Around two hundred thousand Britons go missing from their families each year. Thankfully most return home within a few days, but what about the ones who don't?
Four years after Stephen Back's disappearance, Inside Out visits his family to discover the anguish and uncertainty faced by those left behind.
The pressures of modern life affect most people at some point in their lives, but for some, the stress can become so great that they feel the only escape is to walk away.
For the families left behind, there is the fear that their loved one may have been abducted, murdered, or have committed suicide.
Yet without any evidence or sightings, all families are left with is uncertainty and the painfully inconclusive description "missing".
This is the situation that Stephen's family face.
|Stephen was destined to enter the family building firm|
Stephen grew up in the small town of Bishops Lydeard near Taunton.
After studying building at university, Stephen was destined to enter and eventually become director of the family's successful building firm.
In 1990 at the age of 28, Stephen married Jo and the couple later had two children Stephanie and Oliver.
"The gentle giant some people describe him as," says Stephen's father Charlie.
"A homely, family, caring person. Quiet, but very public spirited."
On January 22, 2001 however, what looked set to be a bright and promising future for Stephen, came to an abrupt and mysterious end.
"He said he needed a few days. I honestly thought he'd be back."
Leaving behind his wife, his two children and £1m inheritance, Stephen Back disappeared.
Fateful phone call
Stephen's wife Jo first became aware of her husband's disappearance after a phone call from the Missing Persons Helpline.
"Tea-time came and I remember thinking 'where is he?'," remembers Jo.
"Then at 6.20pm the Missing Persons Helpline phoned me to say that Steve had phoned and wouldn't be coming home for a few days.
"I thought it was a hoax, but when they gave me his date of birth, it just hit me."
After initial searches of the local area proved fruitless, the Back family went national appearing on BBC One's Crimewatch.
|The happy wedding group, unware of the anguish to follow 11 years later|
Their appeal for information brought no further evidence to light and the family were left clueless.
Two weeks later however a letter from Stephen to his dad Charlie was uncovered in his office.
The letter set out exactly how Stephen wished his children to be looked after "should he not be here".
Funds were to be divided up with Stephen taking just £800 for himself, yet he allocated nothing for his wife.
With the discovery of the letter, thoughts understandably turned to suicide, but Charlie refused to believe his son was dead.
After presenting a united front on Crimewatch, Charlie and Jo each found a different way of coping and rationalising Stephen's disappearance.
|Jo is convinced that Stephen is dead|
Whilst Charlie toured the country responding to any possible sightings, Jo was certain Stephen was dead.
Convinced by a psychic vision witnessed by her grandmother, Jo believes Stephen was killed in a climbing accident.
To help Stephanie and Oliver come to terms with their grief and anger, Jo encouraged them to make scrapbooks.
Letters and drawings convey the anguish the whole family feels.
To begin the healing process, Jo wiped Stephen's memory from their home.
|NATIONAL MISSING PERSONS HELPLINE|
If you have gone missing:
If you are over 18 and would like to send a Message Home, need advice or help, call The Missing Persons Helpline on 0800 700 740 (free in the UK).
Message Home is a confidential Helpline for anyone who has left home or run away to send a message home and/or get confidential help and advice.
- They can help callers anywhere in the UK
- They are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week
- They are free
- They can let someone know
- They can help the caller get to a place of safety
If someone you know is missing:
The Missing Persons Helpline can help you find out if your loved one is safe and, if possible, help you to make contact.
The Missing Persons Helpline provides:
- A national 24 hr telephone helpline for people who are missing
- Support, advice and practical help
- Publicity in the media: on radio, TV and Teletext, in newspapers, The Big Issue and on milk cartons
- A confidential national computerised register of missing people
- A service which uses unique age progression software to update photos of people missing for years
- A national 24 hr telephone Message Home helpline for anyone who has left home and wants to pass a message on to their family.
To report a sighting of a missing person:
Contact The National Missing Persons Helpline
0800 700 700 (free in the UK).
+44(0)20 8392 4545 (from abroad)
or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: National Missing Persons Helpline
"I've thrown out all his clothes. That was a decision the children and I made together."
Jo took the final step in distancing herself from Stephen - she filed for divorce.
"I had to divorce him to survive. Everything was in Steve's name."
With the anguish of losing a loved one, comes the desire to attribute blame.
Whilst Charlie blames Stephen's marriage for driving him away, Jo blames the stress of work.
The search continues
Four years after Stephen's disappearance, unable to rest without answers, Charlie is funding his own investigation.
A private detective and his team suspect Stephen has been murdered.
With high-tech lasers, laptops and guided by archaeologists the team take to the skies in a helicopter, scouring the countryside for clues.
From the air, the team locate several suspicious areas showing signs of recent disturbance.
On the ground, the team begin to peel back the turf.
"If he was out there still and was to be aware of this, he'd get upset and would make contact," insists Charlie.
"If he's not out there, if he's with the Lord looking down, he'd be saying 'thank you for not letting it rest'."
Three weeks on and the dig brings Charlie no nearer to discovering the truth about the disappearance of his son.
Whether Stephen has begun a new life with a new identity, taken his own life or was a victim of murder, one thing is certain, Stephen's memory will live on in the hearts of his family.
And Charlie will never end his search until he has the answers he so desperately needs.