What do you remember, Sharon? ‘I remember the helicopter circling above Wear Garth. I remember it was torturing my brain because a voice was saying: “Nikki, you are going to be all right, your mam’s waiting for you at your nana’s.” On a loudspeaker, over and over. “Your mam’s waiting for you, you are not going to get wrong.” And everything was going very fast, crowds and crowds of people shouting, and Nikki’s name through this mic. And later Jenny told me: “You started screaming, we had to close the windows and doors because your screaming was that loud.” I remember a doctor came and stuck a needle in my arm. But it didn’t knock us out. I just sat like a zombie and then all the voices sounded drunk, they sounded slow, like “Niikkkiiii”, and everything, the shouting, the helicopter, all in slow motion.’
Thirty years had passed since I last interviewed Sharon Henderson. In 1992 I was the crime reporter on the Journal in Newcastle. I had been sent to her flat on the Wear Garth estate close to the docks in the East End of Sunderland after her seven-year-old daughter, Nikki, was murdered – battered with a brick and stabbed 37 times. She had gone missing around 10 p.m. on 7 October. All night, neighbours’ torches formed pinpricks of light along the south bank of the River Wear. Her body was found the next morning in the derelict Old Exchange Building. In 1993, one man, George Heron, had been acquitted of her murder; now another, David Boyd, was about to stand trial.
In 1992, Sunderland’s shipyards had closed down, Monkwearmouth colliery was about to be mothballed and, though Liebherr cranes still tilted their long necks across the docks, and Nissan was mass-producing Primeras and Micras on the former site of RAF Usworth, the city was resisting regeneration. ‘There was this weird juxtaposition of civic pride and often grim reality,’ Paul Dutton, then the Journal’s Sunderland reporter, recalled. ‘Sunderland was trying to be upwardly mobile – “Look we have city status, look we have a Nissan car factory” – but, at the same time, there was a backlash over plans to build a university campus on the north side of the river. People were saying: “Hang on, if you do that there will never be a shipyard on the Wear again.” And it was bonkers, because the shipyards had gone for ever, but there was this reluctance to leave them behind.’
The North-East was the car crime capital of Europe, its magistrates’ courts full of teeny twocers whose feet could barely reach the pedals of the cars they had stolen. Prevented by law from using their real names, newspapers gave them nicknames which turned them into folk heroes while locking them into their youthful offending. ‘Rat Boy’ was small enough to hide in the ventilation shafts of Newcastle’s Byker Wall estate; ‘Spider Boy’ once escaped custody by squeezing between the bars of the dock. Night after night, Sunderland’s sprawling postwar housing schemes echoed to the screech of tyres and the blare of sirens as joyriders performed handbrake turns and baited police officers to chase them. In Pennywell, the largest estate, unemployment was at 19 per cent, and tenants often found themselves living alone in boarded-up streets.
The ‘garths’ weren’t much better. Wear Garth was one of several garths – the word means an enclosed courtyard – built in the East End during the slum clearances of the 1930s, with four concrete, four-storey limbs around a central area. By the late 1980s Sunderland had a housing surplus because so many had left for the South in search of work, and its empty flats were filling up with difficult tenants. Sharon’s family had a reputation. Her father, Dickie Prest, and her brother Greg were in and out of trouble. After Nikki’s death Sharon was demonised. There were false rumours that Nikki wasn’t fed enough or dressed properly; that Sharon was a drinker, who had bought alcohol with money from the collection tins passed round the pubs to fund Nikki’s funeral; that she was a good-time girl; and that even if she wasn’t, who lets a seven-year-old wander about alone at that time on a cold October night?
Sharon and I are the same age – we were both 25 when Nikki was killed – but born into different worlds. She had been in care, and was a single mother with four girls: Stacey, eight, Zara, three, and Niomi, nearly two, as well as Nikki. I had gone to university and was recklessly ambitious. I had hesitated before knocking on her door that first time. But I took to Sharon, whose prickly exterior is a defence mechanism and whose refusal to be cowed into silence I came to admire. I got to know her better the following year when I covered the trial of George Heron, which was moved away from the North-East to Leeds and lasted six weeks. Courts are intense, hermetic places where relationships form quickly; I spent most lunchtimes with her family in a nearby pub.
The prosecution case was doomed from the start. Heron, an ‘oddball’ and Dr Who fan, who wore a baseball cap and oversized glasses, had denied killing Nikki more than 120 times before he finally confessed. His confessions were ruled inadmissible on the grounds that the interviews, conducted by detectives from Northumbria Police, had been ‘oppressive’. With only circumstantial evidence left, the jury had little choice but to acquit. As the foreman delivered the verdict, the world tilted: for Sharon, for Heron, for the jurors. I can hear my distress thrumming through the piece I filed for the Journal. ‘As the foreman said “Not guilty,” Heron raised his eyes in relief, but the public gallery erupted,’ I wrote.
One man shouted: ‘You’re dead, we will kill you.’ Another screamed: ‘He confessed on tape.’ Some of the police officers moved forward to try to calm the situation, but made no attempt to arrest any member of the family.
The jury was led out as the court was cleared of friends and relatives. When they came back to return a not guilty verdict on an alternative charge of manslaughter, five of them were sobbing.
In late 1995, I moved home to Scotland; but I never forgot Nikki. I used to dream about her. She wasn’t dressed in the purple coat she had worn that night, but in the bright red jumper of her school photo. She moved – a scarlet dot – through the dark courtyard, across High Street East to the Boar’s Head pub, the last place she was seen alone. At some point, a nebulous man would join her. She skipped behind him along Low Street, which skirts the river – I had seen her do this in a few blurred seconds of CCTV footage – past the MacFish factory and the Rose Line bonded warehouse until they reached the Old Exchange Building.
