Inside mystery case of missing Nicola Payne 30 years on as family launch fresh appeal

IT'S been 30 years since the young mother from Coventry vanished in broad daylight as she walked home.

But despite huge police hunts, multiple arrests and a court case, no trace of her has been found.

One freezing day in December 1991, 18-year-old Nicola Payne set off to walk the short distance from her boyfriend’s house to her family home in the Potters Green area of Coventry.

Filled with excitement about her first Christmas as a mother to seven-month-old Owen, she waved goodbye to her partner Jason Cooke and left.

Nicola never made it home. It’s almost certain she was abducted, killed and her body dumped in a lake or canal near to where she went missing.

Three decades later, she is presumed dead, but her body has never been found and her devastated family are unable to properly grieve. Every Christmas is a cruel reminder of their devastating loss.

After enduring a bungled police investigation and a 2015 court case, in which two suspects were acquitted, Nicola’s parents Marilyn and John – now in their 70s and in poor health – have passed the baton to sons Scott, 54, and Nigel, 57, and to Nicola’s cousin Amanda Eales, 40.

Now, with a £100,000 reward and fresh impetus from an investigation team fronted by former police detective and TV presenter Mark Williams-Thomas and forensic search expert Peter Faulding, the family dare to hope that Nicola will finally be found.

And that when she is, her remains will give up the secrets of one of the UK’s longest unsolved murders.

Amanda, a palliative care nurse, says: ‘Nicola was the big sister I never had. I was eight years younger than Nicky, and I really looked up to her.

When she disappeared, the enormity of what happened hit me a few days later when I saw my mum in the lounge looking out the window at the police helicopters overhead, sobbing. I’d never seen her cry before.

“She had everything to live for,” adds Amanda. “She completely adored her son – and everyone who knew her loved her.”

Although only 10 at the time, Amanda remembers the entire city of Coventry was gripped by the disappearance – and memories of the young mum who vanished haven’t faded in the 30 years since.

Indeed, the search for Nicola was one of the biggest in UK police history, involving more than 80 officers, sniffer dogs and helicopters with heat-seeking cameras.

'HAD EVERYTHING TO LIVE FOR'

The last person reported to have seen her alive was her boyfriend and father of her baby, Jason, who told police she waved at him as she set off around midday on December 14, 1991.

In the days that followed her disappearance, several witnesses described seeing two men acting suspiciously in the area at the time and a blue Ford Capri was seen nearby.

One dog walker saw a man hiding in the bushes in the Black Pad, the local name given to the area of wasteland where she went missing. He also heard a car engine running nearby and a woman scream.

Another witness claimed he saw two men arguing with a woman near a Ford Capri. And another claimed to have seen two men sitting in the car.

Local man Nigel Barwell owned a blue Ford Capri and was arrested on December 17, along with his brother-in-law Thomas O’Reilly. Both men were 27 at the time.

A search of Barwell’s property uncovered a tent that had been dumped in undergrowth behind his garden. A manual for the same tent was found in the glove box of his car.

Everyone who knew [Nicola] loved her

The men were questioned, released on bail and asked to attend an identity parade. Barwell fled to France for a week, later claiming he feared he was being fitted up by police.

More witnesses came forward. One woman claimed to have seen two men standing by a car near a path leading to the River Sowe on the afternoon Nicola went missing.

She said there appeared to be an object resembling a full black bin liner in the boot of the car.

Witnesses didn’t pick Barwell or O’Reilly out of an identity parade, and the men said that on the day Nicola disappeared they had been stranded in a car park in Rugby town centre, as Barwell’s Ford Capri had broken down.

Over the following months, more information came in and new searches were carried out at different locations, but nothing was found.

The case against Barwell and O’Reilly was dropped. Months became years, with still no answers or justice for Nicola’s desperate family.

UNSOLVED MURDER

As time went on, new information saw police carry out numerous excavations and searches of gardens, land, a canal and a lake in the Coventry area between 1996 and 2014 – however no trace of Nicola was ever found.

Several arrests have been made over the years.

In November 2007, police arrested a 37-year-old man from Derbyshire on suspicion of the abduction and murder of Nicola, but no further action was taken against him.

Two men, aged 74 and 45, were arrested as part of the investigation on June 20, 2012.

The following day, the 74 year old was released without charge.

The 45 year old was released on bail, then that August, charges against him were also dropped.

