Coventry & Warwickshire

Two cleared of Coventry mother Nicola Payne's 1991 murder

Nicola Payne and her son Image copyright Police handout
Image caption Nicola Payne disappeared in Coventry in 1991

Two men have been cleared of murdering 18-year-old mother Nicola Payne nearly 24 years ago.

Nigel Barwell and his brother-in-law, Thomas O'Reilly, both 51, were found not guilty by a unanimous jury at Birmingham Crown Court.

Mother-of-one Ms Payne, from Coventry, disappeared as she crossed wasteland towards her parents' house on 14 December, 1991.

She had a seven-month old son Owen. Her body has never been found.

Image caption Owen Payne, now aged 24, has spoken of having no memories of his mother, Nicola

Ms Payne's parents Marilyn and John were in court each day of the five-week trial but Mrs Payne said she did not have the strength to be in the room for the verdict.

As the jury returned their not guilty verdicts Mr Payne sat with his eyes closed, while the defendants' families were in tears.

Mr Barwell, of Coventry, punched the air and then mouthed "Thank you very much" towards the jury, while Mr O'Reilly, also from Coventry, stood in silence.

Mr and Mrs Payne said they felt "terrible guilt" they had still not found their daughter and made a public appeal for any information that could help them lay her to rest.

Speaking outside court, the couple said: "Nicola was not only our daughter, she was a loving mother to her son Owen and sister to her four older brothers.

"She deserves to be laid to rest. We cannot contemplate not knowing where Nicola is for another 24 years."

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Media captionJohn and Marilyn Payne say they feel guilty they have not laid their daughter to rest

Ms Payne's brother Nigel said his family were "devastated and heavy hearted" by the verdict having lived through 24 years of daily anguish of not knowing what happened to his sister.

Image caption Nigel Payne said his family had lived through daily anguish since his sister disappeared

"For nearly 24 years we have lived daily with the anguish of not knowing what's happened to our beloved Nicola, and worse than that - to this day not knowing where she is," he said.

He thanked the police for their work over the past 24 years and support from the public.

"We will never give up on Nicola and therefore we would ask anyone with any information to come forward and contact the police or Crimestoppers," he added.

Kidnapped and blindfolded

The families of Mr Barwell and Mr O'Reilly, who had protested their innocence from the beginning, expressed sympathy for Ms Payne's family but said the trial had also been a "huge ordeal" for them.

The pair had been originally arrested and questioned two days after Ms Payne disappeared.

They were re-arrested and charged with her murder earlier this year, after what detectives claimed was a breakthrough with forensic evidence in the case.

During the trial Mr Barwell, of Copperas Street, said that on the day of Ms Payne's disappearance he and Mr O'Reilly had been stuck in a car that had broken down after a night out in Rugby, Warwickshire.

He told the jury the case against him was "absolutely absurd" and rejected claims he had deliberately delayed attending identity parades held in 1991 and 1992.

Mr O'Reilly, of Ribble Road, cried as he told the trial how in 1992, he was kidnapped and blindfolded by three men, who threatened to cut off his fingers if he did not confess to the killing.

Image caption Thomas O'Reilly (l) and Nigel Barwell (r) did not speak to the media outside court

Speaking outside court, Mr Barwell's daughter said her family had suffered from "suspicion and innuendo" for 24 years and were pleased "this nightmare has finally come to an end".

"Our father and uncle always maintained from the onset of this investigation that they have had no involvement in the disappearance of Nicola Payne," she said.

West Midlands Police has said it will continue to investigate the case.

Det Supt Mark Payne said: "We're clearly very disappointed we have not been able to bring Nicola's killer to justice.

"This case will never be closed, we will continue to search for the people responsible for Nicola's murder and disappearance."

He appealed to people to come forward with any information "no matter how small" to help the investigation.

Police retention of evidence since Ms Payne's disappearance was criticised during the trial with Mark Dennis QC, representing Mr Barwell, describing it as shambolic.

Det Supt Payne said he had apologised to Ms Payne's parents.

"I... offered them my apologies for any mistakes that may have happened over the intervening 24-year period," he said.

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