Police who found the three boys who went missing four days ago said there may have been a plan to "spirit them out of the country."
They failed to return to their foster carers' home in Sunderland, after setting out on a tea-time bike ride to a local park.
Instead, they caught a Metro to Newcastle, then took a pre-booked taxi to London and spent two nights in the capital before heading for Birmingham.
Superintendent Alan Veitch, who led the major investigation to find them, said it was "entirely possible" that the plan was to get the boys out of the country.
More top news
He has admitted his squad were simply not good enough to avoid another scrap for Barclays Premier League survival.
The incident took place on Sunday October 4th close to Marton Road in the town.
71-year-old Robert Howard was in jail at HMP Frankland and was due to give evidence at a re-ordered inquest in Belfast.