1. ITV Report

Police search for murder victim's body in church graveyard

Helen McCourt Photo:

Detectives investigating the murder of a woman who went missing in Liverpool 25 years ago are carrying out an exhumation at a church graveyard.

Helen McCourt vanished in February 1988 after phoning her mother Marie to tell her when she would be home from work in Liverpool.

Pub landlord Ian Simms was later convicted of murdering her by overwhelming DNA evidence but he has always refused to say where he buried her body.

A spokesman for Merseyside Police confirmed that officers are carrying out an exhumation at St Aidan's Church, Billinge, Merseyside.

The police spokesman said: "Officers are acting on intelligence, linked to the disappearance and murder of Helen McCourt in February 1988.

"Authority to carry out the exhumation has been granted by the Ministry of Justice, HM Coroner for St Helens and the Bishop of Liverpool's Registry and with the agreement of the family who own the plot."

Police said Helen McCourt's family were aware of the intelligence and the exhumation.

Officers began work at the site, with the help of forensic scientists and local authority gravediggers and they will be working with other specialists dependent upon any "recovery", police said.

Detective Chief Superintendent Tim Keelan, said: "It is 25 years since Helen McCourt went missing in February 1988. Ian Simms was subsequently convicted of her murder in 1989. But sadly for the family their suffering has been made worse over the years due to the fact that Helen's body has never been found and they have been denied the opportunity to give her a proper burial.

"We are acting on information suggesting that Helen's body could have been placed in this particular grave, and with the agreement of the family who own this grave and following approval from the relevant authorities we are now seeking to determine if this is the case."

He added: "I would like to say particular thanks to the family of those in the grave, who put their reservations to one side to support Merseyside Police in relation to the intelligence we received. They have displayed a very altruistic attitude based on their desire to provide a conclusion to the family of Helen McCourt, who have suffered from not knowing where she is for almost 25 years."

Last month Marie McCourt told a parole board that Simms should not be freed from prison, the BBC reported.

Helen McCourt, 22, disappeared near her home on February 9, 1988.

Simms, now 57, who ran the George and Dragon in Billinge, near Wigan, went before a Parole Board hearing last month.

Mrs McCourt told the hearing Simms should not be released until he reveals where her daughter's remains are.

After attending the hearing at Garth Prison, near Leyland, Lancashire, she told the BBC: "It is hanging over me all the time not being able to bury Helen.

"It's like an open sore that continually gets infected and has caused us so much distress."

Simms, a married father of two, was convicted of murder and given a life sentence after blood and an earring identical to one owned by Helen were found in his car boot.

He was given a 16-year minimum tariff, which means he is eligible to apply for parole.