Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Robert Black

Sudden Mindless Violence

Once Black had been convicted the recriminations began. Everybody wanted to know why it had taken eight years for Black to be apprehended, three years longer even than it had taken to catch Peter Sutcliffe. Amazing one might think, considering Blacks past. And unlike in the hunt for Sutcliffe computers in general, and HOLMES in particular, were used to track Black. Partly of course, the problem was that the murder investigations were not initially stored on one database which meant that information between cases could not be adequately cross-referenced. When all three cases were eventually conjoined on one database, by this time Black had already emerged as a suspect. Thus the effectiveness of the new system could not been tested.

However although one database would have been invaluable in data storage and comparison between the investigations, it probably would not have caught Black. HOLMES might well have played a vital part in catching Sutcliffe as one of the major downfalls of that investigation was that poor cross-referencing meant that when questioning Sutcliffe officers simply didn't realise that he had been interviewed several times before. If they had realised this there is little doubt that Sutcliffe would have emerged as a strong suspect. But the police had never interviewed Black in connection with the murders, he was simply not in the system as Sutcliffe was. Black was not in HOLMES for the Harper inquiry nor had his name cropped up in the Maxwell or Hogg inquiries. The single database would not have changed this.

The question is really why Black was not identified as a suspect at any stage. After Black's trial criticism was directed at Hector Clark from the media and, more distressingly, from other officers on the inquiry, particularly Detective Superintendent John Stainthorpe who had headed the Sarah Harper investigation. Stainthorpe's criticism was that Clark had defined his parameters too narrowly when looking at men with records for sexual offences as potential suspects. Clark had confined his search to men who had been convicted of serious sexual offences: the attempted or actual abduction, rape or murder of a child under 16. Black however, had been convicted of 'lewd and libidinous' behaviour - a charge which did not match the severity of the offence - with a seven-year-old girl in Scotland in 1967. Stainthorpe said that if Clark had included all sexual offences Black would have been a first-class suspect straight away, or at the very least would have been in the system: "Black should have been arrested years ago, with his history and convictions."

Clark was quick to defend himself to the press and public: "We just couldn't check on everybody," he said, "It would have overloaded the system to an unmanageable extent." He argued that criteria based on the most likely suspects had to be utilised, and given that the charges being investigated were for murder, looking at those offenders with convictions for more serious offences seemed the most sensible way to proceed.

However, when we look at research done into the backgrounds of serial killers we see that if they have any past convictions they are hardly ever serious and usually not sexual. John Christie, Ian Brady, Colin Ireland and Fred West had previous convictions for offences such as theft, fraud and breaking and entering. Peter Sutcliffe, Dennis Nilsen, Myra Hindley and Rose West had no criminal records at all before their convictions for murder. But Black was not just or primarily - a serial killer, he was also a paedophile and unlike serial killers paedophiles often do have past convictions for sexual offences. These offences, however, may often be relatively minor. Thus if the investigation was to be centred around the creation of suspects based on previous form, Stainthorpe was right to say that even minor sexual offences needed to be included. But of course this was not a viable way to conduct the inquiry. In this sense, at least, Clark was right: the creation of a database with all sexual offences committed in the past 20 years on it, and the subsequent investigation of the offender, was not a task the inquiry could manage.

Just as the case of Peter Sutcliffe highlighted the need for a computer system such as HOLMES to replace the old manual system of data collation, the Black inquiry made apparent the need for a constantly updated national database of all sex offenders and killers. They needed a system such as the FBI's VICAP which can search its memory of sex offenders and their MOs to match the case under investigation. As John Stainthorpe said, "had Black been on a computerised criminal intelligence system, his name would have popped up like a cork out of a bottle." And it probably would have, provided that the types of offence initially fed into the computer were comprehensive and went far enough back in time.

In a case such as Sutcliffe's where the killer has committed no past sexual or violent offences, such a system would be of little use in the identification of possible suspects. In Black's case, however, the system would have had a two-fold usage. It would have identified Black as a man with convictions for sexual assaults on young girls, and also have unearthed offences which he may have perpetrated but had not yet been linked to.

As it was it emerged only after Black's trial that he was almost certainly responsible for more than the three murders for which he was convicted. A serial killer like Black having killed Susan in 1982 and Caroline in 1983, is highly unlikely to then leave a gap of three years before killing Sarah in 1986. And Susan was unlikely to have been his first victim. At the age of 17 Black had assaulted and left a seven-year- old girl for dead; his first murder was allegedly when he was 35. But the incident in 1967 hadn't left him full of remorse or regret: these were things he told Wyre that he knew he should, but could not, feel. When looking back on the event all he felt was lust. The image of that day reformed again and again in Black's fantasies, as he relived it and improved upon it until it was just right. The compulsion to re-enact and refine the experience in reality would have been too deep and over-powering to leave for almost 20 years.

Genette Tate
Genette Tate

Suzanne Lawrence
Suzanne Lawrence

Colette Aram
Colette Aram

April Fabb
April Fabb

Christine Markham (MEN Syndication)
Christine Markham
(MEN Syndication)

In July 1994 a meeting was held in Newcastle to consider the possibility of Blacks involvement in similar murders. As well as possible murders in France, Amsterdam, Ireland and Germany, there were up to ten unsolved abductions and murders in England which bore Blacks MO: April Fabb who was abducted from her bicycle in Norfolk in 1969; nine-year-old Christine Markham who was snatched in Scunthorpe in 1973; 13-year-old Genette Tate who disappeared in Devon in 1978; 14-year-old Suzanne Lawrence who was found dead in Essex in 1979; 16-year-old Colette Aram who was found strangled and sexually assaulted in a field in Nottingham in 1983; 14-year-old Patsy Morris who was found dead near Heathrow in 1990; and Marion Crofts and Lisa Hession.

One senior officer was quoted in the Express as saying, "We know he killed Genette Tate and April Fabb, and we believe that their bodies are buried somewhere in the Midlands Triangle." John Stainthorpe said that in his opinion there was an 80 percent likelihood of Black being involved in the disappearance of Genette. Inquiries into these murders have been re-opened. Had these abductions and murders been linked at the time to the cases of Susan, Caroline and Sarah, the police might have unearthed useful new leads. Had they had a national database Black might have been identified as a suspect. An enormous amount of fruitless work could have been averted, a quicker conclusion reached, and lives saved.



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