Has mystery of the Milk Carton Kids finally been solved? They were the two friends whose faces were the first to be printed on milk labels when they vanished 24 years ago. Now, as bones are discovered, the search may finally be over
- Patrick Warren, 11, and David Spencer, 13, went missing on December 26 1996
- Pair became known as ‘Milk Carton Kids’ as photos were printed on nations’ milk
- They visited a petrol station on outskirts of Birmingham and weren’t seen again
Staring out from breakfast tables around the country back in 1997 were the faces of two young boys. Some readers might remember them.
Patrick Warren (4ft 10in, blond hair, freckles) and David Spencer (4ft 8in, red hair, freckles) were best friends. One cold December night 24 years ago, they went out to play; they bought a packet of biscuits from a petrol station near their homes on the outskirts of Birmingham — and were never seen again.
The pair became known as the ‘Milk Carton Kids’. This was because their photographs and details were printed on milk cartons in a campaign by the National Missing Persons Helpline to trace youngsters who had disappeared.
In the days before Facebook and Instagram and before appeals could be seen instantly by millions at the click of a ‘share’ button, the initiative, which was pioneered in America, was considered ground-breaking.
David Spencer (left) and Patrick Warren (right) who both went missing on boxing day 1996
Other children in Britain were featured in the scheme but Patrick, who was 11, and David, who was 13, were the first in the UK and remain the most iconic. There was a spate of reported sightings immediately after the customised milk cartons, emblazoned with the word ‘MISSING’ in red capital letters next to their pictures, went on sale in Iceland stores across Britain, which brought brief, fleeting hope that Patrick and David would be found.
They never were.
But could the mystery of what happened to Patrick and David — the original ‘Milk Carton Kids’ — finally be about to be revealed? It would seem so.
Brian Field (pictured), a paedophile who murdered a 15-year-old boy in 1968, was questioned over the boys’ disappearance
Parents who lose children in such circumstances will tell you that even worse than receiving a haunting knock on the door is the not knowing, the lack of closure which eats away at the soul. The families of Patrick and David received that knock on the door this month almost a quarter of a century after the two boys vanished.
The remains of two bodies, which could be Patrick and David, the police informed them, had been discovered buried several feet underground by the driver of a digger working on the site of Jaguar Land Rover’s new Midlands plant near Birmingham International Airport.
Some relatives are already understood to have received messages of condolence.
‘If it is Paddy and David then I’m just glad to be able to lay them to rest,’ said David’s mother, Christine Harvey, 57, speaking to the Mail this week. She still lives in the same three-bedroom terrace house on the Chelmsley Wood estate where David spent his heart-rendingly short life. ‘Hopefully, we can bury them together — have a double funeral.’
It is the only grain of comfort that may yet emerge from this impossibly tragic story.
Twice widowed Mrs Harvey was too emotional to speak to the officers when they turned up at her door almost two weeks ago. They broke the news to one of David’s brothers, who also lives here.
West Midlands Police searched a construction site after human remains were found during excavations for the new Logistics Operations Centre for Jaguar Land Rover near Birmingham International Airport
‘I wasn’t capable of speaking to them myself,’ she explained. ‘They told my son that it would be a few weeks before we know for certain that the bones belong to our sons.’
The Mail can reveal today that initial photographs of the bones recovered from the scene, a field at the time they went missing, suggest they come from two young boys.
There is also a more sinister reason for believing the ‘young boys’ are in fact Patrick and David.
The sex offenders register did not exist when they went missing. If it had, West Midlands Police would have known that a monster called Brian Field lived near them in the Chelmsley Wood neighbourhood.
A shopper at Iceland supermarket in Perry Barr, Birmingham, collects a 4 pint milk carton which displays a picture of missing children, in 1997
Field, a former Royal Marine, had been jailed three times for targeting young boys all over Britain before the ‘Milk Carton Kids’ went missing in 1996, including a four-year sentence for abducting two youngsters in Shropshire.
The court heard how he offered those victims a lift then threatened them and forced them to remove their clothes. They escaped by opening a passenger door and jumping out of the moving car.
But on each occasion Field emerged from prison, he quietly slipped back into society as he covered his past with stories of working abroad.
By December 1996 — when Patrick and David vanished — he had settled in the area near their homes.
A map shows where the boys went missing from their homes in Chelmsley Wood compared to the site where bones were discovered, which is close to a field that was search by police back in 2006
Three years later (in 1999) he was arrested for drink-driving on the Chelmsley Wood estate and a DNA sample taken from him linked him to the kidnap, rape and murder of 14-year-old Roy Tutill in Surrey 30 years earlier in 1968.
The files on dozens of other unsolved cases were reopened after Field, then in his 60s, was convicted in 2001 and locked up for life.
He was subsequently identified as the prime suspect in the disappearance of the ‘Milk Carton Kids’ in a review by West Midlands Police in 2006 which acknowledged that, given how young Patrick and David were, the case should have been given a higher priority — been treated more seriously than a ‘missing persons’ inquiry, in other words.
The site where human remains have now been found is adjacent to land where Field was employed as a labourer and gardener at the time the boys went missing. It is the same area previously searched by police following the 2006 review.
A spokesman for the West Midlands Police force told MailOnline: ‘The bones will undergo forensic and archaeological analysis’
A blue West Midlands police tent was put up at the site after workers made the grim find
‘There is every chance it is going to be Patrick and David,’ said retired Detective Chief Inspector Mick Treble, one of the lead officers on the cold case investigation. ‘It’s the right vicinity, close to where we were searching before.
