Twenty years after a 16-year-old boy vanished on a night out in Cowes on the Isle of Wight, the BBC has spent months reinvestigating the case. Can the web of rumours around the disappearance of Damien Nettles ever be unpicked, asks Bronagh Munro.
It was a Saturday, and Damien Nettles had arranged to go to a house party.
Before he left the house he called his new girlfriend in Suffolk to tell her he was missing her. And just after 19:00 on 2 November 1996 he left the family home and headed out into Cowes.
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Unsolved: The Boy Who Disappeared – BBC reporters Bronagh Munro and Alys Harte have been investigating the disappearance of Damien Nettles on the Isle of Wight in November 1996. The evidence is showcased in a series of digital videos, available on BBC Three to stream and download.
He had successfully negotiated with his mum, Valerie, to stay out until midnight, an extra couple of hours beyond his usual curfew.
It was the last time Valerie would ever see her loving, larger-than-life son.
He was wearing blue jeans and a black fleece – he didn’t take a bag or any other belongings.
When I first spoke to Valerie Nettles, her sadness and frustration made a big impact.
She is a fighter who admits she cannot move on with her own life until she finds the answers to what happened to her son. The family moved to Dallas in 2001, making it tougher still to keep the search going.
Valerie faces an uphill battle – Damien’s case is almost 20 years old and she is frustrated with the police. The loss of evidence and the failure to retain records has hampered the case – she is exhausted.
Damien’s father, Edward, dropped him at his best friend Chris Boon’s house around 19:30.
Along with Chris’s brother Davey, they headed to a fairly low-key house party in East Cowes. There were three couples at the house and Damien was the only one on his own.
Chris Boon says he thought Damien wanted to leave because he was bored. His brother Davey thinks Damien might have been leaving to buy cannabis, as his regular dealer had been letting him down since the summer.
Damien and Chris left the party at roughly 21:30. They used the small ferry to travel back across to West Cowes, stopping to buy cider along the way.
Damien was carrying a black camera that he had taken with him from the party. It has never been found.
A 2007 Hampshire Police internal review document gives an almost minute-by-minute account of Damien’s activities in Cowes right up to when he is last spotted on a street CCTV camera.
The report says that from 21:30 until his disappearance at 00:06, Damien spent those final few hours going from pub to pub in Cowes High Street trying to get in.
Damien was 6ft 4in and stood a good chance. His best friend Chris was much smaller and not so lucky. Chris was often left outside.
Damien was going in and out of the pubs looking for his older sister, Sarah, recalls Chris. A statement from a witness at the time confirmed this.
But Valerie says Damien knew Sarah was not going to be on the island. She was in Portsmouth. Was Damien just using her as an excuse to get into the pub?
Was he looking for something else, or someone? Is there something yet to be discovered about Damien’s movements that night which could reveal a possible motive or an opportunity for what happened to Damien?
Around 22:00, CCTV showed Damien walking into Yorkies chip shop, picking up a salt cellar, setting it down, then leaving.
By 22:30, Chris Boon was cold and wet and wanted to go home. He persuaded Damien to come with him. The boys walked out of town towards home parting company at the steps of Northwood Park.
“I went straight home,” Chris recalls now. “I was 100% sure that Damien had headed up through the park towards home.”
But in Damien’s head the night was not over. Instead of walking the 20 minutes to his home, he turned around and headed back to Cowes High Street. He was last seen just after midnight.
Damien was picked up on the chip shop CCTV footage for the second time.
Multiple witnesses from the evening claim he appeared heavily intoxicated, or looked “spaced out”.
At 23:15 a witness says they saw Damien trying car door handles on a blue Ford Fiesta, in the car park of the Harbour Lights pub.
This behaviour, Valerie says, “was completely out of character”.
Damien was next spotted at a bus stop near the Co-op. He climbed on to the bus to speak to the driver, tried to take his photo and then got off again, thanking the driver.
