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Brendan Pittaway

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A Moors Murderer, a Mother and Grief Unabated

Posted: 21/08/2012 00:00

The tragic news of the death of Winifred Johnson, the mother of Keith Bennett, brings closure to a life of peculiar torment but not an end to one of the most notorious episodes in British criminal history.

Mrs Johnson was defined by her reaction to the disappearance of her son, Keith Bennett, as he walked to his grandmother's house one evening in June 1964. He had been lured into a Mini by Myra Hindley and, with Ian Brady in the back of the car, driven to Saddleworth Moor before being strangled with the belt from an old washing machine.

He was buried in the area where he died, one of four of the five children killed by Brady and Hindley whose remains were left in shallow graves on the bleak expanse of green land stretching high above Greater Manchester.

The corpses of two - Lesley Ann Downey, at 10-years-old, the youngest of the Moors Murder victims, and John Kilbride, who was only 12 when he died - were recovered swiftly after Brady and Hindley were arrested for the brutal murder of Edward Evans.

The couple had left traces of their guilt and the locations of the dead in a photographic record which also detailed their love of the Moor.

When, more than 20 years later, their body of their first victim, Pauline Reade, was retrieved from the spot where Brady had left her, Keith Bennett gained freshly horrid status as the only one of the children yet to be found.

Just as Keith's mother was apparent in his last words - his killers described how he had suggested Winifred would love the spot where he would meet his death only minutes later - he was never far from her thoughts over the 48 years which followed.

Winifred did indeed come to love the moors, in truth more for the fact that it brought her close to her missing son than their rugged beauty.

She refused to accept that strenuous police searching of the sites most visited by Brady and Hindley had exhausted all hope of recovering Keith and so resumed her personal moorland vigil, traipsing the hills, brooks and peat with friends, family and well-wishers determined to bring him home and provide a proper Christian burial.

I accompanied Winnie on four trips to the Moors. My visits came at the same time as an ongoing correspondence with Brady himself.

I must confess that, at first, it felt strange to be in the company of a woman who was eagerly trying to prise the information she wanted more than anything else - the whereabouts of her son - from a man who was one of the most notorious child killers in British history and who would send me page upon page of neatly-written text from a secure hospital.

Each was sent to me directly, in envelopes sealed with sellotape and marked on the rear and three initials - ISB - which identified the sender as Ian Stewart Brady.

In those letters, Brady underlined his reputation for intelligence and control. Although positively metronomic in maintaining form and rhythm, his own handwriting betrayed mood swings, ranging from comments on his own conditions and health to criticism of the police, a seething hatred for his former lover and partner in crime, Hindley, and even a grudging admiration for Winifred Johnson.

Not once, however, did he suggest a willingness - or an ability - to bring an end to her quest for Keith.

Whilst he acknowledged her persistence, the letters he exchanged with Mrs Johnson brought her to understand his cunning.

However, more than that insight, they compounded her grief, tantalising her with the possibility that Brady still knew precisely where Keith lay.

That he may have intended to posthumously pass her those details has, of course, prompted a renewed police investigation and many column inches of newsprint in recent days.

Exactly what he may have confided to paper and forwarded to Jackie Powell, his mental health advocate, it seems only Brady knows for sure...for now at least.

He knows that with Winifred Johnson's death, he has lost his most dogged adversary, a woman who was one of the last direct living ties to a killing spree which began almost 50 years ago, fuelled by a young couple's desire to commit the perfect murder.

With that knowledge, the chances of an elderly man - weakened by years of incarceration, hunger strikes and forced feeding - taking to his own grave the secret's of another's increase day by day.

 
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