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The British military expert leading the hunt for Jay Slater. FRED KELLY joins former serviceman who believes he’s found the last trace of missing teen and the ‘tough’ route he took – and also reveals why police may have missed him

There’s the sound of heavy breathing and branches snapping underfoot. And then he emerges from the thicket, his head dripping with sweat. Christopher Pennington, a former British military serviceman, is now leading the search in Tenerife for missing teenager Jay Slater.

When the Spanish police announced a week ago that they were ending their unfruitful search for Jay, Chris was left in disbelief.

A 19-year-old boy had gone missing, his family were devastated and the world wanted answers. And yet, the local authorities had decided – after less than two weeks – to throw in the towel.

Fascinated with the case to the point of obsession, Chris began to conduct his own search.

Just days after the official mission was called off, he found fresh evidence. A pair of black sunglasses – with one lens punched out – lying in the undergrowth close to where Jay’s mobile phone was last recorded. 

Former British military serviceman Christopher Pennington is now leading the search in Tenerife for missing teenager Jay Slater

Former British military serviceman Christopher Pennington is now leading the search in Tenerife for missing teenager Jay Slater

Jay, 19, has been missing since June 17 after he left an AirBnB in the village of Masca, Tenerife

Jay, 19, has been missing since June 17 after he left an AirBnB in the village of Masca, Tenerife

The discovery made news around the world and propelled Chris overnight into becoming an online celebrity who now boasts more than 30,000 followers on TikTok and has since had to close his account to stop floods of messages from amateur sleuths.

For the first time this weekend, Chris exclusively allowed the Mail to join him on his latest foray into the rugged and rough terrain around the Parque Rural de Teno, on which the hunt for clues about Jay’s disappearance has centred.

‘This area has not been searched properly,’ he says, defiantly. ‘You can tell, the authorities have stuck to the paths because they’ve assumed Jay did too.’ Chris looks me straight in the eyes: ‘But that’s not how you conduct a thorough search.’

Chris moved to Tenerife in March 2006. ‘I’d already been visiting frequently because my father moved out here in 2003, taking early retirement,’ he explained. ‘And I just fell in love with the place.’

Enamoured with the sunny climes, relaxed pace of life and breadth of opportunities, Chris settled into life as a British expat on this idyllic Spanish island.

Although he is now a respected property developer, in his previous life Chris had served as a reservist in the British Army. Indeed, the skills he acquired have formed the bedrock of his approach to the ongoing search.

‘My squadron worked in Combined Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked) or CVR(T),’ he says – which involves armoured vehicles on scouting and combat missions or logistics moving across difficult terrain. ‘We were passed intelligence with which we drafted a strategy, cross-referenced all the information and then carefully selected our targets.’

But surely, on a case with this level of international interest, it has been hard to maintain the laser-like focus he was used to in the military?

‘You’ve got to close the noise out,’ he continues. ‘Focus on the facts. It doesn’t help to start entertaining conspiracy theories, that just takes your eye off the ball.’

Chris exclusively allowed the Mail to join him on his latest foray into the rugged and rough terrain around the Parque Rural de Teno, on which the hunt for clues about Jay's disappearance has centred

Chris exclusively allowed the Mail to join him on his latest foray into the rugged and rough terrain around the Parque Rural de Teno, on which the hunt for clues about Jay’s disappearance has centred

A derelict hut with empty water bottles, eerie symbols scratched into the walls and - bizarrely - clean clothing

A derelict hut with empty water bottles, eerie symbols scratched into the walls and – bizarrely – clean clothing

Indeed, Chris’s experience is perfectly suited to a case like this. His methodical approach is admirable.

We know that Jay left the Papagayo nightclub at roughly 5.30am and was driven by convicted drug boss Ayub Qassim and another unknown man 25 miles to an Airbnb outside the village of Masca, which he left the following morning before disappearing.

It was revealed yesterday by TV detective Mark Williams-Thomas, who has been helping the Slater family find Jay, that Qassim was also the mystery man known as ‘Johnny Vegas’ – a nickname that, until this revelation, had been attributed to a mystery second man staying with Qassim. The true identity of this other individual remains unknown.

In a video shared on X, Williams-Thomas said: ‘In the last 24 hours I have spoken in detail with Ayub Qassim, who is also known as Johnny Vegas.

‘He said he was on the [coastal] strip, Jay wanted to carry on partying and he said he had nowhere to stay, so he said he could come back to his place.

‘In the car, they played music and chatted before stopping to get a drink at a cafe just prior to entering the mountains. [Qassim] was driving, his friend was in the passenger seat, and Jay was in the back.’

To understand how Jay must have felt as he headed into the mountains, Chris decided to follow his route at exactly the same time of day. So, at 5:30am on Saturday, he drove the treacherous, winding road north from near the Papagayo nightclub to the Casa Abuela Tina Airbnb in Masca.

