A mother whose daughter was murdered 30 years ago is begging the Government to change the law to stop her killer being freed without revealing where he hid her body.
Marie McCourt’s daughter Helen, 22, vanished on her way home from work in February 1988.
Pub landlord Ian Simms, 62, was convicted of her murder thanks to overwhelming DNA evidence. But despite extensive searches, the insurance clerk’s remains have never been found.
Helen was a regular in Simms’s pub, the George and Dragon, in the North West village of Billinge, and police believe she encountered the former union official as she walked home past the establishment on February 9, 1988.
Helen McCourt at the age of 19 who was murdered 30 years ago, her killer never confessed and is now due to be released from prison
Marie McCourt with a picture of her murdered daughter, she is campaining for “Helens Law”
Married father-of-two Simms attacked Helen in the pub, and calmly returned to his marital home nearby before returning to the pub. In the middle of the night, he drove off with Helen’s body in his car and it has never been found.
Mrs McCourt, 74, is bidding to have new legislation – dubbed Helen’s Law – introduced to prevent the release on parole of murderers who refuse to reveal the location of their victim’s body.
But time is running out. Mrs McCourt has been told that Simms, who is being held in an open prison, will be allowed two escorted day trips out of jail this month. If they go well he could be allowed on further unsupervised visits next month, she said.
‘If he gets out, it will destroy me,’ Mrs McCourt told the Daily Mail, adding that she worries the ‘psychopath’ – who wrote to her from jail threatening her family – could come after them.
Ian Simms leaves The George and Dragon pub in Billinge under police guard after Helen’s disappearance
‘For all I know he could be out on an escorted visit today. If parole is granted, my hopes of finding my daughter may never be realised.
‘What’s stopping him getting out and going to dance on my daughter’s grave? He could go there and say: “They’ve not found you, have they?”
‘But I can’t even lay my daughter to rest, give her a Christian burial or lay flowers on her grave – it’s so very wrong.
‘We need to force the Government to act quickly on this – it might be too late for me, but if I can get the law changed and help other families in the same situation in future, then I will feel like I’ve done something good in Helen’s name.’
Earlier this month – following the outcry into the proposed release of black cab rapist John Worboys – the Government announced that victims of crime will be able to apply to find out why parole has been granted or denied to offenders.
It is part of a raft of new measures which could ultimately give victims a right of appeal to Parole Board decisions – effectively blocking an offender’s release.
Mrs McCourt, who has been to all of Simms’s parole hearings over the past 14 years, said freedom ought to be automatically denied to murderers who refused to reveal where the body of their victim lies.
Helen McCourt (right) at the age of 18 with her mother Marie and brother Michael
Almost half a million people have signed her online petition calling for Helen’s Law to be introduced.
A version of the law is in effect in several states in Australia and the House of Commons unanimously backed the proposal during a vote on a private member’s bill introduced by Mrs McCourt’s MP, Conor McGinn, in the last parliament. But it has not had a second reading.
Mrs McCourt, who founded victims’ charity Support After Murder or Manslaughter, said she was ‘frustrated’ with the amount of time it was taking the Government to act.
DNA evidence that proved he killed her
A GROUND-BREAKING DNA technique was the key to convicting Ian Simms.
Without a body, police had to prove that blood and hairs found at his pub, on his clothes and in his car were Helen McCourt’s.
After taking blood samples from Helen’s parents, scientists were able to extract her ‘genetic fingerprint’. It was the first time this technique was used in a criminal trial.
It proved that blood found on Simms’s clothing was 126,500 more likely to have come from a child of Helen’s parents than anyone else.
But for grieving mother Marie McCourt, one in 126,500 was not enough. Following a chance meeting with then Merseyside Police Chief Constable John Murphy two years ago, she revealed that, because of advances in forensic testing over the past three decades, she wanted to pay for new tests on the samples to eliminate any doubt that Simms was her daughter’s killer.
The top cop pledged that the force would do it for her.
And the results were unequivocal. Scientists revealed that there was now a one in 1.1 billion chance that the blood came from someone else other than Helen.
‘There was never any doubt in my mind that he did it, but I wanted the highest possible proof,’ Mrs McCourt said. ‘Now there is no doubt he killed my daughter. If he gets out I’m sure he will continue to say he is innocent, but the DNA is damning and I want people to know that.’
As well as blood found on Simms’s clothing that he dumped 15 miles away from the pub, there was also blood in his car boot.
Helen’s earring was found in his car boot, and hairs from Simms’s dog were found on her clothing.
‘The law needs to be brought into the 21st century,’ she said. ‘Advances in forensic science and DNA mean that police no longer need a body to get a conviction – it’s happening more and more.
‘We know there are at least 30 other families who are suffering because their loved one’s killer has refused to disclose where their body lies. Policing has changed but the law hasn’t kept pace.’
If he is freed, Simms is likely to be barred from entering Billinge – the village just outside Wigan where Mrs McCourt lives with her retired transport manager husband, John Sandwell, 70, and where Helen was murdered.
But Mrs McCourt, who last saw Simms in a court room when he was sentenced to life 29 years ago and has no idea what he looks like now, fears he could stroll past her on the street and she would be none the wiser. She said: ‘I’ve asked to see a picture or a video of him when he is released, so I at least know what he looks like. I don’t want to think that every man I walk past could be him – it’s prolonging the torture.’
Mr McGinn, Labour MP for St Helens North, Merseyside, urged the Government to act.
‘For three decades Simms has tormented Marie by refusing to reveal what happened to her daughter,’ he said. ‘Now, despite this brutal act of cruelty, he could soon be released from prison.
‘The Government needs to decide whether it really wants to put victims first.’
Mrs McCourt, who has a son and two grandchildren, has tried everything to find her daughter.
For years after the murder, she and her family would visit potential burial sites every weekend. They hired sniffer dogs, borrowed diving gear to search ponds and canals and looked in sewers. They’ve even employed psychics.
Simms – who has always proclaimed his innocence – was jailed for life in 1989, with a minimum term of 16 years before he was eligible for parole, but he has served almost double that. Only the third person in English legal history to be convicted of murder without a body being found, He has appealed several times, but all failed.
Mrs McCourt said she was assured by previous Home Secretaries that Simms would not be freed until he showed remorse and revealed where Helen’s remains lay. ‘That’s turned out to be all lies,’ she said.
‘All the prisons are full, now they just want people out to make space. Surely their first duty should be to protect the public.’
Marie McCourt standing in front of a framed photo of her daughter at her home in Billinge, near St Helens
At the end of Simms’s trial at Liverpool Crown Court, the judge, Mr Justice Caulfield, described him as ‘in the first division of cold-blooded murderers’.
He added: ‘Having taken her life… you have hidden or desecrated her body so her parents can never respect her corpse.’
Following the Worboys scandal, new rules designed to improve Parole Board transparency have been introduced. From now on any victims signed up to an official contact scheme run by the Probation Service can ask for a summary of the reasons why a criminal is being allowed back into society.
Members of the public and journalists will also be able to apply for documents, if they are able to demonstrate a public interest for them being released.
Under current law, the Parole Board can release an offender only if it is satisfied that he or she no longer poses a risk to the public. But according to information provided to victims by the board: ‘Denial of guilt is not a lawful reason by itself for the board to refuse to release an offender, or assess them as suitable for open conditions.’
A spokesman for the board said guidance for cases where the body of the victim had never been disclosed was updated in October last year, but insisted that all decisions were made according to ‘future risk, not past offending’.
To sign the Helen’s Law petition, go to https://www.change.org/p/rt-hon-theresa- may-mp-introduce-helen-s-law