The Sarah Harper Story

Age - 10

Location - Morley Leeds

Date of birth - 01/03/1976

Date of death - 26/03/1986

THE killer of Leeds schoolgirl Sarah Harper and two other children was dramatically unmasked today as the man standing trial for the murder of a nine-year-old in Northern Ireland 30 years ago. Predatory paedophile Robert Black’s criminal past as a triple child killer was revealed to the jury in Armagh Crown Court. Black, now 64, is accused of kidnapping and murdering nine-year-old Jennifer Cardy in August 1981. Crown lawyer Toby Hedworth QC told the jury legal reasons had prevented Black’s record from being disclosed in the trial. “But now the stage in the trial proceedings has been reached when I can tell you,” he said. He told them the defendant had been convicted in 1994 of murdering three young girls in the 1980s, the abduction of another and the attempted abduction of another. Black, wearing a red jumper, sat impassively in the dock as the revelations were made. Jennifer was abducted as she cycled to a friend’s house in the Co Antrim village of Ballinderry in August 1981.

Her body was found six days later floating in a dam 10 miles away. The schoolgirl’s parents Andy and Patricia watched from the public gallery as the jury heard of Black’s dark past. In 1994, the Scottish van driver was tried at Newcastle Upon Tyne Crown Court and found guilty of murdering three girls - Susan Maxwell, 11, Caroline Hogg, five, and 10-year-old Sarah Harper - and the attempted kidnap of a 15-year-old girl. In 1986 Sarah disappeared after leaving her home in Morley near Leeds to buy a loaf of bread in a corner shop. She vanished on her way home.

Her body was found floating in the River Trent near Nottingham a month later. She had been raped. Susan went missing as she walked between the villages of Cornhill-on-Tweed and Coldstream on either side of the Scottish/English border after playing a game of tennis in July, 1982. Her body was found dumped by a roadside near Uttoxeter, Staffordshire 260 miles away. Police suspected a sexual assault. A year later in July 1983, Caroline Hogg vanished as she played near her home in Portobello close to Edinburgh. Her body was found in a ditch in Leicestershire, 300 miles away, ten days later. A sexual assault was again suspected.

At about 7:50 p.m. on 26 March 1986, 10-year-old Sarah Jayne Harper disappeared from the Leeds suburb of Morley, having left her home to buy a loaf of bread from a corner shop 100 yards from her home. The owner of the shop confirmed that she had bought a loaf of bread and two packets of crisps from her at 7:55 p.m., and that a balding man had briefly entered the shop moments later, then left as Sarah made her purchases.

Sarah Harper was last seen alive by two girls walking into an alley leading towards her Brunswick Place home; when she had not returned by 8:20 p.m., her mother, Jackie, and sister briefly searched the surrounding streets, before Mrs. Harper reported her daughter missing to West Yorkshire Police. Immediately, an extensive search was launched to find the child. Over 100 police officers were assigned full-time to the search, which saw house-to-house inquiries across Morley, over 3,000 properties searched, more than 10,000 leaflets distributed, and 1,400 witness statements obtained. A police search of the surrounding land was bolstered by 200 local volunteers, and a reservoir in nearby Tingley was searched by underwater units.

Extensive inquiries by West Yorkshire Police established that a white Ford Transit van had been in the area where Sarah had been abducted. Two suspicious men had been seen loitering near the route Sarah would have taken to the corner shop, and one of them was stocky and balding. Mindful of the possibility Sarah had been abducted, West Yorkshire Police dispatched a telex to all forces nationwide, requesting that they search all locations where they had previously discovered child murder victims.

At a press conference on 3 April, Sarah's mother, Jackie, informed journalists that she feared her daughter was dead, and that the worst torment she and her family endured was the uncertainty. She made a direct appeal to her daughter's abductor to reveal the whereabouts of the body. On 19 April, a man discovered Sarah's partially dressed, gagged and bound body floating in the River Trent near Nottingham, 71 miles (114 km) from the site of her abduction. An autopsy showed she had died between five and eight hours after her abduction, and that the cause of her death was drowning; injuries she had received to her face, forehead, head and neck had most likely rendered her unconscious prior to being thrown into the water. Sarah had also been the victim of a violent and sustained sexual assault prior to being thrown into the river, causing pre-mortem internal injuries which were described by the pathologist as "simply terrible".

