Last Friday, the 13 November, some of you may have noticed that the serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, aka the Yorkshire Ripper, died in prison. Around the time of his killings, my mum and some mothers of friends were around the age of his victims and remember it quite clearly. One even bought their first car at the time, due to living in the Yorkshire area and needing to feel safer returning home alone from work at a hospital.
This got me thinking about one of my earliest memories.
“There’s a bad man” – one of the earliest vocal memories I have, from a very young me.
I lived in a small town, known to be safe and, to be honest, where not a lot happened. Everyone knew who everyone else was, including some kind but quite, well, inquisitive, neighbours. And back in 1990, in a neighbouring village, this general observance and some quick actions ended up not only saving a young girl’s life, but also brought an end to the horrendous work of a notorious killer…
On 14 July 1990 in the village of Stow, 5 miles from where I grew up, a retired postmaster noticed something unusual while in his front garden mowing the lawn. Noticing an unknown parked transit van opposite his garden, David Herkes suddenly saw his neighbours six-year-old daughter’s feet swept up and vanish behind the van followed by the slam of a vehicle door.
Herkes immediately noted down the vans registration and contacted the police as it drove off towards Edinburgh. A short time later, when police were searching for the van, the driver drove straight by them on the Galashiels road back through the village of Stow. Stopping the vehicle and handcuffing the driver, one of the police officers opened the vans rear doors to discover his own daughter tied up inside.
The kidnappers’ decision to turn around and drive straight back through the village of Stow towards Galashiels led to his ultimate capture and the saving of this young girl’s life.
That man was Robert Black.
Police across the country had spent over a decade looking for this serial child murderer, and this capture ended his tirade.
Being charged with child abduction, Black was held on remand till a court appearance at nearby Selkirk Sheriff Court planned for two days later, 16 July 1990. Similarities were seen between this abduction and sexual assault and several others that occurred through the country in the 1980s.
Between 1981 and 1986, the murders of 9-year-old Jennifer Cardy, 11-year-old Susan Maxwell, 5-year-old Caroline Hogg and 10-year-old Sarah Harper had been linked to one another, due to their similarities: going missing from their homes and being found miles away.
The detective superintendent in the Scottish Borders, where Black had been captured, notified Hector Clark, who had been in command of the overall investigation.
Given a life imprisonment in August 1990 for abduction and assault of the young girl in Stow, Grangemouth born Black was also eventually convicted of the kidnap, rape, sexual assault and murder of the four girls. He was also linked with many other similar murders and disappearances all over Europe during the 1980s. Black died in prison in 2016.
Black had used his work as a lorry driver to confuse police with the distance between disappearances and where bodies were found. In a series of interviews with Dr Robert Badcock, Black described his crimes as ‘theatre’.
David Herkes has now had a street named after him in Gorebridge, where he lived for much of his life before Stow, in tribute to him helping catch the notorious child killer.
A family member who worked in the police met Robert Black while he was being held when first arrested, and descriptions have stayed in my mind for a while. I often wonder if the experience of meeting a serial child murderer, although extremely rare in the area I grew up in, was one of the reasons for some of the stricter parts of my childhood. My sister was the same age as the child he abducted that day in Stow, I myself only a couple of years younger.
Women of my mum’s age back during the reign of the Yorkshire Ripper between 1975 and 1980 being told to keep safe, and youngsters like myself during the murders of Robert Black, have the commonality of prevention from the victims’ point of view.
In 2019, I went to see a play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe all about the investigation into the Yorkshire Ripper murders. The Incident Room is set in the 1975 Milgarth Incident Room in Leeds, the centre of the large-scale manhunt into the Yorkshire Ripper.
The play used historic accounts, police reports and journalism of the time to show the investigation, using recordings and tv-footage alongside actors as the investigative officers. It wasn’t really about the Yorkshire Ripper himself, but more a look at the investigation into the murders; including the overburden of filing and paperwork, hierarchy, sexism, and the need to succeed. By using certain visual aids such as clothing, it gave the audience reminders of the human lives involved. It also touched on the theme of women keeping safe, and the ideas many people had at the time concerning the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ types of victims, and reducing them to that, just victims – something that has perhaps not entirely moved on in the last four decades.
The women at the time of the Yorkshire Ripper were told to ‘stay safe’, many, including police and media, believing that those who were sex workers were in some way to blame, and suggesting their lives were worth less than those who were not sex workers.
Perhaps there is a lot more that could be done in society with both non-police prevention and the way some people view those who are ‘victims’ or possible ‘victims’. I have deliberately not included an image of Peter Sutcliffe (or Robert Black), but you can remember those whose lives were taken by him here.
Although somewhat different in the case of Robert Black, there is still the idea of keeping safe, and away from the “bad men”.
If interested in some other facts learnt through the play of The Incident Room, do have a look here.
I could talk about a lot of aspects about true crime but did not want to make this a ridiculously long blog post! But I wonder if young me hearing of a bad man, and then later releasing who this was, spurred me into the huge interest I have had in true crime since my teens.