Britain's most baffling runaways: the long wait for two schoolboys who vanished without trace

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The Independent Online
CHRISTINE O'TOOLE tries to leave the house as little as possible. Her shopping trips are brief and holidays are out of the question. She spends most of her time just sitting by the phone and waiting.

The reason for such a self-imposed isolation is simple yet heartbreaking: she wants to be there in case her son, David, comes home for the first time since Boxing Day 1996 when, as a 13-year-old, he disappeared without trace.

"I'd hate for him to knock on the door and find no one here," she said. "It's better not to think of holidays and things. I doubt I could enjoy one."

David and his friend Paddy Warren, who was aged 11, are considered Britain's most baffling runaways. They went missing after telling their families they planned to spend the night with Paddy's brother, Derek, who lives nearby in Chelmsley Wood, Birmingham. But they didn't go there, apparently choosing instead to leave behind their Christmas presents and run away from homes where they had seemed perfectly happy.

Since then, in spite of a huge police search and a number of possible sightings, no word has been heard from either boy. Their case is particularly unusual because of their age and the fact that they went as a couple - most runaways choose to go alone.

For their families, the disappearance has taken a terrible toll. David's mother, Mrs O'Toole, 37, has had a nervous breakdown and suffers from violent mood swings; Paddy's mother, Bridget Warren, 54, suffers from depression to such an extent that she can no longer talk about the case.

"We didn't really know each other before the boys went missing," said Mrs O'Toole. "Now we have become friends but whenever we see each other the conversation is always the same."

David, one of three brothers, and Paddy, one of seven children, were known as a couple of tearaways. David had been excluded from his school, Chelmsley Campus, for six months before his disappearance because of acts of violence against other children. Taunted over his red hair and freckles, he struck out at his tormentors. Both boys enjoyed football and David was a keen boxer. They were also known for staying out late and, occasionally, going on "all-nighters" where they would, according to Mrs O'Toole, simply walk the streets. Thus, when they were reported missing at 4.30am back in 1996, the police, who knew the boys, did not spring into action. Mrs O'Toole says they visited her at about 10.30am the next day. After that came a fruitless search, then newspaper articles, posters and local television reports. And then nothing.

"It is like your worst nightmare come true," said Tina Warren, 20, Paddy's sister. "There seems no end to it. We don't know what has happened to them but we have to believe they are alive. If you don't believe that then there is no point going on. You have to hope."

The families' hopes were raised when, three months after the disappearance, some farm workers disturbed two boys sleeping rough in a barn at Atherstone, Warwickshire, and a baker later identified them from photographs as having bought cakes in his shop.

"At least that sighting convinced us that they had not been kidnapped or anything," said Mrs O'Toole. "I believe in my heart of hearts that they are still alive, that someone is looking after them." But whether that someone is a kind soul, a fairground proprietor, a family of travellers or a paedophile pimp has been a source of distress for both families.

However, such "sightings" should be also considered with scepticism, as they are often mistaken, according to the police and the Missing Persons Helpline. "It is very difficult for someone to identify people they don't know," said Sophie Woodforde, a Helpline spokeswoman. "We usually count a positive sighting as one by someone who knows the missing person."

Ms Woodforde said the boys' case is highly unusual but there is still hope for the families. The Helpline recently reunited a woman aged 31 with her family, 16 years after she ran away.

In the meantime, all David's and Paddy's families can do is wait. "Another Christmas is approaching without Paddy, and we're dreading it," said Ms Warren. "If they are out there and someone knows it, please, just let us know they are all right." It is a sentiment echoed by Mrs O'Toole, who refuses to look on the darker side. "I know David is out there alive," she said. "If he was dead, we would have heard by now. Bad news travels fast."

The Missing Persons Helpline is 0500 700 700.

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