Days after Sarah's body had been found, a further witness contacted West Yorkshire Police to say that at approximately 9:15 p.m. on 26 March, he had seen a white van with a stocky, balding man standing by the passenger door, parked close to the River Soar. As the Soar is a tributary to the Trent, and the description of the vehicle and driver matched those obtained from Morley residents, investigators took this eyewitness account seriously. Black refuelled his van in Newport Pagnell the following afternoon, and it is likely that he had driven Sarah to Ratcliffe on Soar, and discarded her body in the Soar in the late evening of the date of her abduction, or the early hours of the following day.

Realising the likelihood that Sarah's murderer had travelled on the M1 motorway prior to disposing of her body in the river, and that he would have had to refuel his vehicle as he made this journey, officers from both West Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire Police questioned staff and motorists at all service stations on the M1 motorway between Woolley, West Yorkshire and Trowell, Nottinghamshire, asking whether they had noted anything unusual on 26 or 27 March. Staff at one station had noted a white Transit van which had seemed out of place on the evening of 26 March, but could not give a clear description of the driver.

Link to series

Detective John Stainthorpe, head of the Leeds South Division of West Yorkshire Police, initially stated his doubt that Sarah's disappearance was linked to those of Susan Maxwell and Caroline Hogg: in one interview, he said that although he would not discount the possibility, he believed that Sarah's abductor had close, personal connections with Morley. Upon the discovery of her body in the River Trent, he revised his opinion.

Numerous similarities linked the murder of Sarah Harper to those of Susan Maxwell and Caroline Hogg: she had been a prepubescentwhite female, abducted from Northern England and found murdered in the Midlands. All three victims had been discovered within 26 miles (42 km) of Ashby-de-la-Zouch, with little effort being made to conceal the bodies.

Despite these similarities, several investigators initially doubted whether Sarah's murder should be linked to the series due to the differences in the circumstances of her abduction and the fact that the child had been subjected to a serious sexual assault prior to her murder, whereas decomposition had erased any such clear traces on the bodies of the two previous victims. Sarah had been abducted on a rainy Wednesday evening from a suburb in the north of England, wearing a hooded anorak covering much of her face, as opposed to being abducted on a summer Friday afternoon in southern Scotland while wearing summer clothing. Investigators remained open-minded as to whether Sarah's murder had been committed by the same person, and telephone and computer connections were established between the incident room in the Leeds district of Holbeck and Leith. Sarah's murder was formally linked to the series in November 1986.

Ten-year-old Sarah lived in the working class area of Morley in greater Leeds.

On the evening of Wednesday March 26, during her Easter holidays from school, she was sent on an errand to the corner shop by her mother.

It was an awful night, with the rain pouring down.

Sarah pulled a blue anorak over her burgundy jumper, picked up two empty pop deposit bottles to reclaim some pennies and set off.

The shop keeper remembers her calling in, buying a loaf of bread for her mum and, with the money from the bottles, two packets of crisps.

She was last seen heading down a short alleyway on her way home.

Then, nothing.

Three and a half weeks later, a man walking his dog along the River Trent at Wilford near Nottingham saw something floating in the water.

He was shocked to realise it was a body - Sarah's.

Her anorak was gone, as was her skirt. Better preserved than the other two girls as her body had been in water, a post-mortem examination revealed she he had been subjected to a violent sexual assault.

The cause of death was drowning, with tests suggesting she was still alive when dumped in the river, albeit possibly unconscious.

Robert Black made a delivery in Morley the evening Sarah disappeared. A return trip to London via the River Trent would have seen him take the same exit off the M1 motorway he used when visiting his friend in Donisthorpe.

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