How can a 16-year-old just vanish into thin air? 

How can a 16-year-old just vanish into thin air? Ruth was last seen at a beauty spot 23 years ago. Now a retired detective has uncovered a dark secret – and tantalising new clues

  • Ruth Wilson, 16, was last seen in November 1995 by a taxi driver in Dorking 
  • Ruth’s friend Catherine Mair recalls Ruth being secretive about her home life
  • She claims Ruth became obsessive over the truth behind her mother’s death 
  • Ruth arranged for flowers to be delivered to her stepmother before her vanishing
  • Police found notes to her family and friends along with an empty box of tablets
  • Detective Liam McAuley and journalist Martin Bright re-investigate the case
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The last known sighting of Ruth Wilson was through a rear-view mirror. It was a cold, wet night in November 1995 and the man watching the 16-year-old recede into the fading light was the taxi driver who had just dropped her off at a lonely spot on Box Hill, a wooded outcrop that dominates the landscape around the Surrey commuter town of Dorking.

The driver later told police he was surprised to see the schoolgirl just standing there, not walking towards some rendezvous, possibly at a nearby pub, the Hand In Hand.

Surprised, but not alarmed. The driver carried on to his next job.

Ruth Wilson would never be seen again. Her disappearance was total — she would make no phone call, send no letter, make no bank withdrawal. She simply vanished.

The photograph of Ruth used on ‘Missing’ posters and in newspaper reports freezes her in time — a smiling girl with shoulder-length dark hair, dressed in school uniform and peeping out from behind large glasses. Shy-looking but with a hint of mischief.

Detective Liam McAuley and journalist Martin Bright have begun re-investigating the disappearance of Ruth Wilson, 16, (pictured) in 1995

‘How difficult is it for a 16-year-old girl to disappear completely?’ asks retired police officer Liam McAuley. ‘I would say it was nigh-on impossible.’

Mr McAuley, who lives in Surrey, is using his considerable experience to try to help solve the riddle of Ruth’s disappearance.

‘I was so busy with my work in London that I missed the case until after my retirement in 2009,’ he explains. ‘When I came across it I found myself being drawn into the mystery. Something didn’t add up.’

And that unofficial inquiry, conducted with Martin Bright, a journalist who has followed the case for many years, has turned up something new: a family secret that provides an explanation for Ruth’s decision to leave home — a decision that may have led to her death.

The disclosure is made in a documentary, Vanished: The Surrey Schoolgirl, on YouTube’s Real Stories documentary channel.

‘Ruth’s childhood was based on secrets and lies,’ says her friend Catherine Mair. ‘She only realised that when she examined her mum’s death certificate.’

Ruth was born in Surrey on January 31, 1979, to Ian and Nesta Wilson, and had a younger sister, Jennifer. Mr Wilson was a teacher and later head of a school science department.

On December 4, 1982, when Ruth was three and Jenny less than a year old, Nesta died. Some believe Ruth grew up thinking her mother had died in a freak accident, breaking her neck after falling downstairs.

A year later, Ian remarried. Ruth knew her stepmother Karen, also a teacher, as ‘Mum’.

The Wilsons lived in a 17th-century cottage in the village of Betchworth, between Dorking and Reigate. Box Hill overlooks this affluent enclave.

Ruth’s father Ian and stepmother Karen (pictured five years after she vanished in 1995)

Ruth appeared to live a traditional middle-class life. Academic achievement was encouraged at home and Ruth enjoyed both pop and traditional music, combining singing in the choir, organ-playing and bell-ringing at her local church with electric guitar.

She was a popular babysitter and worked in a music shop on Saturdays. A sixth-former at The Ashcombe School in Dorking, she was studying biology and chemistry and thinking of reading archaeology at university.

Ruth wasn’t ‘cool’, not one of the school in-crowd.

‘She didn’t talk about her ambitions,’ says Catherine Mair, who befriended Ruth in the sixth form. ‘She worked hard, to the detriment of exploring the things that kids do at that age, like fashion. But she had this really wicked sense of humour.’

The Wilsons were pillars of the community, Mr Wilson becoming a parish councillor. But according to Catherine, who during their brief friendship was close to Ruth, all was not well at home. ‘She was unhappy — really unhappy,’ she says. ‘She cried with me about things. She didn’t want to be there.’

How many female teens runaway from home?

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Just why is not clear.

‘She was secretive about that. She didn’t go into details,’ adds Catherine, who never visited Ruth’s home.

