Rachel Charles was nine years old when she went missing one warm November day in 1990 as she walked home after school, and when her body was found four days later, tucked under a pine tree a couple of miles along the coast, local people who had never even known her were terrified by the needless brutality of it all.
It was a relief to almost everyone when the police arrested Michael Cook, then aged 38, and explained how he had abducted her and tried to have sex with her and then strangled her in his car when she started to fight him off. Cook was convicted of murder and sent to prison for 19 years.
It was on, the face of it, a classically simple piece of crime and detection. Yet nearly three years after Rachel’s death, the case has grown into the most complex of mysteries, riddled with speculation and conspiracy, ringed by allegations of corruption and big-time crime, infested with lies. It is a mystery whose strange and unexpected solution is, even now, only partially clear.
To begin to unravel this story, you have first to understand the place where it all happened – Vale Navio. Twenty years ago, it was 82 acres of scrubland and bleached grass perched over the sea on the Algarve coast of Portugal, nowhere special to anyone except the local peasant farmers who grazed their goats there. Now, Vale Navio is the biggest timeshare complex in Europe – villas, apartments, roads, shops, pools, bars – and in that short time, it has earned more than £30 million for its developers. Very big money – very big trouble.
At various points in its history, powerful Portuguese gangsters have moved in behind the respectable businessmen who were running the place and simply gutted it of cash with the result that most of the tourists who bought shares in Vale Navio now find they own nothing: their villas belong to the bank or else they were never even built. British gangsters smelled the money, too. A group of them arrived from Spain in the late 1980s and, until recently, they were taking £1,000 a week off the managers on the promise of not breaking the legs of their timeshare salesmen.
Drug deals, gun shots, protection rackets, fraud, corruption, theft and murder, too – Vale Navio has seen it all. In June this year, a retired teacher from Luton, Tony Madden, missed death by about 12 centimeters when someone fired two steel balls at him as he was driving out of the complex one night. He had gone there to organise a meeting of timeshare owners who wanted to find out the truth about who ripped them off. Madden was hardly surprised to be attacked. In March, a Manchester businessman named Brian Morgan had gone down to Vale Navio with the same idea and someone had opened fire on him in his villa. Madden went to the police in Albufeira and showed them the steel ball embedded in the door frame of his car, but the police just shrugged and smiled.
The trouble goes beyond Vale Navio. When tourism opened the gate to the Algarve, crime slipped in behind it. The province now rivals Amsterdam as the drugs gateway to Europe: cocaine from the old Portuguese colonies in central America; heroin from the protectorate in Macau; hashish from across the water in Morocco. There’s a new boom in Euro scams, creaming off illicit fortunes from the £10 million a day which the EEC is pumping into Portugal. A cash business like tourism is ideal for money-laundering, and the Algarve is awash with black money. There is still plenty of peace and sunshine, but it is riviera style masking ghetto culture, the Costa Chicago. Even the Sicilian Mafia have turned up. And Mick Cook walked into this.
Mick Cook is what they used to call a wide boy. He is a pint-sized Cockney, raised in Essex, with a teenage history of petty theft and punch-ups, a ducker and a diver, a strictly cash-only man, born to fiddle. If he buys a car, he fiddles the paperwork. If he makes a profit, he fiddles the tax. If he tells you it’s raining, it’s because he’s selling umbrellas. His family are law-abiding, hard-working people and Mick had a good trade as a car-sprayer and panel-beater but he always had one eye on the wrong side of the law, where the deals were. Still, for all that, he was a small-time player, no great intelligence, no big front, no gun and no chance at all of surviving with the big boys who run crime in the Algarve.
Mick Cook arrived in Vale Navio in the Spring of 1989 with his wife, a suitcase containing £63,000 in cash, and a string of bad debts behind him in Essex. He settled down fast, bought himself a flash red Triumph TR7 (never registered it), started panel-beating at a local garage (paid the “Porkies”, as he called them, to do half the work for him), began running Safari tours on the side (never got a licence) and spent long hours in a suntan and swimming shorts with the other Vale Navio Brits in the Nag’s Head bar (known as the Wonkey Donkey). That summer, his marriage broke up and he moved out of Vale Navio to a flat in Albufeira.
As far as the other Brits knew, that was more or less all there was to Mick Cook right up to the time that Rachel went missing sometime before 5.00 in the afternoon on Monday, November 19 1990. She was on the bus that brought all the Vale Navio children back from the international school XX miles eastwards along the coast at Vilamoura. Some of the other mothers who were waiting for the bus in front of the reception centre noticed her holding hands with a little girl called Jessica, then heading off on her own across the road, stopping to pat a couple of dogs that were barking at a villa gate, and finally walking round the corner with her bright pink schoolbag on her back. They never saw her again.
