Four years ago this week, the Manic Street Preachers' guitarist Richey Edwards walked out of a London hotel, joining the 250,000 people who go missing in the UK every year. Simon Price reports on Britain's disappeared
At seven o'clock in the morning of Wednesday February 1, 1995, a silver Vauxhall Cavalier left the car park of the Embassy Hotel, followed the Westway onto the M4, then sped along the lonely westbound lane out of London, away from the sunrise, passing the tailback of commuters coming the other way. Within three hours the driver, Richey James Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers, would be over the Severn Bridge and back at his flat in Cardiff bay. This much we know. This much, at least, is certain.
Richey Edwards seemed to be getting better: 1994 had been a living nightmare which saw him hospitalised after an apparent suicide attempt and treated for a combination of anorexia, alcoholism, self-mutilation and chronic depression. But the New Year seemed to offer a new start. The Manics had spent January writing songs for their fourth album and rehearsing for an American tour which, they hoped, might finally break them in the States. Richey had stopped drinking, stopped cutting himself, was eating properly and contributing fully to the band.
On January 31, Richey and singer James Dean Bradfield checked into the Embassy, ready to fly out to the US the following morning. Edwards had an early night. When he failed to make the 7am rendezvous in the lobby, Bradfield knew something was wrong, and asked a hotel porter to open Edwards' door. Richey was gone, leaving behind assorted luggage and a box containing gifts for a female friend. By the time his parents, accompanied by police, arrived at his Cardiff flat, he'd been and gone from there too, leaving behind, among other things, his passport, his credit cards and his Prozac.
Over the following fortnight, Richey was apparently seen by a 19-year-old student at Newport bus station, and someone matching his description took a meandering taxi ride around the Gwent valleys, via the scenic route. Then, on Friday February 17, Avon & Somerset Police were called to the car park at Aust Motorway Services, on the English side of the Severn Bridge, where a silver Vauxhall Cavalier was parked. The registration was checked: L519 HKX. It was Richey's car.
No one knew exactly how long it had been in the car park, although CCTV footage appeared to show that it had been there for several days. The car appeared to have been 'lived-in': cassette tapes were scattered on the seats, and the battery had completely run down. There was also photos Richey had taken of his parents, Graham and Sherry, the final time he visited them.
And that's where the trail went cold. At this point, Graham and Sherry Edwards found themselves in the same position as thousands of other families across the country. Every year, an estimated 250,000 people go missing in the UK. The majority - perhaps 70 per cent - turn up safe and well within 72 hours (often teenagers who've stayed with friends). There remains, however, a sizable core who vanish without trace. This is where the National Missing Persons Helpline comes in.
Founded in 1992 by sisters Mary Asprey and Janet Newman at the suggestion of a retired chief superintendent in Bristol, the NMPH, which is completely funded by charitable donations, has become a vital resource for families, police, and missing persons themselves. At any given time, the Helpline is working on about 14,000 cases.
The NMPH's main aim is to contact the missing person, and reunite them with their family if appropriate. But as Sophie Woodforde of the Helpline explains, it doesn't end there. "We're there on the end of a phone for the families to talk to if they're feeling down, particularly on anniversaries, birthdays and Christmas. Some people find it difficult to talk to their friends or even their own family. It's not like when someone dies and there are socially recognised ways of dealing with it: when someone goes missing, no one knows quite what to say." They also offer a "Message Home" service, with discretion assured, for people who want to assure their families that they are alive and well, but do not wish to reveal their whereabouts.
The primary tool the NMPH employs is publicity: poster campaigns, radio broadcasts, Teletext sites and appeals through The Big Issue (where Richey's case was highlighted). "In one case," says Sophie, a guy rang us to say he'd been reading The Big Issue for three months, and wanted to know why he hadn't been in it yet! All he wanted was to know that someone cared." The Helpline has also placed adverts on the side of Body Shop lorries (which has already led to one direct 'find'), and Iceland milk cartons (from 29 adverts, four people have been found alive and three dead).
In one way, at least, Richey Edwards is typical. Statistically, the most likely type of person to go missing is male and aged between 26-35, a group which accounts for 17 per cent of all cases (this corresponds almost exactly with figures for suicide). Twenty five per cent of cases (regardless of gender) are aged 0-17 and at that age there are twice as many girls as boys. Over the age of 18, the pattern reverses. "Teenage girls mature a lot more quickly than boys. They've often got older boyfriends and go out clubbing, but after the age of 18 they seem to settle down quite quickly," explains Sophie.
Obviously, there are as many reasons for going missing as there are missing persons, but, according to Sophie, "the main reason is stress/depression, which can be triggered by any number of things: financial problems, losing a job, difficulties in relationships and so on." In Richey's case, for example, the catalysts are generally held to be the death of his manager and mentor Philip Hall, the suicide of a close university friend, and, as the final straw, the death of his childhood pet dog.
