It should have been a standard Saturday night. On the 2nd of November 1996, gangly teenager Damien Nettles headed out in Cowes on the Isle of Wight with his good friend Chris Boon. They'd been out at a party earlier in the evening. Nothing special. Bored, they'd bought ciders, taken the ferry to west Cowes and then tried to get served at a couple of pubs, underage, before giving up and going their separate ways on the high street. Chris would be the last person close to Damien to see him alive. Damien was 16.
But this isn't the story of a horrifying murder on an island that most Brits barely think about beyond planning their Bestival fancy dress. It's the bizarre tale of a boy who just disappeared. About 25 minutes before midnight, Damien walked into a chippy and stumbled his way through an order. From what we can piece together courtesy of the chip shop's CCTV footage, he bought his food, briefly chatted to a few men at the counter and walked outside into the darkness.
His story has crept back into the news now, almost 20 years later, as the subject of BBC Three serialised documentary Unsolved: The Boy Who Disappeared. It's an attempt at a British take on Making a Murderer or Serial – where a quick Google search could tell all about how the story's unfolded so far – and fronted by Panorama investigative journalists Bronagh Munro and Alys Harte.
"Quite quickly we came to Damien's story as this remarkable case that had thousands of people involved in the police investigation, hundreds of witness statements taken, and then ... nothing," Harte says, speaking over the phone on the day Unsolved debuted online. "They made eight arrests, there was a massive effort over 20 years, and yet still nothing. Other people had tried before so we thought, 'we should give this a go.'" The results of she and Munro's yearlong investigation is an eight-part show, split into bite-sized episodes that each run to about 15 minutes long. You're taken onto the island, introduced to a score of characters believed to be linked to Damien and left fumbling in the dark after quiet whispers of leads, bumping into one dead end after the next.
Damien's mother, Valerie Nettles, shows up early as a key resource. She flies back to the Isle of Wight from her Dallas home to meet Munro and Harte, sending them all the information she's gathered on the case to date. Watching her walk along the streets that somehow snatched her son away, it's hard not to feel moved by how calm she seems. How composed.
I ask Harte what it felt like to work with Valerie, no doubt opening up old wounds about the night that changed her life for good. "The kind of grief that Valerie's dealing with is a really complicated, heartbreaking one," Harte says. "She's ... pretty sure that her son is dead but she's not 100 percent sure. And she doesn't have anywhere to grieve him – she doesn't have a grave – so it's really difficult." You see that written on Valerie's face, first when she video chats with the two reporters and later when they meet in person.
Surely, after years of speaking to the press about a story that's barely progressed, Valerie would feel drained at the prospect of dredging everything up again, this time for the BBC. How did it feel to be back on the island during filming? "Going back after Damien went missing is bittersweet," she says, speaking from her home in Texas, "because I love it, but something terrible happened to us there. Something ripped our family apart and caused us to spiral off in a direction we would have never had to go in our lives."
Valerie, with Damien as a baby (Photo courtesy of Valerie Nettles)
She goes on: "I knew it wasn't going to be easy, going into this program, and that we may not get all the answers we would hope for. But I think it's highlighted more questions surrounding the case – it's been a hard slog for nearly 20 years to make some sense out of all of this."
She's right. You can go through all eight episodes of Unsolved and walk away as confused as you started. Harte and Munro present plenty of leads, and most of the evidence they uncover seems to point in the direction of a couple of drug houses run by some of the town's dealers. One in particular, Nicky McNamara, stands out as a prime source of potential knowledge. That sounds promising, you might think, until you learn that he's dead. He was found in 2003, reportedly after taking an overdose at a friend's house – and obviously "dead men can't talk," as Valerie tells me.
By the time you meet Shirley Barrett – who used to live in the house where McNamara died and is doorstepped extraordinarly by Munro and Harte in episode six – then encounter Dan Spencer, another former drug sidekick, you can't tell who is or isn't telling the truth when questioned. "With hindsight I've found out so much," Valerie says, "not just about Shirley Barrett, in the film, but about young people – the age of my kids then – who've come forward now." From them she's learned that drugs featured more heavily in local teenagers' lives than she was aware at the time.
The people who served Damien on that November night – known only as Rob and Sharon – remember him acting strangely, in an account shared second-hand by the former chip shop owner. "It wasn't drink, was Rob's opinion, and Sharon agreed with that," says Denis Welsh in the show. "She said we can recognise drink – it was a 'drugs effect', if you like."
The Nettles family: father Ed, Damien holding Valerie, and siblings James and Melissa
According to the show, the Hampshire constabulary police lost a few crucial surveillance tapes that could have shown where else Damien walked after midnight; that's just one of a few reasons Valerie has for deeming their handling of the ongoing and open case "lackluster, shoddy and pitiful". From the police force's perspective, they've spent 20 years involving 1,134 people in the investigation – "either as investigators, witnesses, or people of interest", they say – taking 357 witness statements and reviewing more than 2,500 documents.
But really, it's the banality of Damien's last known whereabouts that make this story so frustrating. Everyone's been on those nights, where you wander from one place to the next in the vague hopes of landing on something entertaining for a few hours. But most of us make it home. Damien never again saw his parents and three siblings – Sarah, now 38, James, 32, and 28-year-old Melissa. To be clear, Unsolved doesn't quite match Making a Murderer or season one of Serial in terms of production value and intrigue, but puts in a valiant effort at digging around for reasons why things turned out the way they did.
"Up until a few minutes after midnight," Harte says, "it's almost minute-by-minute, the eye-witness accounts of where Damien was and who he was speaking to. And then" – she pauses – "it stops. How did a 16-year-old boy disappear? Even if there are great leaps forward in the coming months, I feel there will always be unanswered questions about this case." For Valerie, those questions give her a sense of purpose. "I'm not the only mother of a missing child to feel desperate, but we go out there rattling cages," she says. "That's what we do."
Unsolved: the Boy Who Disappeared is on now available for UK-based viewers to stream on BBC iPlayer
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