As time went on, I started to ask questions I hadn’t considered before: about the reasons the case hadn’t attracted national attention and had never been reinvestigated. I read that Heron, who changed his name and fled the region, had been tracked to a Salvation Army hostel in the South of England, where he talked about suicide and plastic surgery. I began to follow Sharon’s Justice for Nikki campaign: her public appeals and brushes with the law; her push-back against the intransigence of police and politicians. And then, one day last year, I stumbled on this paragraph: ‘David Boyd, 54, of Chesterton Court, Stockton, Teesside, has been charged with the murder of Nikki Allan.’ And I knew I was going back to Wearside.
I found it utterly changed: the infrastructure, the industries, the politics. Sunderland is a university city; the garths have been demolished; St George’s crosses flutter from the balconies of the flats built in their place. The Boar’s Head advertises itself as a ‘boutique hotel’. Its back windows, which once looked out on the colliery winding towers, now survey the Stadium of Light. The Old Exchange Building has been restored and was used for a while as a wedding venue.
Sharon herself lost years to alcohol and tranquillisers, and had spells in mental hospitals. Though her drinking is more controlled now, there are parts of her life she will never reclaim. Once again: what do you remember, Sharon?
‘I remember going to my dad and Jenny’s flat to get painkillers, and Nikki going too. And my dad had the Hoover on. He knew she was frightened of the Hoover and he wouldn’t turn it off, and he was saying, “She should be in her bed,” and I was saying, “Well, she isn’t going to sleep because I’ve got the washing on,” and it was loudish, and my dad told her to stop whingeing, and she started crying – and, och, her little face. I remember she was saying “I want to go home,” and he said, “Get yourself home, then,” and I did say to her: “I will follow you down.”
‘I remember, when I knew she was missing, looking round the verandas to see if I could see any kids’ heads bobbing up. It was so quiet. All I could hear was the odd laugh drifting out from the Boar’s Head.
‘I remember Vena [her mother] saying, “They’ve found the bairn,” and then: “She’s dead.”’
And what don’t you remember, Sharon?
‘I don’t remember her funeral.’
‘I don’t remember Leeds Crown Court.’
Thursday, 20 April 2023: the first day of David Boyd’s trial. The sun was streaming through the windows of Newcastle’s law courts. Inside Court One, the prosecuting barrister, Richard Wright, was about to show a video of the murder scene. Wright has a commanding presence and an instinct for the dramatic. What the jurors were about to see was disturbing, he said. There would be blood, although Nikki’s body would be pixellated. Boyd – an inky dragon crawling out from the neckline of his white T-shirt – looked impassively at his screen as the camera tracked Nikki’s last journey through the Old Exchange Building, from the gap in a partially boarded-up window round the back through which she was pushed, to the basement, where her body was dumped. It lingered longest in the ground-floor room where she was attacked, panning to take in the flaking paint, broken floorboards and graffiti, before zooming in on a bloodied brick and a bloodstain on the far wall: ‘The furthest point [Nikki] could run from the man who put her in there,’ Wright said.
Sharon left the court before Wright pointed out the blood on the edge of each stair: Nikki’s head had bounced off them one by one. The camera then followed the drag marks from the bottom of the staircase through the basement into the room where she was found lying on her left-hand side. It hovered over the pixellated heap in the far right-hand corner just long enough to take in the emerald green of her T-shirt, before turning away.
After lunch, Wright asked for a mannequin to be brought in. At 49.6 inches, it was slightly taller than Nikki, but dressed in identical clothes: red Kickers, knee-length white socks, black leggings, a green T-shirt and a purple coat with a pink floral lining. It was placed on a table in front of the jurors. They had already been told that when Nikki entered the Old Exchange Building she was no longer wearing the coat and shoes. They were found close to the red-brick boundary wall. One neighbour had heard two piercing screams coming from the direction of the building, while a woman leaving the MacFish factory had heard a noise that sounded like a cat wailing or the howling of the wind.
Wright’s tactics served a dual purpose. First, they helped the jury focus on the girl whose life had been taken. So much of the prosecution case was murder-by-measurement – the height off the ground of the rear window (6 feet 2 inches), the distance the blood splashes radiated out from the blood smear on the wall (4 feet 6 inches), the deepest wound in her chest (3.9 inches) – it was important to be reminded of Nikki’s humanity. But they also helped establish key planks of the prosecution case: first, that to move Nikki’s body around the building in the pitch-dark would have required an intimate knowledge of its layout; and second, that the parts of Nikki’s clothing on which Boyd’s DNA had been found were the parts the killer would have had to touch in order to get her into the building.
The passage of time presents obstacles for historical murder trials: the death of witnesses, the fading of memories. But it also creates opportunities because of advances in technology. The case against Boyd was based on findings from a DNA technique called Y-STR. I trained at the Leicester Mercury shortly after the double child murderer Colin Pitchfork became the first person to be convicted on the evidence of genetic fingerprinting in 1988. The Leicester-based geneticist Alec Jeffreys, who pioneered the technology, was one of the paper’s best contacts. Last year, I asked Carol Rogers, the national lead forensic scientist for sexual offences at the Scottish Police Authority Forensic Services (SPAFS), to tell me how Y-STR worked.
When I arrived at the Scottish Crime Campus I had to provide a DNA sample so that my profile could be eliminated if it turned up in the labs. I scraped a swab around my mouth, popped the end in a tube, and thought about the way, with every movement I made, I was shedding my essence like the down on a dandelion clock. Rogers told me that scientists look at ‘a tiny snapshot’ of DNA, focusing on a number of areas where the fragments of DNA are most likely to differ in length, in order to produce an ‘autosomal’ profile. In Scotland, 24 areas are examined; in England it’s 17. ‘Two individuals may match in one or more area,’ she said, ‘but the chances of them matching in all areas is about one in ten to the power of 23 or 24, though the statistic used in court is one in a billion.’
