The Missing Boy of Somosierra: 20 years on, the mystery of Juan Pedro remains unsolved
One journalist's quest for an answer to Spain's most puzzling missing person case
In a small cemetery in Fuente Álamo, a town of about 15,000 people in south-eastern Spain, an elderly woman wearing black comes to lay flowers beside a trio of graves on a warm afternoon in June, 2016. The headstones are modest but immaculately clean, free of any of the dirt or leaves that litter nearby plots. Each of the three graves list different birth dates, but they all share the same date of death: June 25, 1986. The woman who lays the flowers knows a secret that the headstones don’t reveal: there may be three graves here, but only two of them contain bodies. The one without a body is the grave of Juan Pedro Martínez, who nobody can say with any degree of certainty is even dead at all.
In a case that has baffled the Spanish public and investigators for over thirty years, prompting Interpol to label it “Europe’s strangest missing person case”, Juan Pedro vanished in the most unusual circumstances after an accident claimed the lives of his parents. Not a trace of the ten-year old boy has been found since. The woman kneels in silent prayer beside Juan Pedro’s headstone, which lies between that of his father, Andrés Martínez, and mother, Carmen Gómez. After some long moments, she rises awkwardly, in obvious pain. Her back isn’t so good these days, after a lifetime of working on her family’s tomato farm. Shielding the glare of the harsh Spanish sun from her eyes, she turns to me and says, in Spanish: “I know he is still alive.” The fact is, she may be right.
Juan Pedro may be almost a household name in Spain, such has been the level of public interest and media focus on his story, but the case has received barely a passing mention abroad. I myself only came across his story about a year ago after reading a post on Reddit, in a thread dedicated to unresolved mysteries. In my view, the case of Juan Pedro stood out above all others on that forum. I spent weeks trawling the internet, watching Spanish television news stories on YouTube and pleading with my Spanish-speaking friends to help translate them for me. My quest to learn everything about Juan Pedro became all-consuming, to the point where I began to ignore my other projects and miss deadlines.
Clutching at straws, I reached out to a freelance journalist based in Madrid who I had met at a conference years earlier. I was surprised when she was willing to help, and she gave me the contact details for a member of Juan Pedro’s remaining family: an aunt, who still lived in Fuente Álamo. After some anxious weeks, my contact told me the news I’d been hoping to hear: despite being badgered by the press for years after his disappearance, she would talk to me, in the hope that my article would reach new readers abroad who may have more information about her nephew’s whereabouts. I booked flights immediately, flying first to Frankfurt and then on to Madrid. Four hours on board the high speed rail and I had arrived in Murcia, where I caught a bus for the final hour’s journey to Fuente Álamo. I met with Juan Pedro’s aunt the following day at at a farmhouse where she had lived her entire life. We sat down along with the Spanish journalist who agreed to translate, and she told me the story from her point of view.
“He was such a happy boy,” was the first thing she told me. Born in 1976, the only child of parents Andrés and Carmen, Juan Pedro was a lively child who was obsessed with football, like most other boys his age. He was talented at the sport, but also equally gifted in the classroom, with his teachers noting that as a student Juan Pedro was among the top in his class. “I always thought he would grow up to be a doctor, or a lawyer. A noble profession, to make use of his intelligence,” said Lucía, his aunt. She paused to shake her head, remembering Juan Pedro as a boy. “But he was stubborn, also. He had these gifts, this great mind, even at a young age, but when you asked him what he wanted to do when grew up, he would always say the same thing. He’d say: I want to do the same work my dad does. I want to drive trucks.”
At first glance, it seems odd that a child with Juan Pedro’s academic skills didn’t have a more challenging career in mind for his future. But according to his aunt, the boy idolized his father, begging to be taken along with Andrés on his deliveries across Spain. “I think part of it was that Andrés would spend so much time away from his family with his job,” Lucía told me. “Juan Pedro loved his father so much, he couldn’t bear it when he was off on a journey to France or Portugal and would be away for most of the week.” Lucía recalled how Juan Pedro would always pester his father during school vacations to accompany him on his deliveries, but his mother, Carmen, would frequently deny his request.
