Was a child killer at large during the Troubles?

The makers of Lost Boys: Belfast’s Missing Children question who was responsible for a series of unexplained disappearances and at least one death

A few months ago, an imposing detached house on a main thoroughfare in east Belfast was reduced to rubble. Its demolition signalled a sense of profound relief across Northern Ireland. The name Kincora has echoed through decades of recent history as a house of horrors. Officially designated as a care home for boys, it was in reality anything but. As years went by, terrible truths began to seep out about its role at the centre of a web of political intrigue involving a paedophile ring, secret agents and five lost children.

In 2016, when he was making How to Defuse a Bomb, a documentary about the Project Children charity during the Troubles, Des Henderson talked to teachers and children from that time and heard persistent rumours and stories about some Belfast schoolboys who had gone missing without trace during the 1960s and 1970s. His powerful, feature-length documentary about the cases, Lost Boys: Belfast’s Missing Children, will premiere at the IFI Documentary Festival in Dublin and at a screening in Belfast next week. It unravels a chronicle of shame, filled with startling revelations dating back to the early years of the Northern Ireland conflict.

As Henderson is a film-maker who specialises in hard-edged, issue-driven stories, his instinct was to dig deeper into these 50-year-old cold cases. “Initially, my motivation was that untold, stranger-than-fiction stories like these had the makings of a good film,” he says. “I knew nothing about children disappearing – and only tangentially about Kincora. But when these things kept popping up, they couldn’t just be apocryphal stories.

“So I did a bit of Google searching and came across some social-media posts about nine missing children. After a few months of research we were able to determine that some of them were not missing at all. They’d made their way back home. But what we were left with was four boys: Jonathan Aven and David Leckey in 1969, John Rodgers and Thomas Spence in 1974 and, in 1973, the discovery of the body of a boy called Brian McDermott, which was a case I already knew about. Those missing children were a jumping-off point for me.


“Why had their stories not been told? Back in 1974 there was a little bit of coverage about John and Thomas. But when David and Jonathan vanished from the east side of the city five years previously, there was nothing. It wasn’t just that there were no news reports or publicity alerting the public to their disappearance, but the police apparently hadn’t done anything either.

“Darren Brown, who was a lodger with the Leckey family, has been making his own inquiries for years. He says the police took a statement after David went missing, called to the house a week later to see if he’d returned and have never been back, in 50 years.” If that’s the case, “that felt really sad and wrong to me,” Henderson says.

In November 1974, Thomas Spence and John Rodgers were seen at a bus stop on the Falls Road, in west Belfast, apparently on their way to school. That was the last sighting of them. Faced with a daily diet of riots, bombings and sectarian killings, news editors and police officers were focused on what was a de-facto civil war. When it came to the unexplained disappearance of two young boys, at least some of them may have looked away. Missing children apparently did not figure among their chief priorities.

Henderson shot much of the film at night in inner-city Belfast, which lends a sinister look to the narrow streets around the shipyards, the entries and alleyways of its working-class areas, and the river running through it. It also evokes the frantic efforts of Alice Rodgers and Anne Spence, two mothers who, at the height of the Troubles and in the apparent absence of a police investigation, went out alone after a long working day, walking perilous streets, as they searched for their sons. Friends and neighbours recall the sadness of hearing their raised voices, calling the boys’ names in the darkness, night after night.

One of the most upsetting segments of Lost Boys is a UTV archive interview with the mothers. It is agonising to watch the relief on their faces as they describe receiving a police report that their sons had been seen recently. Their hope was that they would be home for Christmas. Was the report a lie or a diversionary tactic? One thing was certain: the boys would not be home for Christmas – or ever again.

“We agonised about what that interview meant,” Henderson says. “We talked to former police officers, on and off the record. One said he didn’t understand why the police would lie about such a thing. Why would they lie to mothers?” The film-makers wondered whether there was a possibility it could be true. “We started thinking, ‘Did someone really see those boys? In what circumstances?’ We knew there was a paedophile network connected to the police and MI5. Did someone who was there say they would leave them home? We just don’t know.

“We know there were paedophiles who were abducting boys, then leaving them back. They got off with a slap on the wrist and a warning not to do it again. What the police told Alice and Anne may not have been a lie, but the truth could have been far worse.”

Serial predators will seek out an opportunity to abduct vulnerable victims. The context of circumstances in Northern Ireland at the time could have created that kind of opportunity

—  Prof David Canter, forensic psychologist

Early on, Henderson met a local criminologist and author, Robert Giles, who says his investigations into the disappearances were complicated by missing files, incomplete or inaccurate police reports, interview refusals and unanswered phone calls. He was able to confirm, however, that, five years earlier, two other young boys – Jonathan Aven and David Leckey – had gone missing, without trace and apparently without an investigation.

He noted striking similarities between the cases. The four boys were truants; they had vanished in pairs, within a 6km or 7km radius of each other; three of them had learning difficulties; two were at a special school outside their local area; and all were troubled, vulnerable, prepubescent lads ripe for exploitation.

A search was launched after Brian McDermott was reported missing, in September 1973. Six days later, the dismembered and charred remains of the 10-year-old were recovered in a sack in the River Lagan. The story made the front pages.

As Giles pieced together this disturbing jigsaw, he was faced with a sickening hypothesis: during those turbulent years, was a child killer at large in Belfast, using the political situation as cover for a series of unspeakable, sexually motivated crimes?

Henderson asked the PSNI about historical cases of missing boys in Belfast. An assistant chief constable told him that all the cases were thoroughly investigated at the time, all had been reviewed since, and all remain open; the officer added that no evidential links that connect them have been found.

