ON February 9 it will 28 years since Helen McCourt vanished and thereafter began an interminable nightmare for her family which has gone down as a tragic and extraordinary episode in British criminal history.
Returning from work in Liverpool, the 22-year-old insurance clerk went missing after a bus dropped her on Rainford Road in Billinge, just 500 yards from her home.
Marie had intended to meet Helen in the city that fateful day in 1988 for lunch but changed her plans because gale-force winds were battering the region.
Indeed, when Helen first failed to arrive home at the arranged time of 5.30pm it was feared that she might have suffered some weather-related accident.
But as the hours went and inquiries with friends and family drew a blank, so concerns grew and at 9.30pm Marie had contacted the police. Investigations led to the George and Dragon pub on Main Street where Helen had worked as a barmaid the year before but two days earlier had been involved in a fracas with a woman and landlord Ian Simms.
It was speculated that Helen, 22, called into the pub on the stormy Tuesday night to speak to Simms, 31, to smooth things over and ensure she was welcome back. It was ventured they rowed about her knowing he was having an affair.
Within minutes of Helen’s arriving, a man getting off a bus outside heard a scream coming from the pub which was cut short, as if by a hand clamped over a mouth.
Part-time barmaid Karen Tither turned up at the George and Dragon around 7pm and, with no sign of Simms, set to work.
It was a slow evening with not many people in and when her boss finally appeared an hour later it was to say he was heading out for half an hour.
It was to be closing time when Simms finally reappeared. Later Simms would be found by his cleaner in the pub scrubbing the floor with bleach and claiming that his dog had made a mess.
Fifteen miles away, butcher Gordon Bannister was walking his dog on a towpath by the Manchester Ship Canal in the Hollins Green suburb of Warrington when he found a blood-stained towel.
On an embankment by the A57 he spotted a second towel and several items of discarded men’s clothing. The jumper was emblazoned with the logo of Labatts beer, popular at the George and Dragon.
As a suspiciously agitated Simms was questioned by police, blood and part of an opal and sapphire earring – identical to ones given to Helen for her 21st – were found in the boot of his Volkswagen Passat.
Police broke the news to Simms and arrested him on suspicion of murder. The boot bloodstain, he added, was made by his dog which had cut its paw and that someone must have planted his clothes by the canal to frame him.
Two fingerprints left in blood were found on his flat’s door and experts said one was Simms’s.
Helen’s handbag, coat, jeans and scarf were later found in Irlam along with a flex which is thought to have been the murder weapon.
One possible motive given was that Simms thought Helen had been gossiping about his having an affair behind his partner’s back and that he beat and strangled her in the pub before putting her body in the boot of the car.
A massive hunt for Helen was launched with more than 5,000 members of the public combing the area.
But their searches, as has every hunt since by police and the McCourts’ family and friends, proved fruitless.
When officers fired a routine questions at Simms, one of the policemen noticed the landlord’s stomach was palpitating as if with fear and he struggled to get his words out.
He was taken to attend St Helens police station to make a statement and as the forensic evidence began to mount he was charged with murder.
Despite continually protesting his innocence, Ian Simms was convicted after a 16-day trial at Liverpool Crown Court.
He maintained that he was set up by unknown persons who had used his vehicle and its keys before replacing them and said that scratches on him were caused by his wife after he was forced to admit his affair to her.
Since being handed a life sentence, Simms has made several unsuccessful bids to prove his innocence.
His was one of the first in legal history where conviction had been secured without a body, and the first using DNA fingerprinting: blood found at the pub being shown to be 126,000 times more likely to have come from Helen or a close relative than anyone else.
Sentencing Simms, Mr Justice Caulfield summed up the case by describing the landlord as being “in the first division of cold-blooded murderers”.
Speculation has continued to rage over what Simms did with Helen’s body including that he used a clinical waste incinerator at Billinge Hospital or a furnace at Pilkington Glass.
More recently attention briefly turned to Robin Park when a witness contacted the Wigan Evening Post to say that he had seen suspicious behaviour in the area near where the DW Stadium now stands on the night of Helen’s disappearance.
The witness said he saw car drive down a dead-end dirt track to what was then little more than waste land and a water treatment works late on the storm-battered night and stay there for 90 minutes.
He said he reported it to police at the time after learning of the massive manhunt for Helen but he said they later came back to him saying that soil samples on Simms’s car did not match those from the Robin Park area.
After the matter was reported in the paper police re-examined the suspicions but said they were not prepared to excavate the fans’ carpark between the stadium and canal unless there was further evidence to corroborate the eye witness report.
Police, however, did act on a tip-off in 2013 that it was possible that Helen’s remains had been deposited in a grave at the churchyard of Billinge St Aidan’s which was known to have been open on the night she died.
They received permission for an exhumation but, tragically, they again drew a blank.
Mrs McCourt has spoken in the past of how many times her hopes of a discovery have been raised by new leads or the discovery of human remains – almost anywhere in the North West - only to have them cruelly dashed time and again.
She has used this ongoing psychological torment as a key part of the victim impact statements she has submitted to Simms’s parole hearings, showing that until he reveals where the body is, her emotions remain raw and justice remains to be served.
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