Police search Gibraltar for sailor missing since 1986

Seventeen years ago, Simon Parkes disappeared. When the 18-year-old sailor failed to return to his ship at Gibraltar after a night out drinking with his mates, the authorities assumed he had "gone AWOL". But the Royal Gibraltar Police failed to find him, and his passport, belongings, and Christmas presents for his family were found on board his ship, HMS Illustrious.

The case was, in effect, closed as an unsolved missing person inquiry. But two years ago, police reopened the investigation, called Operation Thornhill, after one of the sailor's shipmates, Petty Officer Allan Grimson, was convicted of two murders, including that of an 18-year-old naval rating.

During the past fortnight, a specialist search team, including officers from Hampshire police, and a sniffer dog from a German force, have resumed the hunt in Gibraltar. They have searched drains close to a military barracks where Seaman Parkes was last seen, but have not found any clues to his disappearance.

Seaman Parkes' mother, Margaret, said she and her husband, David, who live in Bristol, had accepted for a long time that their son was dead. "It's just as if he disappeared off the face of the earth," she said. "There are no clues, sightings, nothing. "When he disappeared the assumption was that he had gone AWOL [absent without leave] and that they were looking for a person, not a body.

"It's not knowing that is the hard thing. When they start searching it's very difficult waiting on the end of the telephone. We've been waiting to hear all these years to find out what happened to our son."

From the age of 12, Simon Parkes had always wanted the Royal Navy and joined as soon as he left school. The stop off in Gibraltar was the last leg of a world tour and Illustrious was to return to England for Christmas. The young sailor had been looking forward to going home and had arranged passes so his family could greet him when he docked in England.

Seaman Parkes went out drinking with shipmates on 12 December 1986. He was seen leaving the Horseshoe bar in Gibraltar. Someone fitting his description was then seen drunk at a nearby naval function inside the Fleet Pavilion at the Hole in the Wall pub. He is believed to have taken a taxi to South Barracks, which at the time was used by the Army. He was dropped close to the barracks and was never seen again. The case appeared to be closed until Hampshire police began a separate murder inquiry into Allan Grimson.

At Winchester Crown Court in 2001, 43-year-old Grimson admitted killing a naval rating Nicholas Wright, 18, from Leicestershire, and a barman Sion Jenkins from Newbury, Berkshire. He tortured and beat to death both men at his flat in Portsmouth after picking them up from a nightclub on separate occasions. Seaman Wright was killed on 12 December 1997 and Mr Jenkins on 12 December 1998.

Grimson, who is serving life, was described by Mr Justice Cresswell as "a serial killer in name, if not in number". The trial was told that in an interview with police Grimson said he had punched the air in triumph and let out a roar after hitting one of his victims with a baseball bat, slitting his throat and slicing off his ear. He told officers: "It was such a feeling. I have never had that feeling. It was a feeling of power, a good feeling."

A Hampshire police spokes-woman confirmed that Grimson had been interviewed about Seaman Parkes. She added that this was just one of several lines of inquiry. Police looked at 20 cases of missing sailors around the world at the time of the Grimson case. After the conviction they began to reinvestigate the disappearance of Seaman Parkes.

This month, 10 officers from Hampshire and the Royal Gibraltar Police searched the area around South Barracks, using sonar equipment to indentify disturbed ground. Digging brought no clues and the Hampshire officers returned last week. Gibraltar police are continuing the search.

Detective Inspector John Ashworth, the Hampshire officer in charge, believes someone is still holding crucial information from nearly two decades ago. He asked anyone with information to call him on 02392 892610. "We will not give up on this case," he added.

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