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The Overton Window: The Missing

When charity Missing People researched the ethnicity of missing people in the UK, it found significant disparities among different ethnic groups. Iain Overton meets Evidence Joel to understand the ordeal of losing a loved one in this way

Evidence Joel holds a photo of her son who went missing in 2021. Photo: Iain Overton

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The first time that Evidence Joel knew her life would never be the same again was when she saw the clothes still there, on the side, neatly folded. Just as she had left them for him before going to bed that cold March morning, after her night shift as a nurse.

Still folded. And the meal she had prepared and left in the fridge. Still there. Uneaten.

Evidence went to knock on her son Richard’s locked door – her beloved ‘Rich heart’ – but there was no answer, and when she managed to break the lock and swing that door open, her heart also broke.

He was not there.

Since that moment, Evidence has – with an irony so painful it not need be said – been gathering evidence of what happened to her lost son.

She called the police, of course. But they told her that as Richard, her handsome boy, was 19, she had best sit and wait in case he came back. But he has sickle-cell disease, she told them, a blood disorder that means he has to take his medicine or else he’ll have an attack. But still they told her to wait.

She refused. She found the footage from the security cameras that showed her son leaving her west London block of flats the night before, just after she had left for work. He was not dressed for a winter’s night. She knew the cold would hit him hard, perhaps even bring on an episode. But when she called the police back, the fear and pain rising in her, she says they still did not listen.

“If I was someone with blue eyes, blonde hair, you know, I’d have been treated differently,” she says.

Phone call after phone call did not help. The days passed.

She walked the streets by her home, late into the night. Not eating, sleeping – just searching. She visited neighbours. She wrote to her MP. She called and she called and she felt that each time she spoke to them it was as if they had never heard of her boy.

“I need you to look for my son,” she said.

“Go home,” they said.

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It was only when she called up the charity Missing People that things shifted. Richard Okorogheye, the news reported, was missing. 

She read the headlines. Her son. Her only son. This wasn’t happening, she told herself. But she knew it was. And only when those headlines appeared was she seen and a detective assigned to the case.

Weeks later, they found Richard’s body. He was a 90-minute journey from his home, cold and alone, in a pond in Epping Forest. 

“I wanted to die,” she says. “Since I’ve come here from Nigeria, I’ve served British communities with my whole heart. Without discrimination. Without prejudice.”

But when it came to helping her find her son, she felt unseen.

There are plenty of answers still missing. 

Did they check his phone? Who was he speaking to late into the night on his Playstation?  Why did he go all the way to Epping? He was always afraid of the dark and the cold – why would he enter the freezing lakes of that forest in the pitch black?

The police watchdog, the Independent Office for Police Conduct, found that the Metropolitan Police should apologise to her after officers provided an “unacceptable level of service” regarding the case.

“If my skin was different, my accent,” she says, “they’d have taken my case more seriously.”

And that hardest question of all emerges – would Richard still be alive if they had done so?

What we do know is that when the charity that helped her – Missing People – researched the ethnicity of missing people in the UK for the year 2021-2022, it found significant disparities among different ethnic groups.

Black people were over-represented, comprising 13% of individual missing reports and 14% of all missing incidents, despite making up only 4% of the general population. The charity raised concerns about systemic race issues in the treatment and handling of young black missing people. For instance, fewer missing black children were found by the police than white children: only 16% of cases compared to 23%.

This brings no comfort to Evidence.

“I feel I am barely living,” she says. “Sometimes I sleep and I do not want to wake up. I find myself calling ‘Richard, Richard’ in my dreams. But he’s not there.”

And as she lifts the phone to show an image of her son – the last one of him she has – her eyes close and her breathing slows and the weight of her missing son is all that you can feel.

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