The majority of missing persons head for big cities like London and Manchester, but seaside resorts like Blackpool and Llandudno are also increasingly popular. A large number end up living rough on the streets, which should make them almost impossible to trace. Not necessarily so, says Sophie. "We get a lot of help from The Homeless Unit at London's Charing Cross Road, the police's plain-clothed Juvenile Protection Unit, and we have a couple of agents on the street ourselves. The really difficult cases involve teenage girls who end up in prostitution and fall under the influence of powerful or manipulative pimps who make them change address every few weeks."
It is far simpler to just vanish without trace than you might think. According to Sophie, "it's surprisingly easy to disappear within the UK, if you so wish. Just move to a new town, assume a new identity and find a job." Nicky Wire, Manic's bassist and Richey's closest friend, draws comfort from this fact. As he pointed out: "People move from Newcastle to Middlesbrough and aren't seen for 25 years." This, thought Wire, was more likely in Richey's case than his going abroad: "It all seemed more like Reginald Perrin than Lord Lucan. Richey could be working in a sewage works in Barry, for all we know. Maybe he'll disappear for five years and come back really happy, with the greatest book ever written and a huge beard."
Not everyone agrees. DS Stephen Morey, who worked on the Richey case, shockingly went public with his belief that Richey is dead. But PC Michael Cole, Morey's successor on the Richey case, believes it is "very easy to disappear. Obviously it requires you having certain support systems. It's hard to do it otherwise."
And to leave the UK? "It would be almost as easy to disappear to Europe, by buying a One Year Passport (in 1995, when Richey disappeared, it was still possible to buy a One Year Passport simply by walking into a Post Office with your Birth Certificate), which are very difficult for police to trace," says Sophie. To go further afield, Richey would have needed a full EC passport to replace the one he left in the flat. "It's very easy to get a passport through the back door," says PC Cole, "by buying them illegally, I'm not saying that's what he's done. That's just conjecture."
Some people go to ingenious lengths to remain incognito. "We had one case of a 14 year-old boy who went missing, and when we found him 18 months later he had a job, a bank account, and was taking driving lessons! He'd told the authorities that he was 17, and that his parents were New Age travellers who'd died. He asked for a National Insurance number, and it worked. You almost have to admire his resourcefulness," says Sophie Woodforde.
In its investigations, the NMPH, like the police, prioritises the vulnerable, which it defines as: "Those under 18 or over 65, the mentally ill, possible victims of abduction, or anyone whose absence is a significant deviation from established patterns of behaviour." The vulnerability of Richey, somewhat controversially given his mental health record, was only deemed 'Limited' by the Metropolitan Police, ie his details were circulated to police stations, but he was not actively pursued.
There is, of course, a crucial question of civil liberties here. As PC Cole points out, "You have to accept that every adult has the right just to go missing. There was nothing to suggest that there was anything suspicious about Richey's disappearance. He's a grown man who's decided to walk away from a situation he didn't want to be in. Quite often, for any number of reasons, a person decides to walk away from their life and start again. And it would be an infringement of civil liberties to pursue them. Normally we'd confirm where he was for our own interests, and confirm to the interested parties that he's safe and well but not disclose where he is. That's our general line in these cases."
Sophie Woodforde agrees. "This country's very strict on data protection. If someone wants to go missing, they don't have to go to great lengths. The last thing we want is to intrude on someone who genuinely wants to be left alone. Usually we ring the family to let them know that they're alive and well, but in some cases, if the person insists, we won't even do that. I know the anguish it causes, but I don't think we have the right. There are a lot of cases - battered wives, abused children - where there's a good reason for someone going missing, and we wouldn't dream of revealing their whereabouts."
The search for those who are considered vulnerable, however, is hindered by an alarming absence of coordination between regional police forces. When a person goes missing, they are registered only with their local office: a seemingly pointless practice as the first thing they're likely to do is go elsewhere.
In March 1997, a radio documentary on Richey's disappearance criticised just such a lack of coordination between the Avon & Somerset, South Wales and Metropolitan Police forces. PC Cole is the first to agree: "There isn't even a Met-wide policy, let alone a nationwide policy." Cases of this kind are further complicated by the fact that there is a high turnover of staff in police stations, and files are regularly handed from one officer to the next to the next, thus damaging continuity. When I rang the Cardiff Central police, I was unable to find even one existing member of staff with first-hand knowledge of the Richey Edwards case.
Slowly, however, with the help of the NMPH, things are changing. As Sophie Woodforde explains: "It kicked off after the Fred West murders. Those girls were all over 18, and not considered vulnerable. They were registered with us, but not with the police, and the detectives had to come to us for information. The police suddenly realised they had to change their thinking."
