Has TV show brought new evidence to light in Helen McCourt murder probe?
A witness fears murdered Helen McCourt’s body may have been disposed of in Billinge Hospital’s furnace - because her future killer once advised him to dump his rubbish there.
A former roofer broke a 31-year silence to contact the Wigan Observer this week after a new ITV documentary revisited the mystery, exploring the details of the case and highlighting the fact that her remains’ whereabouts are still unknown.
This despite pub landlord Ian Simms having been convicted of the 22-year-old insurance clerk’s killing and is still in prison to this day protesting his innocence.
The Wigan 70-year-old, whose details have been passed on to cold case officers but does not want to be identified in this article, said that in the late 1980s - some time before Helen vanished - he replaced the roof of Simms’s mother’s house extension in Billinge.
He said that at some point Simms came round and told him that he could take all the old felting and battens in his trailer to Billinge Hospital because he had a friend who operated the incinerator there.
Simms also asked him to pick up waste from the George and Dragon pub - where Helen was later murdered - to pick up some of his business’s refuse as well.
This is not the first time that theories have been voiced about the now demolished hospital’s incinerator being used for disposing of Helen’s body, although previously the Observer has been told that line of inquiry had been followed up and the conclusion was that security was too strict there for Simms to have had access.
Indeed our informant said that he approached police shortly after Helen’s disappearance with this theory and they “laughed” at him, so he never mentioned it again until the tragedy appeared on Judge Rinder’s Crime Stories last week.
And he said: “There was absolutely no problem getting to the incinerator. Simms said you just drove round the back and through some open gates and his mate would let you dispose of your rubbish.
“It sounded like this was a regular thing for him - a good way of getting rid of stuff when the bins were full. Sure enough, we made a couple of trips and were able to drive straight round to this big metal door, chatted to a guy who was about my age - in his 30s - and it just involved opening the door and throwing bags of stuff in. Anything could have gone in there.
“From what I heard quite a few of the local residents knew about it and would dispose of their own rubbish there too. I never saw a padlock on the gates and they were wide open when we went there.
“I thought it was a plausible theory at the time when no-one was finding anything, but I just got laughed at when I went to the police with it. After that I thought I had better keep my mouth shut because people would think I was nuts or malicious.
“But I am neither. I was - and am - just trying to help. Helen’s mum (Marie McCourt) has been through hell and she deserves closure. I hope that Simms stays behind bars for the rest of his life too.”
In the programme’s aftermath, local media were contacted by two other viewers, one of whom suggested Helen’s body may have been disposed of in a then open mine shaft at the former Mosley Common colliery site which was being redeveloped in the late ’80s; and another who suggested a remote area near Bickerstaff called The Moss might be worth exploring, as forensic examiners found clay on Simms’s jewellery and clothes and that land has clay soil.
The documentary heard that Helen disappeared on the evening of February 9, 1988 on her way home from work. Suspicion soon fell on Simms and detectives built a case based on a catalogue of forensic evidence linking him to Helen, including her blood and hair in his flat and her earring in the boot of his car.
Simms would likely be a free man by now had he confessed and told police what he did with his victim’s remains, but his protestations of innocence, despite the overwhelming evidence, have so far kept him behind bars. However, he has been moved to a lower security prison and there are fears that if Mrs McCourt can’t get Parliament to pass a “no body, no parole” amendment to legislation - now dubbed Helen’s Law - he could yet be released without disclosing his secret.
Mrs McCourt has continued to search for her daughter’s body to this day and has thanked members of the public for continuing to come forward with new lines of inquiry. More recent ones have included exhuming a grave in St Aidan’s churchyard in Billinge and a suggestion that the body may have been buried on land behind what is now the DW Stadium.
Det Supt John Webster from Merseyside Police Major Crime Unit said: “Merseyside Police continues to work with Helen’s mother, Marie McCourt, and family to try to identify the location of her body, and we of course welcome any new information following the ITV appeal last week. We remain committed to investigating all information which may help in the recovery of Helen’s body, and bring her family some closure after all these years.”
Anyone with details can contact @MerPolCC, call the Major Crime Unit on 0151 777 8618 or Crimestoppers, anonymously, on 0800 555111.
The Judge Rinder’s Crime Stories episode can be seen on Catch-up