The 1991 Disappearance of Young Mother Nicola Payne

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On December 14, 1991, Nicola Payne, 18, was spending time at the home of her boyfriend, Jason Cooke on Winston Avenue in Coventry, England. The two had a seven-month-old son together.

Just after noon, Nicola left their son, Owen with Jason and began the walk back to her parents home on Woodway Close, a distance of a half mile. She was preparing to move in with Jason and was going to pick up some baby clothes. The day was cold and foggy, and Nicola walked through a wasteland known locally as Black Pad. When Nicola did not arrive after 30 minutes, her father John Payne became concerned and started looking for her. He could not find her and called police.  They joined in the search 2.5 hours later.

West Midlands police launched one of its biggest investigations in the case of the missing mother. Over 80 detectives worked to find Nicola. Members of the community helped search for her, and a heat-seeking helicopter was called in, but Nicola was never found. Jason Cooke was ruled out as a suspect early in the investigation.

The Search for Nicola Payne

In April 1996, police excavated the yard of a home in Wood End, about 150 yards from Nicola’s parents’ home. According to a 1996 Independent article, digging took place in pouring rain in three spots in the large garden, including an area under the garden shed, in patches where electronic equipment suggested that the soil had been disturbed. The police were being helped by a team who used radar machines to search the house in Cromwell Street, Gloucester, where the mass murderers Frederick and Rosemary West lived. The Coventry excavations took place in a garden 18ft by 100ft (Bennetto 1996).

A 59-year-old woman and her 26-year-old son resided in the home. Police found nothing in the 12-hour search, and called it off.

Five years later during the summer of 2001, a tip led police to part of the Oxford Canal in Ansty. Police dredged the canal but nothing was found. In September of that year, bones were found near the spot where Nicola vanished from, but they turned out to be animal bones.

In 2005, a poster campaign launched across the county to bring the case back into the public eye. The next year, Nicola’s face appeared on T-shirts printed by the National Missing Persons Helpline.

In August 2007, Nicola’s son, Owen, then 16, wrote a public statement that was read by Nicola’s mother, Marilyn Payne at a press conference.

My one wish would be to have my mum found and to be able to understand the confusion, mystery and heartbreak for the past 16 years. I was seven months old when my lovely mum Nickie went missing. Nan and Granddad always say that she had a loving bond with me, which was noticeable to all. Sadly, I have no memories of her, and I envy my older cousins who remember her well, and they tell me what a fun-loving girl she was.

During my early years at school I wished that my mum could meet me at the school gates after school to collect me, as other mums did with my friends. School plays, sports days and open days – there was no mum there to spoil me. My dad and all the family were always loving and caring, but it wasn’t the same.

On June 11, 2008, police excavated the yard of a house on Winston Avenue, just a few doors down from Jason’s home. They brought sniffer dogs in and used radar and X-ray equipment, but nothing was found. Another tip led police to excavate land in Courthouse Green on June 19, 2012. Again, nothing was found.

In March 2014, police searched Coombe Abbey Park for several days. The searches had revealed items of interest which were sent for forensic analysis, but police would not say what those items were.

Almost a year later in February 2015, police searched Hales Industrial Estate of Rowley’s Green Lane after receiving a tip, but found nothing.  In 2016, a credible witness came forward and said he saw two men acting suspiciously in the woodland next to the fishing lake at Coombe Country Park on the day of her disappearance. Police spent 12 weeks searching Coombe Country Park again.

Arrests

There were several arrests made since Nicola Payne vanished.

On December 17, 1991, police arrested former warehouse worker Nigel Barwell and his brother-in-law Thomas O’Reilly,  but they claimed they were 14 miles away in Rugby, Warwickshire at the time. The two were released after witnesses failed to pick them out of a police lineup in March 1992.

In November 2007, police arrested Malcolm Brannan, 37, from Derbyshire on suspicion of the abduction and murder of Nicola Payne. Brannan lived on Winston Avenue in 1991. While working on his car, he saw Nicola walking towards Black Pad the day she disappeared. He was released on bail pending further inquiries. In March 2008, police dug up his yard, but found nothing, and no further action was taken against him.

