This is the story of some boys who went missing in Belfast in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Some of whom returned home, but most were never heard from again.
So the following is a timeline of reporting on incidents involving the main publicized cases of some of the boys who disappeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s around Belfast, namely Jonathan Aven, David Leckey, Randal Kirk, John David Glennon, Brian McDermott, Thomas Spence and John Rogers.
With Kincora back in the news, one bit of speculation that inevitably accompanies the Kincora story is that of the fate of a number of boys who went missing around Belfast in the late 1960s and early 1970s, usually including the names above. Despite growing up in Belfast (admittedly later in the 1970s and then the 1980s), I’d never heard of any of the cases being mentioned or in the media. That might tell it’s own story, but it made me wonder whether some of the boys did eventually turn up.
That says ‘some of the boys’ because it is clear that there isn’t a definitive list available. Contemporary newspapers (1960s-70s) contain regular accounts of missing boys and boys reunited with their families who ran off and were found elsewhere (running away was a recurring theme in childrens adventures like Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and others that were popular at the time). In 1969 alone, cases that were mentioned in the press included Clifford Millar (15) from Railway Street, Ballymena disappeared on 21 Feb 1969 and then was found working in a Wimpy in Dublin in mid-April that year (see Belfast Telegraph 24/2/69 and Belfast Telegraph 16/4/69). The same week as Clifford turned up, two Ballymena girls, Pauline Agnew (13) and Wilma Elliott (15), went missing for 5-6 days and turned up on the Antrim Road (Belfast Telegraph 14/4/69). On the day Millar was found 11 year old John Hamilton left Barnardos in Whiteabbey and didn’t return, his reappearance (if any) was not mentioned in the press. Similarly Patrick O’Hare (16) of Waterford Street (his father John was a Councillor) went missing on 22 January but any return home was not reported (see Belfast Telegraph 5/2/69). I don’t know if either boy was ever found. So the story of boys going missing wasn’t unknown, nor was a happy or tragic ending to the story necessarily confirmed in the press.
Nor was it just boys who were reported missing from Belfast in 1969-70, obviously, with girls being listed as missing even if over 16 years of age (although missing boys do seem to be reported more frequently). Patricia Harper was 17 but was notified as a missing person months after leaving her Stanhope Drive home in March 1970 (see Belfast Telegraph 5/5/70, the previous day the Irish Press reported she was believed to have run away to join an evangelical sect). Christine McAreavey was 20 when she was reported as having disappeared from her Raglan Street home in October 1970 (Belfast Telegraph 7/10/70). Neither Patricia or Christine’s return was reported in the press (and both may, rightly, believe that whether they did or not is no-one else’s business).
So it may be wrong to presume that all such missing children cases include reporting on both the child going missing and then being found again. Or that the few names listed above is even representative. Many such stories were reported and the early 1970s police suggested they normally get notified of five missing children a week (but no information on how many cases stay unresolved). Where Jonathan Aven, David Leckey, Randal Kirk, John David Glennon, Brian McDermott, Thomas Spence and John Rogers are mentioned, the cases of Aven and Leckey and Spence and Rogers are often treated as double abductions (which are unusual), despite there being no witnesses or other evidence.
Of those missing Belfast boys, tragically Brian McDermott’s remains were recovered, but there are no public references to the return of any of the other boys in the well-publicized cases, hence the continued speculation about their fates. Some of those boys – like Randal Kirk and John David Glennon – were 16 years old and possibly old enough to have ran away and built lives elsewhere and simply not returned home (as it transpires, this turns out to have been the case with Glennon).
A 2017 Freedom of Information request, published online, found no files on those two older boys (Kirk and Glennon), maybe indicating that, as they were over 16, the RUC did not pursue an investigation of their disappearances, didn’t retain their files or that both had turned up in the end (at least Glennon definitely returned). Similarly, the reason why they, in particular, feature in later missing boy accounts (possibly over other 16 years olds that were missing) isn’t clear, although the lack of sustained information campaigns may have meant that good news, as such, was more likely to be overlooked or simply unreported.