‘I didn’t go more than 15km an hour,’ Chris says. ‘Because of the hairpin turns, you’ve essentially got to crawl up. It’s dark, it’s extremely dangerous.

Fred Kelly peers into one of the derelict huts he and Chris pass through on their search for Jay

Fred Kelly peers into one of the derelict huts he and Chris pass through on their search for Jay

A dirty shirt hangs against the wall of a derelict hut

A dirty shirt hangs against the wall of a derelict hut 

‘Arriving up here that early, it felt eerie,’ Chris continues. ‘Let be me frank, it’s scary up here on your own in the darkness.’

The Mail met Chris at the exact point he found those sunglasses – the spot he believes Jay may well have veered off to head down the ravine.

It’s just gone 8am, roughly the time at which Jay is believed to have hurriedly left the property.

‘I’ve worked out the most sensible places to search,’ Chris explains.

‘You can see two large palm trees roughly one hundred yards from one another,’ he adds, pointing to a small area above the ravine. ‘Through a source, I have the precise geolocation where Jay’s phone last pinged. And it’s somewhere between those two trees.’

Jay’s mother – Debbie Duncan – claims she does not recognise the sunglasses found by Chris. However, having seen photographs of Jay, I find it impossible not to think they bear a startling resemblance both to a pair Jay was seen wearing the night before his disappearance, as well as a pair worn by his associate Qassim.

Indeed, when Chris alerted the authorities to his discovery, they were very interested. He was told not to place them in a plastic bag in case of condensation contamination, but to wrap them gently in a paper towel and hand them in. He did so, and the evidence is now police property.

As for the area Chris tells me the phone was last heard, cacti and brambles have formed an almost impenetrable barrier seemingly preventing anyone from conducting a thorough search. Today, however, Chris is going in – he isn’t going to be perturbed by a few brambles.

Cacti and brambles have formed an almost impenetrable barrier seemingly preventing anyone from conducting a thorough search

Cacti and brambles have formed an almost impenetrable barrier seemingly preventing anyone from conducting a thorough search

With a hi-vis jacket in case he runs into trouble or becomes disorientated in the thicket, Chris scrambles down into the bush, entering from the point where he found the sunglasses.

He tells me not to follow but to walk down an adjacent path where he will meet me. Almost immediately, Chris is swallowed by the shrubbery and disappears. The only trace of him is the snapping of twigs beneath his feet and the occasional grunt as he wades through.

How on earth would Jay, after a three-day drugs ‘bender’ at the New Rave Generation music festival, have made his way through here? He was supposedly trying to get back to Los Cristianos, the beach town where he had been staying.

‘You can only imagine,’ says Chris, ‘that he’s looked down at the coastline in the distance and thinks it’s a lot closer than it really is. And that heading straight through the bush is the quickest route to safety.’

Indeed, in the sweltering heat – with dehydration a deadly risk – it is easy to become disorientated and confused. Perhaps Jay was simply making a panicked break for the coast?

Twenty minutes pass before Chris re-emerges. He’s only travelled about 100 yards, but sweat is pouring from his scalp. His hands and ankles are cut and scraped.

‘That was tough,’ he admits. ‘I couldn’t even see two metres ahead of me.’

We believe that Jay – based on evidence of a Snapchat call made to his friend Brad Hargreaves – also cut himself badly as he tried to traverse this terrain. Could Chris have taken the exact same route that Jay did three weeks previously? 

It’s certainly possible. Either that, or the mobile phone was thrown into the bushes by a nefarious actor. In which case, it could still be here, lying among the cacti.

Chris wonders aloud: ‘If Jay came off the path and went through there, like I’ve just done, he wouldn’t leave the path again. You’d have to be mad.’

So we continue down the path and deep into this unholy ravine. We pass two derelict huts where I previously revealed in these pages the discovery of empty water bottles, eerie symbols scratched into the walls and – bizarrely – clean clothing.

Finally, the path comes to an end. It’s not physically possible to continue on to the coast. Chris takes a look at his phone and reveals we’ve dropped to 650 metres above sea level, from a starting point of 782 metres. It’s a long climb back up and, running short on water, it’s time we returned.

But suddenly, Chris spots figures over the other side of the ravine. He gets a telescopic lens from his backpack and looks through it.

It is Jay’s father, Warren, and brother Zak. They’re conducting their own desperate search along with seven others – members of a local hiking group.

When we return to the top of the ravine, the Mail spoke with one of the hiking group: Juan Garcia, a 53-year-old local who had been searching along with his four-year-old sniffer dog, Caperucita.

‘The police have searched here with a helicopter,’ Juan tells the Mail. ‘But it’s a labyrinth of bushes and you can’t see much from the air. We really are looking for a needle in a haystack.’

For now, thanks to the tenacity of people like Chris and Juan, the search continues.

The question, however, is for how much longer volunteers can continue to put themselves through the physical and psychological toll of this unforgiving search.

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