At the time Nikki was murdered, a large amount of biological material was required to obtain a result. But then the process was revolutionised by Polymerase Chain Reaction. ‘PCR is a process of putting a tiny amount of DNA in a tube – as little as a billionth of a gram – and photocopying it,’ Rogers said. ‘However, if you have a lot of female DNA in the tube, with a tiny bit of male DNA alongside it, the PCR will preferentially amplify the female DNA so the male DNA will be overwhelmed. That’s where Y-STR comes in.’ Y-STR works by targeting the Y chromosome. ‘There is a huge advantage to only looking at the Ys because you can find male DNA where you would never have found it before. But the downside is that it’s less discriminatory. For a full Y-STR match your statistic is going to be in the region of one in tens of thousands.’ Unlike autosomal DNA profiles, Y-profiles are shared by male relatives: fathers, brothers, sons etc. It seemed shaky ground on which to base a prosecution.
But it seemed more convincing once the DNA expert James Chapman testified that after a fresh investigation into Nikki’s murder finally began in 2016, an almost complete Y-profile matching Boyd’s was found near the top of her T-shirt and on the right hip area around the waistband of her leggings, and a partial one on the T-shirt’s right armpit. Wright said the hip and the armpits were the parts of her body that were most likely to have been touched when the murderer lifted her.
Boyd had no male relatives living in Sunderland. The odds of his Y-profile matching an unrelated individual were one in 28,000. The police had taken DNA samples from hundreds of men who had connections to the East End in 1992; no other match had been found. He asked the jury to set the DNA evidence in context. The CCTV footage proved Nikki hadn’t been abducted; she had been lured away by someone she knew. Boyd had lived three doors away from Nikki’s grandparents, Dickie and Jenny Prest, on the third floor of Wear Garth; and his girlfriend had babysat Nikki and her sisters.
Wright claimed that Boyd also bore a ‘striking resemblance’ to an artist’s impression drawn up with the help of Margaret Hodgson, who saw a man and a skipping girl on Low Street shortly before 10 p.m. The police had found a photograph of Boyd taken in the early 1990s, sitting in an armchair, his left leg slung casually over his right. Wright showed the two images side by side. There was a resemblance. More so, I felt, than there had been to George Heron. In fact, there were many ways in which Boyd was a stronger suspect than the man originally charged with Nikki’s murder. As Wright drew the jury’s attention to them, it began to feel as if he were also prosecuting the original police inquiry.
Heron, then 23, who lived on the same floor of Wear Garth as Nikki’s grandparents and Boyd, was arrested on 15 October 1992. Police computers had picked up a discrepancy in the questionnaire he filled out during house-to-house inquiries. He had said he was at home watching TV at 9.30 p.m. on the night of the murder; but some witnesses claimed to have seen him in the Boar’s Head.
Boyd, in his questionnaire, wrote that at 9.30 p.m. he had gone to buy fish and chips for his neighbour Terry Clark (arriving back at Clark’s at 10 p.m.); Clark’s partner, Sandra – Sharon’s sister – put the time of the errand an hour earlier. How convenient, Wright said, that Boyd should give himself an alibi for the precise time Nikki died (a time which was not then publicly known). Boyd claimed to have seen Nikki playing in Wear Garth as he left his flat, which made him the last adult male to see her alive. He also said he had been in the Old Exchange Building on 4 October ‘looking for pigeons’ with a 12-year-old boy called Colin Pearson. He said they had got in by climbing over the boundary wall and entering through the window with missing boards at the rear.
Boyd’s form was filled out on 11 October – four days before Heron’s arrest. By 27 October, both men were on remand in Durham jail, Heron for Nikki’s murder, Boyd for offences of dishonesty. Police travelled to the prison to take a statement from Boyd for use at Heron’s trial. Boyd repeated most of what he had said in the questionnaire, adding only that, though he didn’t know Heron by name, he had seen him around Wear Garth with his pit bull terrier.
‘In 1993, a trial took place at the Crown Court in Leeds. The man accused of the murder of Nikki Allan was George Heron. The jury found him not guilty. They were right to do so.’ These words began the third paragraph of Wright’s opening statement. After thirty years of being told Heron was a guilty man who got away with it, it was odd to hear them said out loud. They were a reminder that the corollary of Boyd’s conviction would be Heron’s exoneration.
The case against Boyd also demonstrated what Janet Malcolm called ‘the malleability of trial evidence’. For the first few days, the witness statements – which set out a timeline (sightings of Nikki, whereabouts of other parties, discovery of her body etc) – were the same as those I’d heard at Heron’s trial, though some incriminating Heron had been replaced by others incriminating Boyd. On the fourth day, the forensic scientist Hilary Parkinson took the stand. She had visited the Old Exchange Building in 1992 and was there to explain the blood smears and splatters we had seen in the video. Something about her tugged at my memory. I checked, and there she was at Heron’s trial, too, testifying about the scene and about bloodstains found on the sole of one of Heron’s shoes. ‘Hilary Parkinson told Leeds Crown Court the shoes appeared to have been wet and then dried, possibly as a result of washing,’ I had written. Parkinson was simply doing her job, assessing the materials put in front of her, but I wondered whether she was thinking about the last trial as she testified at this one.
