Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Robert Black

Sudden Mindless Violence

Sarah Harper (MEN Syndication)
Sarah Harper
(MEN Syndication)

There was now a three-year gap until the next murder in the series of child killings that was already being dubbed by the press as the most horrific since the Moors Murders. On 26 March 1986, ten-year-old Sarah Harper was the third little girl to be taken. Sarah lived in Morley, Leeds, which was further south than the two other girls, but still in the north of England. At eight oclock that evening just as Coronation Street was ending, Sarahs mother, Jacki, asked if one of her children would go to the corner shop and buy a loaf of bread. Sarah volunteered to go. Taking 1 from her mother and picking up two empty lemonade bottles to get the deposit on them, Sarah left her home in Brunswick Place to go to K&M Stores on Peel Street, just over a hundred yards from her house.

At K & M the proprietor, Mrs Champaneri, clearly remembers Sarah coming in. The girl returned the lemonade bottles, and bought a loaf of white bread and two packets of crisps. She left the shop at five past eight and shortly afterwards two girls who knew her saw Sarah walking home towards the snicket, an alley used by locals as a short cut. Then, like Susan and Caroline, she disappeared.

At about 8.15 Jacki started to worry, as the journey should have only taken Sarah five minutes. Although Jacki thought that Sarah was probably just dawdling or eating crisps in the alley, she sent Sarahs sister, Claire, out to look for her. When Claire came back with no news of her sister, the family went out in the car to search for her. At nine o'clock the police were called and once again searches and inquiries were swiftly set into motion. Once again they proved fruitless.

On 19 April David Moult remembers how he was walking his dog by the River Trent in Nottingham when he spotted something floating in the river. I thought it was a piece of sacking then the current turned it round and I realised it was a body. Using a stick, Moult managed to drag the body over to the side of the river bank. He then called the police. It was later determined that Sarah Harper had been put in the river at around junction 24 of the M1 when she was still alive. The pathologist who examined her body described the injuries, which had been inflicted pre-mortem, as terrible. As Ray Wyre later described it, Sarahs assailant had violently explored both her vagina and her anus.

Jacki Harper, like Liz Maxwell, vividly remembers being told of the discovery of her daughters body.

All he [the officer] could say was Would you like to make a cup of tea? And all I kept saying was Will you tell me what you have to tell me? I knew why they were there - it was obvious. But he wouldnt tell me: he just kept going on about this bloody tea. All I wanted him to say was Yes, weve found her.

It fell to Terry Harper - Sarahs father, Jackis ex-husband - to identify his daughters body: It was worse than I ever dreamed of, he said.

Although Hector Clark was careful to keep an open mind, he believed at the time that Sarahs abduction and murder was not connected to those of Susan and Caroline. The differences, he said, outweighed the similarities. Susan and Caroline were both abducted on hot July days, in colourful summer clothes; Sarah was abducted on a cold, dark, rainy night in March, her small body covered with an anorak. Both Coldstream and Portobello are on, or near, main roads, commonly used routes through which many travellers pass; Morley is not the sort of place you go without a reason. This initially lead Clark to believe that Sarahs abduction was committed by a local man who knew the area well.

In retrospect, however, the similarities, although perhaps fewer in number, were certainly more telling. All of the victims were young girls who had been skilfully abducted from public places for a sexual purpose. They were all driven south and murdered, their bodies dumped in the Midlands, within 26 miles of each other. Sarah may have been subjected to a more vicious attack than the other two girls (although the evidence is inconclusive), but if anything this pointed to, and not away from, the same offender being responsible. In serial murders the attacks frequently get more violent as they go along (this is true of Peter Sutcliffe, for instance) as the killer gains confidence and needs more and more acts of violation and mutilation to keep him aroused. Therefore it would not be surprising if the murder of Sarah Harper was more extreme in its sexual brutality than the murders of Susan Maxwell and Caroline Hogg.

Initially the investigation into Sarah Harper's murder was conducted as a separate inquiry, led by Detective Superintendent John Stainthorpe of the West Yorkshire police. Yet close links were maintained to the joint Maxwell/Hogg inquiry in order to keep all avenues of approach open. The same painstaking inquiries were made in the case of Sarah Harper as had been with Susan and Caroline. House-to-house inquiries were conducted, people who had seen a white van parked by and near Sarah's house were interviewed, and an artists impression of a strange man who was seen on the street and in K&M Stores was circulated. LIO's were again asked to draw up lists of men who had committed similar offences, and they were all interviewed.

Yet this time the police had an advantage as by now the Home Office Large Major Enquiry System had been established. HOLMES had been donated to the West Yorkshire police after the Yorkshire Ripper fiasco, and it was utilised from the first day of the Sarah Harper investigation. The system was designed to efficiently log, process, collate and compare information at the press of a switch. Once all the data from the investigation had been fed in to HOLMES, names of possible suspects or vehicle registration numbers, for instance, could be fed into the system, which would instantly tell the user whether the name or vehicle had come up previously in the investigation.

Despite this new technological efficiency, however, the police were getting no further in their investigation. Ultimately no matter how sophisticated HOLMES was, if the name of the offender was not stored anywhere in its memory it was useless. The police were relying on their killers name being in the system; if it was, then the right questions to HOLMES would then unearth him. Failing this, the computer was reduced to an efficient storage container. It would not identify a murderer.

After eight months of the Sarah Harper inquiry had lapsed, Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary decided that all three cases should be linked and that one database ought to be established. This was a gargantuan task. The Maxwell investigation had never been computerised at all; the Hogg investigation had been, as had the Harper, yet the programmes were incompatible. All three complete investigations had to be inputted, with the necessary conversions, into one database. The process took three years: in July of 1990 the task was finally complete.

It transpired however, that there was no opportunity to test the effectiveness of a single database. Once again, as in previous serial murder investigations, luck was to prove a key factor in apprehension. As Clark said, "Once we had exhausted all our lines of inquiry the best chance of catching the man responsible was if he struck again." Clark added, "My biggest hope, however, was that he would be caught before he went too far and killed a girl." As with Peter Sutcliffe, Black's apprehension came about during the course of an abduction which would certainly have turned into another murder.