On June 20, 2012, the police made two more arrests, and those seemed promising. Patrick Judge, 74 and his son, Keith, 45 were arrested in Coventry on suspicion of preventing the lawful and decent burial of a body. The arrests were directly linked to information given to police prior to the arrests. Police excavated Judge’s yard and searched his home but found nothing, and the men were released the following day on bail. Charges against the men were dropped in August 2012.

In December 2013, Nigel Barwell and Thomas O’Reilly, both 49 years old, were arrested again at their homes in the Bell Green and Stoke areas of Coventry on suspicion of murder in Nicola’s case. A 51-year-old woman was also arrested for perverting the course of justice. Again, the suspects were released on bail a few days later. However, the two were charged with murdering Nicola in January 2015. Both men denied killing Nicola.

Trial

Thomas O’Reilly and Nigel Barwell court sketch. Credit: Coventry Telegraph

In the fall of 2015, the trial began at Birmingham Crown Court in Nicola Payne’s disappearance and murder. Two witnesses told the court Barwell and O’Reilly admitted to them they killed Nicola and asked them for an alibi.

Witness Paul Southern said he was giving the defendants a lift after overhearing an argument that mentioned a woman at Mr Barwell’s house in Coventry in February 1992.

He asked Mr Barwell who he thought the argument was about.

He said he thought Mr Barwell had been “playing away” but Mr Barwell replied: “I wasn’t playing about, I did that Payne bird.”

Mr Southern told the court the other defendant, Mr Barwell’s brother-in-law Mr O’Reilly, added: “You don’t know the half of it.”

He said he was also asked by a friend of the defendants in December 1991 if he would be willing to say he was with them at a certain time but he refused.

Second witness Matthew Brown said Mr Barwell told him that he and his co-accused had killed Miss Payne and asked him for an alibi.

He told the court he was asked to say they were all together in Rugby the day she disappeared.

Mr Barwell’s barrister Mark Dennis QC asked how he killed her and Mr Brown replied: “He didn’t say and I didn’t ask.”

“He said he killed Nicola Payne and asked for an alibi for the day she went missing.” (“Nicola Payne Trial: Accused Nigel Barwell ‘Admitted Killing'” 2015)

The court also heard how police lost key pieces of evidence, including Nicola’s hairbrush that was declared missing in 2007. A tent was discovered in undergrowth in Barwell’s garden five days after Nicola disappeared. Inside the tent, police found strands of hair. Prosecutor Andrew Smith QC (Queen’s Counsel) said DNA tests performed on the hair years later showed it was “900 million times more likely to belong to Nicola than anyone else.” However, the tent was not placed on the exhibits log until January 19, 1992 and then recovered on February 5, 2014 in an unsealed bag “creating a further risk of cross contamination”.

Barwell’s attorney Mark Dennis QC: “The forensic safeguards in place at Little Park Street police station in 1991-92 were in truth non-existent.

“It was a worthless exercise then and an even more worthless exercise in 2014. It should not have been attempted in 2014. To do so is to invite false and misleading results to be obtained and that’s exactly what’s happened.”

More Witnesses

Keith Parkins was moving out of his house on the day Nicola Payne disappeared. On the sixth day of trial, he told jurors he heard “a raised female voice” close to the area she was last seen. On December 14, 1991, the day Nicola went missing, Parkins was shampooing the carpet in his front room for the new owners when he heard tires on the gravel outside his home. About 20 minutes later, he opened the door and windows of the home.

Parkins: “When I opened the door it was completely still outside. No noise.

“I went to go back into the room when I heard a noise outside.

“I don’t know what that noise was but it attracted my attention and I stepped back towards the door.

“As I got to the front door I could hear a raised female voice.

“I was too far off to make out what they were saying.

“It sounded as if the woman was remonstrating or talking to somebody or something.”

Parkins said that after hearing the raised female voice he went outside, but the dense fog prevented him from seeing anything. A little while later, he saw a light-colored car heading back towards his house.

