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Spare a thought for unknown victims of depraved Robert Black

Robert Black was a remorseless paedophile convicted of murdering four little girls but suspected of more. How should society deal with such offenders, and can those left bereaved by these killers be given greater support? Adam Lynes explores the options.

Published 15/01/2016

Child killer Robert Black died in Maghaberry this week
Child killer Robert Black died in Maghaberry this week
Jennifer Cardy
Andrew and Patricia Cardy, parents of Jennifer Cardy, in their Ballinderry home
Genette Tate, who vanished in 1978. Black was to be charged with her murder, but died before charges could be brought

Robert Black was a British serial killer from Stirlingshire in Scotland. Black, who had access to a van because of his occupation as a poster delivery man, killed four young girls between 1981 and 1986.

He was eventually apprehended during a failed attempt to abduct another young girl in 1990.

His modus operandi involved snatching his young victims off the streets as they played or as they walked to and from their homes.

Black seems to have sporadically selected the locations in which he attacked his victims. For example, Jennifer Cardy was abducted in Co Antrim.

Meanwhile, his second known victim - 11-year old Susan Maxwell - was taken by the killer near the village of Cornhill on Tweed, on the English side of the English/Scottish border, as she walked to play a game of tennis.

A little under a year later, in 1983, Black's third known victim - five-year old Caroline Hogg - left her home in Portobello, an eastern suburb of Edinburgh, to play in the nearby playground. She never returned.

Black's final victim that we know about - 10-year old Sarah Harper - was abducted almost three years after Caroline. She lived in Morley, Leeds, and was kidnapped by Black as she made her return trip home from the corner shop.

But why was the sadistic killer able to abduct so many young girls over such an extensive period of time?

The answer is twofold: Black's occupation as a delivery driver, and the parents' belief that their children would be safe while out in public.

In examining the first point, Black's occupation allowed him a number of instrumental advantages that may have aided in his offending.

Specifically, his occupation took him across not only the breadth of the UK, including Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, but also into parts of mainland Europe.

With access to such a large geographical space, Black was able to abduct his victims and, upon raping and subsequently murdering them, drop their bodies off miles away from where he had initially taken them, often in locations that he came across on his journey back to his delivery depot in London.

With access to his delivery van, Black would, upon making his deliveries, drive through quite rural towns and villages in search for isolated young girls.

His occupation gave him a valid reason to be in the area without raising initial suspicions, effectively providing him with occupational camouflage.

In a more physical capacity, Black's vehicle was also big enough for him to commit his crimes in the private, thus turning his delivery van into a mobile murder site.

These occupational advantages afforded to Black can be best demonstrated in the abduction and murder of his first victim, Jennifer, - a case that went unsolved until 2011.

The investigation into her abduction and murder was left open for 28 years, and it was only in 2005 that the case was revisited.

Touching on the second point raised, it is often assumed that the golden age of childhood, in which children were able to enjoy growing up in a relatively stress-free and safe environment, came to an abrupt end with the Moors Murders committed by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley in the 1960s.

While the public outcry was indeed significant at the time - with many calling for the death penalty to be reinstated - it was in fact the murders carried out by Black and the widespread moral panic with regards to paedophiles in the 1980s that resulted in a cultural shift regarding the nature of childhood.

As Professor David Wilson of Birmingham City University noted, 20 years after the crimes of Brady and Hindley, young children were still running errands for their parents and playing without supervision in the streets and parks nearby.

But after Black was arrested and brought to the public's awareness, along with the growing fear of stranger danger, the very definition of what it meant to be a child was altered, resulting in more control and surveillance in an effort to protect them.

While the result of Black's murders, along with a growing concern over paedophiles, has resulted in a cultural change in what it means to be a child growing up in the UK, what of the public's reaction towards criminals such as him?

Should they be offered treatment, should they be put behind bars for the rest of their lives, or should they face an even worse fate?

The question of bringing back capital punishment appears to be continually raised when a crime such as Black's comes to the public's attention.

While this reaction is indeed understandable given the shocking nature of the crimes, it is important to consider, beyond the obvious moral and philosophical objections, that there is no evidence to suggest that the death penalty acts as a deterrence to others.

In fact, if we look across the Atlantic to America, it has been shown that states that have the death penalty would save millions of dollars if they abolished capital punishment - money that could instead be spent on services to assist the victims' families.

So while it is understandable that the public or a family suffering from the loss of their child to an offender such as Black may wish to see the death penalty in the UK reinstated, would this really provide a solution, or would it only create new problems?

Instead of asking what we should do with those offenders who target children when the criminal in question is already behind bars, we should perhaps ask if more could be done to help those families that have unsolved cases of child abduction.

As mentioned previously, Black's occupation took him across not only the UK, but mainland Europe, too. Could he have abducted and murdered children when making these deliveries?

Are there families still waiting for answers for a crime he may have committed? These are perhaps questions that should be asked as we witness the passing of this infamous serial murderer.

Adam Lynes is a visiting lecturer at the School of Social Sciences at Birmingham City University who has made a special study of the Robert Black murders

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