It was a while before her mother, Carol, raised the alarm. The local uniformed police, the GNR, were not too interested and so, overnight, about 30 of the Vale Navio Brits organised their own search, made several hundred photocopies of a poster with Rachel’s picture and started distributing it around the area. The next morning, Tuesday, a Vale Navio gardener came forward and said he had been working on a flower bed just around the corner where Rachel had walked when she left the bus and he had seen her getting into a red car with foreign number plates. He knew Rachel well and he was sure it was her; in his mind, he could still see her wriggling her pink bag off her shoulders and putting it on her lap, and he noticed, too, how she got into the wrong side of the car – a British car.
That afternoon, at 1.30, there was a ransom call: a man with an English accent phoned the Vale Navio sales office and demanded £300,000 for Rachel’s safe return. Now the police started to be more interested and the local detective force, the Policia Judiciaria, were called in. They started talking to the owners of red cars with foreign plates, such as Mick Cook’s flash TR7. Cook told them he had left work once during Monday afternoon to go to a drug store to buy a coloured tape for the side of a car he was working on but he said he didn’t remember being in Vale Navio at all that day.
By Wednesday, the search for the missing girl had made it to the local radio news. That afternoon, her shoes and pink schoolbag were found in some woods ten minutes drive away from the scene of her abduction. That evening, a group of Vale Navio Brits trawled the bars of Albufeira appealing for help and the next morning, Thursday, more than 300 tourists turned out to help. At 11.30, they saw her, not far from where her bag had been found, lying on her back under a thin blanket of pine needles, fully clothed, with purple rope marks on her neck.
By this time, the police had checked the stories of the car owners they had talked to – and suddenly Mick Cook was on his way up the scaffold. His car was not properly registered; no one at the drug store could remember his being there on Monday afternoon; and, worse than that, several people disputed his claim that he hadn’t been to Vale Navio that day and insisted that he had been parked near the reception centre just as Rachel and the other children were climbing off their bus. On Thursday afternoon, the police arrested Mick Cook and questioned him for 12 hours. They let him go but they let him know, too, that he was their prime suspect.
Over the next ten days, the police pursued their case. They found tyre tracks near the body and compared them to the TR7. They found a local riding instructor who said that on Monday afternoon he had been up near the area where Rachel’s body was later found and he had seen a man in sunglasses with a red car and the man could have been Mick. The police seized Mick’s car and found a knife, some hair and a coil of rope, which they sent off to their scientists. They spoke to Rachel’s mother, Carol, who said Mick was one of the very few people whose car Rachel would have agreed to get into. They spoke to her stepfather, Ray, who said he was sure Mick was capable of the crime and added that he had seen Mick touching up little girls in the pool while he was pretending to teach them to dive.
On December 4, the police arrested Mick again and, two days later, they announced that he had confessed to killing Rachel within an hour of abducting her. They sent off to Interpol for his criminal record and declared that he had a history of indecent assault. Mick Cook looked like a very guilty man.
But back at Vale Navio, they were not so sure. They had never been too impressed by the Porkie police who they reckoned were more interested in backhanders than clues. And, more than that, they had a suspect of their own – the little girl’s stepfather, Raymond Derek Charles.
Ray Charles had never been particularly popular in Vale Navio. He was a big man with a blunt manner, inclined to boast about acres of land he owned or thousands of pounds he had stashed away in the bank when everyone knew he was more or less broke. There was a rumour that he had changed his name, that he was on the run from something in England, and everyone knew he drank too much and had a lousey temper. They also didn’t like the way he treated his stepdaughter. As far as they could see, he had always hated Rachel and been jealous of her relationship with her mother and taken every chance to yell at her for the slightest thing she did wrong.
But no-one had ever suspected that he would hurt her, not until she went missing, not until Ray started to behave rather strangely during the search: he stayed at home on his own drinking while Carol went to friends to be comforted; then he said he had been to see a medium who wanted them to search 20 miles inland, far away from where Rachel was eventually found; then in the early hours of Wednesday morning, he went off on his own for four hours and returned with scratches on his legs; that afternoon, he abandoned the search just as they closed in on the area where the shoes and bag were found, as if he knew they were about to find them and did not want to be there when it happened. That was when the talk about him really got going.
