeared and highlights various informants and shows interviews with people involved in the investigation.

The eight part mini-series was released on BBC Three available to Sky TV customers and online via iPlayer and YouTube.

Episode One: The Night - Alys and Bronagh establish the events on the night Damien went missing

Episode Two: The Informants - Alys and Bronagh track down an ex-informant from the Island’s drug dealing scene

Episode Three: The Suspect - Damien’s younger brother James returns after 12 years away to help with the investigation

Episode Four: The Weatherman - Damien’s mother comes back to the Island to help investigate her son’s disappearance

Episode Five: The CCTV - Alys and Bronagh interrogate The Weatherman’s account

Episode Six: The House of Death - Alys and Bronagh go on the hunt for one of the Island’s most notorious residents

Episode Seven: The Search - The team meet another friend of Damien’s who was with him the night he disappeared

Episode Eight: The Dig – Alys and Bronagh deploy a cadaver dog to search for Damien’s body

The dedicated three month intense task for investigative journalists Bronagh Munro and Alys Harte produced some results. Damien’s mother and his brother travelled from the US to help the team. It was an exhausting time for the family while 20yrs of their tragic lives were brought back into the limelight.

The informant who participated in the film provided the following information:

  • Claimed three suspect were rolling down Sun Hill about 11.30pm
  • Believes one witness got out of a police car outside Yorkie’s chip shop, but was later spliced from the footage
  • Claims the main suspect coming out of a flat in Moira House on Sun Hill the following morning with a bloodied carpet into a red car
  • Claims he was burning items of clothing in an oil drum on the Sunday afternoon in the front garden of an old shack on Shore Road and was shouting

Witnesses from the evening who saw Damien on the night of 2 November 1996:

  • Someone who knew Damien spoke to him outside Pier View, where Damien asked for a cigarette
  • Claims that Damien was shouting up to their flat above butchers near Pier View and the main suspect was angry with Damien’s presence
  • Claims Damien was taken to the same flat early hours of the Sunday morning for the tenant to look after him. This person later realised Damien was in fact dead.
  • Claims both suspects were seen in Bars Hill with a youth up against a wall.
  • Claims Damien was seen on Baring Road getting into a car with the main suspect and someone else.
  • A driver saw a youth of similar appearance as Damien on Baring Road at 12.30am on the Sunday morning

An ex paid police informant has given us the following information:

  • Named a third party to be present in flat above butcher’s shop
  • Claims the alleged accomplice was involved, but later retracted
  • Offered names of people known to be present when Damien’s body was moved from Fellows Road to Shore Road in a sail bag.
  • Claims five boys of Damien’s age were called upon by hierarchy to help with disposal of Damien’s body in lieu of a drugs debt.
  • Offered the name of the person who could have been driving the red car on Baring Road
  • Took a friend to the exact spot in The Copse where Damien is believed to be buried

The anonymous Private Investigator featured on Unsolved claims to corroborate the suspect who was named in Bars Hill has been bragging “no body, no crime” in connection with Damien’s case.

Since Damien was featured on Unsolved on BBC Three, Mrs Nettles has been inundated with messages of sympathy, support and snippets of helpful information surrounding the situation.

The Damien Nettles Facebook group saw immense new revelations following release of Unsolved. Hundreds of new members joined, most for good reason, but some with agendas of their own. It became necessary to convert the group to a “Closed Group” and bring in more help to administrate new members. Offers of help were in abundance, including fresh ideas of how we could move the case forward for some kind of resolution.

Missing Children and Adults strategy

The Missing Children and Adults strategy focuses on vulnerable people who go missing within England and Wales.

Every year an estimated 200,000 people go missing in the UK. In some cases, missing adults may have made a choice to leave and ‘start their lives over again’, but the vast majority of missing people, children and adults, are vulnerable and need protection and support.