Murder of Helen McCourt
29 July 1965|
Bootle, Lancashire, England
|Died||c. 9 February 1988 (aged 22)|
|Parent(s)||William and Marie McCourt|
Helen McCourt (29 July 1965 – c. 9 February 1988) was a 22-year-old insurance clerk from Lancashire (now Merseyside), England, who disappeared on 9 February 1988 in the village of Billinge, Metropolitan Borough of St Helens, Merseyside, shortly after getting off a bus less than five hundred yards from her home. Her body has never been found. Ian Simms, a local pub landlord, was subsequently charged with and convicted of her murder. The case is a rare example where a murder conviction has been obtained without the presence of a body, and was one of the first in the UK to use DNA fingerprinting.
Helen McCourt spoke with her mother by telephone before 4:00 pm on 9 February 1988, shortly before she was due to leave work. She was planning to go out for the evening with her new boyfriend and wanted her tea ready earlier so she had time to wash her hair. Two days before her disappearance, Helen had been involved in a heated argument with a woman in the George and Dragon pub. The landlord was Ian Simms, who was aged 31 at the time and married with two small children. After the argument, Simms had banned Helen from the pub and, according to several customers, had used obscene language about her and said how much he "hated" her. He had made sexual advances to her which she had rejected, and he also believed she knew about his affair with his 21-year-old mistress and was gossiping about it. Helen alighted from her bus around 5:30 pm and set off on the short journey home, a route that took her past the pub. Within minutes, a man getting off another bus heard a loud scream coming from the pub that was cut short. Helen McCourt has never been seen or heard from since that night.
While being questioned by police, Simms came under suspicion when he became extremely nervous. His car was impounded, and forensic scientists found traces of Helen's blood: spots of blood on the rubber sill of the boot and a bloodstain on the boot carpet. In the boot they also found an opal and pearl earring, later identified by Marie McCourt as one of a pair Helen had been given for her 21st birthday; she had been wearing the earrings on the day she vanished. Traces of her blood were also found in Simm's flat: on the carpet at the foot of the stairs leading to his apartment, on a bedroom carpet in his flat, on wallpaper in the bedroom, and splashed on wallpaper next to the outside door to Simm's accommodation, where police believe she was first attacked. In March, Helen's handbag, taupe coat, maroon scarf, navy trousers and green mittens were found on a riverbank in Irlam, about 20 miles away, in a black binliner proved to have been taken from a roll of them in Simms's pub. Fibres from trousers Helen wore for the first time on the morning of her disappearance were found on the stair carpet, landing carpet, and bedroom carpet of Simms' flat, indicating she was dragged upstairs after being attacked by him. A witness working in the pub's restaurant testified she heard dragging noises from above her during the time of the murder. Also found with her clothing was a length of electrical flex. This was similar to other lengths of flex found in Simm's flat, which he used in playing with his two dogs. The flex found at Irlam had dog toothmarks on it that were matched to Simm's dogs; it also had strands of human hair adhering to it that were matched to hairs from Helen McCourt's hair rollers. Police believe the flex was used to strangle her.
A man also came forward to say that, on the morning after Helen's disappearance, he had discovered a blood-stained towel while walking his dog along the Manchester Ship Canal in Hollins Green, Warrington. He later discovered a second towel along with several items of men's clothing, which also had blood on them; the blood was later identified as coming from Helen McCourt. The jumper had the logo of Labatts beer on it, a brand of beer popular at the George and Dragon pub. After first denying it, Simms later admitted these were his clothes.
At his trial in 1989, Simms denied committing the murder of Helen McCourt. He claimed that someone must have got into his flat, stolen his clothes and dressed in them, and attacked and murdered her without his knowledge. This person had then used his car to dispose of her body and then left his clothes where they would be found to incriminate him. The jury did not believe him and convicted him of the murder. Simms was one of the first persons to be convicted on DNA evidence without the victim's body having been discovered. In the absence of Helen's body, forensic scientists used a new technique, using blood samples from her parents to compare with the blood found in Simms' apartment, on his clothes and in the boot of his car. The odds were many thousands to one that the blood was not from a child of Helen's parents. In 1999 Simms challenged the findings of the DNA evidence that linked him to the crime, despite improved DNA technology that now suggested the odds against the blood not being Helen’s were nine million to one.
Simms was given a life sentence with a minimum tariff of 16 years. He has never revealed where he put McCourt's body, which is also one of the reasons that all of his appeals for release have been denied.
Despite the evidence Simms has always maintained his innocence.
Since her daughter's disappearance, Marie McCourt has devoted herself to work for Support after Murder and Manslaughter (SAMM), and still puts pressure on Simms to reveal the location of her daughter's body. Marie has been lobbying the department of the Lord Chancellor to have Simms charged with preventing a burial. Simms had reportedly refused to meet Marie and answer her questions at a parole hearing in 2009, to which she commented, "He wasn't there because he is a coward." Marie also commented, "I will never give up my search for Helen and every day I pray that she is found." In July 2008, a marble bench was placed in the grounds of St Mary's church in Billinge to mark McCourt's 43rd birthday and to honour her memory. In February 2013, a memorial mass for Helen McCourt was held on the 25th anniversary of her disappearance.
On 16 October 2013, police exhumed a grave behind St Aidan's Church in Billinge after receiving a tip-off that Helen's body had been placed inside an open grave ahead of a burial at the church in February 1988. The exhumation showed that Helen's body had not been placed there.
Ian Simms has never disclosed the whereabouts of Helen's body. In December 2015 Marie McCourt launched a campaign calling for a change in the law that would prevent convicted murderers who refuse to reveal the location of bodies of victims from being released on parole.
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