Heron was used to being picked on. While he was at primary school his parents split up, and his mother, Sue, moved in with Alex Heron. George got on with his new dad, but when he was nine Alex died of a heart attack, something that was said to have affected George profoundly. By the time he arrived at St Aidan’s, a boys’ secondary school run by the Christian Brothers, he had been pegged as a misfit. One morning, he came into class with the hood of his duffle coat still up. He refused to put it down. So the Christian Brother yanked it, revealing a scraped and bloodied scalp. Someone had shaved Heron’s hair as a punishment for bad grades, it was said. ‘We called him ET after that,’ a former pupil at the school told me, ‘on account of those big eyes staring out of his little face.’ At the time of Nikki’s murder, Heron was living in Wear Garth with his younger sister Michelle, her boyfriend Darren ‘Psycho’ Baker and her two children. He told officers he didn’t know Nikki, but he sort of did. Sometimes she played with his nephew and he had offered her sweets.
One of the first people I met when I went back to the North-East was retired constable Joe Bradley, who looked after Heron in the gaps between police interviews. Bradley has thought a great deal about what happened in 1992, but talking to him made me realise how belief in a suspect’s guilt can permeate an entire force. Officers who babysat prisoners were expected to try to engage with them and feed information back to CID. Anything said outside the interview room would be inadmissible in court, but it could be used as ammunition. At first Bradley couldn’t get a peep out of Heron. But after a while he brought him hot chocolate, and Heron began to speak. ‘George asks me what is going to happen to him and I says: “Well, did you do it?” George says: “No.” So I says: “Well, you have nowt to worry about.” George says: ‘Yes, but they’re saying I did it.” I says: “They can say what they like. Don’t take any notice of them. If you haven’t done it, you haven’t done it.” “Mind you,” I says, “if you have done it, you need to stop fucking about.” I says: “You need to start talking to them because, mate, the forensics will prove you have done it. If you have done it, you need to start telling them.”’ Bradley says he thought Heron was about to talk, but ‘after a ridiculously long pause, he goes: “But I didn’t do it,” and we moved on to something else.’ Not long after, Bradley heard he had confessed.
Bradley was in the dock with Heron during his first appearance at Sunderland Magistrates’ Court when a man lunged at him from the public gallery. Bradley pinned the man down. ‘But there was this woman at ground level, looking up at me through the wooden banister, and she was screaming: “It’s the bairn’s father; it’s the fucking bairn’s father.” Then, I looked at him and he was crying. So, I picked him up and I hugged him and I held him and he just cried into my shoulder.’
After the hearing, Bradley accompanied Heron to Durham jail. ‘We put a blanket over his head and told him to lie down as we came out because photographers were shoving their cameras up to the van windows. As we [moved away] George said: “Can I sit up now?” and one of the older guys said, “No, fucking stay there,” and we made him keep the blanket on his head because, as bad as it sounds now, as far as we were concerned, he was a child murderer.’
Bradley believed Heron was guilty because senior officers told him his confession ‘matched the forensic pattern’ – in other words, that the account he had given tallied with what actually happened. But Heron’s account only tallied because the detectives had manipulated him into saying what they wanted to hear.
Detective: Now, you’d hit Nikki when she was lying on the floor, you hurt her again didn’t you, George, you hurt her with something?
George Heron: Yes.
Detective: What did you use? Come on.
Detective: A metal what?
Heron: Well, a piece of metal.
Detective: And what did you do with that piece of metal, was it a knife, George?
Heron: It was sharp.
Detective: What sort of metal are we talking about?
Detective: Sharp metal.
Detective: What are we talking about though, was it an object?
Heron: Small, sharp, metal …
Detective: What was this sharp metal object?
Heron: A knife.
This exchange took place late on the second day, once Heron had already confessed to Detective Chief Inspector John Renwick and Detective Inspector Colin Dudley, who had taken over the questioning from lower-ranking officers. You can hear them steering Heron in the direction they want him to go. When he suggests he attacked Nikki with a ‘metal bar’, they make it clear that’s the wrong answer, before planting the idea that ‘knife’ might be the right one. If they hadn’t already made up their minds, they might have noticed other things their only suspect appeared not to know about the murder he claimed to have committed. For example, the first time he mentioned using ‘a piece of metal’, he told the officers he’d ‘stuck it between [Nikki’s] legs’, though there was no evidence she had been sexually assaulted.
Later, the detectives got Heron to tell them how many times he stabbed Nikki:
Detective: So we have got you causing Nikki wounds to the torso with a knife. Do you know how many blows you would have rained on her with the knife, George?
Detective: Was there a lot of blows, George?
Heron: Probably yes …
Renwick and Dudley scold and soothe, castigate and comfort. They bring Heron low, then tell him they are the only ones who understand him. ‘Howay, George,’ they say, by turns placating, reproachful and threatening. They make use of his Catholic faith. ‘So you believe in heaven?’ they ask. ‘Yes, and hell,’ Heron answers. ‘Where do you think Nikki is now?’ ‘In heaven.’ ‘And where do you think you will go when you die?’ Then, later, they say: ‘It’s about time you stopped thinking about George Heron and started showing a little bit of compassion and sorrow for Nikki Allan.’ ‘I have never thought of George Heron,’ Heron whispers. ‘I have always thought of others first.’
Professor David Dixon , an expert in police practice at the University of New South Wales, scrutinised Heron’s interviews. In his report, ‘Integrity, Interrogation and Criminal Injustice’, Dixon suggests that the police were influenced by the Reid Technique, a controversial interrogation method that has been used in the US since the 1950s. Step two in its ‘nine steps of interrogation’ involves trying to recast the crime as something anyone in that situation might have done.
Detective: I think she probably screamed when you took her to that place and then I think you probably panicked … You never took her there to do her any harm, you are not that type of lad are you, are you George?
Detective: What was it all about? Was it something that just went horribly wrong?
Heron: I didn’t murder her.
As Dixon points out, when Heron begins to incriminate himself, he repeats the minimising version of events the detectives have suggested to him.
Detective: But you knew she was dead, George, didn’t you son? George, come on, come on, it will be better when it is all out. Didn’t you know she was dead, son?