And in the 24 hours after Rachel’s body was found, the speculation became feverish. Ray was telling people that Rachel was happier now, that she was in a better place, then he started saying that he had seen her on Tuesday night in a vision and that he had known then that she was dead. Several of the men went to check out Ray’s car – which was red with foreign plates – and in the back they found a rope and blanket covered in pine needles. Finally, deep in drink, in conversation with a Vale Navio timeshare salesman named Mike Cunningham, Ray made what sounded very much like a confession.
According to Cunningham, Ray was rambling almost incoherently, saying: “My little girl, my darling, she died on Tuesday night, she came to me and said ‘Daddy, I love you’. I told her ‘Don’t worry, darling, we will be dancing together with the angels twelve months from now’.” Cunningham says that Ray paused in the middle of this drunken monologue, stared down at his feet for a while and then took his breath away by adding: “Her time was up. Her time was up. She had to go and I put her down.”
That Sunday evening, three days after the discovery of the body, Ray was standing at the bar in the Wonkey Donkey, when Bill Taylor, the manager of the timeshare touts who worked the streets, confronted him with the suspicions that were, by then, being voiced by almost everyone in Vale Navio. Numerous other people in the bar heard what followed.
Ray, who was drunk, began it by asking Taylor who he thought had killed the girl. Taylor went straight to the point.
“Ray, I think you did it.”
The bar went rather quiet and everyone watched Ray whose face registered shock and irritation. “What do you mean?” he said finally.
“I think you did it.”
Ray now started to grumble and swear at Taylor, who nevertheless carried on pushing.
“Why, Ray? Why? A nine-year-old kid! How could you do it, Ray? Why?”
Everyone waited while Ray Charles shook his head and finally shrugged and sighed and spoke. “I don’t know,” he said and turned away.
Few on Vale Navio now doubted that Ray had killed his stepdaughter and most believed he had done it simply because he was drunk and bad-tempered and he wanted Rachel’s mother, Carol, to himself. Others believed it might be more complicated, that Rachel had found out too much about some criminal scam that Ray was planning or that Ray had been working secretly for some businessmen who wanted to take over Vale Navio and that one of the gangster groups who was involved in the place had found out and killed Rachel in front of him to teach him a lesson. Mike Cunningham, Bill Taylor and others went to the police to tell them about Ray, but the police seemed indifferent and on Vale Navio they wondered whether someone might be paying the Porkies to blame it all on Mick Cook.
The certainty on Vale Navio that Ray was involved was soon matched by the uncertainty that began to cloud the case against Mick Cook. He said he had never signed any confession, but the police had beaten him until he agreed verbally that he was guilty. Five of them had worked on him, he said, punching him, banging his head against the wall, beating the soles of his feet with sticks, jumping on his back, forcing a gun into his mouth (and chipping a tooth in the process). He had ended up bleeding, semi-conscious, with his trousers full of his own faeces. Finally, as he put it in a letter from jail: “I just wanted the pain to stop. I said ‘if you say that’s how it was, then that’s how it must have been.'”
He agreed that he had popped into Vale Navio on the day of the abduction, but he had forgotten: it was only to buy a phone card, he said, and then he had sat in his car in the shade for a few minutes and done some paperwork and driven away at 4.30. He said that the gardener who had seen the abduction had been confronted with him and his car on the Tuesday, while the search was still in progress, but he had shaken his head and said he couldn’t identify Mick. It turned out that the tyre tracks which had been found near the body did not come from Mick’s car and, furthermore, none of the scientific tests had found a single link between the dead girl and Mick or his car: most of the hair they had found came from a dog.
It became clear that some of the police procedure had been clumsy. They had failed to cordon off the area around the body. They had mistakenly frozen the girl’s body for 12 hours before the post-mortem, making it impossible to establish a time of death or even a day of death. They had found blood under one of her finger nails but they said it was too small for their old-fashioned laboratories to test for a blood type. They had allowed the body to be cremated within a week, making it impossible for Cook’s lawyers to arrange their own post-mortem. The Portuguese woman who took the ransom call in the sales office had identified Mick Cook’s voice but since it was the only voice that the police had asked her to listen to, the identification was worthless. It was the same with the riding instructor who thought he had seen Mick near the trees where the body was found: he had now positively identified him but he had done so in an ID parade which had begun and ended with a detective pointing at Mick and saying “Is this him?”
There were so many errors that, on Vale Navio, they smelled corruption. Cook’s family were told that three Algarve businessmen had paid a bribe of £40,000 to ensure that Mick went to jail; the source for this claim was so sure of his ground that he signed a formal statement with Essex police (??) explaining that his information came from the criminal who had acted as go-between in paying the bribe. In jail awaiting trial, Cook said there was no evidence against him and he was sure he would get off. On Vale Navio, they had less faith in Portuguese justice.
