In November it will be 23 years since her 16-year-old son Damien left the family home on the Isle of Wight for a night out with friends and never came back
Val Nettles lives in a limbo of perpetual bereavement, poised between desperate hope and grief. In November it will be 23 years since her 16-year-old son Damien left the family home on the Isle of Wight for a night out with friends and never came back.
He just disappeared.
Police still don’t know what happened to the bright, creative lad, a joker with a beaming smile who wanted to be a marine biologist.
Was he murdered? Did he drown? Where is his body? The questions haunt Val daily.
‘I want to be able to lay Damien to rest, to have a grave to visit,’ she says. ‘I feel empty, lost. I don’t even have proof he’s dead, but all the facts tell me he is and it’s devastating not to know what happened or where he is.
‘There’s a gaping hole in my heart and a day never passes when I don’t think of him. When I’m alone, I’ll say: “Where are you, my dear boy?” I want to cry but I can’t let myself or I’d never stop.
‘My life is devoted to finding him and an answer to what happened. That’s what keeps me going. Sometimes it feels like I’m getting nowhere and for a fleeting moment I feel like stopping. I’m tired. I’m 67 now.
‘But then I see him again in the periphery of my vision, a tall, gangly lad with a sweet smile. “Don’t give up on me, Mum,” he says softly. And I know I can’t. I never will.’
Val knows the police investigation into her son’s disappearance — now a ‘missing person’ cold case — was slow, bungling and inadequate.
When she reported that Damien, one of 250,000 people who go missing in the UK every year, hadn’t returned to the home he shared with her, his dad and two younger siblings, she was dismissed as ‘hysterical’. Vital early hours were lost in the search for clues.
There was no TV appeal for witnesses, and no police search until 14 months later. Val and her husband Ed were not even assigned a police liaison officer until 2006, when she made a complaint. ‘I was treated with disdain,’ she says. ‘I’m not bitter but I do feel let down, angry. I don’t know if I can excuse the police. The whole investigation was a shambles.
‘There’s a gaping hole in my heart and a day never passes when I don’t think of him. When I’m alone, I’ll say: “Where are you, my dear boy?” I want to cry but I can’t let myself or I’d never stop,’ says mum Val Nettles, a portrait of son Damien hanging over the mantelpiece
Val knows the police investigation into her son’s disappearance — now a ‘missing person’ cold case — was slow, bungling and inadequate
‘The local policeman regarded me as a nuisance when I reported him missing. I suppose officers become apathetic; they think they’ve got it figured out. But I knew my son.
‘I told the policeman it was completely out of character for Damien not to come home after a night out. That should have rung alarm bells. But it didn’t.
‘The officer said he’d just be having a “funny five minutes” and would be “back by teatime”. That was 23 years ago.
‘Not enough was done before the trail went cold. Vital CCTV evidence was lost. And the police recorded Damien’s age as 19, not 16, so for the first week they were treating him as a missing adult and were less concerned.’
She knew, too, that the Isle of Wight, an idyllic coastal haven on the surface, had a sinister underbelly.
It has long been home to three prisons — Albany, Camp Hill and Parkhurst — and many families of criminals had made their homes on the island. ‘It was easy to spot them,’ Val recalls. ‘They were the people flogging cut-price goods that had “fallen off the back of a lorry”.’
They had brought with them a drug problem, too. ‘There was a house just yards from Cowes High Street where dealers would prey on kids; nice youngsters from good homes. There was this cancer in the middle of the town.’
When she reported that Damien, one of 250,000 people who go missing in the UK every year, hadn’t returned to the home he shared with her, his dad (pictured) and two younger siblings, she was dismissed as ‘hysterical’. Vital early hours were lost in the search for clues
In the months and years that followed Damien’s disappearance, it was Val and her friends in the close-knit island community who galvanised the campaign to find him. Pictured: Damien Nettles’ mother Valerie and sisters Sarah and Melissa on the Isle of Wight in 2004
In the months and years that followed Damien’s disappearance, it was Val and her friends in the close-knit island community who galvanised the campaign to find him. They printed posters, collated evidence, collected CCTV footage and passed everything to the police.