Around October 1995, Ruth’s state of mind darkened. Somehow, she had developed the belief that her biological mother’s death was not as depicted. According to Catherine, Ruth travelled to London to examine Nesta’s death certificate.

A shock awaited her. Nesta had not died after falling downstairs, she discovered. Instead, she had hanged herself and was later declared dead in hospital.

The shock of this revelation consumed Ruth, says her old friend. She was ‘obsessed’ with what might have happened.

‘When you keep things like that from your kids — a mother killing herself a couple of weeks before Christmas with a one-year-old and a three-year-old — there was stuff in Ruth that made her want to know what happened,’ says her friend. ‘She was fixated on trying to find out.’

Catherine adds: ‘She was definitely working up to some kind of boiling point. She is quite volatile: she wouldn’t hold back.’

Liam McAuley (pictured) believes a sinister explanation behind Ruth’s disappearance may explain why she didn’t have documents or baggage with her when she vanished

That boiling point seems to have been reached on Monday, November 27, 1995, two months before Ruth’s 17th birthday.

On the Saturday before her disappearance, Ruth had worked at the music shop before going out for an Indian meal with her ex-boyfriend, Will Kennedy, and another friend, Neil Phillipson. Ruth and Will were still friends despite their split, and it is thought Ruth may have signalled her intention to leave home.

On the Sunday, Ruth attended bell-ringing practice before heading to a youth club in Dorking, then to Will’s home for supper, before returning home.

Monday dawned cold and miserable. Ruth’s father had an Ofsted inspection to cope with and, in a rush, pushed past Ruth to leave the house.

‘I remember being annoyed with her and said something like, “Out of my way. I’m in a hurry”,’ he said later. ‘I’ll always regret those were the last words I ever said to her.’ Mrs Wilson, the deputy head of a primary school, also left for work early.

Ruth and her sister Jenny usually caught the same bus to school, but Ruth suddenly announced that she would make her own way to school later.

A short time after that, her friend Will turned up and offered Ruth a lift to school in his car. She declined, saying again that she would go in later.

Instead, Ruth ordered a taxi and headed to Dorking Library, where she spent a few hours before popping into Thistles, a florist’s. There, she ordered a bouquet of flowers for her stepmother, instructing that they were to be delivered in two days and not before. There was no card attached.

Ruth then headed to the nearby railway station, where she took another taxi to the Hand In Hand pub at the top of Box Hill. She asked to be dropped off near the entrance to a bridleway. It was 4.30pm and the sky was darkening. Rain started to fall.

Then, she was gone.

Surrey Police searched across 1,000 acres of Parkland (Pictured: Dorking area) to find Ruth after her disappearance using dog teams and a helicopter

That night, Surrey Police began a wide-ranging search across some 1,000 acres of parkland, using dog teams, heat-seeking equipment and a helicopter. Fellow pupils joined other members of the public in the search, but to no avail.

Two days later, the flowers arrived for her stepmother. Catherine is in no doubt they were not a gesture of goodwill. It is thought — but not confirmed by Surrey Police — that within a few days of Ruth’s disappearance, officers found three notes hidden under a bush on Box Hill, one to her parents and two to friends. Near by were said to be an empty packet of paracetamol tablets and a bottle of vermouth. But there were no other effects at all.

It appears that from the outset the police didn’t treat the case as being particularly suspicious.

According to the charity Missing People, only 1 per cent of children who go missing remain so for more than a year — though that still means hundreds of cases.

Most of the children identified on its website as missing for three years or more appear to be of overseas origin, and very few fit Ruth’s profile.

A spokesman for the charity explains: ‘Trafficking is one of the key issues, which explains the significant number of foreign nationals who go missing long-term. Parental abduction is a risk, as is stranger abduction, though both are rare.’

When the two men who have reinvestigated the case, Liam McAuley and Martin Bright, sought more details from Surrey Police, they were told Ruth was still the subject of an ongoing investigation and that exact details were confidential.

Family liaison officer Mark Williams-Thomas believes Ruth (pictured) could still be in Dorking 

Both men regard this secrecy, after 23 years, as excessive. ‘It’s the circumstances that are so mysterious,’ says Mr Bright. ‘A person just wearing the clothes they’re standing in one winter’s night, and they suddenly disappear off the face of the earth. I think this should have been treated as suspicious from the outset.’

Mr McAuley believes there may be a sinister explanation for Ruth’s disappearance.