Minutes later – at 11:59 and in the same location – another witness, a foster carer waiting to pick up a child off the bus, was in his car. He described Damien as: “A miserable figure, huddled eating chips.”
This foster carer told police the person was approximately 6ft and fitted Damien’s description, and was carrying a camera. He said the teenager walked towards him in his car, and that he “looked drugged, and seemed to bank heavily into the car”.
The teenager said twice to him: “They are watching us.”
After that, the boy wiped rain off his car window and walked off towards the Pier View public house, on the High Street.
Minutes later Damien was caught on street CCTV and then vanished.
After being spotted all over the High Street for nearly three hours, he simply disappeared.
Why was he not caught on the remaining cameras on the High Street?
Damien had two possible routes home – through the park or along the seafront. His mother is convinced he would not have taken the coastal path. “It was a nasty night and dark and unfriendly along the seafront. That walk would not have appealed to him.”
The only road he could have gone up, and away from the High Street and the cameras, was Sun Hill.
Retracing this route in November, there are few tourists and the streets on a Friday and Saturday night are quiet, eerily so.
You can hear people’s conversations in their homes from the street. Noise travels. All of the streets and side roads are overlooked by windows. If something did happen to Damien that night, how was it not seen or heard?
It was Damien’s nine-year-old sister, Melissa, who first noticed that his bed had not been slept in.
The family called Chris Boon’s house but Damien wasn’t there. Valerie began to worry.
Going through his list of friends they grew more and more uneasy as the hours passed.
The family searched for Damien. Valerie went to the police station to report him missing at 15:00 on that Sunday – 3 November 1996.
According to the Nettles family, in the days following the disappearance, it was them and their friends and not the police who went door-to-door looking for information.
And it was Dr Corran Laurens, a friend of Valerie’s, and not the police, who found the images of Damien on a local businessman’s CCTV camera.
Laurens was a town councillor back in 1996. She had a son around the same age as Damien.
“The police wouldn’t do anything so I took it upon myself to walk down the street asking left and right to see if anyone had seen him. The man in the chip shop just told me that he had this little camera above the door and that I was welcome to have a look.”
On the chip shop CCTV, Damien appears “out of it” and struggles to understand what he is being asked and finally settles on buying a bag of chips after being prompted by the counter assistant.
He paid and left the shop.
Five men were also filmed in the chip shop with Damien. Their conversation with Damien appears friendly and police ruled them out of their inquires.
But the police failed to identify and speak to all of these men until many years after Damien vanished, and only after an internal review highlighted the fact that this action had not been completed. Damien’s family were finally told that the men were in the military.
These men could have held crucial information about what was happening in Cowes that night, and who else was on the High Street.
Chronology of 2 November 1996
- 19:00 – Damien’s dad gives him a lift to Chris Boon’s house in East Cowes
- 19:10 – Damien and Chris go to a party in East Cowes
- 21:15 – Chris and Damien leave party
- 21:30 – Damien with Chris Boon at Alldays in East Cowes, where Damien buys bottles of cider
- 21:45 – Damien and Chris take ferry to West Cowes
- 22:00 – Witness claims to have seen Damien at the Duke of York pub
- 22:00 – Worker in Yorkies chip shop remembers Damien looking drunk; he leaves without ordering
- 22:10 – Witness sees Damien outside The Arcade (across road from chip shop)
- 22:20 – Witness sees Damien outside the Fountain pub on his own (just south of The Arcade), eating chips
- 22:30 – Licensee at The Fountain sees Damien; she tells him to leave until he has finished his chips
- 22:30 – Damien and Chris part company by Granville Road
- 22:45 – Witness who knows Damien sees him on High Street eating chips; they go to the Fountain pub, where Damien is turned away
- 23:00 – Another witness who knows Damien sees him on her way to Harbour Lights pub at north end of High Street
- 23:10 – Witness sees Damien at Harbour Lights pub, when Damien asks him for a cigarette
