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What happened to Nicola Payne? One of the UK's biggest unsolved cases

A missing person poster being unveiled for Nicola Payne
Image Credit: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo | Background: | Above: A missing poster being unveiled in Coventry for Nicola Payne on the 20th December 1991.

As the Christmas season approached in 1991, Nicola Payne was excited as she eagerly anticipated the festivities with her blossoming family. At the age of 18, Nicola embraced her role as a doting mother to her seven-month-old son, Owen. She was looking forward to experiencing her first Christmas as a family, alongside her boyfriend, Jason Cooke. Tragically, however, Nicola mysteriously vanished.

It was a foggy winter morning in Coventry on 14th December 1991, and Nicola left Owen with Jason at his home on Winston Avenue. She planned to visit her parents, Marilyn and John, who lived just a short walk away, to collect some clothing for Owen. Nicola set off on foot, walking through wasteland known as Black Pad. While it should have only taken Nicola around five minutes to reach her parent’s home in Woodway Close, she never arrived.

Nicola was promptly reported missing by her parents and the search for her was headed by Detective Inspector Ellie Baker, who recollected: ‘They seemed so convinced that something was wrong. They described Nicola as a home-loving girl who would never leave her son for any reason. So I trusted them and we began to search.’

Police retraced Nicola’s last-known movements, but they failed to find any evidence that could point them in the right direction. Sniffer dogs were called to the scene while a police helicopter hovered overhead, but there was still no trace of Nicola.

Police released a photograph of Nicola along with a description. She stood at five feet three inches tall, was of medium build, and had dark brown, shoulder-length hair, and dark brown eyes. Meanwhile, police took on the arduous task of conducting door-to-door inquiries, calling on homes in the surrounding area. There wasn’t a single person who could account for Nicola’s whereabouts, nor was there anybody reported hearing or seeing anything suspicious.

Police next turned their attention to fields and wasteland in Wood End, where they combed inch-by-inch. Nicola’s mother commented to Birmingham Evening Mail that as each day passed, their concern was escalating, and by 18th December, they feared the worst. She stated: ‘In my own heart I feel convinced she is lying dead somewhere.’ That same week, Nicola and Jason were due to move into their new home together and they had spent the preceding months purchasing furniture in preparation. He commented: ‘I just want some news. It is not like her to just go off. Someone somewhere must know something.’

The days continued to pass and the police search for Nicola fanned out further afield. In the days leading up to Christmas, they searched Cremblet Wood and dragged the River Sowe, but not a single piece of evidence was unearthed. Rumours began to circulate about Nicola’s fate, with some locals commenting that foul play was involved, while others speculated that she fell and harmed herself in the dense fog that morning.

On Christmas Eve, Marilyn and Steve were at home when they received a phone call. It was from an unfamiliar man who claimed he knew where Nicola was. However, he refused to provide any more information and then abruptly hung up the phone.

Detective Inspector Baker appealed to the man to come forward and asked him to call the incident room, but no phone call ever came. Meanwhile, police returned to the waste ground for a second search for any evidence. They strongly believed that the area held some vital clues that could assist in the investigation, but once more, the search was unfruitful.

The weeks continued to pass achingly slow for Nicola’s loved ones, and the new year brought no leads. Marilyn shared her belief with Coventry Evening Telegraph that her daughter was dead and that she had most likely been murdered. She solemnly commented: ‘It isn’t just fearing the worst. I know in my mind she is dead. In my own mind, I feel she has been murdered.’

On 5th March, Nicola’s parents and Jason offered a £5,000 reward for information leading to her whereabouts. Some of that fund had been gathered by her friends who had held a disco to collect money. Despite the lure of the reward, nobody could offer any tips.

Eventually, the weeks slipped by into months, and it was soon the first anniversary of Nicola’s disappearance. To mark the sombre event, Marilyn and John held a press conference with police to try and revive public interest in the case.

John shared that while they feared the worst, they still held on to a tiny glimmer of hope that their daughter was alive and well and would return home at some stage. He poignantly stated: ‘While the situation is unknown, the hope will never die completely.’

The reward fund for information was increased to £10,000 the following year and police announced that they had followed reported sightings of Nicola to Newcastle-Under-Lyme and Hull, but nothing came of either. Over the forthcoming years, police frequently visited the wasteland where Nicola was last seen walking through by Jason, but each search failed to turn up any evidence that could assist in their investigation.

In April 1996, police received a tip from somebody who claimed that Nicola’s body had been buried in a back garden just yards away from her family’s home. They descended on the home and excavated the garden with the assistance of experts who used special radar equipment. After searching for 12 hours, nothing was recovered.

Over the next 10 years, there were few developments in the case. In 2001, part of the Oxford Canal in Ansty was dredged after a tip came in but nothing was found. Nicola’s family frequently appealed for information and even launched a poster and t-shirt campaign. In 2007, Owen joined the appeal. Since Nicola’s disappearance, Marilyn and John had taken over his care.

That same year, a 37-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of Nicola’s murder, but he was released on bail pending inquiries and no charges against him were ever filed. Shortly after he was bailed, police began digging the garden of a home on Winston Avenue. While the exact address of the home was never disclosed, it was in the same neighbourhood where Jason had lived. However, nothing was discovered.

Then in June 2012, two men, aged 74 and 45, were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to prevent the lawful and decent burial of a body. The older man was released without charge while the younger man was released on bail. The charges against him were then dropped in August, leaving the investigation back at square one.

In December 2013, a DNA specialist and palynologist began examining samples that were recovered during the investigation. It was hoped that advanced forensic science would help to unearth more evidence in the case. The testing led police to arrest two 49-year-old men on suspicion of abduction and murder. They also arrested a 51-year-old woman on suspicion of perverting the course of justice. By the next month, however, all three were bailed.

Finally, in January 2015, Nigel Barwell and Thomas O’Reilly were arrested and charged with the murder of Nicola. These were the two men who were first arrested in December 2013. They both subsequently pleaded not guilty and were ordered to stand trial in October 2015.

During opening statements, the prosecutor put forward their theory that Nicola was abducted and murdered as she walked across the wasteland. They revealed that a tent was discovered five days after Nicola vanished, and in 2014, it was re-examined. They maintained it belonged to Barwell and a hair found inside could be linked to Nicola. The court heard from Paul Sothern, who shared a mutual friend with Barwell, who testified that he told him: ‘I did that Payne bird.’

The defence countered the prosecution’s theory and described the police investigation as ‘sloppy’. They argued that the tent was found five days after Nicola disappeared but wasn’t logged into the exhibits until a month later. During closing arguments, defence attorney Mark Dennis said that the handling of evidence was ‘shambolic’ and faced the possibility of cross-contamination.

The jury deliberated for three days before retuning with a verdict, finding both Barwell and O’Reilly not guilty of Nicola’s murder. Outside of court, DS Mark Payne stated: ‘Our criminal justice system quite rightly demands a high standard of proof and we acknowledge today’s verdict from the jury. This case will always remain open and we will investigate any new evidence which comes to light. Our thoughts remain with Nicola’s family.’

In the wake of the trial, police announced that the case would remain open, and the next year, they resumed the search for Nicola’s body. In 2017, the reward fund was increased to £30,000, but Nicola’s body still remains missing to this day.