‘So, has Ruth gone up there to meet somebody? Or did she plan to commit suicide?’ he asks. ‘It isn’t a good starting-point to run away. If you wanted to do that, you would catch a train to London. She had no documents that would assist her in the future, or baggage.’

Mr McAuley sent a registered letter to Ruth’s father offering help, but there was no reply.

‘The way the police are being tight-lipped is just adding to the mystery. If this keeps on, the file on Ruth will lie yellowing in a filing cabinet and one day will just be incinerated.’

There was clearly some disquiet about the conduct of the investigation, which maintained the character of a missing person inquiry.

Catherine Mair points out that fully eight months after the disappearance, she was visited at her new home in Sheffield by police officers — who broke off from questioning her to look in her wardrobe, as if she might have been harbouring Ruth.

Mark Williams-Thomas, then the family liaison officer working with the Wilsons, subsequently produced an internal report critical of Surrey Police’s approach to the case, known as Operation Scholar. The document, written five months into the search operation, received no official response.

‘The search was just not done well enough,’ said Mr Williams-Thomas. ‘To be honest, Ruth could still be up there.’ The officer also criticised the inadequate number of interviews and house-to-house inquiries conducted.

Sightings of Ruth were recorded — one in Canada — but proved inconclusive.

In 2006, Mr Wilson penned an open letter to his missing daughter, published in the Mail. ‘We still have the presents we bought you for Christmas in 1995,’ he wrote. ‘They’re safe in a drawer — waiting for you to come back, though I expect your tastes have changed so much you’d probably laugh at the music and clothes.

Ruth (pictured) would be 39 years old now.  Her school friend Ben Anderton believes she is safe and well somewhere as she had previously runaway from home

‘Though the house is too large now your sister Jenny has moved out, we can’t bear to move. It’s your home, after all.

‘Your disappearance is still a mystery. You were confident, independent-minded and, apart from the usual teenage frictions, seemed so happy at home.

‘You can imagine our terror and how we searched month after month. I trawled London, hoping against hope I’d find you. We wondered if you had a secret but your Filofax revealed nothing. The police discovered you had visited Box Hill before, but don’t know why.

‘There have been many false leads. Every time our spirits are raised, only to be dashed again. It’s torture. Even now I find myself driving past bus stops and staring. Could that young woman — you’re 27 now — be you?’

Catherine believes Ruth’s schoolfriends might have helped her parents understand her state of mind.

Following Ruth’s disappearance, it transpired that she often went to Box Hill after school before going home. Did she meet someone?

Catherine dismisses the idea: ‘There was no man because we saw her at weekends.

‘Box Hill was the place to go to be alone and have a think. It wouldn’t be where you would go to disappear — you’d go to the station. And you would take a hat, some of your parents’ money and pack some clothes.’

As for abduction and murder, she is not convinced. ‘All of a sudden, she goes up to Box Hill to disappear and, amazingly, somebody is there to abduct her?’

Today, Ruth would be 39 years old. Maybe she is alive somewhere. But how could her new life be constructed without documentation or money?

And if she did take her own life on Box Hill that night in 1995, where is her body? Did she, perhaps, think better of her escapade and seek help? But what happened then?

‘The case of Ruth Wilson is haunting,’ says Martin Bright. ‘The mystery centred on why a happy 16-year-old would simply vanish. But our investigation has shown that, far from being happy, Ruth had just discovered that her birth mother had committed suicide when she was three years old.’

Already, the documentary has prompted more witnesses to come forward. A Facebook group set up by the documentary team has provided a forum for Ruth’s friends and schoolmates. One of those taking part, Ben Anderton, a schoolfriend of Ruth’s, says she ran away from home a month before her final disappearance and ‘hid out’ at his house in Betchworth.

‘I still believe she’s safe and well somewhere,’ says Ben. ‘She had run away from home for a week or so about a month previously and hinted at going away again a week or so before her disappearance, although [she] didn’t give any details.

‘She hid out at mine when she first ran away. She wasn’t happy at home and wanted to escape.’

Though the Wilson family firmly declined to comment this week, they have previously issued a statement which read: ‘Her family . . . do not recognise this view of Ruth’s childhood. Ruth always knew about her biological mother’s death, but not the exact cause.

‘Sadly, we now know that before her disappearance, Ruth had discovered the tragic circumstances of her mother’s death — but equally sadly, she chose not to discuss or question this with any family members.’

Ruth’s friend Catherine, a mother now, living in Yorkshire, says: ‘Some people may ask, what is the point of bringing all this up again? But something doesn’t feel right.’

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