‘Our focus was always Field. Everything came back to Field, that he must be the man responsible but there were no bodies.’
Field, now in his 80s and serving life in Full Sutton Prison, near York, was brought to the Midlands for questioning by the cold case team but denied any involvement in the disappearance of Patrick and David.
‘The police told me they had spoken to Field again quite recently,’ Mrs Harvey revealed when we spoke to her this week. ‘They said that this time he told them: ‘When you find something come to talk to me again.’ Whether he is now going to admit to it, I don’t know.’
The Jaguar Land Rover plant in Birmingham, is just three miles from Chelmsley Wood where Patrick Warren, 11, (right) and his 13-year-old friend David Spencer disappeared in 1996
The boys were last seen just after midnight on December 26, 1996, at a Shell petrol station (pictured) where the attendant gave the pair a packet of biscuits before they walked off
It wasn’t until several days after they disappeared police found a red Apollo bike that Patrick was given that Christmas which had been left by waste bins at the back of the petrol station
The impact on both mothers of what Field is suspected to have done has been devastating.
Patrick’s mother Bridget Warren suffered from depression after her son, the youngest of seven siblings, went missing; she died from cancer five years ago without ever finding out what happened to him.
Christine Harvey, as she now is, has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals since she lost David, who had two younger brothers, and is still on medication.
Patrick would have been 35 today and David 37. What kind of men would they have grown up to be? Would they have married and had children of their own? What would they look like?
These are questions their families have asked themselves for more than two decades. Instead, like all children who have met similar fates, they remain frozen in time; in this case 1996, the year Charles and Diana divorced.
The boys became known as the ‘milk carton kids’ after they were the first children to have their photographs appear on milk cartons in a scheme run by the National Missing Persons Helpline
Patrick played football, loved noodles and used to tease his mum when she lost her temper. David excelled at boxing. The boys, who lived near each other, had been pals for six months and, despite the two-year age gap had become inseparable. So it was on December 26, 1996 — Boxing Day.
Having played on the pool table David got for Christmas, they decided to brave the bitter temperatures that evening to ride Patrick’s new bike on the roads around Chelmsley Wood. The boys returned briefly to David’s home to tell his mum they were going to spend the night at Patrick’s brother’s home just round the corner.
In April 1997 – four months after he vanished – Patrick’s picture was printed on thousands of milk cartons in the UK try and help find him
The pair, Patrick riding his new red bicycle, David walking by his side, made their way down a hill and crossed the road to a Shell petrol station, which is now a KFC outlet. The attendant remembered serving them a packet of biscuits before they headed off in the direction Chelmsley Wood Shopping Centre.
It was the last time Patrick and David were seen alive. Buildings and haunts they frequented were searched, along with a nearby lake and mineshafts, and friends and relatives were quizzed.
The police, however, always regarded them as ‘runaways’ and said there was no reason to believe they had come to any harm.
It’s hard to understand how they could have reached such a conclusion, especially after Patrick’s prized new Apollo Laser bike was found, apparently abandoned, behind the petrol station.
‘I knew from the day they went missing that something had happened to them,’ said Mrs Harvey, who has worked variously as a cleaner, childminder and hairdresser down the years.
‘The police just saw them as tearaways from Chelmsley Wood, not good children.
‘David was such a loving child, that’s why I knew something was wrong when he went missing. He wouldn’t have left his mum. He was too close to me.’
It was a view shared by some police officers.
The news coverage at the time shows how the boys’ families from Chelmsley Wood – a sprawling, working class estate on the edge of Birmingham – appealed for information on them
‘The boys were treated as tearaway missing persons, which was totally wrong,’ admitted a former detective on the cold case review, who asked not to be named. ‘Consequently, their disappearance was not treated as seriously as it should have been.’
A few days after they disappeared, in an unconnected incident, 17-year-old Nicola Dixon was raped and murdered in leafy Sutton Coldfield, seven miles away from Chelmsley Wood.
The killing of a middle-class girl on New Year’s Eve dominated not just regional and national news, but took the lion’s share of police resources.
This was the wider, largely untold story behind Patrick and David’s appearance in April 1997 — four months after they failed to come home — on the side of thousands of milk cartons up and down the country.
Later, they were featured in the BBC’s nationwide radio and TV campaign The Search, hosted by Nick Ross, which aimed to reunite missing people with their families.
Did Brian Field watch the programme or see one of those milk cartons?
He had moved to this corner of the West Midlands in 1989 after committing a string of sexual offences against young boys across the country: in Wrexham in 1969; in Aberdeen in 1972; in Oswestry in 1982; in Shrewsbury in 1983; and in Stafford in 1986.
Field, whose second marriage had just ended in divorce, was a regular at the Old Colonial pub in Solihull which he visited two or three times a week for quizzes and to play chess.
The Old Colonial in Damson Lane, which has now closed, was near the spot where the remains of two young boys have now been found and where Field once worked as a handyman and gardener.
‘I met Field on a couple of occasions and he came across like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth,’ said the owner of a nearby kennels and cattery. ‘This is very close to where they searched in 2006 — just across the lane really.
‘I remember the boys going missing so well. I just hope, if it is them, this will bring some closure for the families.’
After 24 years it is the very least they deserve.
n Additional reporting: Ross Slater
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