It was a miserably wet evening on 27 January last year, when 55-year-old Michael O’Leary failed to return home from work. At 8.15pm, his concerned wife and three adult sons received a short text from his phone, with the simple words: “I’m so sorry x”. Police searched the quiet village of Nantgaredig, southwest Wales, eventually finding O’Leary’s Nissan Navara near the banks of the River Towy, plus imprints of his shoes in the mud leading up to the water. Investigators assumed they were dealing with a suicide case.
But quickly, relatives grew suspicious. O’Leary was a proud Welshman who usually spoke his native language at home. Why would he write his goodbye text in English? He also tended to communicate via the instant messaging service WhatsApp – so it was strange he was now using a text. “It didn’t sit right with me... something wasn’t right from the offset,” says Wayne, his son.
It was one of the litany of small clues that eventually led detectives to a disturbing conclusion, even though they had no body to work from. O’Leary hadn’t disappeared by choice; he was murdered by a man he considered a friend. The killer then staged the brutal crime to make it look like suicide. The truth was uncovered in a remarkable nine-month police investigation, charted in detail by a grisly ITV true crime documentary, No Body Recovered (Airing 9pm on Thursday 29 July).
It was the sort of investigation that might only be possible in a rural tight-knit community like Carmarthenshire, where locals are willing to speak to police, thinks Detective Inspector Llyr Williams. “Would this crime have been identified in an urban force where people don't know their communities as well?” he asks, speaking to the Telegraph over Zoom this week. “The community helped us so much.”
His boss, Detective Chief Inspector Paul Jones, remembers first hearing of the disappearance a few hours after the text was sent when it was still deemed a “routine missing person enquiry”. Jones was used to gruesome investigations, having worked in 2012 on the high-profile search for five-year-old April Jones, who was kidnapped in nearby Machynlleth and later murdered, and from 2006 when he joined the hunt for serial killer John Cooper, who murdered four victims in the Eighties and was caught partly thanks to his appearance on a 1989 episode of the Sunday evening game show Bullseye.
But this particular case was among the strangest of his career, says DCI Jones. “There were mixed feelings. Some people were saying it was really suspicious. I was more [saying], ‘Let's see what we’ve got, let’s follow the lines of evidence. We all know what happened in the end, but at the time it had all the hallmarks of a suicide case.”
Friends assembled at O’Leary’s rugby club to search for him. Many feared the worst – that he had taken his own life by jumping into the river at night. But, strangely, there were no signs of a body washing up on the banks.
While the goodbye text proved “hugely significant” for O’Leary’s family, DCI Jones wasn’t so sure of its relevance. “They thought it was really out of character. For me, it was a small piece of information. If somebody's going to take their own lives, then I'm wondering what state of mind they’re going to be in. Are they going to be thinking rationally anyway?”
More significant was the discovery that O’Leary had been having an affair with a local married woman he met at their rugby club. Police soon found CCTV footage of the lovers chatting at the rugby club bar 48 hours before O’Leary’s disappearance. O’Leary’s family had no idea he had been unfaithful, making for a difficult conversation with police. “It was extremely challenging, but it was a fact of the case, it had to come out,” says DCI Jones. “One of my early decisions was that I'm not going to lie to the family. They were very dignified in the way they dealt with the information.”
Meanwhile, digital experts analysed O’Leary’s work mobile phone, which had been found in his abandoned car. It showed that, on the night he went missing, the father-of-three had travelled to a remote, disused farm near Newtown. The farm was owned by a successful local businessman called Andrew Jones – the husband of the woman O’Leary was having an affair with. He was a friend of O’Leary’s, having been on several holidays with him over the years. Suspicion quickly grew.
Police took Jones into custody. While in the back of the police van the 53-year-old made an unexpected remark, telling officers he had O’Leary’s other mobile phone in the pocket of his jeans at home. Later, he admitted meeting O’Leary at the derelict farm on the night he went missing – but claimed O’Leary drove away, unharmed. In Jones’s house, police found eight licensed firearms, plus 21 imitation guns.
In custody, Jones struck detectives as markedly different to their average murder suspect. “He’s middle-aged, he’s not come to the attention of the police before,” says DCI Jones. “He’s a local businessman, employs a large workforce, very charitable, supports sports clubs and supports the community.” But at the same time, Jones’s construction business meant he had the “capability to get rid of a body alone – he had all the machinery and access to building works”.
Detectives were confident that Jones’s story didn’t add up, but without a body it was difficult to charge him with murder. Then, after an intense search of Jones’s derelict farm and surrounding sheds, police found two small shirt buttons, with cotton still tightly wound around them, indicating they were ripped off. Nearby, they found a casing for a bullet. “I [was] thinking, he’s lured him here and shot him,” remembers DCI Jones.
On the button, forensic scientists found a minuscule trace of blood; a DNA analysis later proved it belonged to victim O’Leary.
Jones was charged with murder. Soon after, a barrage of further evidence emerged pointing towards his guilt. The bullet casing found at the farm was matched by ballistic experts to a gun owned by Jones. A speck of blood belonging to O’Leary was found on a pair of Jones’s jeans. CCTV footage showed O’Leary’s car being driven to the riverside on the night he disappeared – but mobile phone data suggests it was Jones who was driving. A little while later, CCTV showed a lone cyclist making the return journey, heading in the direction of the derelict farm. Detectives remain convinced it was Jones who was cycling. Other footage showed Jones lighting a bonfire at the end of his yard in the early hours of the morning, which he kept burning for five hours.
Perhaps most disturbingly of all, police found a 10g piece of flesh in a barrel at the derelict farm – later identified by a pathologist as a piece of human small intestine with a DNA profile matching victim O’Leary.
During his trial at Swansea Crown Court last October, Jones admitted using his wife’s mobile phone to lure O’Leary to the farm, but claims he fired the fatal rifle shot accidentally. The jury were not convinced. Jones was convicted of murder and later sentenced to life in prison with a minimum of 30 years.
In a victim impact statement read out in court, O’Leary’s wife Sian said the 12 months before her husband’s death were a “trying year for us” but: “I know Mike loved me and that gives me great comfort. We were trying to overcome some things in our marriage. We talked about growing old together. I would worry sometimes that my luck would run out and it did in January.”
It’s clear that Dyfed-Powys Police detectives are proud of their successful investigation of such a grisly, complex case. It’s thought that only 22 other killers have been convicted of murder in cases where no body was found. DCI Jones strongly suspects that Jones used a bonfire to “dismember and destroy” O’Leary’s remains – but Jones is the only person who will ever truly know what happened on that bitterly cold January evening.