Heron: Yes …
Detective: Tell us what happened. You have already told us that you did it because you said you knew she was dead when you went searching for her. Now come on, tell us what you did and tell us what it was all about. Come on.
Heron: I panicked.
One might wonder why Heron’s solicitor didn’t complain about any of this. The answer is that he didn’t have one. As was common then, he had an unqualified ‘solicitor’s representative’ – an ex police officer. At the end of the final interview, the representative said he was pleased with the way it had been conducted. Analysing the transcripts before Heron’s trial, the judge, Mr Justice Mitchell, felt differently. He expressed ‘the very greatest concern’ about the fact Heron had not seen a qualified solicitor until he appeared in court. The suspect, he said, was ‘fluent and articulate, and time and time again he stood up for himself against rigorous questions’. The interviews were ‘an exercise in breaking [his] resolve’. The detectives had also exaggerated the strength of the testimony against Heron. While they had compelling evidence that both Nikki and the suspect were at the Boar’s Head around the time of her disappearance, only Margaret Hodgson claimed to have seen a man and a little girl together.
Hodgson was not asked to attend an identity parade until the interviews were over, and then she failed to pick Heron out (the delay in the identity parade is more egregious when you think about Boyd’s resemblance to the artist’s impression Hodgson helped create). ‘This interview was a continuing injustice at an early stage, in my judgment, and did become oppressive,’ Mitchell said. ‘This approach could never have been contemplated if the results of the identity parade had been known.’
At first, Northumbria Police defended its interviews, which had been conducted in accordance with PACE, the guidelines introduced in 1984 in the wake of the Scarman report on the Brixton riots, but soon the force agreed to an inquiry. The resulting report recommended that all officers investigating serious crime should receive training ‘tailored to suit the special requirements of major investigations’. Northumbria Police supported the roll-out of PEACE, a method of questioning in which officers allow a suspect to provide an uninterrupted account of events, before being presented with evidence of inconsistencies or contradictions. Detective Sergeant Gary Shaw, now a professor of professional practice at Sunderland University, was appointed as an interview adviser, supporting officers with specific interrogations and overseeing training. ‘What happened in the Heron case could have happened anywhere in the country,’ he told me, ‘but Northumbria Police wanted to respond well in the aftermath, so it began to take the lead.’
The way Heron was treated continues to trouble Bradley, who knew, as he handed him over to the prison officers at Durham jail, that he was likely to be attacked. He wasn’t surprised when he heard Heron had had his face slashed. ‘I have said sorry in my head to George Heron for the way I felt in that van,’ Bradley said. ‘Now, I think: “That poor lad. What the hell must have been going through his head?”’
Heron was lucky his trial took place less than a year after the successful appeal of the Cardiff Three – who were wrongly convicted of murdering Lynette White on the basis of a false confession – and that his defence team, Roger Thorn and Robin Patton, were bold enough to challenge the admissibility of his confession. It was left to them to get Heron safely out of Leeds Crown Court. A decoy police van was used to divert the attention of the angry crowd, while Patton put Heron in his car and drove to a hotel. From there, someone from the Catholic Church took him to a monastery, where he was reunited with his mother. The following day, a Sunderland Echo reporter called Nigel Green drove Heron from the monastery to Morpeth railway station. ‘He was terrified of being recognised,’ Green told me. ‘I bought him a baseball cap and put him on a train to Scotland.’ Green took a photograph before he left: there are blurred lights around the ticket office, dirty snow on the platform, and Heron is ferret-thin and jacketless, despite the weather. He is wearing his big glasses and a tatty patterned jumper. A plastic bag containing his personal belongings dangles from his right hand.
A photograph of Sharon taken soon after the verdict shows her walking away from the photographer, her eyes cast down, her long blonde hair flowing behind her. ‘I look lonely, don’t I?’ she said to me, holding it out for inspection. Class prejudice, and the stigmatisation of single mothers, ate away at public empathy, and in subsequent years Sharon’s efforts to find Nikki’s killer were seen as further evidence of an unhinged personality. That disapproval hasn’t gone away. Why did Wright tell the jury that Nikki’s leggings looked like shorts because they were meant for a three or four-year-old, if not to invite judgment?
Dickie Prest , a former docker, married Vena Creighton in 1961. They had five children, Greg, Joan, Toni, Sharon and Sandra, before divorcing in 1969, when Sharon was three. Depending on who you speak to, Dickie, who died three years after Nikki, was a bit of a rogue, or a thug. I remember him as affable when he chose to be, but with a dash of menace. Sharon thinks she was three when she was taken to hospital and then into care. ‘I was taken there because I was all battered and bruised,’ she told me. ‘I spent most of my time from three to fourteen in different care homes, but I didn’t see that as a problem. That was normal for us.’
Sharon remembers seeing her dad just once during that time, when he turned up for a social work meeting, but then, when she was fourteen, she started hanging about with schoolfriends in Wear Garth where Dickie was living with his second wife, Jenny, and their three children, Gail, Nikki and Alan. Her full brother and sisters had not been in care with her; the only one of them she considers family is Greg, who died an alcohol-related death in 2015. She loathed Vena and resented Dickie. But Jenny she loved. It was Jenny who suggested Sharon should move into their flat. ‘I had never had a mam before and I definitely didn’t have a dad. Gail, Nikki and Alan were quite little then. We used to share bedrooms, but it didn’t bother me. I was just glad to have a family.’
For a girl who had been shunted from place to place, the clannish community of Wear Garth offered belonging. And now she had a role model who encouraged her to earn her keep, babysitting and delivering the Sunderland Echo. It wasn’t long before she was going out with one of her neighbours, David Allan. By sixteen she was pregnant with Stacey and soon after with Nikki. But not long after Nikki was born, she and David split up. Next, she got together with Anthony Waldron, whose mother, Shirley, was a welfare rights officer. They had Zara in 1989, and Niomi in 1991. ‘But his mam wasn’t happy because I was a single parent, so I wasn’t suitable,’ Sharon said. ‘We ended up arguing, so I asked Anthony to leave.’
