The families haunted by the question: Would our children still be alive if police hadn’t wasted two days failing to search for them?
THE messages on social media were low key at first: ‘Anyone seen Darcy, Eve or Sophie?’ one mother asks. She’d woken that Saturday morning, exactly a week ago, and found her daughter hadn’t come home the night before.
The three young women, friends from childhood in South Wales, had gone to a bar the night before to let off steam after the working week, as they often did, but hadn’t returned.
Were they sleeping it off somewhere? Still partying? Had purses or phones been lost? Were they in trouble? It wasn’t like them . . .
As the hours dragged by, the slow trickle of concerned appeals became a torrent — a flood of terror, anguish and frustration as friends and relatives joined in. Two other people were missing too, it transpired. A couple of men the girls had met up with at the bar.
Posters were printed and put up in shop windows, online appeals were shared again and again. ‘Everyone is worried sick please everyone share this!’ begged one. ‘Please someone must know where they are!’ pleaded another.
The messages reached a heart- rending crescendo nearly 48 hours on, late on Sunday night, when a small group of determined friends spotted ominous signs of tyre tracks skidding off the side of the busy A48, on the outskirts of Cardiff, and down a grassy bank . . . and someone heard cries for help.
What rescuers saw, picked out by torchlight at the scene, is difficult to even think about.
The two still living: 20-year-old trainee bank manager Sophie Russon and bouncy castle business owner Shane Loughlin, 32, were rushed to hospital with serious injuries and remain there still. Sophie is understood to have had surgery for a bleed on the brain (she also suffered fractures to her neck, spine and face).
Three others, singer Eve Smith, 21, beautician Darcy Ross, also 21, and amateur footballer Rafel Jeanne, 24, were dead when rescuers found them. Whether they died instantly in the horror smash or might have survived, had they been found sooner, remains among the many questions that haunt loved ones.
BUT quite apart from an outpouring of grief in the tight-knit communities stretching between the western reaches of Newport and the eastern fringes of Cardiff this week, there has also been a growing sense of disquiet and, more than that, of anger.
Just how was it the wreckage lay undiscovered in wooded undergrowth just yards from a busy dual carriageway for nearly 48 hours?
Why was it that when anguished parents of the girls — fun-loving but sensible, responsible and essentially level-headed young women — called police, reporting just how unusual it was for the three, who lived their lives on social media, posting updates, selfies and video clips as a matter of routine, to have gone silent simultaneously then failed to come home, their concerns were, at first, brushed aside?
It was not until more than a day later, just after 11pm on Sunday, that police finally put out a public appeal.
By that time, as we shall see, an extraordinary community effort had already rolled into action: hundreds of people joining a search covering a 37-mile stretch of South Wales from Newport out to the holiday resort of Trecco Bay, in Porthcawl.
An investigation into the handling of missing persons reports filed to Gwent and South Wales Police has already been launched by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), amid allegations that police did not take the reports of concerned families seriously.
Those concerns were voiced passionately at a vigil (attended by 1,000 people) by Rafel’s sister Ffion Actie: ‘I like to think that if [police] got there sooner, it would have been a different outcome,’ she said.
Speaking on the flower- strewn grass verge where the VW Tiguan hurtled into trees days earlier, she said: ‘The hardest thing is that this is such a busy area and the fact they were there so long.
‘That is the worst part about it, thinking they were sat there injured. If it was sooner [they were found] who knows . . . ’ Who knows indeed. ‘Shambolic’ is the word used by Tony Borg, the stepfather of victim Eve, to describe the combined efforts of the two police forces.
Last night Andrew Collingbourne, solicitor on behalf of Eve’s family, told the Mail they wanted answers ‘to a number of questions’. ‘Their understandable concerns centre on the failure to locate Eve and the vehicle she was in at the time,’ he said.
The handling of missing persons reports and subsequent police strategy and protocols were, he said, ‘a key element’ of the referral to the IOPC, adding, ‘it is hoped that an objective, transparent investigation will follow and provide answers for the family’.
Last Friday night, the three girls had headed out to the Muffler bar and club, the Maesglas Sports and Social Club to give it its full name, in once heavily industrial Newport, a regular haunt for all of them.
Eve, a talented singer who once performed in TeenStar, the UK’s ‘ biggest competition for young artists’, was driving.
At some point in the evening they met up with Rafel Jeanne and Shane Loughlin and a third man, named Joel Lia, 27. Whether or not it was a chance encounter is unclear — certainly the older men do not appear to have been known to the girls’ families.
It was a group of six who left the Muffler late that night. Eve left her car in the car park and they all piled into another vehicle — the Tiguan — and drove 38 miles to Trecco Bay where Shane Loughlin had a caravan. Did they intend to stay the night? If they did,
something changed because shortly before 2am (and seemingly after some kind of noisy altercation) they were all scrambling back into the Tiguan and driving back to Cardiff, where Mr Lia got out. The last sighting of the group was captured on CCTV at a petrol station in the Llanedeyrn area of the city where they filled up before embarking on the last, tragic part of their journey.
There was one final social media post on Snapchat — an image of Darcy with Rafel, but all communications and social media updates ended at about 2am on Saturday morning. With their families at home and asleep, there was no immediate panic.
One can only imagine the growing unease at the homes of the young women the next day as, one by one, families discovered beds had not been slept in; worries only worsening as messages were exchanged with other families, only to discover three beds had not been slept in.