- 23:15 – Same witness sees him try to get into a blue Ford Fiesta outside the pub
- 23:20 – Staff at Three Crowns pub see Damien try to enter by the side door, looking for his sister
- 23:30 – Staff at Yorkie’s (same as at 22:00) see Damien come in
- 23:40 – Witnesses see Damien outside Lloyds Bank on High Street
- 23:45 – Member of staff at Harbour Lights says Damien came in while they were closing and ask staff for cigarettes
- 23:50 – Another member of staff remembers him outside the pub talking to someone in a Ford Fiesta
- 23:52 – Manageress at Yorkies sees him walk past and wave, heading south on the High Street
- 23:52 – Bus driver says Damien got onto bus and asked to go to Cowes; Damien produces a camera and tries to take a picture but fails; he thanks the bus driver and gets off bus
- 23:59 – Witness at Co-op has brief conversation with Damien, who asks him for cigarette
- 23:59 – Witness in car sees Damien, apparently drunk, approach and say “They are watching us”, before walking off and and heading towards High Street. Witness is approached by a police officer immediately afterwards
- 00:06 – Damien spotted briefly on CCTV on Cowes High Street; this tape has since been lost
Laurens believed the initial investigation by the police was only in one direction. “The whole time, the police insisted that he must have gone into the water, but I never believed that.
“The police were awful, at one stage they called Valerie and I ‘hysterical women’.
“We pushed and pulled with them – it was almost as though everything closed ranks. It was almost as though it wasn’t good for Cowes for this to happen.”
It was a long time before police entertained the possibility that Damien might have been killed, rather than drowning, says Laurens. “They kept trying to justify their actions – or inactions – to Valerie but really, they did nothing.’
The family realised Damien might have been caught by the CCTV cameras on Cowes High Street. They checked with the local business association, who owned the cameras.
Police were informed and Valerie was shown the footage, and the last moment a camera caught Damien – just after midnight, alone, walking up the middle of a deserted street, eating chips.
But before then, Valerie says, the police had tracked the wrong person. She helped them find him on the tapes.
“It was the last time I ever saw my son alive.”
The police later lost the footage.
Valerie complained to the Independent Police Complaints Commission in 2005 about the loss, and how Damien’s case had been handled. Valerie was told that the officer who lost the tape had already been dealt with.
The town of Cowes sits right on the edge of the Solent. At points, the High Street where Damien was last seen is less than 10 seconds’ walk from the water’s edge. It’s one of the busiest waterways in the UK, with a complex tidal system.
It was easy to assume at the time that Damien had simply fallen into the sea. But his family refused to accept this theory.
Local sailors and fishermen repeat the same line: “The sea gives back what it takes away.”
Damien’s father Edward approached the harbour master.
“We got the charts out,” says the then-Harbour Master Captain Henry Wrigley, “and I calculated for them the tidal movements, tidal sets and rate, as well as the possibilities in case he had slipped into the water. The Solent is complicated but it is also well charted.
“I am certain that had he gone into the water that night, he would have been returned to the land.
“When the water is cold, it does take longer for the body to come back to the surface – you may find them two or three days later, so we remained observant for quite some time after.”
A thorough search was undertaken with boats, Wrigley says. “We searched and searched. We did everything that was physically possible.”
So, if Damien didn’t go in the sea, what happened to him?
His family are convinced that he did not run away. And all the ferries to the mainland had stopped for the evening anyway.
It appeared that Damien was a happy, content boy who loved life.
Abbie Scott (nee Mabey) had been in a relationship with Damien for 18 months up until July 1996. They were very close.
“He was a big gentle giant. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to hurt him.”
Just before they separated though, Abbie did notice Damien starting to change.
“I saw flickers of someone else. He was hanging around with a different group of people who were a little bit older than him. There were obviously some things he was keeping to himself. It could have been drugs. I don’t know.”