The other missing boys were younger than Glennon, with likes of David Leckey just 11 years old and, one would assume, they were highly unlikely to have simply found jobs or built new lives on their own after going missing. But it should be stressed, in all but the McDermott and Glennon cases, that there is simply no evidence for what happened to them, and no reason to automatically assume any particular outcome is more likely than others – either they simply ran away and found a new life, that they suffered a tragic accident, or were deliberately abducted.
The chronology below sets out the main newspaper reports (mostly Belfast Telegraph) of their disappearances, searches and then some later references. As mentioned above, it clearly identifies the fate of John David Glennon, which is included along with some of the story of his wider family. It also establishes a lack of connection between the Aven and Leckey disappearances, beyond the general location and being in the same week. Hopefully, some day further information, and possibly even good news may emerge for any remaining families and friends of the missing boys.
There are references in more recent accounts, eg the 2017 FoI request (linked above) to the disappearance of a boy called J. Lesithen from East Belfast in 1969. This name appears to be an error – see 1982 below for more information.
September 19 1969
Jonathan Aven, aged 13 (21 Sydenham Drive) goes missing on a Friday after school.
There had been a news report in the Belfast Telegraph earlier in 1969 (Belfast Telegraph 14.3.69) that give some family background with a photo of 18 year old Christopher Aven, son of Sergeant Major Aven and Mrs C. A. Aven of 21 Syndenham Drive (below). Aven senior was in the 43rd Signals. His son Christopher was a Royal Marine Section Commander who joined the Marines in 1967 and was studying for a commission and had just won a Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award (for a 50 mile hike). He was formerly of Ashfield Boys School. Another brother, Anthony, was with the Royal Corps of Transport in Berlin. Jonathan was younger than Christopher and Anthony by a number of years.
[Note, despite being reported in the Belfast Newsletter on 16.10.69 and 12.11.69 that he did, Jonathan did not attend Oakleigh School on the Ravenhill Road – that the boys went different school is clearly stated in the Belfast Telegraph in 1976 (see below). It seems more likely Jonathan went to Ashfield Boys like his brothers – although this is not stated in media accounts. The Newsletter also included a claim the boys were seen together in England that never appeared elsewhere even at the time.]
September 25 1969
David Leckey, aged 11 (24 Memel Street) goes missing. He left for school (Oakleigh School, special school) and has not been seen since. First reported in press, with photo, on 7th October 1969 (Belfast Telegraph). Like Sydenham Drive a few days earlier, there are no press reports of street disturbances or violence in the vicinity.
Randal Kirk, aged 16 (Barn Road, Carrickfergus) reported missing after going to a football game. Note – his name is occasionally given as ‘Ronald’ or ‘Roland’.
January 8 1970
John David Glennon (Divismore Crescent) went to school and then disappeared.
RUC ask for help on Aven/Leckey cases – suggest families search caravans and holiday homes (Belfast Telegraph 28.2.70) as they “believe they may be sleeping in a caravan or holiday residence”. The RUC also carried out searches of some Co. Down caravan parks and others further afield with no success (Belfast Telegraph 5.3.70, includes photos of the boys).
[Note: RUC treat as linked cases despite discrepancies in disappearance dates – it later emerges that the boys seemingly did not know each other – see 1976 below]
RUC again ask families to search caravans and holiday homes (Belfast Telegraph 28.3.70)
Fresh appeal about Leckey and Aven disappearance. RUC describe absolute silence as unusual although they get regular reports of ‘sightings’ (Belfast Telegraph 23.7.70). Accounts seem to assume the boys disappeared together.
In Belfast Telegraph (31.10.70) the missing boys story is covered again and includes David Leckey and Jonathan Aven along with Randal Kirk and John David Glennon. Leckey is described as a ‘home bird’ who never ventured far from his local area, although the report says “It was belived the pair went off together.” That does appear to be to be borne out in later comments from the families.
For Kirk, it was claimed it “is thought he worked for a time at Greenford, Middlesex, but left this employment before police could check.” Did Kirk, like Glennon just run away? Glennon is stated to have just gone to school and then disappeared.
A follow-up article in the Belfast Newsletter (2.11.70) explicitly states that the disappearances are not linked and notes that the Leckey family had involved a clairvoyant (Mr Ossie Rae) in the search.