When the trial finally opened, in February 1992, it was a disaster for Cook. There were just about no hard facts in the prosecution case and so there was nothing to fight against: if the defence succeeded in producing a hard fact to help Mick Cook, the prosecution simply absorbed it and changed their case. The police had said originally that Cook had strangled Rachel Charles with the rope they had found in his car. Scientific tests undermined that: there was no blood or skin in the rope, and there was no fibre from the rope on the girl. So the police then said that he had strangled her with another piece of rope which he had thrown into the woods as he drove away from her body. That, too, was undermined when the police had to admit that they had failed to find any such rope anywhere in the area. So the police then said that this only went to prove how careful Cook had been to hide the murder weapon where they wouldn’t find it. The judges agreed with that.
The police had no motive. They had said it was a sex crime, but there was no sign of a sexual assault of any kind and Rachel was fully clothed, apart from her shoes, when she was found. They had no time of death. They had said she must have been killed very soon after her abduction because the riding instructor had seen Mick disposing of the body on that Monday afternoon, but there was a fundamental problem with this. The riding instructor was sure that he had seen the man getting into a red car at 5.20: but three witnesses said Mick was back at the garage where he was working, ten minutes’ drive away, by 5.15. The judges dealt with this by changing the timing of the riding instructor’s statement to “shortly after five o’clock”.
But Mick Cook had no alibi. No one remembered him going to the drug store to buy coloured tape for the side of a car. No one remembered him buying a phone card at Vale Navio. And they said he had a history of indecent assault. The judges said he was guilty of a particularly vicious crime. Mick Cook shrugged and said there was no way he’d had anything to do with it. Then he was sent to prison for 19 years.
For the Vale Navio Brits, it was a stinking conspiracy, proof of everything they had always said about Porkie justice. Mick was innocent, Ray was guilty and every time someone uncovered new information, it confirmed their view – at least, it did for a while.
In England, Mick’s brother, Colin, managed to obtain the Portuguese police file on the case. It included a fax, sent via Interpol, which detailed Mick Cook’s entire criminal record. He had six convictions for theft, receiving stolen goods and causing bodily harm – nothing for any kind of sex crime – and the Portuguese authorities had known this all the time they were claiming that he had convictions for indecent assault.
In Portugal, the detective in charge of the case suddenly left the force; Cook’s Lisbon lawyer was badly injured in a mysterious car crash, which killed his wife; the manager of Vale Navio left the country, saying his life had been threatened and he would never return; Mick Cook heard that Ray Charles had been involved with some heavy crime and that Rachel had been killed “to teach him a lesson”. In November 1992, Ray died of cancer in Faro hospital, still denying guilt even though his friends from Vale Navio secretly tape-recorded one of their last meetings with him in the hope that he would make a death-bed confession.
The Guardian became involved and discovered that on the day of Rachel’s abduction, Ray Charles had spent the morning looking at property in the hills north of Vale Navio and that, even though he had no money, he told an estate agent that he had 15 million escudos to spend, about £60,000. The estate agent thought his manner was very strange and when he heard the next day that this man’s child was missing, he immediately wondered out loud to his partner whether her stepfather might have had something to do with it, whether perhaps he had even set up a kidnap.
On the face of it, the estate agent’s theory made no sense, since Ray Charles would have been extorting ransom from himself. But there had indeed been a ransom call – on the Tuesday, about 20 hours after Rachel was abducted – and this turned out to have a significance which had been ignored by the police, who dismissed it and pursued their theory that this was a sex crime.
The woman who took the call, Cidalia Sequeria, was then working in the sales office of Vale Navio with an English woman, Janet Berry. The call was made at 1.30, at a time when Janet Berry was always out at lunch and when Cidalia was always in the office alone and, Cidalia explained, the caller had phoned the main number at Vale Navio and asked to be put through to her by name. It appears, therefore, that the caller wanted to avoid Janet Berry because, as a member of the English community in Vale Navio, she might have recognised the voice.
But why phone the sales office at all? The answer lies in the caller’s message, which was written down at the time by Cidalia. “Listen carefully to what I am going to say. We have Rachel Charles. We want £300,000 by Thursday and the girl will be released.” The caller said he would phone again the next day with details of where to leave the money, then he hung up. The point is that the caller never mentioned Rachel’s family. He didn’t say “Tell Mr and Mrs Charles they have to pay £300,000.” Because the call was an attempt to extort ransom from Vale Navio – not from the Charles family – which is why it was directed at the sales office, at the people who dealt with the money. To begin with it worked: within an hour of the ransom call, Janet Berry had called the manager, who was on holiday in England, and he had agreed to pay the ransom for the sake of the child’s mother and also to protect Vale Navio’s business from the calamity.
