Thanks to today’s technology and police resources, almost all missing kids are found within less than 24 hours. But back in 1997, the case of two missing English schoolboys was treated very differently than it would be today, with cops practically ignoring key and very little public outcry…
A look back at the Boxing Day disappearance of Patrick Warren and David Spencer in the Birmingham town of Solihull shows just how much times have changed and illustrates the way in which the police and the media treat people of different backgrounds. But, have they really changed that much?
Boxing Day in the UK
It was the day after Christmas, and all the kids in the working-class estate community of Chelmsley Wood were out showing off their gifts from Santa. This included 11-year-old Paddy Warren, who was overjoyed about his new red bicycle and had been out playing with pal David Spencer and other neighborhood kids all day. A police officer remembered warning them not to play on a frozen pond nearby.
That night, the mischevious boys decided to tell their parents they were staying over one another’s houses. Instead, they planned on going to Paddy’s older brother’s place for the night. Despite the boys being so young, it wasn’t unusual for them to sneak around and stay out until midnight…
Being one of seven kids from a big Irish family, Patrick was known as an independent boy with a bit of a wild side. “There’s no point saying he was an angel, because he wasn’t,” Bridget Warren later said of her son. But despite being so cheeky, Paddy’s mother insisted everyone always regarded her son as a “terrific little lad,” even his teachers.
David’s mom, Christine O’Toole, on the other hand, said her son was an adorable, lovely lad, who just didn’t like discipline. A year before, the 12-year-old was expelled from the Coleshill Heath School after landing in court for petty misdemeanors. “He was aggressive,” his mom told BBC. “If someone caused him grief, he took the law into his own hands and used force to keep them off his back..”
A former teacher remembered David as bright and very different from other troubled boys in school. “It was his unpredictability – you couldn’t tell with him when something was going to go wrong,” he told BBC. “He was one of the most streetwise pupils we had.” Streetwise would become a word used a lot after the boys never made it to Paddy’s brother’s that night.
Late Night Snack
Instead of heading straight there, they made the mistake of staying out later, roaming around on bike and foot past the homes lit up by Christmas lights and all the way to a nearby gas station. There, a store clerk gave them biscuits. He later told police the boys headed towards the shopping center next door around 12:45 AM. It was the last time anyone ever reported seeing David and Patrick…
Hide And Seek?
When Patrick’s brother realized the boys had never shown up, an early morning search party began. Detectives treated their disappearance just as any missing persons’ case. They checked out everyone who had last seen Paddy and David and their local hang-outs. At first, they thought they were dealing with a couple of boys being boys, especially given their reputation…
The First 24 Hours
These days, a missing child is treated as a very high-risk case, with criminal investigators getting involved within the first crucial 24 hours. Since both boys told the same story about sleeping over, police thought they were having some fun. It didn’t settle in with anyone that the boys were truly missing for days after they disappeared. Everyone started worrying they had waited too long…
At a January police press conference, the boys’ mothers pleaded for their sons to come home and a £500 reward was offered to anyone with information on who might be harboring them. Two months later, Criminal investigators were finally brought in. Reporters referred to them as runaways, even if there was evidence to the contrary; Evidence that had been overlooked by police in the very beginning.
Had detectives taken the case more seriously, they would’ve realized Paddy’s brand new red bicycle was been found abandoned the last place they were seen, behind the gas station, just two days after they disappeared. This wouldn’t be the first clue they ignored, either. But why would a boy who was running away leave his most prized possession? And one that would get him far away, faster?
The Milk Carton Kids
In April, the National Missing Persons Helpline stepped in and put the boys’ faces on milk cartons in stores across the UK, hoping it would be as successful as America’s first poster boy, Etan Patz. The local media nicknamed them “the Milk Carton Kids”, but after weeks of trying to push their story into the news, to get more coverage, police still had zero leads…
Boys or Men?
“There was a great deal of attention on describing them as not being good at school…one of them even chain-smoked. There was a sense that they weren’t really children, when in fact they were,” said criminologist and researcher Prof David Wilson, a criminologist at Birmingham City University and lead researcher of the case. “They were made out to be much more adult than they actually were.”
Since no one was treating David and Paddy like the missing children that they were, they had become seen as less and less vulnerable. There was one thing on everybody’s minds was would the case have been treated differently if the boys had been from a middle-class community and not working class?
Just a few days after the boys disappeared, something else happened that diverted the police’s attention somewhere completely else. A 17-year-old girl named Nicola Dixon was raped and murdered in nearby Sutton Coldfield. The middle-class teen’s murder in a graveyard on New Year’s Eve didn’t just dominate the local and national news, but almost all police resources.
Police searched the nearby pond for bodies. They seemed to be taking all the right precautions after the boys disappeared but showed less urgency to find them or find proof that something more sinister had happened to them. After missing months turned into years, everyone started to doubt that the independent-minded young boys would come back…
10 Years Later
Ten years passed without any substantial leads on Paddy and David’s mysterious disappearance. The case was then reviewed by West Midlands Police Department, who now referred to it as a “no body murder”. They could now conduct tests that didn’t exist back them, including the full forensic investigations that were conducted of the boys’ family homes.
Forensics showed nothing, and nearby fields, woods, mineshafts were all checked thoroughly. Detectives still didn’t know whether they were looking at a terrible accident or horrific crime. In 2006, they could also now check the National Sex Offender in the area, which didn’t exist back then. This is how they discovered a convicted rapist and murderer was living just a few miles away at the time…
Killer in the Neighborhood
Three years after Paddy and David disappeared, former farmer Brian Field was arrested for a DUI, but a DNA test convicted him for the 1968 rape and murder of Surrey schoolboy Roy Tutil. Field had also served a prison sentence for kidnapping two boys in the 1980s. To this day, he’s the only person in the UK convicted of such crimes. It seemed police had found the boys’ killer. Now they just had to prove it…
Who Else Could It Be?
The convicted murderer lived and worked near the boys’ homes in Chelmsley Wood. He had a van and used the same gas station where they were last seen. As a landscape gardener, he could have easily disposed of their bodies. Field had nothing to lose by confessing to Paddy and David’s disappearance now, finally give their families closure, but like a typical murderer, he vehemently denied any involvement.
No Body Murder
Yet without a confession and nothing directly tying Field to the case, 20 years later, the Midlands Police still just keep him as a person of interest and have made no arrests. Although some still say they’ll back, the overall feeling about David Spencer and Patrick Warren’s heartbreaking story is that the boys from the poor part of town were just not taken seriously enough by police or the media.