“I’ve got silver in my mind but can’t be certain,” Parkins said.

Patrick Carter said he heard a scream near Black Pad on the day Nicola was last seen. Under questioning from O’Reilly’s attorney, Rachel Brand QC, Carter said the scream wasn’t a child’s.

Brand asked: “Are you sure about that, even after all these years?”

“Pretty sure, because of the volume,” Carter said. “It didn’t sound like a child’s scream.”

Another witness claimed she saw Nigel Barwell cleaning out his car the day Nicola vanished. In 1991, Joy Egginton lived on Triumph Close, one block over from Nigel Barwell’s home on Ventnor Close. She saw him “use a bowl of water, detergent, cloths and a vacuum cleaner”. Barwell removed the floor mats and seat covers from the car.

Prosecutor Andrew Smith QC asked: “How long had he spent cleaning the car?”

“I don’t know, quite a while,” Egginton said.

“How clean did the car seem when he finished?”

“Very clean,” Egginton said. She had never seen him clean his car that thoroughly before that day.

Another witness, Louise Sambrook told the court that in 1991, she saw Barwell and O’Reilly by a car with a full black garbage bag in the trunk. Sambrook knew Barwell’s wife, Mary who was also O’Reilly’s sister. The men were standing near a blue Ford Capri parked near the River Sowe in Dunrose Close.  However, she could not recall which month the sighting took place.

Rachel Moffitt, Nicola’s close friend, testified that during the search for Nicola in 1991, a Ford Capri pulled up alongside the car she was in. The driver’s face was expressionless and he was talking to the passenger in his car. The man did not offer to help in the search, and Rachel thought that was strange.

Michael Cooke

Also in court was Michael Cooke, the brother of Nicola’s boyfriend, Jason Cooke.  He told the court that to his knowledge, Nicola had never met Barwell, but Cooke had known Barwell for years.

Mark Dennis QC: “Is this summary correct. You had known him (Barwell) about ten years by that time.

Michael Cooke: “He is someone you used to be very friendly with in your younger years but there came a time when you drifted apart.”

Nigel Payne, Nicola’s brother told the court that Cooke and Barwell both hit on Nicola one night at The Red Lion pub.

“She came over to speak to me to say she was having problems with Jason Cooke’s older brother Michael Cooke and his friend Nigel Barwell.”

Prosecutor Andrew Smith QC: “How did Nicola appear when she came to speak to you?”

“Angry and upset,” Nigel responded.  Nigel said he then confronted Cooke and Barwell in the pub.

Nigel: “Michael, on previous occasions and on that night, had come on to Nicola even though she was with Michael’s younger brother. He was just hitting on her.”

However, Cooke and Barwell both denied the incident.

Verdict

The trial lasted six weeks.  A jury of eight men and four women deliberated for eight hours over a three-day period and found Barwell and O’Reilly not guilty of murder.

The Payne family was heartbroken.

Nigel Payne said: “Our family are devastated and heavy hearted with today’s verdict.

“For nearly 24 years we have lived daily with the anguish of not knowing what has happened to our beloved Nicola, and worse than that to this day not knowing where she is.

“We would like to say thank you to our family, friends and members of the general public which has showed us fantastic support over these years.

“We also pay tribute to the police for their help in trying to bring justice for Nicola. We never thought we would ever get this far and this is all down to their excellent work and we feel they had an excellent case.

“We will never give up on Nicola and therefore we would ask anyone with any information to come forward, contact the police or Crimestoppers.”

Current Investigation

In 2018, police once again searched Coombe Country Park with ground-penetrating radar and a dive team. Investigative journalist Mark Williams-Thomas began investigating Nicola’s case and found a new witness who directed him and police to the park.  During the search, a boot was found. This boot was said to be identical to the one Nicola was wearing when she disappeared. However, investigators said the boot has no significance to the investigation.

In February 2019, Williams-Thomas said he hoped to “make an announcement with regards to the next stages” in his investigation into Nicola’s disappearance over the next month or so. However, no further information is available.

