by Abbie Wightwick
Richey Edwards' disappearance is one of rock music's great mysteries but to his sister it's a very personal tragedy. Rachel Elias tells Abbie Wightwick why she has joined the charity Missing People as a family representative
To have a loved one go missing must be one of the hardest things life can throw at you. For that loved one to be famous brings added pain.
Rachel Elias, younger sister of missing Manic Street Preachers guitarist Richey Edwards, says to her he'll always be the big brother she shared a room with.
It's nearly 16 years since Richey vanished but Rachel, 41, who has just become a family representative for the charity Missing People, hasn't given up hope of finding him.
"There has been no sign of life or death for 16 years," she says with quiet determination.
Richey, who had spoken openly about bouts of depression and self harming, went missing from his London hotel on February 1, 1995, hours before the Blackwood-based band were due to fly to the US on a promotional tour.
When his car was found abandoned by the Severn Bridge near a notorious suicide spot two weeks later many assumed he had taken his own life.
But Richey's body has never been found and he had publicly stated he'd never consider suicide and was making plans for the future.
The mystery and Richey's huge following has sparked endless conspiracy theories down the years from writers, fans and a psychic, none of it did much to help to a family quietly grieving for the son and brother they loved.
While Richey's parents Sherry and Graham choose not to speak publicly about their son's disappearance, Rachel says they support her doing so in her new role with Missing People.
She still lives near her parents and the house where she grew up in Blackwood, and is clearly ill at ease with the cult that has grown up around her famous brother.
Richey became a figurehead for the band with his acclaimed lyrics and angst-ridden image.
But Rachel says there was far more to him than the Manics or his public image as a tortured musician.
"People have just built this cult of Richey and it's snowballed and they have this image of him self harming but that's not the only aspect of him.
"I recognise how important the band was but that wasn't all he was, he was my big brother.
"We shared a bedroom until I was 10 and listened to the same music like Squeeze, the Boomtown Rats and Blondie.
"We went to the same school. Oakdale and to Cross Keys College.
"He liked to have a laugh. We talked about people we knew and watched EastEnders, just normal things."
While conspiracies and theories rage - there have been alleged sightings of Richey in India and the Canary Islands - Rachel has concentrated her search in practical terms.
In the early days of Richey vanishing fans would turn up at the family home or his flat in Cardiff Bay, believing he was there. Rachel herself recalls frantically ringing his flat and driving around the area where he lived desperately looking for him.
"People do genuinely want to help," she acknowledges.
"Some people came here to my parents' house and knocked on the door and some wrote letters to his flat thinking he was in there.
"And there was the psychic. That makes me feel angry because he's not here and doesn't have a voice. They think it's just an easy way to cash in with someone not being here."
After the initial desperate search, Rachel reluctantly tried to find a body.
She contacted coroners around the Severn Estuary to see if any unidentified bodies found in or near it matched Richey's. None has ever done so which gives her hope that he may be alive somewhere.
The family travelled to London to scour the Metropolitan Police missing person's file on Richey, which has never been closed and Sherry and Graham flew to the Canary Islands after reported sightings there.
Then, in 2005, Rachel and her mother found a toiletry bag of Richey's in a cupboard at the family home. DNA samples from the toothbrush and hairbrush in it enabled them to have a DNA profile drawn up.
Rachel sent this to the national police database which attempts to check unidentified bodies against DNA of missing people.
So far no match has been made, offering another possible whisper of hope.
"More than 40% of people who go missing don't return to the family they came from," Rachel points out.
There isn't much research into missing people but what there is she has at her fingertips.
As one of 10 new family representatives for the UK charity Missing People, Rachel hopes to give a greater voice to those affected when someone disappears.
The charity is launching a campaign, Missing Rights, to get more and better services to families of missing people.
The campaign is being supported by Cardiff-based intelligence firm Tracesmart which is offering financial and practical help in searching for people.
Tragically, Richey's case, although it's had huge publicity, is not unusual.
Last year there were 8,000 incidents of young people going missing in Wales, although some of those involved the same people going missing more than once, and more than 330,000 incidents of missing people of all ages in 2009/10 across the UK.
Missing People directly reunited 455 families with missing loved ones last year and many more indirectly, and referred 559 missing children to local authorities, but many families are still waiting for news.
Rachel, who joins other family representatives including the mother of Ben Needham, the toddler who vanished in 1991, says few agencies involved understand what support is needed through the long wait.
"If you get burgled you get a letter from Victim Support. When someone goes missing you get very little support," Rachel explains.
She says no dedicated police officer was ever assigned to Richey's case and believes it wasn't taken seriously enough because of who he was.
