Sometimes people go missing for reasons of their own – to clear their head, to flee a hopeless situation, to satisfy some gnawing inner need for escape. But sometimes the reasons are far more sinister. When Missing Turns to Murder looks at these worst case scenario situations, piecing together the stores behind heartbreaking crimes with the help of experts, investigators and the loved ones left grieving.
The disappearance of Newcastle lad Wesley Neailey is one of the most tragic cases examined in the show, as his murder could so easily have been prevented if the police and social services had been better coordinated. It’s a case that highlights the challenges of dealing with sexual predators, and the role the sex offenders’ register has played since its inception in 1997.
It was on an ordinary summer’s day in 1998 that 11-year-old Wesley Neailey bid goodbye to his mum and cycled to the local shop. She had given him 50p to buy a sweet treat. When he failed to return, she contacted the police, who initially dismissed her concerns. ‘I was told by a young policeman that I was being an over-anxious mother,' she later recounted. 'The police had it wrong from the beginning, saying that he was a runaway.’
As it turned out, this wasn’t the only thing the authorities had got wrong. A chain of easily preventable events had led to Wesley’s disappearance – mismanagement and confusion enabled by slack laws and bad timing behind the scenes, all of which allowed a known sex offender to stalk the streets for a young victim.
When Wesley’s body was eventually found in woodland, he had been half-devoured by animals and was identifiable only by the clothes he was wearing. His mother wasn’t even permitted to see him, such was the horrific state he’d been left in. The man who’d dumped him there was Dominic McKilligan, who was just 18 and already a long-standing threat to children.
We really do believe that there is a lad who probably was born evil...
Four years before, at the shockingly young age of 14, McKilligan was convicted of sexually assaulting several boys in Bournemouth. In the words of one of the detectives who handled these early crimes, ‘We really do believe that there is a lad who probably was born evil… At the ages of 12, 13, 14 he was committing serious sexual offences on very young children.' The consensus among the cops who apprehended the young offender was that he’d likely kill in the future.
Despite these misgivings, McKilligan was free to walk the streets after just a few years in a secure unit in Durham. As (bad) luck would have it, he was released just one day before the Sex Offenders Act 1997 came into force. This was the act which brought the sex offenders’ register into existence.
The register is a tool used by the authorities to monitor anyone convicted of a sexual offence. It is not a ‘paedophile’s register’, as all sexual offences are covered, whether the victims are adults or children. Those on the register have to tell the police where they live and if they change address. They must also give advance notification if they travel abroad for any length of time. Depending on the level of risk they are thought to pose, the offenders are also subject to surprise home visits by police.
The register isn’t just used as a way of keeping tabs on sex offenders and alerting police to any suspicious or incriminating behaviour. It’s also been used as an investigative tool, most notably in the notorious Sarah Payne murder which took place in the year 2000. When eight-year-old Sarah vanished one July evening while playing in a Sussex cornfield, detectives visited and interviewed people on the sex offenders’ register who lived in the region. One of them was convicted paedophile Roy Whiting, who was eventually convicted of her murder.
In fact, it was Sarah Payne’s murder which led to a fundamental change in how the sex offenders’ register is utilized. Campaigning by the victim’s mother led to the passing of 'Sarah’s Law', which allows members of the public to ask the police if a certain adult with access to a child has a conviction for sexual offences.
This is very different from the register being made fully public – a measure which has been resisted due to fears of vigilantism and sex offenders going underground. Instead, an application has to be made to the police about a particular individual you may have reservations about, and the police can then choose to disclose that person’s prior convictions.
Tragically for young Wesley Neailey, McKilligan was released too early to be on the register. Despite the widespread fears that he was a real threat, the police were not informed of his relocation to Newcastle, and he was free to mingle and get close to children such as Wesley, whom he befriended and later lured to his death.
Following McKilligan’s convicted for rape and murder in 1999, the Newcastle Evening Chronicle led a successful campaign, called ‘Never Again’, to broaden the scope of the law so that a wider range of crimes would lead to inclusion on the sex offenders’ register. However, McKilligan himself has managed to overturn his rape conviction on appeal, meaning that if his recent application for parole is successful and he released from prison, he will once again not be on the sex offenders’ register.