Unsettling theories emerged that Damien might in some way have become involved with the island’s drug world. Val knew he had tried cannabis. Now there were dreadful suggestions he might have been killed by a dealer. Had he not paid a debt? Val will never know.
She was still floored by the shock of his disappearance when the rumour and speculation began.
‘It crushed me physically to the extent that I felt I couldn’t breathe,’ she remembers. ‘Then I had to confront these horrific stories; one from a drug addict who said he’d helped to bury Damien, that his body had been wrapped in a carpet.
‘The main suspect, a dealer called Nicky McNamara, was dead by then, from an overdose.
‘It wasn’t the only suggestion of foul play. There was another idea that he’d come to harm at the hands of a known paedophile.
‘It made me shudder. And in my darkest moments, my imagination weaved other scenarios: that he’d been injured in an accident and fallen in woods or over a cliff.
‘The rumours gathered pace and became increasingly dreadful. We heard everything: that he’d been buried in the foundations of buildings on the island, fed to pigs in the New Forest, chopped up and put into lobster pots off the coast.
Unsettling theories emerged that Damien might in some way have become involved with the island’s drug world. Val knew he had tried cannabis. Now there were dreadful suggestions he might have been killed by a dealer. Had he not paid a debt? Val will never know
‘I had to listen to these theories and I wonder if people stopped to think, as they relayed the gory detail: “She’s his mother.” All I could do was pass the details on to the police.
‘There is overwhelming evidence something bad happened to Damien but a lot of families on the island are related and they close ranks.
‘I firmly believe this should be a murder inquiry, not a missing person cold case.’
Hampshire constabulary contend their search for Damien has been exhaustive. More than 1,000 people have been involved in the investigation. Hundreds of witness statements were taken, thousands of documents reviewed. But it was 11 years before eight suspects were detained — and then released without charge. And 14 years passed before some potential witnesses were found and questioned.
Human bones and remnants of clothing were washed up on the tide and DNA tests were carried out. But nothing belonged to Damien. And, as Val observes, her son’s remains would almost certainly have been swept ashore if he had drowned or his body had been dumped at sea.
Val has retired from her job as a school secretary although Ed, a sales manager, continues to work. Their three other children — Sarah, 43, James, 35, and Melissa, 32 — have blessed them with six grandchildren. But a space at the table remains where Damien should sit.
Val goes back in her memory, as she has a million times, to the day her son went missing.
It was November 2, 1996; a cold, grey evening. Damien, who was going to a party in Cowes with his schoolfriend Chris, begged to stay out later than usual. Reluctantly, Val agreed to a midnight curfew.
Unusually, she and Ed had both fallen asleep before midnight, expecting to find Damien in his bed the next morning. But Sunday came and his room was empty.
Val has retired from her job as a school secretary although Ed, a sales manager, continues to work. Their three other children — Sarah (right), 43, James (left), 35, and Melissa, 32 — have blessed them with six grandchildren. But a space at the table remains where Damien (centre) should sit
‘I had this awful sense that something wasn’t right. I told myself not to be silly, that he’d turn up. I blindly hoped that a tall, floppy-haired figure would slink off the bus at the stop opposite our house and stride up the path. But nothing.’
She and Ed called Damien’s friends with a growing sense of foreboding. Then Val went to the police in tears, and was told just to wait.
‘Every second felt like a lifetime. Was Damien lying in a ditch somewhere? Had he been hit by a car? I felt this suffocating panic and an ache inside that made me feel I was going to explode.
‘Finally I went upstairs, threw myself on my bed and sobbed until I was exhausted.’
The next day, Val says the police made her feel she was ‘pestering them and hampering their operation’ when she called them.
She and Ed pieced together Damien’s movements. He and Chris had left the party at 9.15pm. It was a younger crowd — Chris’s little brother Davey and some girls they knew — and the older lads got bored.Then they had bought cider and at 9.45pm caught a small boat to West Cowes, where they wandered around, parting at 10.30pm.
What happened next is hazy. CCTV footage placed Damien in a fish and chip shop at about 11.30pm, where he had ordered chips and chatted with some Army lads. He’d been merry but not drunk, according to staff.
