A mother’s 30-year fight for closure

Marie McCourt on the 30th anniversary of her daughter Helen's murder
Marie McCourt on the 30th anniversary of her daughter Helen's murder

On Friday this week a special mass will be said to commemorate, almost to the hour, the 30th anniversary of the disappearance and murder of Helen McCourt.

Her mother Marie, who admits that every aspect of her life has been dominated by the tragedy these past three decades, hopes that as many people from her daughter’s life will be able to attend the service at Birchley St Mary’s RC Church, just a few hundred yards from where the 22-year-old alighted from a bus to meet her terrible fate.

Helen McCourt

Helen McCourt

Helen was killed at the nearby George and Dragon pub in Billinge by its landlord Ian Simms. And while the publican was found unanimously guilty of her murder, the insurance clerk’s remains have never been found.

Simms, now 61, has always maintained his innocence and, thus, has never revealed the whereabouts of his victim’s body.

It is a stance that has kept him behind bars far longer than might have been the case had he admitted to the crime. But after he was moved to an open prison recently, there are now concerns among the McCourt family that he could soon be back on the streets.

Marie, 74, had been led to believe that Simms would never be released if he didn’t show remorse, but the law has changed and now she, with the help of St Helens North MP Conor McGinn, is desperately trying to get a “no body, no parole” law through Parliament both to keep Simms behind bars and prevent other families in a similar situation from suffering similar agonies.

Killer Ian Simms

Killer Ian Simms

But time could be running out. A second reading in the Commons of what has been dubbed Helen’s Law has been aborted on more than one occasion and it is unclear now when or if it will happen.

Marie was this week contemplating what might happen if Simms were freed and, whether in breach of parole by coming back to Billinge or by pure chance somewhere else, she were to come face to face with him.

She said: “I am not a violent person. I suspect that if I did come face to face with him, I would suffer a heart attack and then he would have claimed my life too.

“At the moment though, I am not sure that I would recognise him.

The George and Dragon pub in Billinge where Helen McCourt was murdered by Ian Simms in 1988

The George and Dragon pub in Billinge where Helen McCourt was murdered by Ian Simms in 1988

“If he is to be released, I think it is only right that families should be supplied with up-to-date images of an offender, perhaps even film.

“I did not know him before he killed Helen, then only saw pictures of him. And in the time between the pictures at the time of his arrest and when we saw him in court, he had already changed considerably.

“Almost 30 years later, his appearance could have altered beyond all recognition.

“If, God forbid, he is allowed out, we need to know what he looks like so that we can notify the authorities if he were to breach the terms of his parole. He could be standing behind me in the queue at my local Co-op and I might not recognise him.

“But I have been in the media a lot and of course he would know me straight off. We would need protection from this man.”

That said, Mrs McCourt is still holding out hope that it won’t come to that - unless, after all this time, Simms finally confesses. Were that to be the case, she would re-assess the situation.

“If he came clean and told us what he did with my daughter then I would deal with it differently.

“I would finally have my Helen back and be able to give her the burial she deserves, I can have a grave to visit and he can just go away.

“But without the threat of ‘no body, no parole’ like they have in Australia, he is less likely to confess now.”

At present Marie has to make do with a stone bench, which she paid for herself, celebrating Helen’s life, which sits in the Birchley St Mary’s churchyard.

And she is also hoping that many people who remember Helen - including her old school friends - will attend the 7.30pm mass. A number of the police officers who worked on the case, mostly long retired, are among those who have promised to come.

Marie said: “We have had several services over the year and this may be the last big one. A lot of the older people who knew Helen before she died have passed away themselves now. But it would be lovely to have a full church.

“It could include people Helen went to St John Rigby College with in Orrell or with whom she worked in the dole office in Wigan town centre afterwards.”

Marie has previously reflected on her own mortality, recognising that she, like the late mother of Moors Murderers’ victim Keith Bennett, might not live to see her daughter’s remains discovered.

A few months short of her 75th birthday though and Marie, who lives with husband John Sandwell, says the fight has not left her.

She said: “People ask me how Helen’s murder has affected me and I answer that it has deeply affected every part of my life. How can it not?

“Had Helen been found at the time, life could have followed a different path. But I can never give up the search for her, and the best way after all this time of finding her, is getting the information out of the man who took her life. I don’t feel I can move on, even from the four-bedroom home here because of Helen.

“The legal process has been frustratingly slow. We got a first reading in the Commons, the second was scheduled, we all went down to London for it and then it was pushed off the agenda by another motion and hasn’t been seen since. I have been trying to get a meeting with the justice minister since last September but government reshuffles and the huge amount of time spent on Brexit have slowed things up.

“I am now pinning my hopes on meeting the new minister David Gauke, who seems to be a positive sort of man, but a date has yet to be fixed.

“We still have an online petition going for Helen’s Law which, at the last count, has 417,000 on it and I would urge more people to sign it. There are another 7,000 signatories yet to add to it from readers of Take a Break magazine.

“We need to keep the pressure up. While Helen’s Law has been delayed, another about police dogs called Finn’s Law has been rushed through ahead of it!

“It’s astonishing: I am in this constant state of limbo and torture over what is going to happen next. It was back in September that the parole board got in touch asking me to write my latest victim impact statement, but nothing has happened since.

“I thought it was going to be in January, but they have to give four weeks’ notice so it’s probably not going to be in February either. In a way it’s a good thing, but the not knowing is very stressful in itself.

“And if I was hiding the body of someone’s loved one I would be up in court. Simms should be in the dock charged with preventing a burial, not getting a chance of release without repentance. He’s not only robbed me of my daughter but has also prevented me from saying goodbye to her and being able to lay flowers on her grave. As it is she could be in a rat-infested drain.

“People should not have to go through this. The Government should be sorting it out.”