On 1 June 1984, 7-year-old Mark Tildesley went missing. A happy little boy who lived with his parents and older brother in the centre of Wokingham in Berkshire, South East England. He had ridden off on his beloved bicycle that evening to attend the visiting funfair. His disappearance left no leads for police to follow and no trace of his whereabouts, leaving his family distraught at what had happened to their child.
Years later it would emerge that Mark Tildesley had been the victim of a predatory paedophile group, snatching children from the street to drug, sexually abuse and murder. Full justice for this 7-year-old child who suffered an agonizing and horrific death was never achieved, with one man convicted and two others remaining free of charges in relation to his death. The body of Mark Tildesley has never been found. Like many other families of missing children, Mark’s parents spent year after year searching for their son desperate to find his final resting place. Tragically, both would die never knowing the whereabouts of their son.
On the afternoon of 1 June 1984, Mark Tildesley had been approached by a man who encouraged him to attend the funfair that evening, giving him money to buy sweets and promising to pay for him to go on the rides. An irresistible offer for a 7-year-old boy. After eating his dinner at home with his family, Mark left his house around 6 pm promising his mother he would be home by 7.30pm. He met two of his friends who also planned to go to the funfair but wanted to go home first and Mark rode off excited to attend on his own.
As the hours went by and he failed to return home, Mark’s family launched a search fearing the worst for their boy who was always home on time. His bicycle was found chained to the railings outside the funfair confirming Mark had made it to his destination. His family, the police, and local residents searched all evening for Mark, questioning the staff running the funfair, talking with his friends about whether they had seen him or knew where he may have gone. Extensive media appeals were made as the days began to pass with no new information. Despite numerous phone calls and possible sightings of young Mark, all proved fruitless and the disappearance of Mark Tildesley became a cold case with no answers.
Five years later the Metropolitan police launched an investigation into the sexual abuse of young boys in and around London, a taskforce they called Operation Orchid. One man who quickly came to their attention was Leslie Bailey, a 35-year-old with mild learning disabilities. He told police that Sidney Cooke, a British fairground worker described in the late 90’s in one British newspaper as “Britain’s most notorious paedophile,” had been the man who spoke to Mark Tildesley earlier on the day he went missing and had been behind luring the boy away from the funfair that evening. He said Mark had been taken to one of their ‘parties’ where he was drugged and repeatedly raped by a gang of men before he was murdered. Leslie Bailey was not the most trustworthy of characters, being heavily involved in the sexual abuse of young boys himself and the Crown Prosecution Service were not convinced his allegations were reliable.
At the time of his confession Leslie Bailey, Sidney Cooke and another man Robert Oliver were in prison for the murder of 14-year-old Jason Swift in 1985. In a group known as the “Dirty Dozen”, Cooke charged members £5 each to rape the boy before he was eventually killed and buried in a shallow grave on the outskirts of London. Cooke and Bailey received life sentences for the murder of Swift in 1989 with Bailey also admitting the murder of another little boy, 6-year-old Barry Lewis, who was also kidnapped and subjected to the same abuse from the group before his death.
In October 1991, Leslie Bailey was charged with the murder of Mark Tildesley, although many feel Sidney Cooke should have been standing on the dock next to him. The judge did name Sidney Cooke and another accomplice, Lennie Smith, as being involved in the murder, however, both were never charged. In October 1992, Bailey pleaded guilty to manslaughter at Reading Crown Court and received two life sentences. One year later he was murdered in prison by two fellow inmates.
‘What you and the others did to that poor, defenceless little boy . . . was totally horrifying, wicked and inhuman.”
Sidney Cooke achieved parole from prison in 1998 after serving 9 years for the murder of Jason Swift. A year later he was arrested again after a further investigation by police into a series of sexual offences against young boys had gained momentum. He was charged with 18 sex offenses believed to have taken place between 1972 and 1981. Pleading guilty to most of the charges against him, he received two life sentences in December 1999 ensuring he is unlikely to ever be released from prison.
Quite why Sidney Cooke was never charged in relation to the death of Mark Tildesley is a mystery to many with the senior police officer who ran Operation Orchid commenting on his anger at the decision not to charge by the CPS and his fears of some form of cover-up. “I found that a staggering decision.” Chief Superintendent Roger Stoodley told the Daily Mirror in 2015. Police believe Cooke does know the whereabouts of Mark Tildesley’s body but refuses to tell his family or the police. Mark Tildesley’s mother died in 2011, six years after her husband, never finding out where the remains of her son were buried.