On a stormy night in February 1988, 22-year-old Helen McCourt left work early but never arrived home for the tea her mother Marie had waiting.
Helen, a clerk at the Royal Insurance in Liverpool, reached her village of Billinge in St Helens, Merseyside, but vanished just a few hundred yards from her house.
Her body was never found, but overwhelming evidence including pioneering DNA testing led to local pub landlord Ian Simms being convicted of her murder and sentenced to life.
He has never confessed but was released after more than 30 years in jail last yea r, despite a campaign by Marie, 77, to keep him behind bars until he revealed the location of her remains.
Shortly afterwards, too late to aid her own case, the mum finally succeeded in having a law passed that will take into account an offenders refusal to disclose information when parole is considered.
One of Marie’s favourite family photos with Helen and Michael as teenagers
Dubbed Helens Law, it is the result of years of brave campaigning, supported by the Daily Mirror, and came into force earlier this month.
In an emotional extract taken from her new book Justice For Helen A Mothers Quest to Find Her Murdered Daughter, she describes the devastating loss of her dream daughter, and how her persistence and early police action was essential to Simms conviction.
“I looked in on Helen as usual, before going to bed.
I stooped and gently kissed her cheek as Id done every night since she was born. She might have been 22 but she was still my baby and always would be.
Marie McCourt and her husband John search woodland in Hollins Green Cheshire for the body of Helen (Image: Julian Hamilton/Daily Miiror)
More than 32 years on, if I close my eyes time melts away and I can still feel the warmth of her breath, the yield of her soft, full cheek under my lips, the pure love that passed from me to her in that moment, our final kiss.
Had I had the slightest inkling of the evil about to be unleashed upon us all, Id have climbed into bed beside her, held her in my arms and never, ever, let her go.
The next night, February 9, as the pips for the 6pm news sounded, I retraced my steps to the living room window and peered out anxiously into our wild, wind-swept, road. Helen should have been home from work 40 minutes ago. An uneasy prickle of anxiety crept up my spine. You could set your clock by our Helen.
It was 9.30pm when I hurried up the steps and into the tiny lobby of Copperas Hill police station, which has long since closed.
Ian Simms (centre) being escorted by police during his trial for the murder of Helen in 1988 (Image: Mirrorpix)
Id like to report my daughter missing, I told the desk sergeant.
He wrote her name down but when I gave her age, his pen paused. I could almost see the urgency evaporate. Twenty-two? Shes a grown woman. I could see it written all over his face: Over-protective mother. I started to cry.
Please, I begged the sergeant. Because of my persistence they acted straight away. I thank God they did. Because had they followed protocol my daughter would now be a long-term missing person. And her killer would have got away with murder.
An incident room was set up in the village hall. Police officers came and went in a blur, searching every inch of the house. They painstakingly retraced Helens movements. By interviewing commuters and staff, they quickly established she had caught the train home from work. Police then focused their attention on the last leg her journey on the 362 bus from St Helens to Billinge.
Helens first school photograph. She wore her best candy-striped dress (from Marks and Spencer) and her bunches were tied with matching ribbons (Image: Marie McCourt)
At 5.15pm she had got off at her usual stop. From there, she had just a 700-yard walk home. And then Helen had vanished into thin air.
Extra police were drafted in to scour woodland around the village. Police divers were on standby to start searching local lakes and rivers.
Two evenings after Helen disappeared DCS Eddie Alldred and Detective Sergeant Tom Purcell asked if I recognised an earring that had been recovered. I swallowed. Its identical to earrings Helen was wearing, I said. Shed chosen them herself with 21st birthday money… 18 months ago.
Even then my brain was protecting me: Its not Helens. It cant be. Helens fine, shell be home soon. As soon as they find her…
Helen and mum loved wearing similar outfits when she was young
I waited. Seconds crawled by. This was torturous. So, have you found her? I finally asked. Is she OK?
Eddie shook his head. Not yet, Mrs McCourt, he said. But our investigations are continuing. Were doing everything we can.
My voice cracked at my next question: When will you find her? I asked desperately, wringing my hands.
The detective chief superintendents eyes finally met mine. I dont know, Mrs McCourt, he replied. He paused, then quietly and sadly murmured five words which to this day chill me to the bone: We may never find her.
Marie’s book details her quest to find her murdered daughter
Deep down, in the pit of my stomach, I knew that my beautiful, vivacious, life-loving daughter would never walk through my front door again.
On February 15 Senior Investigating Officer Paul Acres visited and asked me to sit down: Late last night, we charged a man with Helens murder, he began. My stomach lurched so violently I clapped my hand instinctively to my mouth. Just one word was resonating around my head. Murder. Murder?
I remember Pauls ashen face but nothing else from those moments. By now, police had revealed the mans identity: he was Ian Simms, 31, landlord of the George and Dragon, around the corner, and where Helen used to work. It was later revealed he had lured Helen in there before he killed her.
At times, my family liaison officer would urge me to let go of all my pent-up pain, to shed a cathartic tear.
Police aboard the 4.16pm to St Helens, pictured interviewing commuters on the train, on February 210, 1988 (Image: Mirrorpix)
But I shook my head. If I cried, I would weaken. I needed to stay strong and alert. Helen needed me.
Ill cry when Helen is found, I said blankly.
Two and a half weeks after Helen went missing they found her handbag. Her clothes and underwear from the waist down would follow. Paul arrived to tell me. When he left I went from jittery to manic, chattering non-stop.
Years of pain for McCourt family
February 1988 Helen, 22, disappears on way home from work. Pub landlord Ian Simms charged with murder. Search for her remains begins.
February 1989 Simms found guilty of murder in first conviction secured without a body using DNA. He gets life with a minimum tariff of 16 years.
1991 Marie writes to Simms asking for information on Helens whereabouts. His reply is abusive.
October 2013 Police exhume a grave in St Aidans Churchyard, Billinge, but Helen is not there.
December 2015 Simms applies for parole, prompting Marie to launch her campaign. Her petition has been signed by almost 600,000 people.
February 2016 Parole Board recommends that Simms is moved to an open prison.
October 2016 MP Conor McGinns Bill on Helens Law is passed unanimously at first reading.
February 2018 Western Australia introduces No Body, No Parole laws.
March 2019 Simms is spotted in Birmingham on temporary release from open prison.
May 2019 Marie meets David Gauke.
We had had a special mass for Helen and family and friends were visiting.
As midnight struck, I was still talking 10 to the dozen. Marie, you need to let these good people go home… my fiance John began.
I do not remember much about what happened next but apparently, wild-eyed and hysterical, I had leapt to my feet. They watched with growing horror as, in front of their eyes, I fell apart at the seams.
My voice rose higher and higher until it was a persistent screech. As John stepped forward in a bid to calm me down, I had lashed out wildly, growing hysterical. I could hear someone screaming continually. It took a few moments to realise it was me, but by then, I could not stop.
I vaguely recall seeing my GP, Dr Bhaduri, in the room, reaching into his black medicine bag. Firm hands steered me on to the couch and there was a sharp pain in my thigh as I was injected with a sedative.
When I came around it was as if a dam had been opened. As the last fragments of hope I had been clinging to drifted out of reach, the tears I had been holding back finally flowed. In that instant, I knew my daughter would never be coming home alive.”
- Justice for Helen by Marie McCourt with Fiona Duffy is published by John Blake on February 4. Paperback price £8.99. Available in Audiobook and eBook.