The last time Marie McCourt clapped eyes on her daughter’s killer had been three decades ago across a crowded courtroom. Until now.
The grieving Billinge mother, who has spent the intervening years in a so-far fruitless search for Helen’s final resting place, was horrified this week to see new pictures of Ian Simms enjoying temporary liberty on the streets of Birmingham - a place she had only visited a few days earlier.
The 75-year-old has been begging the authorities to show her an up-to-date image of the murderer as he takes more and more steps to complete freedom, but they had refused on the grounds that some victims’ families may use it to exact revenge.
Now the matter is out of their hands after a Daily Mail photographer snapped the 62-year-old waiting for a bus in the Midlands city.
Sporting a grey beard and a paunch he looks around at a world which will have changed much since he was arrested in the 1980s. He was also seen to be wearing a wedding ring, even wife Nadine divorced him soon after his conviction and later remarried.
Marie said: “I was shocked and appalled. He didn’t look like how I had imagined, and of course that meant that if he had ever come back here or I had bumped into him anywhere else he would have recognised me but I would probably not have realised who he was.
“I was only in Birmingham a few days ago for a meeting. I had a right to know he was there. If I had done I wouldn’t have gone there.”
While Marie is glad that she can finally see what he looks like, the fact that Simms only now needs to return to his open prison at weekends (a fact not passed on to her by the Probation Service) brings home the urgency of getting “Helen’s Law” put on the statute books.
Marie wants a “no body, no parole” clause - now used in many Australian states - enshrined in law so that killers who have failed to reveal the whereabouts of the victims’ remains stay behind bars.
But the legislation’s passage through Parliament has become mired in delays, not least because of the all-consuming issues of Brexit.
St Helens North MP Conor McGinn is now trying to get an urgent meeting with Justice Secretary David Gauke - who has been sympathetic to the McCourt cause - to see if things can be hastened.
Marie, who was told by Whitehall officials that there would be no releases of unrepentant killers until the Helen’s Law clause is fully debated and voted upon, says Simms’s increasing tastes of freedom are not of ministers’ doing but those of the governor of whichever prison Simms is an inmate.
But she is also worried he could easily breach the terms of his licence with all these days of liberty, especially as he once threatened her with “an eye for an eye” in a letter from his cell. And the less incarceration he experiences, the less likely he is to come clean about his dark secret.
Helen, a 22-year-old insurance clerk, vanished after getting off her bus home from work on the evening of Tuesday, February 9, 1988.
A police search was rapidly mounted and suspicion soon fell on Simms, landlord of the George and Dragon pub on Main Street.
He was eventually convicted on a welter of forensic evidence, including DNA, blood, fingerprints, hair and jewellery in his flat and car, plus possessions of his own and Helen’s dumped at remote spots miles away. But Helen herself has never been found and Simms continues to protest his innocence.
He was challenged by a Daily Mail reporter in Birmingham about her still missing body and he replied that if he knew where she was he would have said so long ago and spared himself an extra 16 years in jail.
Marie said she was willing to admit that Simms might have had an accomplice - indeed a man was later brought in for questioning but never charged in connection with such matters.
But she added: “Even if Simms himself doesn’t know where Helen is then he knows who does and he is still hiding the truth, so Helen’s Law would still apply.
“His reply to that reporter showed he is still arrogant. He didn’t even use the opportunity to say he was innocent.”
Asked what she would say if she ever found herself face to face with Simms, Marie said: “If I was composed enough I would say ‘please give my child a burial. You have children yourself, let Helen have a burial.'
“That said, I would be more likely speechless with shock, just as I was when she disappeared. Some people say to me that they would attack the person who killed my daughter but that’s no answer.”