A simple photograph of a woman desperately searching woodlands has gone viral, after it was revealed to be Nicola Urquhart, the mother of a missing airman who vanished in Bury St Edmunds town centre three months ago under inexplicable circumstances.
It was 03:20 BST on Saturday, 24th September that 23 year old Corrie McKeague, who had been on a drunken night out with friends in the town, was tracked by a CCTV camera turning into a dead end alley at the rear of the town’s Greggs shop. Despite live cameras covering all possible exit routes, the ex-Catholic high school pupil was never seen again.
A huge police search and social media campaign followed, along with messages of support from Hollywood actor Tom Hardy and Catholic celebrity Delia Smith, but the mystery of Corrie’s last hours, and his final fate, has only deepened, and his mother continues on her desperate quest to find out what has become of her beloved son.
Corrie Mckeague was born in Perth and brought up in Cupar, Fife, with his two brothers Darroch, 21, and Makeyan, 25. Their parents separated when Mr Mckeague was nine and the boys moved 28 miles (45km) away to Dunfermline with their mother Nicola Urquhart.
At St Columba’s High School in the town, Mr Mckeague had longed to become a Royal Marine but he initially went on to train to become a hairdresser at Adam Smith College in Kirkcaldy.
After realising hairdressing was not the career for him, he departed for Perth College University of the Highlands and Islands to become a fitness trainer. It was then he decided to join the Royal Air Force and was posted to RAF Honington in October 2013.
Mr Mckeague is a gunner in No 2 Sqn, RAF Regiment. He is white, 5ft 10ins (1.78m) tall, of medium build, with short light brown hair. His mother has described him as “gregarious”, “funny” and someone who “loves to be the centre of attention”.
“You don’t forget Corrie if you meet him once,” she said.
Mr Mckeague had intended to head into Bury St Edmunds on 23rd September with a group of friends from the air base, but due to a misunderstanding he had been left behind. Instead, he drove himself into the town, about nine miles (15km) from the base.
He parked his BMW Z4 on Robert Boby Way just after 22:00 BST and spent an hour on the phone to his brother Darroch, making plans for the following weekend. Mr Mckeague then went to join his friends.
The group went to the So Bar on Langton Place where they joined in a song with musician Nick Lowe. Mr Mckeague and friends then headed over to the Wetherspoon Corn Exchange pub at about 23:30 BST.
Megan Manning, who was there on the night, said: “He was coming up to loads of different tables, saying ‘hello’ to everyone. He was chatty; he was nice – a nice boy.” She said he was “memorable” because of the outfit he was wearing that night: a light-pink Ralph Lauren shirt, white jeans and a pair of Timberland suede boots.
Mr Mckeague and his friends left the Corn Exchange at about 00:30 BST and went to Flex nightclub on St Andrew’s Street, just a minute’s walk away. Manager Ben Manning said he had asked Mr Mckeague if he was drunk, to which he said Mr Mckeague replied “yes”, told him “I love you” and gave him a hug before “stumbling” inside.
Just after 01:00 BST, Mr Mckeague was escorted out of Flex by doorman Will Hook. Mr Hook said the serviceman had “consumed enough alcohol” to draw attention to himself and “amicably” agreed to leave.
It was then that he became separated from his friends.
He bought burgers, a kebab and a bag of chips from his regular place, Pizza Mamma Mia, on St Andrew’s Street North, where he seemed “happy” and played rock, paper, scissors with a stranger. He could be seen eating his food as he passed a CCTV camera opposite The Grapes pub on the corner of Brentgovel Street and St Andrew’s Street at about 01:20 BST.
He took a nap for about two hours in the doorway of electrical store Hughes on the corner of Brentgovel Street and St John’s Street. At 03:08 BST, Mr Mckeague forwarded a photo of a previous night out to a friend from his phone.
Mr Mckeague turned right into a loading bay area, known as the “Horseshoe”, behind Greggs, at 03:25 BST. The area is closed off by buildings and the rooftops have been searched and analysed by police. It has been proven that an individual cannot leave the area on foot without being seen on CCTV, but Mr Mckeague was not caught on camera again.
RAF Honington reported Mr Mckeague’s disappearance to police on Monday, 26 September when he did not turn up to parade at 11:30 BST. The base would ordinarily report a serviceman AWOL but Mrs Urquhart said he was treated as a missing person straight away. She said this was partly because of heightened security after the attempted abduction of a serviceman close to RAF Marham in Norfolk in July, and also because Mr Mckeague’s disappearance was “so out of character”.
Police first informed the media of his disappearance on Tuesday, 27th September and released CCTV footage of him in Brentgovel Street the next day.
Here’s what has happened since:
- 4 October: It is revealed that his mobile phone had been tracked moving (at far faster than walking pace) 12 miles (19km) away to Barton Mills hours after he was last seen.
- 21 October: Further footage is released, showing his last confirmed sighting.
- 24 October: A driver reports seeing a man walking near the Hollow Road industrial estate on the day Mr Mckeague disappeared.
- 15 November: Part of the A14 near Bury St Edmunds is closed while police carry out a roadside search.
- 5 December: His grandparents Mary and Oliver Mckeague offer a “five-figure” reward for information leading to his discovery.
- 8 December: A crowdfunding campaign to hire a private investigator to search for Mr Mckeague raises £20,000 within two days and police release CCTV footage of 10 people they want to speak to.
- 9 December: Mrs Urquhart says she has “lost faith” in police over their search for her son.
- 16 December: Outgoing RAF Honington commander Gp Capt Mick Smeath speaks of Mr Mckeague’s friends’ hopes that he will be found.
- 17 December: A search organised by Mrs Urquhart takes place at an area of forest near RAF Honington.
When Mr Mckeague was first reported missing, it was thought he may have attempted to walk back to RAF Honington. One theory was that he was hit by a car and was dead in a ditch somewhere en route. A stretch of the A14 between the Moreton Hall and Rougham junctions was closed off while police and Suffolk Lowland Search and Rescue carried out extensive searches.
British Transport Police has also helped Suffolk Police with searches along the railway line from Bury St Edmunds, and a section of the A1101 between the Fiveways roundabout at Barton Mills and Icklingham was closed while officers conducted further searches along it. Searches have also been carried out along the A11
Another theory is that he was in one of the bins at the “Horseshoe” area, which was then taken to a landfill site. Signals showed his Microsoft Lumia 435 mobile phone had moved to nearby Barton Mills, where there is a landfill site, and police searched a bin lorry after finding its route matched the movements of the device.
However, it was found that the weight of the bin lorry’s load was 15kg (33lb) – too light to have contained Mr Mckeague. As a result, the lorry was released and the landfill site was not searched. The phone, however, has still not been found.
“Third party” involvement was quickly ruled out by police, but the idea has not been dismissed by Mr Mckeague’s mother. Mrs Urquhart said for her son to have vanished from the “Horseshoe” area, he must have been taken by someone else in a vehicle.
Suffolk Police has since said officers continued to consider “every possibility”.
Mr Mckeague’s family have categorically said they do not believe he “went AWOL”. Although she has declined to elaborate further, Mrs Urquhart has been critical of the police investigation, saying police had “utterly destroyed” her confidence that they would find her son. She organised her own search on 17th December.
Suffolk Police has maintained officers are using an “inordinate” amount of resources and are exploring “every possibility”.
Yet, three months on, Mr Mckeague’s whereabouts are as big a mystery as the night he disappeared. Having spent Christmas without any news of their missing son, family and friends are making renewed appeals for anyone with any information to get in touch. For further details or to help, please click here.
Reporting with kind thanks to the BBC.