Six months before Nikki died, the family moved into a flat on the ground floor of Wear Garth. ‘I did struggle,’ Sharon said. She liked being a mother, though, this woman who had known no mothering herself. And she was good at it, all things considered. She took Stacey and Nikki to school, Zara and Niomi to nursery; made sure they were clean and properly dressed, their hair tied up with ribbons.
Sharon showed me some of Nikki’s schoolwork. In her news book, she had drawn a picture of herself with skipping ropes beside a chute. ‘My favourite sport is skipping because I like jumping,’ she had written in small, jagged letters. An entry about a party was decorated with balloons and what could have been crisps. And in her RE book, a prayer fitting for a girl who lived by the docks: ‘We thank you for the fishermen who take their boats out to catch fish. We thank you for fish shops and the food you give us every day. Amen.’ Above, she had drawn the long blue streak of the river with a cod, a haddock and a plaice. The prayer was dated Thursday, 24 September: less than a fortnight before she died.
On the night Nikki went missing, Sharon was up to her eyes in laundry. She wasn’t feeling well, and could have done without all the steam and noise, but the washing kept piling up. She couldn’t find any painkillers, so she decided to pop up to Jenny’s. Zara and Niomi were in bed, and Stacey was watching television. But Nikki wanted to go with her. When they got there, Dickie was hoovering and wouldn’t stop when Nikki said she was scared of the noise, so she ran off home, with her mother promising to follow her. ‘It was only two flights of stairs, but I said: “On you go” … Oh, I will never forgive myself.’ Her guilt is misplaced. Wear Garth was an enclosed space, and most families allowed their children to play outside until late. In any case, Nikki was lured from safety in a matter of seconds.
As soon as Sharon realised Nikki was missing, she started hammering on doors. Neighbours came out to see if they could help, and the police were called. But by the time the helicopter arrived, she was so distraught she had been taken into Dickie and Jenny’s flat, where she was given tranquillisers. ‘I was so drugged up, I couldn’t move from the couch,’ she said. ‘All around us, I could hear whispering, and then a thing came across my head that maybe she’s fallen in the river. I thought: “Maybe she’s gone to the docks with a friend, and fallen in, and the friend is too scared to say owt.”’
The next morning, Nikki’s coat and shoes were found and brought to the garth. Sharon was so distressed someone called an ambulance. Gail offered to go with her to the hospital, but then Vena appeared at the ambulance door. They weren’t on speaking terms. Yet there she was, pushing Gail out of the way. At the hospital, Sharon was given more diazepam. The next thing she knew, she was in the bedroom of a flat in a Sunderland skyscraper with Vena and Vena’s mother, Elizabeth, holding a tumbler of whisky. She heard shouts of ‘Oh my God, oh my God. They’ve found the bairn.’ Then Vena turned to Elizabeth, and said: ‘She’s dead.’
In the years that followed Sharon lived on a diet of diazepam and MD 20/20, and her daughters spent periods in foster care. She married, then divorced. The police seemed to have given up on Nikki. When Sharon asked detectives if they had pursued something, she was ignored. Eventually, she cut down on her medication, rebuilt her relationships with her daughters, and married and divorced again. She was still drinking – there were times she thought she might drink herself to death – but she began to forge friendships with other mothers in similar circumstances: Denise Bulger, Ann West and Ann Ming, who in 1990 discovered her daughter Julie’s body under her bath months after Cleveland Police had searched her flat.
The police had made Sharon believe Heron was guilty, so she kept him in her sights. She brought a civil case against him and won it, after Heron failed to enter a defence. Then, in 2003, Ming won her long campaign to have the double jeopardy rule overturned, and in 2006, Billy Dunlop, who had been acquitted of Julie’s murder but later boasted about it, was recharged and pleaded guilty. This gave Sharon fresh hope. If Dunlop could be hauled into court again, why not Heron? Especially if they could find new DNA evidence. Sharon understood how newspapers work. She summoned journalists to Nikki’s grave and told them she wanted the body exhumed so fresh tests could be carried out. The journalist Julie Bindel, who had been following Ming’s campaign, saw the story in the Northern Echo. She contacted Sharon, and brought her to London to meet her partner, Harriet Wistrich, a solicitor and founder of the Centre for Women’s Justice.
Today, Sharon lives in Roker, one of the nicest parts of Sunderland. In her house, she has a ‘chill-out’ room overlooking a small garden with decking and rattan furniture and a little patch of soil, presided over by stone angels, which is dedicated to Nikki. Bolstered by social media, her campaign now has a mass following. Every time she posts on Facebook, she receives hundreds of likes and messages; every time she goes into the city centre, passers-by want to shake her hand.
On one of my visits, she brought out a plastic box containing photographs, souvenirs and documents. There were sympathy cards, replies to her letters asking for support, newspaper cuttings, and the court summonses and fines she accrued in the course of her own investigations. The replies to her letters are a study in polite indifference. ‘The Queen has asked me to thank you for your letter from which her Majesty was saddened to learn about the tragic death of your daughter, Nikki, in 1992,’ reads one on Buckingham Palace notepaper. ‘I should tell you, however, that this is not a matter in which the Queen can personally intervene.’ And from the office of the then deputy prime minister: ‘Thank you for your letter to John Prescott to which I am replying on his behalf. Unfortunately, there is a strict rule in Parliament that prevents an MP from intervening on behalf of another MP’s constituent. Because of this John will be unable to assist you.’ Some of the cuttings chart her public appeals. She calls for Nikki’s body to be exhumed, or is shown with parents of other murder victims from the North-East. Others have headlines like ‘Judge issues warning to Nikki’s mum’ and ‘If I have to be arrested to get justice, so be it.’ Sharon had begun to do what the detectives in 1992 had not: to widen the field of inquiry beyond Heron; to look into who was living in the garths at the time and what they had been doing at the time of Nikki’s murder. Sometimes, her pursuit of information led to charges of breach of the peace, criminal damage and harassment.