All this suggests that Ray Charles may well have set up the kidnap. Friends of the family say Rachel would not have dared to defy Ray’s anger by telling anyone what had happened. But if that was the plan, something went terribly wrong during the night after the ransom call – when Ray vanished for four hours and returned with scratches on his legs. The child died, the ransom calls stopped and then the police moved in and got it all wrong. Except that they didn’t.
Ray Charles may have been involved in the death of his stepdaughter, but he did not abduct her. The Guardian has spoken to numerous witnesses to pin down the exact timing of the abduction – the man who drove the schoolbus that day and remembers being held up along the way and arriving at Vale Navio ten minutes later than usual, at 4.25; the Vale Navio parents who were waiting for the bus and saw Rachel cross the road and disappear around the corner two or three minutes later; the gardener who knows it was about 4.30 when he saw the little girl getting into a red car, because he was looking forward to going home at 5.00 and knows he still had about 30 minutes to go. At 4.30, Ray Charles was at home with his wife, Carol, and their babysitter, Georgie, who made separate statements to the police from which they have never diverged. He has a solid alibi.
So, who adbucted Rachel Charles? There was another man in Vale Navio that afternoon, who was driving a red car. He had been parked near the bus stop since 4.05; an English woman from Vale Navio called Sue Court had noticed him several times and thought he must be waiting for someone. A teacher from Rachel’s school, Kim Dring, who had left the school a couple of minutes after the bus, also saw him just as she arrived at Vale Navio, just as Rachel was going off around the corner. He was sitting in his car near the bus stop and as Kim Dring parked behind him, just before 4.30, he pulled away and waved at her as he went. Kim waved back as he drove around the corner because she knew him well. It was Mick Cook.
The next time anyone saw Mick Cook was when he arrived back at the garage where he paid the Porkies to do his panel-beating for him. That was at 5.15. Three witnesses agree to the timing. But this garage is less than one minute’s drive from Vale Navio. So – quite apart from the fact that not one will confirm that he was in the drug store and then went to Vale Navio and bought a phone care – there are 45 minutes missing from Mick Cook’s movements on Monday November 19 and during those 45 minutes, Rachel Charles was adbucted – from the road where he was driving, at the time that he was driving there, by a man with a car of the colour and nationality that he was driving. The gardener still says he cannot be sure that it was Mick Cook’s car, only that it looked like it.
This does not mean that Cook then killed Rachel. The police account of his murdering her is deeply flawed. It was not a sex crime. The child was almost certainly not killed on Monday afternoon at all: even though the pathologist could give no time of death, we have established that her stomach contents bore no relation to the meal she had eaten on Monday lunchtime, strongly suggesting that she was kept somewhere and fed at least one meal before she died. The man seen by the riding instructor is, therefore nothing to do with the crime at all. The tyre tracks which the police discovered lead away from the beaten track through the woods to the tree where Rachel was found, so it is highly likely that they belong the car which dumped her body, and they do not match Cook’s TR7.
For the killing, Ray Charles remains a much better suspect. Although he and Cook had argued in the past, it seems likely that the two men, possibly with others, decided to fake the kidnap in order to make themselves some easy money. Since his conviction, Cook has started to hint that he was involved in a whole load of fiddles in the Algarve – taking bags of cash down to the BCCI bank in Gibraltar, smuggling precious stones in consignments of car parts, getting himself beaten up by the brother-in-law of one of the most powerful gangsters in Portugal. Taking Rachel was the best fiddle yet, hardly even a crime if he was taking her with her dad’s say-so, no chance of her getting hurt, and he’d get his cut of £300,000 for a day’s work.
The reason for the murder remains a mystery, but if this was an attempt by Ray and Mick to extort cash from Vale Navio, it was a most dangerous game since the hands of Portuguese gangsters have never been far from the complex. It is possible that as soon as the manager agreed to pay up, the gangsters realised exactly what was happening and solved the problem with brutal efficiency, ending the kidnap and ruining the lives of both men. Each then blamed the other, neither able to tell the whole truth for fear of confirming their own guilt – and provoking more vengeance if they named the gangsters.
As a result of the Guardian’s inquiries, Mick Cook’s family have pressed him to explain what he was really doing during the missing 45 minutes on that Monday afternoon. On the phone to his parents in Southend, he said he could not remember. His brother, Colin, flew out to see him and confronted him. Mick told him the old story again and said he thought someone was out to get him.