In 2014, following a search of Coombe Pool Fishery, a lake at Coombe Country Park in Binley, near Coventry, Barwell and O’Reilly were arrested again. They were released on bail, before being charged with Nicola’s murder in January 2015.

Amanda and her family hoped this was the turning point in their quest for justice for Nicola, and to finally bring her body home.

During a six-week trial at Birmingham Crown Court that began in October 2015, the jury heard that the tent seized in 1991 had been tested with new DNA technology and that hairs found on it were: “900 million times more likely to belong to Nicola Payne than anyone else.”


The prosecution also alleged that Barwell knew Nicola because his friend, Michael Cooke, had asked her out. Cooke was the brother of Nicola’s boyfriend Jason.

It was also alleged that Barwell had “tried it on with her” at the Red Lion pub in Walsgrave, and had been warned off by Nicola’s brother Scott.

Barwell and O’Reilly denied all the charges and maintained that they had been in Barwell’s Capri in the Rugby car park, as previously stated. No witnesses could place the men or the car where they said they were.

During the trial O’Reilly broke down and said he’d been threatened by police in 1992, and claimed he was bundled into a van, blindfolded and questioned about Nicola’s disappearance by a group of men soon after.

At one point, Barwell protested: “Me and Thomas are completely innocent of these charges. We would never harm a young lady. It never happened, full stop.”

The defence branded the police investigation in the early ’90s “sloppy”, highlighting discrepancies in the way the tent was stored that created the possibility of evidence cross-contamination. Forensic safeguards in place at the time were described as “non-existent”.

'DEVASTATING' VERDICT

After deliberating for three days, the jury returned a unanimous not guilty verdict.

Barwell punched the air and mouthed: “Thank you very much,” to jurors, while Nicola’s family were left heartbroken that they still had not found the people who murdered her.

Amanda recalls: “I was in court all the way through the trial, and it was just devastating when the verdict was read out. The initial investigation was a complete failure.

"It hit my aunt and uncle really hard and then there was anger. Nicola deserves so much more. Everyone’s life took a different turn the day she disappeared, and we are still here, 30 years later, trying to find answers.

“We are a big family and there is always a birthday or anniversary to celebrate,” Amanda adds. “There is always an empty space where Nicola should be.”

Now 30 years old, Nicola’s son Owen shies away from publicity and maintains his privacy, other than one appeal for information he made when he was 16.

“We all have memories of Nicky except Owen – he doesn’t remember his mum and that really upsets him,” says Amanda.

We just want to give her the resting place she deserves

A year after the trial, a witness came forward to say they had seen two men acting suspiciously by the lake in Coombe Country Park on the day Nicola disappeared, and police undertook a 12-week search of the area, but still no trace was found.

In desperation, the family turned to Mark Williams-Thomas in 2019. He has been working with West Midlands Police reviewing the case and is filming a documentary about it. His involvement led to new searches, which had to stop because of the pandemic.

He believes Nicola’s disappearance is linked to that of another woman in Coventry. Barbara Finn, who was 32 when she went missing, was a sex worker who vanished in the Hillfields area of the city on October 28, 1991.

Her body was never found and she left behind a six-year-old daughter. Police did not connect the cases at the time because Nicola and Barbara’s lifestyles were so different.

Working alongside Mark is forensic expert Peter Faulding, who runs Specialist Group International and whose team of divers carried out the most recent searches in the lake at Coombe Country Park and in canals nearby. Both men are working for the family for free.

Over several weeks, the team used ground-penetrating radar and underwater side-scan sonar, and Peter flew his own helicopter over sites of interest in order to get fresh aerial photography.

'WE'LL NEVER STOP LOOKING'

“The main intelligence we have following this latest witness account is that Nicola is in the water, and when we restart the search in the New Year, that’s where we’ll be concentrating our resources. There’s no time limit on this, we are doing this for the family,” he says.

Meanwhile, Amanda is planning a memorial service to mark the 30th anniversary of Nicola’s disappearance and hopes the £100,000 reward, made by an anonymous donor, for anyone who can provide information to help locate Nicola’s remains will encourage someone to come forward.

“We just want to give her the resting place she deserves. My auntie needs to have somewhere where she can go to think about her daughter and have a little chat with her.

"The thought that Nicky is dumped somewhere like a piece of rubbish is heart-breaking. Closure would mean everything to us,” she says.

“Nicky’s mum and dad are getting older, but even when they’re gone she will never be forgotten – we’ll never stop looking for her.”

  • Anyone with information that could help the investigation should visit Findnicolapayne.co.uk.


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