Richey is not the first famous artist to simply vanish, nor the last (shortly after Richey's disappearance Stephen Fry disappeared following a breakdown, and later turned up in Belgium). At the age of 19, French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud published his final work, Un Saison En Enfer (dealing with his struggle to make a break with his past). It was poorly received and in response, Rimbaud staged his own disappearance. Although he was generally presumed dead, he was actually gunrunning in Africa. Perhaps significantly, in late 1994 Richey wore a white boiler suit covered in felt-tipped Rimbaud verse.
Agatha Christie once disappeared in circumstances which remain shrouded in mystery, only to resurface two weeks later in a Yorkshire hotel. Another literary abscondee - and another Richey icon - was JD Salinger. As Edwards told EP magazine in 1991: "After his big success, Catcher In The Rye, he just locked himself away in a basement for 20 years. But he was still writing. He'd got stacks of manuscripts on his shelves, but no one's ever seen 'em." The interviewer asked: "Can you see yourself doing that?", to which Richey replied: "I'd like to think so."
Then there's the case of 'M Ageyev', the mysterious Russian emigré who rocked Paris in the 1930s with his debut Novel With Cocaine, only to disappear without a trace when fame beckoned. Shortly before his own disappearance, Richey gave a copy of the novel to a close friend, highlighting the introduction, which related Ageyev's vanishing.
Rock history, too, is littered with disappearing acts. When Joe Strummer walked out on The Clash in the early Eighties, he was eventually tracked down in Paris by a private detective, saying he'd "wanted a break". Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett, edged out of the band after a spell of mental illness in 1968, vanished for two decades, until he turned up living with his mum in Cambridge. Fleetwood Mac had two members disappear in quick succession: enigmatic leader Peter Green went AWOL in 1970 and didn't resurface until the Nineties; the following year guitarist Jeremy Spencer said he was "just popping out to get some newspapers" and later turned up in the Children Of God religious cult. (Incidentally, the possibility that Richey may have joined a religious group has been considered. The Edwards family contacted every monastery in Britain, but drew a blank because of a strict code of secrecy over their residents.)
Another peculiarity of disappearances like Richey's is the incidence of copycat vanishings. On March 3 1995, 17-year-old Manics fan Sally Allen from Swinton, South Yorks, went missing. Sally had already shaved her head and stopped eating. A rash of similar copycat disappearances followed.
In many ways, though, the disappearance of a celebrity like Richey is the same as any other disappearance, only more so. Every family has to contend with the emotional rollercoaster of false hopes and crushing disappointments when an apparent sighting proves mistaken. For Graham and Sherry Edwards, the cruel cycle rarely stops.
Whenever the Manic Street Preachers have a hit record - or simply when there's a quiet news week - the media seem only too willing to publish a supposed "Richey sighting", (in Goa, in the Canaries, even in a South Wales hospital), often on the flimsiest of evidence. "It's tremendously difficult for the Edwards. Their son, their brother is missing, but they have to deal with reading a lot of rubbish in the press," says Sophie Woodforde.
Even in 'normal' cases, 70 per cent of tip-offs are unfounded. In Richey's case, it's worse. "People want to be involved," says Sophie, "which is sweet, but it doesn't always help. We've had a lot of sightings which just turn out to be some bloke with a shaved head."
While the majority of these 'sightings' were doubtless reported in good faith, there have inevitably been a handful of sick, malicious hoaxes. "There were a lot of crank calls," remembers DC Tom Gorringe, one of the first officers to work on the case. Some of the pranksters even got hold of the Edwards' home number. "We have suffered some of the cruellest hoaxes possible. Someone called up and said 'Hello, Mam, it's me', and then they put the phone down. But there is only one reason we won't change our number, and that is in case Richey decided to pick up the phone one day," says Richey's sister Rachel, who has devoted her life to the search for him.
Indeed, like every family of a person who disappears, the Edwards exist in an unimaginably painful state of limbo. They cannot even mourn: their loved one is not dead, just missing. "Richard is the first thing I think of when I open my eyes in the morning," says Rachel. "I cannot get on with my life or make major changes because I keep hoping he is going to walk through the door as if nothing has happened."
For the moment, the Richey Edwards case remains "open and inactive". According to Metropolitan Police spokeswoman Jackie Jones, this simply means "the case isn't shut. If any new information comes to light we will investigate it." And Richey's disappearance may have had at least one positive outcome, says Sophie Woodforde: "It sounds a strange thing to say, but if Richey has raised the profile of missing persons in general, and encouraged one or two people to come forward, it's been a good thing."
National Missing Persons Helpline: Freecall 0500 700 700. Message Home (discretion assured: Freecall 0500 700 740. Donations: can be sent to the National Missing Persons Helpline Charity, c/o Roebuck House, 284 Upper Richmond Road West, East Sheen, London SW14 TJE