Gemma Nunn, Damien’s girlfriend, who he had been dating since August 1996, says police did not probe this potential aspect of his life. “At no stage did they ask me questions about Damien taking drugs or Damien getting into trouble or talking about something bad happening to Damien.”
Valerie has saved the thousands of emails passed between the Nettles family, police, and witnesses over the past two decades.
The emails are an unofficial chronology of everything that has happened in relation to Damien’s case.
Valerie is bitter about what she sees as a bungled police inquiry. “They were very brusque. Now they have apologised to us and admitted that something sinister happened.”
Speaking off the record, many ex-cops who worked the beat in Cowes back in the 1990s say they did everything they could after Damien disappeared.
Operation Ridgewood commenced immediately. An incident room was set up with a team of dedicated officers, searches were carried out, and people of interest were spoken to.
But evidence from this time was not retained by the police, and Valerie believes this has hampered the case.
Crucial records, including the log of calls made to police that night are gone, police notebooks were not retained, and even details of which officers were on duty that night have now been lost.
It wasn’t until March 2002, when the investigation was handed to Hampshire Constabulary’s major crime department, that the details gathered in Damien’s case were put on to the Holmes computer system.
It was around this time that an informant claims he went to police to tell them what happened to Damien. This person was an associate of local drug dealer Nicky McNamara in the 1990s.
Feeling his words hadn’t been acted on, eight years later he made contact with Valerie.
He told the Nettles family that Damien had been killed by McNamara during an argument over cannabis. McNamara had thrown a punch in anger, but had not intended to kill Damien.
Damien’s body had been hidden in a well-known drugs den in Cowes, said the informant, where it had been kept for up to three weeks. The body was then buried near a cycle path on the island, in a sail bag.
Valerie took the information to the police.
This development in 2010 and the appointment of a new senior investigating officer brought renewed energy to the case and a spate of arrests and searches followed soon after.
All of those arrested had links to the drugs scene back in 1996 and to one man – Nicky McNamara.
In the same year, the police searched the marshland along the cycle path from Cowes to Newport.
But the police told Valerie the informant could not be trusted and was not passing on reliable details. They had previously searched based on his information but he had changed his story, claiming instead that Damien was buried in a wooded copse in Gurnard, beside another unused cycle path.
He told us the same story when we knocked on his door. After weeks of cat and mouse I finally got to speak to the informant. He said: “It was a punch thrown in anger. McNamara never meant to kill Damien, it was a beating that went wrong.”
He took me to where he had been told Damien was buried. We used a cadaver dog to search the spot but nothing was found.
Over the years various people have made approaches to the family with a series of tales about what might have happened to Damien. Many of these people provided information that wasted police time.
There were even rumours – circulating in 1999 – that Damien had come to harm at the hands of a notorious paedophile. Police investigated the claim but found the man had left the island months prior to Damien’s disappearance.
In 2002 another convicted paedophile made an admission about being involved in a murder on the Isle of Wight in the mid-1990s. Police searched a field but nothing was found, and it was later established that the abuser was lying.
There were even more nebulous rumours – that there had been fights on the slipway in Cowes that involved Damien. Nothing was substantiated.
A boy from Damien’s circle of friends who fell into the drugs scene later told medical staff that Damien had been the victim of a sexual attack and that he had been buried near to Northwood House. He later denied saying it.
Yet another rumour suggested that Damien could have been beaten up because he had tried to stop one of this friends from being abused.
Over the two decades there has been layer upon layer of rumour and theory and none of it has stacked up. But one rumour refuses to go away, and that takes us back to Nicky McNamara, and the story of a fight that led to Damien’s death.
Police first investigated the possibility of McNamara’s involvement between 2002-05. And found nothing.
But it is this rumour that has persisted. Even now there are a number of people that insist that McNamara was responsible for Damien’s death.
With each source the precise circumstances, the location and the motive differ, but the accused person remains constant.
