Over the past ten years the disappearance of Madeleine McCann has become one of the world’s best known mysteries. While details of the case can be recited by most of us, and despite millions spent on the search, Madeleine’s whereabouts still remain unknown.
But with 135,382 people reported missing in England and Wales last year alone, the McCann’s predicament is one felt by many families. While 79% of those who are lost return home within 24 hours, the Missing People charity has over 400 active cases of those lost for more than three years.
Missing children though are much rarer. The charity Missing Kids lists just 255 people under 18 as currently missing in the UK.
For Andrew Gosden’s dad, there may never be answers for why his 14-year-old son travelled to London one morning, never to be seen again. For Alex Sloley’s mum, it’s hard to believe a 16-year-old can vanish without a trace. So too for Luke Durbin’s mum, who lives with the belief that somebody, somewhere can solve her never-ending nightmare.
Here, all three tell their stories each displaying a remarkable resolve, even after all these years, linked by one question - thus far unanswered: Why?
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I can still remember when the Madeleine McCann case was breaking in the news. I was sitting on the sofa next to Andrew and going ‘That’s every parent’s worse nightmare,’ and he said ‘Yeah, must be awful for them.’
Four months later he totally disappeared.
One evening they are there with you, having a normal chat, doing normal things and then there’s just nothing.
There’s this huge chunk out of your family, and your family life, just gone.
The thing about long-term missing cases, in terms of dealing with it, is that psychologically it’s almost impossible because you end up in this cycle of: I hope he’s still alive somewhere and that we may get a lead, or get some news, or he might get in touch if he’s alive and well someplace.
And then at other times you tend to think that: this is just so out of character for him that he must be dead and that, whatever he was thinking about on the day, some harm came to him and he’s dead or he took his own life - although I can’t imagine why.
You get stuck in this endless cycle of: are they alive or dead?
There’s no mechanism with dealing with just not knowing. That’s pretty common. It’s called ambiguous loss.
We’ve had so many unconfirmed sightings now that you kind of protect yourself by saying ‘I’m not going to go there thinking about it,’ because otherwise you end up on an emotional rollercoaster.
We tend to assume it’s nothing unless we hear different, which is how we do it. You try not to go up and down with yet at the same time it’s always at the back of your mind.
You tend not to be told, you just have to assume after a certain amount of time has passed that the police have checked and found it isn’t him.
They don’t actually tell you.
We’re the most ridiculously stable, ordinary, middle class, professional family, I still can’t look back and think how could we have parented better. I don’t know.
The completely bizarre thing with Andrew is that nobody picked anything up. Including Charlotte, his older sister, who I think if he’d been worried about something or stressed she would have been the first person he spoke to.
But he just gave no hints to any of us or anyone else. I still remember, back in 2007, The Times did a really thorough article and next to it it had a parenting advice column and I remember reading it and thinking ‘We did that, we did that - now what?’.
We all go up and down. It’s a weird thing. In some ways you mark it and in other ways you wish it wasn’t there and that it would quietly slip by and nobody will notice.
It just feels absolutely interminable - it just goes on and on and on, and another year goes by and there’s still very much missed son, brother, nephew, grandson.
Sadness is, frankly, the most overwhelming feeling that we all experience.
But if Andrew going missing proves anything, it’s that it can happen to any family.
Andrew Gosden, 14, woke up and left his house in Balby, South Yorkshire, for school as normal on Friday, September 14, 2007.
But he secretly returned home after his parents Kevin and Glenys left for work, calmly placed his school uniform in the washing machine, and changed into his favourite Slipknot t-shirt.
He withdrew £200 from his bank account and walked to the local train station. Within a couple of hours he was in London, walking out of the capital’s Kings Cross station. He was never seen again.
Pictured above is Andrew’s distinctive ear.
We just keep thinking about Alex, we obviously want him home. It was a struggle in the beginning, as time has gone on, it’s not that you expect it, but you have to keep going. Not giving up hope that he will come home one day.
The milestones are painful.
I’ve missed out every year of Alex’s life from two days before he became 17. I’ve missed having a son, missed him coming home with a girlfriend, missed him changing jobs, getting a house or a flat, living with somebody.
I miss him indoors, him just getting ready, the smell of his cologne. Every year he gets older and I see children who were in his class at primary school and I see their lives and it makes me think: what would Alex be doing now?
It could happen to anyone. I don’t think children just go missing. I think something has happened to them. There’s no trace of Alex, no footprints of him at all. Which I find very strange. He was very close to his siblings, he was the only man we had around, it was all girls.
The time makes it more difficult. The lack of evidence, it’s just gone.
I’ve spent a lot of time indoors in the last few years. I’m less active than what I was. As time is going on I’ve had deaths in the family recently, including Alex’s dad unexpectedly on the day of his 50th birthday. I’ve had bereavements going on and on.
In the case of Alex, it doesn’t help because you don’t know, you could have someone telling you that he’s died. If I don’t get that closure, I’ll have lived part of my life very sad. I’ll pretend I’m OK and go about my everyday life, but really I’ll have died a very sad person.
And I believe that’s what happened to Alex’s dad. I believe he died of a broken heart.
They didn’t start looking for Alex until 2010 and he went missing in 2008. Back in 2014, I spoke to my MP Jeremy Corbyn, because he lives just around the corner from my house, and I said to him ‘Do you remember?’ and he said ‘Of course I do.’
