What happened to Corrie McKeague? The mystery of the missing airman and the bin

CCTV of Corrie McKeague in Bury St Edmunds on the night he went missing.
CCTV captures what would prove to be the last known definite sighting of Corrie McKeague.

In the early hours of 24 September 2016, a CCTV camera captured the final journey of Corrie McKeague.

The RAF gunner, then 23, had been out drinking with friends in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, before becoming separated from them when he was thrown out of a nightclub.

He had moved on to a takeaway, before sleeping in a shop doorway for a couple of hours.

At 3.25am, the camera recorded him making his way through the quiet streets of the market town and walking into an area on Brentgovel Street used to store industrial bins.

It was the last time Corrie McKeague was seen alive.

The days, weeks and months which followed saw searches involving dozens of police and volunteers, rewards offered for information, the review of thousands of hours of CCTV and a police operation which cost more than £2million.

No body was ever found. The only hint of where he ended up came from his mobile phone signal.

Analysis showed it had followed the same route as a bin lorry on the morning of his disappearance. Its final destination: a landfill site more than 25 miles away.

Mr McKeague was last seen on CCTV heading towards a bin loading area in Bury St Edmunds town centre. Credit: Suffolk Police

An airman goes missing

It was a disappearance that captured the curiosity of the nation: a young airman from a military base went for a night out and seemingly vanished into the night.

The huge manhunt that followed drew attention first from across the county, and then across the country, as people wondered what had happened to Corrie McKeague.

Police searches were carried out across the area Mr McKeague was last seen and the "Find Corrie" campaign was swiftly set up.

Supporters calling themselves "Corrie's Army" used social media to spread awareness of the case all over the world and keep the story in the public eye.

As interest in his disappearance spread, his mother Nicola Urquhart and other members of the public were allowed to join the official police search, but failed to turn up any significant new evidence.

Search teams scour woodland near Thetford in Norfolk for traces of Corrie McKeague. Credit: ITV News Anglia

Ms Urquhart made the first of numerous appeals she would make over the years as she held out hope her son might be found alive.

Speaking in 2016 two weeks after his disappearance, she told ITV Anglia: “People don’t just disappear. That just doesn’t happen.

"Somebody, knows something. Somebody has got some information about where he’s gone."

A £50,000 reward to find Mr McKeague was first offered in December 2016 by local businessman Colin Davey, and a year later that doubled to £100,000.

Police painstakingly reviewed hundreds of hours of CCTV footage, but no further trace of Corrie McKeague was ever found.

Over time the focus for the family shifted from finding Mr McKeague, to finding out the truth about what happened to him.

Unsubstantiated rumours swirled online as people asked how he could simply have disappeared - speculation which his family have since criticised.

After nearly six years of heartache for his family - with still no proof that he had died - an inquest was scheduled for March 2022, in the hope it would help bring closure.

Corrie McKeague's girlfriend April Oliver discovered she was pregnant with the 23-year-old's child two weeks after he vanished.

Who is Corrie McKeague?

Mr McKeague, originally from Fife in Scotland, joined the RAF when he was 19.

His family described him as a "loveable rogue who loved to socialise and party".

"He could walk into a room and light it up," his father Martin McKeague remembered.

Four months after he disappeared, his girlfriend April Oliver announced she was pregnant with Mr McKeague's child.

The pair, who met via a dating site, had been together for about five months before he went missing.

Ellie-Louise was born in June 2017 - and in a touching tribute to her dad, was given "Corrie" as a middle name.

The inquest heard how Mr McKeague was a happy child but developed issues with alcohol after his parents separated and his friend died on a train line when he was a teenager.

His mother told the court how her son's drinking was “atrocious” and described him as a “binge drinker”. Ms Urquhart said her son "regularly lost his phone or wallet on nights out" but "was never aggressive, with or without alcohol".

Police searching a landfill site during the hunt for missing RAF gunner Corrie McKeague.

What happened to him?

Suffolk Police believe the airman, who was stationed at RAF Honington, climbed into a bin which was then tipped into a waste lorry.

Early on in the investigation, a false reading of the load of the bin was given.

Waste firm Biffa initially told police the weight of the bin could not have contained anyone as it was registered as 11kg, but it was later confirmed the bin weight was actually 116kg.

An inquest heard how a device used to record bin weights was returned to factory settings the day before it was collected by police, on 1 February 2017 - something that the officers involved said they considered "highly suspicious".

Police then began searching a landfill site in Milton, Cambridgeshire in March 2017, eventually sifting through more than 6,400 tons of rubbish.

The torment for Mr McKeague's family grew as the search dragged on and no evidence was found.

Five months later, officers announced they would stop searching the rubbish tip - a move that provoked an emotional response from Mr McKeague's family.

Mr McKeague's mother threatened to take out an injunction to stop police filling in the landfill site and his father used his camper van to block the entrance to the site to try to encourage police to restart their search.

"I want them to continue to look for my son," he said at the time.

"All the facts, all the evidence, lies at this landfill site."

Members of Mr McKeague's family, including his mum and two brothers were in court as the jury gave its findings.

What happened to Corrie McKeague - the inquest

A two-week inquest in Ipswich heard that if Mr McKeague had climbed into the bin, it would not have been the first time.

The gunner had previously done so, covering himself with the bags as if they were blankets, and was a heavy sleeper when drunk, his inquest was told.

A senior investigator outlined four theories police had considered as they probed Mr McKeague's disappearance. They included:

  • That Mr McKeague died following an accident;

  • That he died as a result of criminality;

  • That he remains alive but held against his will and unable to contact anyone;

  • Or, that he remains alive and is deliberately staying away and does not wish to be found.

The driver of the bin lorry told jurors that he had checked inside the bin before tipping it into his lorry, but that he had seen no-one inside.

A pathologist explained that had Mr McKeague been inside the bin, he would likely have died within minutes once the contents had been tipped into the back of the lorry, which was fitted with a crusher.

After hearing all the evidence, a jury took less than a day to reach a short narrative conclusion that Mr McKeague died after climbing into the bin which was then tipped into a waste lorry.

They said Mr McKeague died at about 4.20am as a result of "compression asphyxia in association with multiple injuries" and his "death was contributed to by impaired judgment due to alcohol consumption".

Speaking after his inquest, his mother said she "100%" believes that is what happened.

"As a family, we've now all walked out of there with a huge weight lifted off our shoulders", Ms Urquhart said.

She said her son's legacy was his five-year-old daughter Ellie, who is the "spit of her dad" and "being brought up to know who he was, with his humour".

It was a conclusion that brought to a close an almost six-year mystery, and, for the family of Corrie McKeague, at least some answers over what happened to the son, brother, partner and father they lost.