ON a warm day in mid-summer 1990, a retired postman was mowing his lawn.
As David Herkes paused for a break, he saw something that would remain with him forever – and marked the end of a notorious child-killer’s reign of terror.
Over the street, in the tiny Scottish Highlands village of Stow, a scruffy man was standing next to a parked van.
David was willing to give almost anyone the benefit of the doubt, especially in a tight-knit community like theirs.
This was different though. In what felt like a flash, his six-year-old neighbour Ella* skipped past before being ruthlessly bundled into the side of the van, which screeched off.
The driver was a man named Robert Black. By the end of the day, police had him in custody.
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Despite being one of Britain’s most barbaric murderers, little is known about what drove Black to his heinous crimes – and who were the true targets of his relentless spree.
In my new book, End of Innocence, I explore how he evaded the law for years, and the chilling case of his 13-year-old victim Genette Tate, whose remains were never discovered.
Psycho's trademark kills
Inexplicably, Black was finally cuffed after returning to Stow following his escape with six-year-old Ella.
The little girl was found, half-suffocated, in the back of the van.
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It happened purely by chance that the girl’s father, a policeman, spotted a similarity between the man in custody for his daughter’s abduction and another case.
He was the spitting image of a sketch artist’s rendering of a suspect in another murder, that of Caroline Hogg, a cold case dating back to the early 1980s.
And once cops began to consider him for one crime, the full, horrific jigsaw of his crimes began to fall into place.
Across the 1980s, three separate abductions were eventually traced back to Black, each bearing his trademark unusual method – children out alone who were kidnapped, assaulted and murdered, with their bodies left many hundreds of miles from the site of the abduction.
In 1982, 11-year-old Susan Maxwell was abducted on her way back from a tennis match, close to the Scottish border.
Her body was discovered two weeks later some 250 miles from where she’d been taken.
The following year, five-year-old Caroline Hogg was last seen riding a carousel in the company of a scruffy-looking man in Portobello, near Edinburgh.
Her naked remains were also discovered just a short distance from those of Susan Maxwell.
Whoever was responsible had transported his victims far, far from home and left them like rubbish on the roadsides.
In 1986, the detective in charge, Hector Clark, was informed that a third body had been discovered.
Ten-year-old Sarah Harper was snatched from the streets of Morley, Leeds, and was found in the River Trent three weeks later.
A national manhunt between six police forces was launched, but did not identify Black as a suspect.
Childhood red flags
Following Black's arrest in Stow, however, police began to build a case and look into his background. What they found only served to confirm their suspicions.
Robert Black was born to an unmarried mother in Grangemouth in 1947. She soon placed him up for adoption and moved to Australia, never to return.
Black was taken in by foster parents, the Tulips, and spent the first 11 years of his life in the pretty village of Kinlochleven.
After his foster parents both died, however, he was moved from foster placement to a care home and eventually to borstal.
A string of red flags followed, most involving children. He was routinely accused of assaulting young girls, as well as exposing himself. He committed his first known sexual assault at the age of 11.
But by the time he was legally allowed to live independently, Black set his sights on London, moved down south and took a job as a delivery driver.
His paedophilia likely motivated both the nature of his work and his crimes, and he was keen to evade capture.
There were no clues to police, no taunting of the authorities. If he hadn’t been stopped in 1990, it is likely he would have continued.
Police knew, however, that it was most unlikely that Black had commenced his criminal career with abduction and murder.
“There would have been an escalation,” says Brian Hook, a former homicide detective who is now a lecturer in forensic sciences at the University of West London. “Multiple abduction attempts, undoubtedly.”
String of victims
Black was eventually convicted in 1994 over the three murders in the 1980s.
In 2009, he was charged over a fourth: the case of nine-year-old Jennifer Cardy, who was abducted from County Antrim in 1981.
At the time of his death in January 2016, police were also planning to charge Black with the 1978 abduction and murder of Genette Tate, whose case bore all of Black’s hallmarks.
If he hadn’t been arrested in Stow all those years later, it’s likely he might never have been tied to this historic crime against an innocent paper-girl.
Ginny, as her family knew her, was out delivering papers in Devon when she was snatched off the street, her rear wheel left spinning.
Police logistics and inexperience played a part in Ginny’s case, which remained open and unsolved. With no evidence recovered from the scene, no eyewitnesses to the crime and no trace of Ginny discovered, the trail went cold.
“What you have to remember,” Brian says, “is that at the time we had 120 murders a year in the Met.
“Down in Devon that number was six. One of the biggest mistakes people, including police officers, make is assuming 20 years’ experience counts for something as a detective.
“It’s just not true if you’re dealing with the theft of a lawnmower from a garden shed.”
He adds: “There was no permanent core team, there was little continuity for those actually working major cases or any attempt to maintain a standard of knowledge
“It’s almost setting yourself up to fail.”
Black never confessed to the crime but – as my book explains – he was driving at least two years prior before officially passing his test.
Ginny’s wasn’t the only case, either – Black has been linked to the unsolved disappearances of April Fabb in 1969, Christine Markham in 1973, and Mary Boyle, Ireland’s Madeleine McCann, who vanished from her parents' farm in 1977.
During the trial of Jennifer Cardy, the judge said in summarising: “You subjected a vulnerable child to unpardonable terror and took away her life.
“By the manner of that loss, you also wounded forever a family that treasured that child. It was a wicked deed.”
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Robert Black’s crimes are likely to have touched many more lives than those he was found guilty of.
Our use of CCTV, digital databases and DNA in 2022 would make evading detection much harder now, but that is slim comfort for the families whose lives he ruined, and who never received justice for their children.
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