Anna Certowicz, the mother of survivor Sophie Russon, made her first call to Gwent Police at around lunchtime on Saturday.
OVER the following day she picked up the phone again and again. Some 20 calls, she estimated, when she spoke to journalists earlier this week, only to be told her daughter was probably still out partying.
‘They didn’t seem to care,’ said the 42-year-old. ‘I had to drive to Cardiff to knock on doors myself because they were doing sod all. They just didn’t seem to think it was worth investigating.
‘I think they assumed that Sophie was hungover somewhere, but she’s a sensible girl who works in a bank and hasn’t taken a day off for three years.
‘She’s not someone who’s out clubbing in Cardiff all the time . . . she wouldn’t just vanish like this unless something was wrong.’
In the absence of any help from police, families took it upon themselves to launch a hunt, the evidence of which weaves a sorrowful trail through a string of increasingly anxious posts on Facebook.
By Saturday evening, with no sign of their children, the parents of Sophie, Eve and Darcy were asking for help. At 8.32pm Darcy’s mother Clare, asks: ‘Anyone seen Darcy, Eve or Sophie??
Two minutes later she posts again: ‘Darcy, Eve and Sophie have gone missing from last night there phones are on and anit [ sic] answering!! Someone anyone know where they were going!!!’
As these messages are read and shared dozens of times, a short distance away Sophie’s older sister Georgia Lily Certowicz is also sounding the alarm.
‘Has anyone seen or hear from my sister Sophie Russon and her mates Darcy Ross and Eve Smith. They was last seen on Snapchat with this boy who I will post below [there is a picture of Rafel] around late last night in the Porthcawl area, all there [sic] phones are off it’s very unusual for my sister to not contact someone to let them know she’s safe completely out of character everyone is worried sick please everyone share this.’ Her post is shared 300 times.
That same evening Lauren Doyle, the older sister of Eve, also puts out a plea for help, a post shared 10,000 times on Facebook.
In such a close-knit community, it takes no time for the identities of the men who were with the young women to be established and suddenly two more families are becoming worried, why would five people, who were all together and contactable, suddenly disappear from the radar?
The hunt widens. By Saturday evening, three official missing person’s reports have been filed to Gwent Police (a fourth is filed with South Wales Police the following day) and the timeline of the evening is being probed, but still the police make no public appeal for help.
Terrified and desperate for someone to do something, the tenor of the messages from the girls’ families becomes increasingly fraught. ‘Please someone must know where they are,’ cries Clare Ross early on Sunday morning, ‘ I can’t find her!!!!’ comes next.
The anguish of Eve’s parents — Emma and former partner Everton — is particularly poignant, shaped as it is by the knowledge that her older sister Xana Doyle, 19, was killed in a car crash in which the driver was both drunk and high on drugs, eight years ago. By Sunday morning the anxiety across three homes in Newport is turning into terror. Martial arts instructor Everton, meanwhile, is in Porthcawl putting up posters with pictures of the three missing girls. Not a police-issue print out, rather something hastily made by the anxious hands of a loving parent.
Meanwhile the wider community of friends and acquaintances of the girls — and the men — have rallied; a 200-strong Facebook Messenger group to co-ordinate the hunt is formed and people — anxious parents among them — begin scouring the sides of roads for any sign of an accident.
It was not until 11pm on Sunday that Gwent Police finally put out their own public appeal and sent out the force helicopter to scour an area to the west of Cardiff, by which time civilian searchers had already made their heartbreaking discovery.
This week the Mail spoke to the young woman who spearheaded that discovery, shortly after midnight on Monday, with her father and two other men.
Her tale is agonising. ‘ We had spent the best part of 12 hours looking for this car,’ she says. ‘We set up a special Facebook Messenger group to co- ordinate it and there must have been about 200 people on it all doing their bit.
‘We scoured everywhere from Porthcawl and through Cardiff to Newport. There were even some off the beaten track in Machin and Caerphilly.’
The father and daughter were ready to stop when they decided, as she says, to go out ‘ one more time’. ‘We took a powerful hunting light with us and we were checking from side to side all along the dual carriageway up to the roundabout,’ says the woman, who asked not to be named.
‘There was a police car following us because I was in my car with the hazards on just going really slowly and Dad was running backwards and forwards checking both sides of the road with the light.
‘He noticed a set of tyre marks in a field and at the same time the other two men arrived too. We all thought they looked fresh and indicated a car might have gone off the road.’
WE NOW know that was precisely what had happened. The civilian rescuers say they heard cries of ‘help’ from the undergrowth, raising the horrible realisation that the two survivors of the crash endured a two-day waking nightmare.
A torch revealed the wreckage, but the civilians were asked to stay away while rescue efforts began.
The young woman speaking to the Mail is clearly still heartbroken by what unfolded.
‘Imagine what it was like for him [her friend Shane] and Sophie lying there with their friends dead around them,’ she says. ‘Wondering whether anyone would ever get to them in time.
‘Imagine your life ebbing away, with some of your friends at your side dead, thinking you had all been forsaken.
‘I have no doubt a lot more could have been done a lot earlier especially by the police.’
As she points out, questions must be asked. The IOPC and police investigations continue, meanwhile questions about the tragedy were raised in the Welsh parliament on Thursday.
Whether or not lives could have been saved remains unknown, but what is clear is that five families and at least two occupants of that VW Tiguan endured an agonising 46 hours that could, perhaps, have been shortened if only a comprehensive search had begun sooner.