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Sean O’Neil: I’ll never forget Shaun Ritchie case – and I’m determined to help find the truth

DI Martin MacDougall, Nicole Shand and Shaun Ritchie
DI Martin MacDougall, Nicole Shand and Shaun Ritchie

Last October The Press and Journal launched its documentary Missing From the Broch that investigated the disappearance of missing man Shaun Ritchie. Here our reporter Sean O’Neil gives his personal insight into the case.

It was around June 2015 when I first heard the name Shaun Ritchie.

I had just started working for Johnston Press titles in Aberdeenshire, including the Buchan Observer and Fraserburgh Herald.

Shaun had disappeared around eight months before but his case was still very much in The Broch’s mind when I arrived in the north-east town.

A young man travels to a farmhouse in a van with a number of friends on Halloween night and is never seen again.

There were rumours, hypotheses and accusations.

But there were no answers – the only thing his family needed.

An altercation in a van

I spoke with police officers, family members and locals who all had their own version of what may have happened to Shaun.

A lot of the stories I heard around that time we proved to be true in our documentary released last October.

An altercation in the van, claims of an incident with an axe on the same night – these were all examined in our investigation.

But one question remained unanswered: where is Shaun?

Back in 2015, a week or two before the first anniversary of Shaun’s disappearance, I interviewed the then lead detective on the case, DCI Matt Mackay.

The line taken by the police at that point was there was no evidence of criminality.

The hypothesis was Shaun had become disoriented in the boglands around Kersiehill Farm, where he was last seen.

That the 20-year-old had fallen or suffered from hypothermia and never been found.

It was a theory that never sat right with his family.

More than seven years later, little has changed.

I never forgot Shaun’s case

I stopped working for the Fraserburgh Herald at the tail end of 2016, moving to Glasgow.

But I never forgot Shaun’s case.

I couldn’t accept that a young man had just disappeared – that he had gone out with his friends and never returned.

It’s not something we can accept as a society and it’s not something a family should ever have to endure.

About 18 months ago I got off the ferry from Mull to Oban and there was the missing poster for Shaun at the harbour.

Shaun Ritchie was last seen on October 31, 2014.
Shaun Ritchie

Again that chord was struck so I then spoke to my colleagues on The Press and Journal’s Impact investigations team about making a documentary focusing on Shaun’s case.

Perhaps if we could prove or disprove the rumours, and present the evidence in a new way to the public then something might stir – either in their memories or the police investigation.

Perhaps someone would come forward with new information that could move the case along.

Shaun’s family agreed to take part in the documentary.

They have been inspiring and unrelenting in keeping their son and brother’s case in the public eye for the last seven years.

Of making sure people remember he still has not been found.

It is a testament to their intense bravery and love that the investigation has not been allowed to rest.

A fresh search for Shaun

After the release of our documentary in October, I met with Dr Alastair Ruffell – a grave-finding expert who had helped in the original search for Shaun.

Dr Alastair Ruffell

He told me he was developing new sonar drone technology that could potentially help in a fresh search for Shaun.

DI Martin MacDougall, the detective now in charge of Shaun’s case, has confirmed that talks are progressing between Police Scotland and Dr Ruffell.

Having interviewed DI MacDougall during the filming of the documentary, he struck me as a man who genuinely cared about the case.

He was willing to sit down and answer questions that had went unanswered before.

DI MacDougall had been part of the original investigation himself and had lived around Fraserburgh at the time Shaun went missing.

Major step forward

If such a search does go ahead, as Shaun’s sister Nicole Shand and dad Charlie Reid have both insisted, it will be the first major step forward in the case for years.

Any such movement after that long period of time is again down to the families will and desire for answers.

It’s down to everything they have done.

I still keep in regular contact with Nicole and spoke to her recently about the potential of a new search.

Nicole Shand, Shaun Ritchie's sister
Nicole Shand

She is also in talks with another organisation who may be able to help with finding Shaun.

I’ll leave the last words of this to her.

“We want to keep pushing forward and getting the case continuing in the public eye because we need, and after all this time, deserve answers.”