7 March 1973
David Glennon (45) left the Glennon’s home in Divismore Crescent to pay a bill in town. This included an arrangement for an appointment at the Education Welfare Office (Academy Street) at 3:30pm which David didn’t make it to, there were some newspaper reports that claimed he had been in a Donegall Street pub late on Wednesday afternoon (eg Irish Independent 9.3.73). A car was stolen from outside a club in Craven Street on the “Wednesday evening”, the next morning (8th March) the car was found in Summer Street. David Glennon was in the back seat with the feet tied and a hood wrapped around his head and tied by wire around his neck and a pool of blood outside the car. Army Technical Officers blew off the door and David’s body was dragged out with a rope. A Mrs Jean Pittman gave a statement saying she saw blood outside the car when she thought it was suspicious, but she could not be traced for his inquest (all Belfast Telegraph 24.1.74). The report notes that Mary (or Maureen in some reports) and David Glennon’s son had been missing for four and a half years and included pleas from her for him to come home.
[Note: The gap between time the car was stolen in Craven Street and timing of his possible abduction is unclear, so whether David was deliberately targeted or a random victim is unknown. Glennon’s wider family were subject to a series of attacks which are included in the timeline below, although, as will become obvious, there is connection to John David Glennon’s disappearance.]
2 September 1973
On this day Brian McDermott was last seen at a playground near his home. In a story that still shocks today, his headless, dismembered and charred remains were found (by chance) a week later in the River Lagan. His brother Billy was questioned in 1976 when he made a confession that he has always insisted was coerced by the RUC. He then was investigated in 2004 and again in 2008 when an ex-partner alleged he had confessed to killing Brian. Despite some of his family suspecting him, Billy McDermott continues to insist that he is innocent.
Inquest into David Glennon murder (this produced many of the details given above).
14 March 1974
Noel McCartan, a cousin of David Glennon’s, was shot dead near his family home in McClure Street. Another family member, Noel’s nephew, James McCartan, had been tortured and then shot dead in Mersey Street in October 1972 in a killing involving Albert Baker (an ex-soldier whose exact role is unclear). Another cousin of David’s and the McCartans, John Whyte, was killed by shots reportedly fired at an army footpatrol on 1st January 1974.
24 March 1974
John Hamilton (a Protestant married to a Catholic, Elizabeth – sister of Noel McCartan) found near his home on Spruce Street, having been shot dead. Family members reported that had been receiving death threats that said “Remember… sooner or later… I will not forget any of you. You are all marked. Until we meet.” (Belfast Telegraph 26.3.74). The press point out that none of the McCartans, Hamiltons etc were politically involved. Alice McCartan died in the week after her son (Noel’s) and son-in-law (John’s) deaths from what relatives said was a broken heart.
14 May 1974
Desmond McCartan was leaving his home at Annadale Flats when he spotted a booby trap bomb in the glove compartment and got out before it could detonate. It was later defused.
26 November 1974
John Rogers (13) from Rodney Drive and Thomas Spence (11) Rochdale Street leave their homes and were waiting on a bus on the Falls Road (to go St Aloysius Special School on the Somerton Road). John is last seen leaving home at 9am. Thomas is last seen at 9.15am at a bus stop on the Falls when he should have already been on the bus, while other witnesses suggested that both boys were seen and also in a shop on the Falls Road (see Irish Independent 14.9.2001). When Mrs Spence was told he was still at the bus stop (after the bus would normally have left) she went to get him but he wasn’t there. Neither boy is seen again. John’s adoptive mother, Alice, claims she later escaped an abduction attempt (see Sunday Tribune 18.8.2002). See also here for a more recent account of their story.
A 1976 article (Belfast Telegraph 22.12.76) includes information on the family searches, discounted rumours about the boys ‘being on the run’ from (paramilitary) organizations, while Alice Rogers said she never thought John was the type to go away.
Same article notes that David Leckey and Jonathan Aven attended different schools and, as far as David’s mother was aware, they had no knowledge of each other. She said her husband met the Avens and neither could find a link between the boys. Former investigating officer said (in 1976) that the lack of any evidence at all in the case was unusual.
There was a search for their remains in 2001 (see below).
Belfast Telegraph (8.3.79) reports that a 23 year old John David Glennon from Divismore Crescent had pleaded guilty (along with two men from Ardoyne) to shooting a man on Twaddell Avenue on 8th October 1977 and IRA membership. He got 16 years with 7 years concurrent for membership. Address and name the same but reported age is three years too young. See also 1987 entry below.