Henderson, who says he nevertheless questions whether the police have done everything they can, was adamant from the start of the film-making process that all screened statements and interviews must be fully corroborated and backed up by authoritative contributors and experts. He assembled a group of retired RUC detectives, army intelligence officers, a forensic psychologist, family members and childhood friends, as well as two veteran investigative journalists – “the big beasts”, as he calls them – Chris Moore, who was a reporter with the BBC when Kincora was first investigated, and became a co-producer of Lost Boys; and Martin Dillon (who also used to work for the BBC).

“Martin has a unique perspective on the Troubles and the dirty war,” Henderson says. “He did a lot of work on paedophilia and how the intelligence services would have used people like that. Chris is the authority on Kincora. No journalist has been closer to it over the years. We needed him to keep us right on what we could and couldn’t say, what was true and not true.”

More expert analysis came from Prof David Canter, an eminent forensic psychologist, who has worked on serial-murder investigations with police forces all over the world. He was unable to recall any previous sets of cases with so many parallels, and he suggested a possible link between the disappearances.

“The discovery of Brian McDermott’s body, mutilated and burned, is very important – and sophisticated,” Canter says. “Indications are that the body was not meant to be found but, if it was, any forensic evidence would not be available. Was there something going on in the area at the time which brings all these crimes together? Serial predators will seek out an opportunity to abduct vulnerable victims. The context of circumstances in Northern Ireland at the time could have created that kind of opportunity.”

As they scoured a mountain of reports relating to activities inside Kincora, the team identified one specific person of interest linked to the paedophile ring. Alan Campbell was a religious-education teacher, Sunday-school worker and pastor. But, in the way that, in Henderson’s words, “documentation and notes have a strange habit of being destroyed at inopportune moments”, Campbell’s file and the evidence against him were allegedly destroyed in a bombing. And, crucially, the Kincora files are sealed until 2065.

“If there’s nothing to hide, why can’t they be seen?” Henderson asks. “The thing is, by then, people will have died; there’ll be nobody around to remember. It will all be ancient history. It will have gone away quietly.”

Someone who was not prepared for it to go away quietly was the late SDLP MP Seamus Mallon, who is shown making an impassioned speech in the House of Commons, in February 1990, in which he referred to “young lives that were blighted because of organised buggery” that, he claimed, may have come about as “a result of the activities of a dirty-tricks department”.

Colin Wallace, a former British army intelligence officer and psychological warfare specialist, had given countless media interviews in the 1970s and 1980s about conspiracy, cover-up, collusion, special operations and black intelligence in Northern Ireland. He was dismissed as a Walter Mitty character.

“But, in 1990, Margaret Thatcher was forced to admit that what Colin had been saying was true,” Henderson says. “We sifted through a massive jigsaw of evidence, and it all checks out. We questioned him closely and corroborated everything he said with other intelligence sources, to make sure it was rock solid.”

The production process was slow and painstaking. When Covid lockdowns put a halt to proceedings in 2020, it seemed like a serious setback to the film’s release. But, as Henderson explains, the delay proved a blessing when, at the eleventh hour, a confidential memo from 1982, which had never been released, unexpectedly came into their possession. It contained a shocking revelation.

These men were never going to be arrested for abusing a child. Psychopaths were allowed to roam the streets because it was important to gather their intelligence

—  Des Henderson, film-maker

“When I saw the memo the film was virtually completed. It was an exchange between the then secretary of state [for Northern Ireland] and the attorney general and contained minutes of a meeting.” According to the memo, the attorney general said that “a man may have withheld information” about Brian McDermott’s murder and that “this information conflicted with what the RUC had previously told ministers”.

“If that information had got into the public domain,” Henderson says, “it would have left the government in an embarrassing and exposed position...

“So in 1982, the year of the Kincora inquiry, behind the scenes in the top levels of government, they were talking about Kincora and missing boys and the murder of Brian McDermott, all in the same sentence. And the person they were talking about in relation to these things was Alan Campbell. But that never came out.”

That Campbell was responsible for the boy’s death is one theory among several about what happened. But what shocks Des Henderson, he says, is that any link to Campbell might have been “covered up for a long, long time. He was the youngest member of this apparent paedophile ring and was described as an agent provocateur. He led a charmed life. So, all along, the police did have a suspect, and it was Alan Campbell.” Henderson believes that “he was protected for some reason”.

“These men were never going to be arrested for abusing a child. Psychopaths were allowed to roam the streets because it was important to gather their intelligence. We have proved the existence of agents in that paedophile ring – we actually spoke directly to one of the handlers – but the hard truth is that a blind eye was turned,” Henderson claims.

Brian Gemmell, a former intelligence officer who was on the ground in Belfast in the early 1970s and who, like Colin Wallace, made allegations about abuse at Kincora, explains in the film that a guiding principle of the intelligence community was that the end justified the means.

“Were the intelligence services somehow involved with Kincora?” Henderson asks. “Could this be the reason why reports of abuse were allegedly ignored?” The suspicion remains, he says, that Campbell was a protected agent of the British state. “We lived in a culture where bad stuff happened but it was judged to be for the greater good,” Henderson says. “When you’re talking about the lives of innocent children, that’s very hard to accept.”

Lost Boys: Belfast’s Missing Children, made by Alleycats Films, opens the Irish Film Institute Documentary Festival in Dublin at 6.30pm on Wednesday, September 27th; it will be shown at the Odeon cinema on Victoria Square in Belfast at 7pm on Thursday, September 28th