One of those who came to her attention was Terry Clark, the long-term partner of her sister Sandra. Sharon says that Terry, now dead, was a Fagin figure, handling stolen goods brought to him by ‘runners’. Then there were ‘the two Carolines’, mother and daughter, who lived three doors along from Dickie and Jenny. The older Caroline had babysat for Sharon, who remembered that in October 1992 she had been living with a man who was one of Clark’s runners, though she couldn’t remember his name. At some point, she moved to Ryhope ‘to keep an eye’ on the women: ‘This is how I started doing it, you see, instead of just sitting crying at people’s doors.’ I thought of Demeter hammering on the gates of the underworld for her daughter Persephone:
The headband on her hair
she tore off with her own immortal hands
and threw a dark cloak over her shoulders.
She sped off like a bird, soaring over land and sea,
looking and looking. But no one was willing to tell her the truth,
not one of the gods, not one of the mortal humans,
not one of the birds …
Thereafter, for nine days did the Lady Demeter
wander all over the earth, holding torches ablaze in her hands.
Sharon eventually got what she was looking for. One day, Caroline texted her the name of the man she had been living with at the time of Nikki’s murder: David Smith, also known as David Bell, also known as David Boyd.
By the time Lisa Theaker, then a detective chief inspector, was asked to look at the case in early 2016, Sharon had a long list of suspects. Aware of the potential of Y-STR, Theaker met the DNA expert James Chapman to explore the possibility of retesting Nikki’s clothes. In September that year, Sharon set up an online petition calling for a full cold case review. The next year she met the then chief constable, Steve Ashman, after a Y-profile was found on Nikki’s clothes. Ashman committed to a full reinvestigation. The team, led by Theaker, identified and traced hundreds of men who lived in the area in 1992, including Boyd, and asked them to provide DNA samples. Some of the names on the police list were provided by Sharon. Boyd gave his sample on 4 October 2017, and on 3 November forensic scientists reported the match. He was arrested and questioned in April 2018, and again in April 2019, and charged in May 2022.
Tuesday, 9 May: Richard Wright was on his feet again. While Wright had begun confidently and gained in swagger, Boyd’s barrister, Jason Pitter, was slowly deflating. Earlier this year, Pitter took over as leader of the north-eastern circuit, becoming the first black barrister to head any of the six regions of the bar in England and Wales. He is a much respected figure, but this trial would be an uphill struggle. It was clear that Pitter wanted to argue that the DNA on Nikki’s clothes could have belonged to someone else who shared Boyd’s Y-STR profile, or, if it did belong to Boyd, that it had got onto Nikki’s clothing in some non-incriminating way, for example as a result of Boyd’s spitting from his balcony; or as her body came into contact with surfaces he had touched on his previous visit to the Old Exchange Building. Pitter also asked Chapman about the way Nikki’s clothing had been stored, the number of times it had been re-examined, and the possibility of DNA being transferred from one item of clothing to another, or moved to a different place on the same item.
The spitting story was ludicrous. For it to be believed, Boyd’s saliva would have to have landed on Nikki as she walked through Wear Garth. She was still wearing her coat then, so how would it have got on her T-shirt and leggings? But Boyd had come up with the explanation during his police interviews, so Pitter was stuck with it. Boyd’s insistence that he didn’t fully enter the basement on his earlier visit also undermined Pitter’s suggestion that Nikki’s clothes might have come into contact with his DNA as she was dragged across the floor. Wright had also called Detective Inspector Chris Deavin, who told the jury that they went on taking DNA samples for the purposes of elimination even after they had a match with Boyd’s Y-profile. Because male relatives share a Y-profile, they drew up a family tree, tracing Boyd’s relatives as far away as Canada. In all, 839 men provided DNA. Deavin said the only other person to match the profile found on Nikki was Boyd’s half-brother, who had been to the North-East just once, to attend a funeral when he was fourteen.
During legal arguments, Wright had convinced the judge, Mrs Justice Lambert, that the jury should be told about two of Boyd’s previous convictions. Wright told the jury of ten women and two men that in 1986 Boyd had been convicted of breaching the peace after approaching four children, aged between eight and ten, grabbing one of them and asking her for a kiss. In 2000, he was convicted of indecent assault after he went up to two girls, aged twelve and nine, in a park, and groped the younger one between her legs. ‘Do not scream,’ he said. Boyd had later told a probation officer he began to have ‘dirty thoughts’ when he saw the girls and felt ‘excited’ about touching them. He had gone on to talk about a ‘phase’, beginning when he was about 22, when he ‘would think about young girls being naked and what it would be like to touch their body and have sexual intercourse’. One conviction for a sexual offence involving children before Nikki’s murder and one after it.
Once the prosecution case had concluded, Pitter asked to confer with his client. Boyd had sworn when Lambert agreed to allow his previous convictions to be heard – his only reaction throughout the trial. When Pitter came back into court, he said Boyd would not be giving evidence. There were no other defence witnesses. Lambert said the jury would be entitled to draw an adverse inference from his client’s refusal to be cross-examined. Pitter looked exhausted.
