Exclusive: Previously unseen photograph could be first sighting of Leah Croucher AFTER the time she vanished in Milton Keynes
If it is Leah, the whole timescale of her disappearance would be shifted
A new photograph on a mobile phone has come to light that could finally prompt some clues about the disappearance of Leah Croucher.
The picture is an innocent snap of children feeding the ducks at Furzton Lake and the phone shows it was taken at 10.51am on the morning of February 15 2019.
This is two and a half hours after the last CCTV sighting of Leah walking to work that morning and more than two hours after her phone inexplicably left the network in the area of the lake at 8.34am.
The photo, when zoomed in, shows a small figure dressed in black in the background. Crucially, the figure is dressed all in black and appears to have a rucksack on their back - exactly as Leah did when she vanished.
If it is Leah, it would be the first ever sighting of her after around 8.20am on February 15. And it would shift the whole timeline of the investigation, potentially opening it up to new witnesses and new information. It would also mean Leah made a conscious decision NOT to arrive at work at 9am that morning, opening up the question of whether she had perhaps arranged to meet somebody or someone had asked her to meet them.
The photo was sent recently to the Facebook web sleuth group called Leah Croucher Disappearance - Community Investigation and they advised it be passed directly to police.
The group had run an appeal, echoed by the Citizen here, for people to rack their brains and go through their phones if they were at Furzton Lake on the day Leah went missing.
A member of the public spotted the appeal, checked her phone, and found the photo she had previously forgotten about. She zoomed in to find the rucksack-carrying figure as well as other people nearby.
Two other figures, possibly women, are wearing distinctive coloured coats. There also appears to be someone pushing a pram further around the lake area to the left. These could be vital witnesses to what happened that day.
Significantly, the finding now puts new focus on two previously unconfirmed witness reports of a girl resembling Leah seen looking distressed and texting on a phone around the lake that same morning.
These sightings came between 9.30am and 10.15am and then again at around 10.35am. At one stage the girl was seen to be visibly angry, upset and crying, but by the final sighting she was in a calmer state and speaking to someone on the phone.
Despite police appeals, no other young woman has ever come forward to say this female was them. And the latest photo slots neatly in with those sightings, meaning Leah may indeed have been walking around the lake - possibly for almost two and a half hours.
It also means the phone she was spotted with would have been a 'burner' - a second phone her family and friends knew nothing about.
It opens up questions as why she had this phone. Did someone give it to her? And why she was upset? Why did she choose not to go to work and instead walk around a lake in the freezing cold for so long? Was she waiting for someone? Was she arguing with someone? Could that person have arranged to meet her later to 'make up'?
Though these questions cannot yet be answered, all the possible lakeside sightings now strengthen the conviction held by Leah's own family and friends - that the then19-year-old would never disappear voluntarily and must have been taken against her will or coerced by someone she knew.
Leah's parents have previously spoken out about how the teenager was in a secret relationship at the time she vanished. The Citizen has written about the 'Mr X' theory in the past, quoting Leah's family criticising police for not focusing enough on any possible relationship.
Mr X, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was engaged to be married before Leah went missing and has since denied he was ever in a relationship with her. Police say they spoke to Mr X early in the investigation and have no reason to be suspicious.
Today police have confirmed they are now investigating the new photograph.
A spokesman told the Citizen: “Thames Valley Police has received a photograph from a member of the public, reported to have been taken at Furzton Lake on the morning when Leah went missing, February 15th 2019. We will be examining the photograph as part of our investigation to find Leah."
However, the Leah community Facebook group, which has more than 5,000 members, has gone further and launched a specific appeal to find the other people in the photo. They are urging the two people pictured nearby, one in a white coat and one in a pink coat, to come forward.
Sharp-eyed group members have also spotted what could be a dark figure in the background, in the trees behind 'Leah'. They have further appealed for dog walkers and also the owner of the white car shown in the distance on the right of the picture to come forward.
A spokesman for the group said: "The Facebook group was designed to help find Leah and we really hope this new information can help finally give needed answers to what happened. A brave person from the public managed to find these on a phone and we think there may be more out there. Please search your social media and photos if you were in the area that day. Milton Keynes is amazing and the Crouchers deserve our help. Thank you."
Meanwhile the Thames Valley Police spokesman said: “The force would like to thank members of the pubic who are still coming forward with information to try and find Leah. Anyone with information can visit a police station, report online or call 101, quoting 43190049929 or ‘Operation Dawlish. Information can be left via our dedicated website for this investigation."