24 years ago, Patrick Warren and David Spencer simply disappeared.
Over the years, the missing children case has caused much speculation and criticism, due to the lack of urgency around the disappearances. Was it down to a lack of importance because of their working-class backgrounds, or was it because they didn’t fit the “missing white girl” aesthetic, the media wanted to report on?
In the winter of 1996, Patrick who was 11 and David, 13, wanted to play outside after Christmas Day antics the day before. The pair who were best friends lived in Solihull near Birmingham, England on a large housing estate called Chelmsley Wood. Although big, the estate was a place where everyone knew their neighbours and children were often seen hanging around outside in groups.
Patrick came from a large Irish family and had six siblings. He mocked his mother’s strong accent and was cheeky, but other mothers and his teachers said he was a lovely boy.
David was outgoing and looked after his family. His mother said in an interview that David didn’t like discipline and had been in trouble with the police. He was described by his teachers as bright but often unpredictable.
Patrick had received a new bicycle for Christmas and was desperate to show it off, so the pair went to play with some other boys in Meriden Park, less than half a mile away from home. The lake had frozen in the winter temperatures, and they’d been warned not to play on it by a passing policeman. At this point, the boys left the park in search of somewhere else to play.
Around midnight, the boys returned home and told their parents that they were planning to stay at Patrick’s brother’s home, just one street away. Their parents weren’t concerned about the young boys venturing out so late and in the dark. It was the 1990s and both boys lived in a tight-knit community; they were safe.
The boys left David’s home together, with Patrick on his new bike and David walking alongside him. They never arrived at the brother’s home that night and their faces would be the first in the country to be featured on milk cartons.
Another of Patrick’s brothers, Derek began looking for his little brother and his friend the next morning, when he found out they never arrived at their destination.
The police were called quickly after a short search for the boys and the investigation began.
The boys had visited a local petrol station around 1 am, to buy a pack of biscuits. The shop worker then saw them walk off in the direction of a shopping centre. Patrick’s bike was later found at the petrol station, but it would take several weeks for police to realise it belonged to him.
Officers began with a door-knock in the area and searched the local parks and hangouts for the boys, but they weren’t there. They initially thought the pair were playing a joke on their parents, and they had good reason to think the boys were up to no good.
David Spencer, despite his young age, had been in trouble with the police in the past. David had been to court for petty crimes and had some behavioural issues, but recently he’d begun to overcome these with his new passion for boxing.
The police also had a theory that the boys had stayed at another friend’s house and hadn’t told their parents. From here, an appeal was broadcast on television, asking the boys to come home.
A £500 reward for information regarding the boys’ whereabouts was issued, but at no point did police state that the boys had been abducted. In interviews with the parents years later, they said that they felt the police didn’t care about their children.
The Milk Cartons
The boys became missing persons in April 1997, four months after their disappearance. From here, their faces were featured on milk cartons that were rolled out across nearly 900 Iceland food stores. The campaign was set up by National Missing Person’s Helpline to encourage witnesses to step forward.
The practice of putting missing people on milk cartons was well versed in the United States, going back to the 1980s with Etan Patz, but was brand new in the U.K. The two boys would be the first in a long line of children featured on the bottles.
However, no one came forward with information regarding the young boys. A lack of sightings and depleting media attention surrounding the urgent case meant the investigation quickly went cold.
Missing white girl syndrome
When Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman went missing in 2002, they were considered the “ideal victim”, according to criminology professor Chris Greer. They were young, female, white and from middle-class homes.
“From a journalist’s point of view, their newsworthiness was much greater.” — Professor Chris Greer.
Similarly with Madeleine McCann, who went missing in 2007 and the Metropolitan Police continues to look for her. In 2019, the total spend on Operation Grange had been over £11 million since her disappearance.
A few days after the boys went missing, the body of 17-year-old Nicola Dixon was found seven miles away. She had been sexually assaulted and murdered, and her death quickly became front-page news. It also took away from the disappearance of the young boys and redirected much of the police resource.
Nicola’s killer, Colin Waite, was identified and arrested six years later.
In 2006, the case was reopened by West Midlands Police. There was now a sex offender’s register and investigators believed this could help them with their enquiries, as it had done with Sarah Payne, six years earlier.
The register helped police to focus their investigation and they soon came up with one name; Brian Field.
Field who was born in Solihull was originally a suspect in the kidnapping and murder of fourteen-year-old Roy Tutill from Surrey in 1968. The boy was walking home from the bus stop after school and was looking to hitchhike the rest of the way home. Roy was trying to save up for a bike so was only travelling some of the way home by bus, to keep some of the money from the journey.
His body was found three days later, sexually assaulted and strangled to death. Evidence samples were taken from his trousers, but it would be decades until they could be used to find his killer.
Scotland Yard picked up the case and followed a witness statement from the bus driver about a car that had stopped next to Roy as the bus continued on its journey. The lead took investigators up to Scotland to speak to Brian Field. The police already knew him for other assaults on teenager boys over the years, and he had already served prison sentences. He denied any involvement in Roy’s death and investigators believed him, however in 2000, Roy’s case was reopened.
The evidence that was collected in 1968 was compared to a 1996 drink driving arrest sample from Brian Field. The two samples matched.
In February 2001, Field was arrested following a surveillance operation and was picked up in his apartment in Birmingham. He confessed to the murder of Roy Tutill and was sentenced to life in prison at Full Sutton, near York.
Police liked Field for the abduction of Patrick Warren and David Spencer, as he was living near the site of the kidnappings in 1996. However, investigators weren’t able to get a confession from Field and there was no evidence that he was involved with their disappearances.
“We know he was in the area, we know he worked and lived close by and therefore, likely used the petrol station where the boys were last seen alive. He was a landscape gardener and was therefore probably able to dispose of the bodies.” — Criminologist, Professor David Wilson.
In November this year, bones were recovered from land near a factory in Solihull. The field had been previously dug up, in the search for the missing boys years earlier, but the bones were only unearthed due to deeper digging for construction.
The bones were tested, and it was determined that they were between 134 and 208 years old and couldn’t be the remains of Patrick and David. Once again, the hope that the two boys could be brought home and given the funerals they deserved was cut short, devastating both families.
“We’ve carried out extensive enquires and the bones have been carefully examined by specialists which have determined that they significantly pre-date the disappearance of the missing boys.” — Detective Chief Inspector Alastair Orencas.
Patrick and David’s disappearances were truly one in a million. The Centre for the Study of Missing Persons states that only 1% of missing children cases are open for more than a year. The boys have been missing for almost a quarter of a century.
“If it had been two boys from [middle class] Solihull that went missing, that case would’ve been treated initially very differently. And it’s about that word we’re never allowed to use, class — this was about a class judgement that was made which was prepared to see them as runaways, as opposed to vulnerable.” — Criminologist, Professor David Wilson.
David’s mother, Christine still lives in the same home where she raised her children and hopes that the two boys can be buried together when they’re found. She’s been in and out of psychiatrist hospitals over the years and still takes medication.
Patrick’s mother, Bridget suffered from severe depression when her son went missing, and she eventually died from cancer five years ago, without knowing what happened to her son.
West Midlands Police have come under much criticism over the years, because of the way the case was handled. Words like “streetwise” and “runaway” were bandied about in press appeals, and for months the police and public were looking for boys who just didn’t want to come home yet.