“She didn’t want him to grow up and become a truck driver,” said Lucía. “She didn’t want to encourage his interest in his father’s career too much, but on rare occasions she would relent, as Juan Pedro was just too persistent, and his father said no harm would come of it.” Juan Pedro did accompany his father on several deliveries across Spain, which were all uneventful. “They would go on short trips, to Valencia, or Málaga, when he was on his school vacations,” said Lucía. Carmen was a bit anxious when her husband and son were away, but they always called her when they reached their destination. “She saw how much Juan Pedro enjoyed those excursions, so she grudgingly came to permit him to make the occasional journey with his dad.”
In 1986, as the summer holidays approached in June, Andrés accepted a delivery from Cartagena, a port city near Murcia, to Bilbao, in northern Spain. It was one of the longest domestic routes that he drove, and one that Juan Pedro had always wanted to accompany his father on. At first, Lucía told me, Carmen was against the idea. “I think she didn’t want to be apart from them for that long, because it was a long journey.” However, her husband proposed a solution that she came to accept: she would also accompany them on the trip, so they could all be together. Juan Pedro was delighted after his parents told him that they would all travel as a family to Bilbao, and he spent his last week at school before the break telling his classmates about the journey. “I remember him being excited about it,” said Lucía. “It may not sound like much, but for him it was a big deal.”
What happened next in the story of Juan Pedro has been the subject of countless newspaper reports and television investigations in Spain. Despite the focus, however, many questions remain unanswered. What is clear is that on June 24, 1986, the family set out on the fateful journey that would end in tragedy the following day. The truck that Andrés would be hauling across Spain carried a cargo of sulfuric acid; 20,000 liters in total. Hauling dangerous chemicals was not unusual for him, but it would have a grim part to play in the events of the tragic accident to come.
The following day, June 25, was a hot summer’s day in southern Spain. Andrés and his family had left Cartagena late the previous night, and were making good time on their journey from the southern coast of Spain to the northern tip of the country. When the family stopped for breakfast near Cabanillas at around 5:30 AM, they were already more than halfway to their destination, and had just passed the outskirts of Madrid, which lies more or less right in the middle of the country. North of the capital lies a steep mountain range, and this would slow their progress somewhat, but they were still on schedule to make Bilbao by later that afternoon. The waiter at the cafe would later be interviewed by investigators and asked endlessly about the encounter, which to him was routine. He couldn’t have known that he would be the last person to ever see the family alive.
After their breakfast, Juan Pedro and his parents returned to the truck and continued on the journey through the mountain range. It was slow going, but they made it to the top and began the descent through the Somosierra mountain pass. Testimony from other drivers on the road that day helped investigators piece together the last movements of the truck carrying Juan Pedro and his family. Witnesses reported the truck began to overtake other vehicles recklessly on the descent, gathering speed the whole time and crossing into the oncoming traffic lane. The obvious conclusion was that the brakes on the tanker had failed – although later investigation would prove that to be false..
In such a case, once the speed of the truck has reached a certain velocity, there is little that can be done to prevent a crash occurring. No matter how skilled the driver, and by all accounts Andrés was very skilled, it becomes a simple matter of when, rather than if, tragedy will strike. Today there are now arrestor beds of gravel cut away from the road at certain points on the descent from Somosierra, but even if they had been there in 1986 it’s not guaranteed they could’ve prevent the accident.
The impact occurred, investigators believe, at almost 100 miles an hour. The runaway tanker carrying Juan Pedro and his parents slammed into an oncoming truck, and the devastation was enormous. The dangerous cargo of sulfuric acid compounded the already-deadly smash, with the first responders held back by the growing cloud of toxic gas. It takes three hours before rescuers are able to pry the dead bodies of Juan Pedro’s parents, Andrés and Carmen, from the wreck. Despite some damage from the acid, it doesn’t present any difficulty for the authorities to identify the pair by their personal effects which were found in the vehicle. A member of the police makes the call that nobody ever wants to receive, reaching Andrés mother at her home in Fuente Álamo. It is at this point the mystery of Juan Pedro began in earnest.