The last recorded sighting of him was on street CCTV at 12.02am, after which witness accounts of his whereabouts varied.
‘We had eyes and ears everywhere, yet none of them seemed to belong to the police,’ says Val. ‘The only real contact we’d had from them was a few phone calls and a couple of visits to our house by random uniformed police officers carrying scraps of wet clothing in plastic bags, asking if we recognised them as Damien’s. But we never did.’
Police inaction is a theme she returns to in a newly published book, The Boy Who Disappeared, she has written about Damien.
In it, she expresses her belief that a missing female child or teenager would be accorded more police resources and publicity.
‘It’s absolutely right that when a girl goes missing, her parents are immediately seen on TV making an appeal,’ says Val. ‘Think of when 15-year-old Nora Quoirin (later found dead in a Malaysian jungle) went missing.
‘Of course, the level of attention was entirely warranted. But the same should be done for a young man if his family says it’s out of character for him to disappear.’
As it was, Val, Ed and their friends orchestrated the hunt for Damien, putting up posters, holding vigils and doing all they could to keep his name in people’s minds.
Frustrated that in the days after he disappeared there had been no official police search party, Val’s husband, younger son James and father Jack organised one.
‘They searched the seafront between Gurnard, the village where we lived, and Cowes, and the short cuts through fields.
‘If only the police had been there. Instead, a 12-year-old boy, a man in his 70s and my husband were out in the wind and rain, shouting Damien’s name, hoping against hope to hear his voice call back.’
Four years passed, as Val continued her quest for evidence — and then Ed lost his job.
Val had met her husband, who was from Louisiana, in New Orleans while she was studying in the U.S., and they moved to the Isle of Wight, where Val grew up, in 1990. It had seemed the perfect place to raise a family.
Now, however, Ed was offered work in Dallas, Texas. Val faced a fresh agony: ‘I couldn’t leave the island while Damien was still missing,’ she says. ‘Although logic and reason told me otherwise, I still hung on to a thread of hope that he might still be alive.’
Her daughters, however, were keen to leave a place full of agonising memories. Eventually, Val, knowing she had to consider the wishes of her other children and husband, agreed to go.
Packing up the contents of Damien’s bedroom felt like an abandonment.
‘We’d left it just as it was,’ she recalls. ‘We held close and hugged tightly every item that belonged to him. It was all we had left of him.’
I wonder if today — living in a town outside Dallas, with her family near — she still yearns for the Isle of Wight or whether its memories are too painful.
Her answer is adamant. ‘Every day I think how much I want to go home,’ she says. ‘I don’t want to be here in the States but my other kids are here; my grandchildren.’
Buffeted by grief and torn by conflicting loyalties, she is unable to find solace.
Each year she returns to the island for a police review of the case, with little hope that new evidence will have emerged.
She is a stoic woman, articulate and orderly in her thoughts.
Now, however, she crumbles and her blue eyes fill with tears. But she collects herself and carries on. ‘Every day it breaks my heart that I had to leave the island. I feel a pull to go back there and live. It’s where I feel closest to Damien.
‘When I left I had an obligation to my other children and I thought it was better that they didn’t live in a bubble surrounded by memories, gossip, speculation. They’d had a traumatic time. They’d lost their brother and watched their parents fall apart.
‘But now I’ve been here in America for 18 years and I’d like to go home. I’d like to stay on the island.
‘When I left there was a sense that I was leaving Damien. I look back now and wonder how I did it.
‘And I think, although we have stayed together, our boy’s disappearance drove a wedge between Ed and me. He is pragmatic. He feels the loss deeply but he doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve. He knows he had to earn a living and he’s got on with that.
‘But I feel I have a lifelong obligation to Damien, to find his remains, to discover what happened to him. It’s my job as his mother. So I work at it every day. And I will do until the day I die.’
The Boy Who Disappeared: The True Story Of Every Mother’s Worst Nightmare, by Valerie Nettles, is published by John Blake on September 5 at £8.99.
To order a copy for £7.20 (offer valid to 14/9/19), call 0844 571 0640.