There is a £100,000 reward for any information leading to the recovery of Nicola Payne. Anyone with information about Nicola’s disappearance should contact the Detective Superintendent Chisholm’s team on 101 or call Crimestoppers confidentially on 0800 555 111.

Owen Cooke, Nicola’s son, arriving at court in 2015. Credit: Coventry Telegraph

True Crime Diva’s Thoughts

Often, I am pulled to a case simply because the victim and I are near the same age; I was 21 in 1991, just 3 years older than Nicola. It was a great time to be young, and it saddens and angers me that so much was taken from Nicola and her family that day.

I don’t have a lot to say on this because I think Barwell and O’Reilly are guilty of her abduction and murder. They just got away with it. With all of the witness testimonies, I don’t know how the jury found Barwell and O’Reilly not guilty, but it does sound like the investigation was a bit messy at times.

What about Michael Cooke, Jason’s brother? If Nigel Payne told the truth in court, which I believe he did, then Cooke is definitely one to consider. Was he at Jason’s home on December 14th? What’s his background? I found nothing on him or Jason, for that matter.

How on earth did police believe the boot found, which was identical to Nicola’s, had no significance to the investigation? I guess because they couldn’t prove it was hers? Obviously, they believe her body is there somewhere because they’ve searched Coombe Country Park numerous times.

Sources:

Bennetto, Jason. April 1996. “Police Dig Up Garden For Missing Woman”. The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/police-dig-up-garden-for-missing-woman-1306471.html.

“Boy Appeals Over Missing Mother”. 2007. BBC News. “Boy Appeals Over Missing Mother”. 2007. News.Bbc.Co.Uk. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/coventry_warwickshire/6970611.stm#sa-link_location=story-body&intlink_from_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.bbc.com%2Fnews%2Fuk-england-birmingham-25417081&intlink_ts=1558099646011-sa.

Dimmer, Sam. 2015. “Nicola Payne Murder Trial: Brother Of Missing Coventry Mum Speaks”. Coventry Telegraph. https://www.coventrytelegraph.net/news/coventry-news/nicola-payne-murder-trial-brother-10252911.

Dimmer, Sam. 2015. “Nicola Payne Trial: Boyfriend’s Brother Says Accused Never Met Nicola”. Coventry Telegraph. https://www.coventrytelegraph.net/news/coventry-news/nicola-payne-trial-boyfriends-brother-10259833.

Dimmer, Sam. 2015. “Nicola Payne Trial Day 6: Man Heard ‘Raised Female Voice'”. Coventry Telegraph. https://www.coventrytelegraph.net/news/coventry-news/nicola-payne-trial-day-6-10289438.

Dimmer, Sam. 2015. “Nicola Payne Trial Day 7 Morning Round-Up”. Coventry Telegraph. https://www.coventrytelegraph.net/news/coventry-news/nicola-payne-trial-day-7-10296663.

“Nicola Payne Disappearance: Two Men Arrested On Suspicion Of Murder”. 2013. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/dec/17/nicola-payne-men-arrested-murder-coventry.

“Nicola Payne Trial: Accused Nigel Barwell ‘Admitted Killing'”. 2015. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-coventry-warwickshire-34605782.

“Nicola Payne’s Family Break Down In Court As Two Men Cleared Of Murder After ‘Sloppy’ Investigation”. 2015. The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/11998729/Nicola-Paynes-family-break-down-in-court-as-Nigel-Barwell-and-Thomas-OReilly-cleared-of-murder.html.

Smith-COV, Daniel. 2015. “Nicola Payne Trial Day 6: Neighbour Saw Accused Cleaning His Car”. Coventry Telegraph. https://www.coventrytelegraph.net/news/coventry-news/nicola-payne-trial-day-6-10291416.

“Suspects Bailed In Nicola Payne Case”. 2008. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-coventry-warwickshire-26364475.

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I've blogged true crime since 2010, happily taking up only a tiny corner of the internet. I'm not here for attention; I'm here to tell you their stories.

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