"The band's manager reported him missing in Paddington. On the form he ticked 'vulnerable' but there was little active search," she says.
"We had officers saying to us it was his civil liberty to go missing but it's very difficult for people to establish the degree of intent.
"I think they saw him in his public persona as a rock star who walked off into the sunset."
She concedes that things may have improved since but says many people still contact Missing People having not got the help they needed from official agencies.
"Some families are given help from police, some not. The Missing People's campaign is for everyone to have the same help," she says.
Richey's case, like many, was complicated by the fact he was reported missing in London but lived in Wales. The Metropolitan Police initiated the search later handing to Avon and Somerset Police, because of where his car was found and then South Wales Police because he lived in Cardiff.
"There was no clarity among the agencies," Rachel says.
"The charity wants a missing person's coordinator in each police force, someone families can contact.
"We never spoke to the same person.
"We need to realise that families of missing people are victims too."
In her role as a Missing People family representative Rachel hopes to change the culture around missing people so that more is understood. She hopes this will help families of missing people as well as those who have vanished themselves.
Rachel plans to go into schools to talk to young people about what can happen when someone disappears and will be lobbying Welsh MPs to sign an Early Day Motion showing support for the Missing Rights campaign.
"This will show the government just how much support there is to get families like ours the emotional, practical and legal help they desperately need," she says.
The charity also wants the law in England and Wales changed so a legally recognised presumption of death can be made.
In the absence of a body it can be hard to register a person's death or to obtain a death certificate without which families struggle to administer their missing loved one's estate, dissolve their marriage, claim benefits and life insurance, Rachel explains. Missing People want a law, similar to the one in Scotland, that would simplify the process.
At the moment families must swear an oath in court that they believe the person is dead, but Rachel says she knows of cases where people have spent thousands of pounds in legal fees and many years work only for courts to declare they don't believe the person is dead.
"This can be really hard for husbands and wives and cases where there are joint mortgages," she says.
When police asked Rachel's parents if they wanted Richey declared dead in 2002 they declined but in 2008 they had him legally presumed dead.
Rachel recalls writing an affidavit and swearing on oath that she believed the facts in it suggested he was dead.
She agrees this is a contradiction when deep down, she still hopes he'll walk through the door.
"It's like a contradiction because you are writing that and you don't think that but you have to.
"We had to write his history and lifestyle. I had to write that and swear on oath that what I said I believed to be true but at the same time I don't want to put a full stop on it.
"You move between days when you have hope and days you don't."
She says the worst thing is not knowing.
"I would like a resolution. If he turns up alive that would be wonderful.
"If he is dead I would like us to recover his body so he's not anonymous."
Living with this constant uncertainty and grief Rachel says there are times when the family can't speak about it "because there's nothing left to say".
She gathers strength from talking to families of other missing people and says Missing People, which she contacted when Richey first went missing, has been a lifeline.
When she met up with the nine other family representatives of Missing People recently she says they sat and talked for six hours.
"Everyone's case is different and the same," she explains.
"With a missing person physically the person is not there but it's like an absent presence. They are there but not there.
"It doesn't matter what length of time they've been missing. It's like everything is suspended and frozen."
But life still goes on, however hard that is. Since Richey vanished Rachel has got married and works as a housing advice officer for a mental health charity. Sometimes moving on feels strange.
"It is difficult to make choices in life because there's always an empty chair there," Rachel says.
"Sometimes you have to accept you're not going to have a resolution. You have to move on. I still work and move on but it's not the same."
Because of Richey's fame there are also constant reminders of his absence outside home and family.
The other members of the Manics - James Dean Bradfield, Sean Moore and Nicky Wire - who Rachel rarely speaks to now, have gone on to even greater success and fame in the years since 1995.
The band has now become one of Britain's premier stadium rock bands with eight top 10 albums and 15 top 10 singles, yet Richey is still seen by many as the figurehead for their initial success.
Rachel doesn't say so but is obviously uncomfortable with the fact her brother's lyrics were used on their 2009 album Journal for Plague Lovers.
"My mum and dad speak to the band. I don't speak to them that much," she says.
"I was not sure with them using his lyrics on the last album so I don't know if he would have wanted it.
"They were kind enough to ask my father and they believed he wanted them to be used."
But while Richey's fame may bring added agony to what remains a very personal tragedy, it will also bring much needed publicity to the Missing People campaign.
"People going missing could happen to anyone at any time. It's a silent crisis," Rachel points out.
"If someone goes missing you may get no support.
"We need to change that."
[Originally published: Western Mail, 7 January 2011]