The family of a mum who disappeared 28 years ago now believe she may have been been harmed by a Costa del Sol crime gang.
Bernadette Cooper was last seen alive in January 1993 when she was aged 48.
At the time the mum-of-three was trying to secure loans to save her struggling bar Molly Malones in Spain.
Bernadette’s family initially believed she was alive and well and leading a new life following anonymous tip-offs and possible sightings.
But Scotland Yard are now investigating the case after she was formally reported as a missing person last year.
Her nephew Leon, who is leading the search to find her, fears there is a “sinister explanation” for her disappearance .
He said: “Some of my aunts and uncles are still alive and hold out hope but I think in their heart of hearts they know something terrible has happened.
“Spain is where I’m getting the most resistance to my questions, for obvious reasons, people are very scared.
“If her disappearance was at the hands of others and something terrible has happened to her then our cause will become one of justice to find out the truth and bring anyone involved to justice.”
Bernadette and her husband Brian moved to the Costa del Sol in the late 80s to run a popular bar in Benalmadena, near Malaga.
But the breakdown of their marriage saw Brian return to England in 1991 seeking a divorce.
Mum-of-three Bernadette was forced to temporarily close the bar and move to England after falling behind on the rent and spiralling into debt.
She approached family members for a £10,000 loan – worth £20,000 in today’s money – but no one was able to help her.
Bernadette, who grew up in Co. Monaghan, Ireland, was last seen alive at The Horse & Groom pub – now renamed – in Tooting, south London.
She was in the pub when she called the president of the Irish Bar Owners’ Association in Malaga.
She told him: “Do me a favour would you? Tell the lawyer acting for the bar that I have the funds…
“Tell him don’t give the bar away – I am on my way back with the money.”
A year later one of Bernadette’s sisters flew to Spain to check up on her after she failed to respond to birthday and Christmas cards.
She found the bar under new management with no sign of Bernadette.
Leon began re-investigating his aunt’s disappearance last March after promising his dying father he would find out what happened to her.
Since looking into case he has received threats – meaning he is keeping his age and address secret.
Leon believes Bernadette may have been fallen foul of an organised crime gang in the Costa del Sol, known as the “Costa Del Crime” in the 80s.
She told family members she and Brian had been “gassed and robbed” at their Spanish apartment, and the bar was smashed up on another occasion.
Leon said: “There is a very strong possibility, although it is only one theory, that people and situations she encountered whilst living and working in Spain may have had a direct bearing on what happened to her.
“Obviously we need keys to unlock that theory and it is one of several theories being pursued by British and European police.”
During the late 90s Bernadette’s family reported her disappearance to missing persons charities, the Salvation Army and also hired private investigators.
However, all enquiries reached a dead end and her bank cards and passport have not been used since the day she visited The Horse & Groom.
Leon added: “Our investigation has proved there is no possible movement,
there is no bank account movement – those are very bad signs.
“What we do know is that it is absolutely inconceivable that she would not have contacted her children, family, brothers and sisters.”
A Scotland Yard spokesman confirmed the missing persons inquiry, which is being aided by Locate International.
He said: “In June 2020, Bernadette Cooper was reported missing to Devon and Cornwall Police.
“The last known contact with Ms Cooper was in 1993, she would now be 76.”