Jim Cusack (in Belfast Telegraph 11.3.82 and reprinted in other papers such as the Irish Independent), reported that the RUC were “keeping tight-lipped” about claims that Kincora detectives were investigating David Leckey and Jonathan Aven’s files, although some the papers (eg Irish Independent) explicitly link the boys and Kincora. Cusack includes a claim from “some sources” that Leckey, Aven and two other boys had skipped school to steal lead off roofs, then went to Bangor where they slept in a haystack. When the haystack was set on fire the boys then returned to Belfast. While the other boys returned home, David and Jonathan may have sheltered in derelict houses and, could have tragically been caught up in destruction of property at the time. All of that appears untrue, given the boys didn’t know each other and no reference to the returned boys appears to feature in the earlier reports. Nor does Cusack explain the difference in dates of disappearances (or the 1976 account that included interviews with the Leckeys that said the boys didn’t know each other). Cusack does suggest that Kincora detectives looked at this Brian McDermott case (but doesn’t mention those of Glennon, Kirk, Spence and Rogers). That this last suggestion was actively being pursued is corroborated in state papers that were released much later (see 2013 below). So the source of Cusack’s other inaccurate claims is untrue.
The name J. Lesithen appears in reference to an entry in the Peter Heathwood Collection for a BBC news report broadcast on Thursday 11th March 1982 (presumably on foot of the BT story above). It states “On Kincora case, RUC begins investigating disappearance of children David Leckey and J. Lesithen in 1969, and employee in home suspended, De La Salle home at Kirkcubben to be closed.” This appears to be a mistranscription of J. Aven, but has entered later accounts of the disappearances as the name of a boy in a separate disappearance case. The surname ‘Lesithen’ doesn’t even appear to be a real surname.
11 November 1987
A John David Glennon, again of Divismore Crescent and with age given as 28, was reported (Belfast Telegraph 11.11.87) to be charged with possession of a bomb. During his trial in 1988 (Belfast Telegraph 21.9.88) it was indicated that his age was 33 and that he had been released early in June 1986 after a previous conviction (see above), that he claimed he had transported the bomb under duress and (it was offered as mitigating circumstances in court) that his father had been murdered in 1973. This clearly indicates that this is the same John David Glennon although his own disappearance and return aren’t discussed.
Search of a property reported at Rodney Drive for remains of John Rogers and Thomas Spence, based on a re-investigation, and allegations about a former resident in Rodney Drive. The searches revealed no new information.
In 1982 (according to state papers released in 2013), Brian McDermott’s case was raised as part of internal discussions about the Kincora inquiries and investigations. It was reported that the Attorney General said that “The RUC were looking again at the murder of Brian McDermott in the mid-1970s [whose] death was thought at the time to have been sectarian, but it was now believed possible that there were homosexual aspects.” This seems to post-date the investigation of Billy McDermott and so it’s unclear if it is speculation or suggests that Billy McDermott was excluded from having a role in Brian’s death.
A Robert Giles submitted an Freedom of Information request about whether the cases of five missing boys were still open cases. He named the boys as Jonathan Aven, David Lecky, Ronald (sic) Kirk, John David Glennon and a J. Lesithen from East Belfast (see above undated, 1969). Only the first two remain listed as open cases. Link is here for the response (on 27.4.2017).
Of the boys mentioned here, the fate of Jonathan Aven, David Leckey, Randal Kirk, Thomas Spence and John Rogers all remain unknown (as with Patrick O’Hare and John Hamilton). Aven and Leckey, despite later fairly sensationalist claims, did not go missing at the same time and represent two distinct disappearances, albeit with a half mile of each other. John Rogers and Thomas Spence did go missing at the same time and in a different part of the city entirely. At this remove, and with no firm evidence to contradict it, it is hard not to assume the boys met a tragic fate.
In the case of Randal Kirk, who was older and was claimed to be working in England at one point, there is less reason to believe anything untoward befell him. John David Glennon, of the same age as Kirk, absconded but then returned while Brian McDermott met a violent death that is still unresolved. And there are probably many other children from Belfast who could have their names added here but like the children themselves their stories, too, are missing.