Lee Wilde thought nothing of a chance meeting with a total stranger on Famara beach, until he found he couldn't escape the belief that he recognised the smiling, yet haunted face...
Almost a week passed before he realised who he is convinced that stranger was - could it have been Richey Edwards - the Manic Street Preachers guitarist who went missing nine years ago?
"I know people will find this difficult to believe and that they'll think I'm some sort of crackpot, but I am convinced that is who I saw," stresses Lee. "Everyone I've mentioned it to - including yourselves - just gives me that quizzical look with a raised eyebrow, but I know what I saw and I'm totally certain of it."
The songwriter for the Welsh pop band was last seen in London in February 1995. Police found his abandoned Vauxhall Cavalier two weeks later near the Severn Bridge in South Wales and thought he had committed suicide but his body was never found. His passport, credit cards and Prozac tablets were left in his flat in Cardiff.
There has been much speculation about what happened to him. And although the police feel certain that he is dead, Richey's family are convinced he is still alive. Even the remaining band members have always refused to accept he is dead and have ensured that a quarter share of the millions the group have earned since his disappearance has been left in a trust fund.
The curious twist in the story of the Manics is fuelled even further by the behaviour of Edwards during the time leading up to his disappearance. For months, whilst he was being treated for alcohol problems and depression, he spoke of "the perfect disappearing act". And although he would commit bloody acts of self-harm, he told friends he could never carry out "the Sword", as he called it.
Then came his bank account. During the weeks leading up to his vanishing, he withdrew £200 a day - every day - from his account. Recalling the chance meeting on a barren Famara beach, Lee Wilde reckons his sighting all ties in with the disappearance theory. "He didn't do anything very much, we smiled and chatted briefly - you know, just hello and some small talk," claims Lee. "He was looking out across the water with half closed eyes because of the sun but he still watched me approach. Before I could say hello back, he just said something like "it's beautiful isn't it?" all while staring ahead.
"He was talking about the view obviously but I was more intrigued by his appearance - there was something quite different about him. He was incredibly thin, skinny would be a good description, a drawn complexion and greying hair.
"Then there were his arms. They were wrapped in leather bracelets and fabric that looked like rags - but in a fashionably untidy way, I don't think they were bandages but on the areas of his arms that weren't covered you could make out scars which looked worse than they really were because of his tanned skin."
Despite Lee's apparent sighting, there have been many false dawns of hope for those seeking the truth behind the disappearance - and this isn't the first time the Canary Islands have featured in those hopes.
In 1998, British barmaid Tracey Jones was working at the Underground Pub in Corralejo, Fuerteventura, where she claims the star was spotted. "One of the customers suddenly shouted: 'You're Richey from the Manic Street Preachers'. He just started to run towards the door and within seconds he had gone. We were sure it was just like Richey," she said. Brightened by the possible encounter, the guitarist's family were headed to Fuerteventura to investigate the claims only to find the evidence did not warrant further pursuit.
As it turned out, it was just one of several reported incidents of Edwards being spotted in different countries. Not long after the Fuerteventura incident, college lecturer Viv Morris claimed that he had seen the missing musician at a market in the Indian beach resort of Goa. "He was with some hippies getting on a bus and his name was Rick," was the claim.
Since his disappearance in 1995, there have been numerous sightings, all of which have been hoaxes or cases of mistaken identity. Richey is still officially a missing person. Police have never closed the file. The reason so many fans are utterly convinced the talented musician is alive and well is down to the fact that his family believe so strongly that he fled the pressures of fame and started a new life abroad under a false name.
Some of the evidence itself comes from his sister Rachel, who still lives near the family home in Blackwood, Gwent. She recalls the day he vanished: "Mam just said the words, 'Richard's gone missing.' I stood there rooted to the spot. I was stunned, but at that point I believed he would come back. He had phoned Mum the night before and told her he didn't want to go to America on the tour, but it was said almost as a passing comment. The band were packed and ready to go, and I think everyone thought Richard would return any second with a grin on his face.
"But as the hours went by it became more and more ominous. No matter where he was he had always phoned home and spoke to Mam, even if it was just to say hello." Richey had been treated for depression and alcohol problems at London's Priory Hospital months earlier, and the family initially thought he might have gone to stay with one of the friends he made there. When that lead proved fruitless, they went through the numbers in Richey's phone book, again without success.
Rachel says: "Then the police became involved and the whole investigation started to retrace his movements. It was only when we went round to Richard's flat in Cardiff that we realised he had been back there. He left a trail of clues but we have never been able to work out what they meant.
"He left his passport neatly on the desk in his flat and there was a toll receipt for £2.70 and 30p change nearby. I have been over and over in my mind what he was trying to say by leaving that receipt. Before he disappeared, Richey had become obsessed with the perfect disappearance. It would not have been hard for him to get fake credentials, especially if he had done his homework."
Rachel adds: "My biggest regret is that I couldn't stop any of his troubles. Rachel's efforts to trace Richey have dominated her life since his disappearance. She has contacted every monastery and coastguard in Britain and makes regular appeals through the Missing Persons Helpline. She also keeps in touch with Scotland Yard detectives whose file on the missing rock star grows bigger every month with fresh unconfirmed sightings and leads.
Meanwhile, back in Famara, Lee Wilde says he wants nothing to do with an investigation. "If it was him, then he's here because he wants to be here - if he wanted to be back in the UK he would be - obviously he wants to be left alone," he says. "And if Richey Edwards was the person I met on the beach, I hope he is left alone to deal with life the way he wants to."
[Originally published: gazettelive.com, 1 October 2004]