He wrote a letter to the police and they started investigating again. I’ve now got an officer, Pam, who is looking into it now. She keeps us updated.
Alex rubbed his sisters up the wrong way but he was polite, he was very good at maths. He liked smelling good, he liked having his hair cut regularly.
He liked dressing smart. He liked his food, he didn’t like cheese but he’d eat pizza. He was always a polite boy and that’s what people thought - and that’s what stayed with them.
The Missing People choir on Britain’s Got Talent has made a lot of people think about Alex and contact me. There are people that have thought he has been found, and they say ‘Oh my gosh, he’s still not found?’.
For me, that is the motivation. To think there is hope that someone might see him when I do an appeal.
Alexander Sloley, known as Alex, 16, left his friend’s house in Enfield, North London, at midday on Saturday, August 2, 2008 - two days before his 17th birthday.
He didn’t return home and disappeared with little money and without a change of clothes.
Alex left no trace, and police have appealed for anyone who might recognise his piercing blue eyes to contact them.
Police have also appealed to Alex - to reassure him that no matter what trouble he may face, they will help him. The Met said their inquiry continues and police are working closely with his family - they just want to know he’s safe.
When it hit the year of Luke missing it was excruciating. I just couldn’t believe this could still be happening. I think the tenth year had that same impact and you’re just thinking: That’s a whole decade.
The only way I can explain it is, when you have a child, you count their age in days and weeks and suddenly you’re doing months and then it’s years. It felt like I was doing the same, days to weeks and then suddenly I jumped from weeks to months - I don’t know when - and then it was years.
Then suddenly it was a whole decade - a whole ten years.
I know every parent of a missing child will say exactly what I’ll say but I think knowing my child and him being full of life and clever and smart and irritating - I think it can’t have been him, why did he go missing?
I know every parent would say the same thing - nothing makes sense, time becomes a very strange concept.
Now it is coming up to Luke’s 11th year anniversary. Obviously physically he will have changed but I know I’d know him, I know what my daughter looked like ten years ago and I know I’d know her. I don’t know if he’d start going grey. And that’s just a basic thing of his physical attributes not anything to do with what will be going on in his life now.
Early on, I kept saying ‘I know something terrible has happened, I know my son,’ and I think that’s probably what you will hear time and time again from some families.
It was like the police knew your child better, but I was brought up to respect the police, and I always thought if anything happened they would do the right thing, but they didn’t.
When your child goes missing what you want is to know every single thing that can be done is being done. And to be honest when I knew that was happening it changed things. Prior to that all I was doing was spending my time investigating my son’s disappearance, I was doing the anniversary checks, I was putting myself in very compromising situations.
When the Major Investigations Team (MIT) took over, I was able to start grieving for my child.
I miss Luke so much, I have two children and one of them is lost. It is just a constant state of grief but what time has done is enabled me to mask it all.
I go to work and I’m all bubbly but actually there is this other side and with your close friends you can talk about it, cry about it, and ask ‘Why? Why? Why?’.
I miss everything about him. Luke’s a really witty, funny person. I miss his irritating points as well. I used to come down our road and all I could hear was ridiculously loud guitar music and obviously he thought I was out. We clearly had very tolerant neighbours. I miss nagging him.
I miss hugging him. I miss laughing with him. He is intelligent and bright and funny. It’s just all those simple things that I am still very privileged to have with my daughter. But I gave birth to two children and one is lost to an entity that I do not know.
Both myself and the police strongly believe that somebody locally knows what happened to Luke and they are withholding that information either because they can carry that sort of stuff around on their conscience or because they’re scared.
The one thing since the MIT has been involved is they have said again and again: ‘We will protect anyone who came forward’. I do believe someone locally does know.
I don’t know how long I can keep fighting in this way.
How long? The answer is until you mentally or physically can’t keep going.
Luke Durbin, 19, was on a night out with friends in Ipswich on Thursday, 11 May, 2006 when he left a nightclub in the early hours and wandered through the town centre to make his way home.
CCTV shows Luke walked between the train station and a taxi rank.
One image captures Luke on a zebra crossing - it is the last positive sighting of him. Shortly after another image shows a lone Volvo car leaving the area.
A group of boys told police they saw Luke two day’s later, Saturday 13, in nearby Woodbridge travelling in a car with a man. There have been various leads over the years and Luke’s case is considered a major investigation.
Any information can help
Those with information about Andrew, Alex and Luke can contact the Missing People charity which runs a free and confidential helpline available 24/7 on 116 000.
As Missing People’s Paul Joseph points out, those with information, no matter how apparently innocuous, can be assured they will be treated in the utmost confidence.
And even for those worried about a missing person, or those who have gone missing themselves, are invited to get in touch.
“Sometimes people haven’t been aware of the support services available,” Joseph said.
Missing People runs a free, confidential and 24hr helpline, 116 000, which is supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery. The helpline provides practical and emotional support to missing people and their families, and can also take anonymous sightings and information about missing people. People can also email firstname.lastname@example.org – free, confidential, 24/7.
Kevin’s, Nerissa’s and Nicki’s comments have been edited for clarity and length.
- Childline - free and confidential support for young people in the UK - 0800 1111