It was alleged that Damien had angered McNamara in some way and that a beating had resulted in his death. But again the reason Damien angered McNamara was never consistent.
Lynn Hammond is a local councillor and friend of the Nettles family. “I was told that Damien was killed in a local chalet, his body was wrapped in black plastic bags, taken to a drugs house were he was kept for up to three weeks. His body was then put in a sail bag and buried in a wooded area.”
Missing person statistics
- December 2015 figures from the National Crime Agency’s UK Missing Persons Bureau (UKMPB) show that police forces in England, Wales and Scotland are dealing with more than 6,000 missing-person reports a week
- Data for the financial year 2014/15 shows that there was an increase in the number of calls reporting people missing made to police forces – up to 315,000 from 307,000 in the year 2013-14
- Children and young people continue to account for more than half of all missing incidents
- Three-quarters of calls are resolved within a day and 85% within 48 hours; the vast majority (96%) result in the individual returning without having come to any harm
- The 275,000 calls received by forces related to 137,000 separate individuals, meaning a number of cases involve people going missing multiple times
Source: UK Missing Persons Bureau
But could Damien’s world really have collided with that of one of the Isle of Wight’s most renowned drug dealers.
Former policemen attest to the volume of drugs circulating in the 1990s. The Golden Hill Fort was a notorious open air party venue, and impromptu raves were organised by locals. In 1996, heroin was starting to take hold.
Bunny Iles was McNamara’s best friend. Back then McNamara and he were part of a group of about a dozen people who were dealing drugs in some of the pubs on the High Street and in a number of party houses all over Cowes.
One of them was above a butcher’s shop. The family were told by someone that on the night he disappeared, Damien had been shouting up to this flat.
It was alleged that Bunny Iles had sold Damien drugs. But in a recent meeting with Valerie, he strenuously denied this. He did admit being arrested and having his house searched in relation to Damien’s case but denied having anything to do with his disappearance. He also denies that Nicky McNamara could have killed Damien.
No-one can question McNamara now. He died of a heroin overdose in 2002, in the home of his alleged partner Shirley Barrett. It was known locally as the “house of death”.
It was only after his death that the rumour of his involvement in Damien’s death began to surface.
The suggestion was that he made a confession to somebody before he died.
Shirley Barrett denies he confessed to her.
Valerie says that the impetus for what little movement there has been in the case came from a private detective, Ivor Edwards. After making contact with the family in 2007, he found new witnesses that police later spoke to, says Valerie.
But Edwards says the police weren’t enthusiastic about his involvement. “They sent a police constable to see me and basically said we really don’t want you investigating this case.”
Edwards spent the next five years knocking on doors, finding witnesses who said Nicky McNamara was involved in Damien’s death.
His leads helped us speak to a local resident who claimed he had seen Nicky McNamara pinning a young boy up against a wall on Bars Hill, in Cowes, around the time Damien disappeared. This man only spoke to the police in 2005.
He told them he couldn’t be sure when the incident had happened. He believed another man, Daniel Spencer, was looking on at the incident. But the witness told police he couldn’t be sure.
We were also able to track down and speak to Spencer, who denied having any information about Damien’s disappearance. He also denied any knowledge of the alleged incident on Bars Hill.
Hampshire Constabulary have apologised for the original loss of the CCTV evidence. They say 1,134 people have been involved in the investigation either as investigators, witnesses, or people of interest. They have taken 357 witness statements.
“Hampshire Constabulary continues to take action to keep the case open for any new leads. A decision was made in 2013 for the files on Damien Nettles to remain with the force’s Major Crime Team for ongoing regular checks. This move followed an extensive review of all information gathered by police during enquiries into Damien’s disappearance in November 1996.”
The case is still open and for Valerie and the rest of the Nettles family the relentless search continues.
“Finding his body or what’s left of it, it would be a gift. And it might not end, you know, the distress, but if I could place him somewhere, instead of thinking of every awful thing that might of happened to him and wondering if he cried for us.”
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