At 2.29 p.m. on 12 May, the reporters hovering outside Court One heard that the jury was ready to deliver a unanimous verdict. They had been sent out two hours and 29 minutes earlier. Twenty-nine years, five months and 21 days had passed since the jury in the George Heron trial filed in to perform the same duty. The public gallery was packed. Sharon was there with Stacey, her sister Nikki, David Allan’s sister Jackie and others. When the forewoman uttered the word ‘Guilty’, there was uproar. The judge was not happy. ‘And after I had said I would take the verdict in complete silence,’ she said, as if she were talking about loutish pupils on a school trip, not a family who had waited three decades for justice.
Afterwards, outside the court, Theaker, now a detective chief superintendent, was joined by Assistant Chief Constable Brad Howe and the head of the complex casework unit for CPS North-East, Christopher Atkinson. ‘Nikki would be 37 today and who knows what her life could have been?’ Theaker said. She thanked Nikki’s family for their ‘incredible strength’. But Sharon had gone. And she had no intention of thanking Theaker.
When the press pack spotted Sharon on a nearby street, it moved like a murmuration towards her. Nikki asked me if I could get everyone to go away, but I wasn’t sure that Sharon wanted me to. A police officer pushed his way in to check. Sharon told the journalists to stay put. Her days of being dismissed were over. Her hostility towards the current inquiry team is rooted in historical grievances, but she also resents Theaker for becoming the first serving officer to take part in the reality TV show Hunted, and for alleged failures of communication. It’s true that Theaker enjoys the limelight. On Hunted, she plays a caricature of herself as a blonde ball-breaker barracking the contestants as they try to evade capture. And the documentary An Hour to Catch a Killer followed her as she investigated the murder of Alice Ruggles in Gateshead in 2016. (Theaker points out that she takes part in Hunted on her own time, donating her fee to charity; and that the Ruggles documentary provided a powerful insight into modern police work.)
When I spoke to Theaker at the Northumbria Police HQ in North Tyneside, I found her serious and committed. The middle of three daughters, she was raised by a single mother on the Lakes Estate in Redcar, so feels some affinity with Sharon, whose tenacity she is at pains to praise. Having joined the Northumbria force at twenty because she couldn’t afford to stay on at university, she has spent most of her career as a detective. When she took over the Nikki Allan inquiry in 2016, Theaker hand-picked her team, choosing officers she knew possessed the attention to detail to pick through all the original statements, and enough stamina for the long haul. When she moved to the Cleveland force in 2019, she opted to keep the inquiry on, adding hours to already long days. Her mistake, she said, had been failing to tell Sharon before Cleveland Police issued a press release welcoming her to the force. Sharon, assuming that Theaker was abandoning the case, went to the papers.
The pursuit of Boyd involved relentless, grinding police work and there was no guarantee the CPS would allow the case to go to court. The fear of messing up again was ever present. Gary Shaw was brought in to advise on the interviews, which were carefully planned. ‘We knew we couldn’t make what happened in the past better but we could make things worse if we didn’t do it right,’ Theaker told me. ‘That was the big thing from our point of view, making sure we were meticulous.’ Securing the conviction was satisfying, but she must have known that her efforts would go largely unacknowledged, that the emphasis would be on the reckoning with the past.
In the days after the verdict Northumbria Police offered public apologies to Sharon and to Heron, but some of the damage the police had caused was made clear in the victim impact statements read out to the court before Boyd’s sentencing on 23 May.
Sharon Henderson: ‘After [Heron’s] acquittal, I was accused of being a bad mother even though my children were looked after … I was left feeling I had to fight for justice for Nikki. I have fought tirelessly and endlessly for this … The stress associated with this has led to a serious deterioration of both my mental and physical health. I have been sectioned and spent periods in hospital.’
David Allan: ‘I have used alcohol to help me cope and just to get me to sleep at night. I lost the stable relationship I was in for reasons I cannot explain, but are undoubtedly due to me being unable to cope and make sense of what happened to Nikki. I have never been able to walk past the building in which Nikki was found. I live close by and it is on the main through road so I pass and see it regularly. I think about Nikki lying on her own in the cold in that building at night.’
George Heron (not read in court, but released by the police): ‘I lost what little honour and property I had as a result of being falsely accused of Nikki Allan’s murder. I have had to read and hear malicious lies being spread about me and my family – some of whom are now deceased, and whose funerals I didn’t get a chance to attend. Originally, I was angry and upset at how I was treated – to the point that I had a drink issue for years (which I have dealt with on my own). I survive because I have to – like everyone else, I would like answers as to why it took so long to find out the truth.’
Boyd’s history of flashing – revealed in Wright’s pre-sentence submission – raised yet more questions. He told the court that in 1986 Boyd had been convicted of indecent exposure after running past a woman while naked from the waist down, and that in 1997 he had exposed himself to a 15-year-old girl. He admitted to urges he couldn’t control. Theaker insists her team investigated Boyd’s life and uncovered no more incidents. But you can’t help wondering.
Forced to treat Boyd according to the law as it was in 1992, when life sentences were shorter, the judge told him he must serve a minimum of 29 years: one fewer than Sharon has spent without her daughter. Outside the court, with Sharon standing beside her, Wistrich told reporters she would be filing a complaint with the Independent Office for Police Conduct and pursuing a civil claim for damages. She called for a public inquiry into the failures that had allowed Boyd to escape investigation and urged anyone who believed they were a victim of Boyd’s to contact the police or the Centre for Women’s Justice.
When I turned on the BBC and ITV news that evening, Nikki Allan had been eclipsed by the latest development in the search for Madeleine McCann. I remembered that, earlier in the year, Sharon had taken me into her bedroom and laid the last dress she bought for Nikki across the bed. It was a riot of colour: bright yellow stars and crescent moons on a pinky-red background. The perfect dress for a seven-year-old girl who loved to skip. I pictured Nikki in it, heading to a party, with the promise of games and crisps and ice cream.
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