In the second episode of Once Upon A True Crime, best-selling author Mark Billingham revisits the shocking, so-called Moors Murders that took place in Greater Manchester between 1963 and 1965.
The world of true crime is, as we all know, a compelling one. Learning about the darker, more extreme side of humanity is undoubtedly alluring. There’s a responsibility that comes with a fascination for all things criminal, though.
It’s important that those pivotal figures - the murderers, the kidnappers, the rapists, the thieves - are discussed, analysed and understood. But it’s just as vital that they’re not lauded, worshipped or canonised. As enthralling as some killers are, we need never forget the devastation they’ve caused and continue to cause.
Oftentimes, especially in the realm of serial killings, the victims are forgotten; they become a mere side note to the story. Often, but not always. In the annals of British crime history, few murders have caused such obvious and visible pain and shock as that of Keith Bennett’s, one of the five victims of the notorious killer couple Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.
12-year-old Keith was snatched, murdered and buried by The Moors Murderers Brady and Hindley. His remains were never found - ruthlessly, neither killer told police the location of the burial site.
This is Keith’s and his family’s story...
Keith’s short life and quick demise
Schoolboy Keith Bennett was to be Brady and Hindley's third of five eventual murders. He was just 12 years of age when he was snatched off the street and callously slaughtered like a farm animal for his killers’ amusement.
It was early in the evening on the 16th of June 1964 when the young boy left home for the very short walk to grandmother's house in Longsight, Manchester. He was stopped on his travels by a friendly young couple who asked him to help them load some boxes into a van. After he'd done so, they were to drive him back.
Brady and Hindley drove to a lay-by on the now-infamous Saddleworth Moor. Brady took the boy off, apparently looking for a lost glove. Half an hour later Brady came back without Keith, instead, he was carrying a large spade he had previously hidden on the moor. He immediately told Myra Hindley that he had sexually assaulted and strangled the child with a piece of string before burying him somewhere out on the moors.
The campaign to find Keith Bennett’s body
Keith was missing for 16 months before his devastated and traumatised family received word that police suspected him of being a victim of the Moors Murderers.
When the callous duo was eventually apprehended and sentenced, as Keith’s body had not been recovered, there was no evidence that Ian Brady had killed him. It was to be more than two decades later before Ian Brady would admit to the senseless crime from the confines of his prison cell.
What he wouldn’t say is where he’d left Keith.
Some of Keith’s relatives became convinced that Brady had secreted clues as to the location of the burial sites within letters and a book he had written. Keith’s mother Winnie Johnson and brother Alan were adamant of it, but no useful clues were ever forthcoming.
Shortly before Brady’s death, the killer wrote to Alan saying: 'My will contains special instructions for you alone.' Three years on and Brady’s papers - kept within two briefcases - are yet to have their contents released by the Home Office due to ‘legal issues’. Whether they contain any clues as to Keith’s whereabouts remain to be seen.
Keith’s family campaigned for decades to find a way to find to their boy, but to no avail. Petitions, strategies devised alongside police, direct pleas, sweeps of the moors, nothing the Bennett family did ever found success.
Moving on when there’s no body to bury
Coping with tragedy is incredibly difficult. The death of a child can be impossible to recover from, especially when they have been murdered. Humans are empathic by design, but it’s difficult to truly imagine the grief of losing a child in the way the Bennett family did.
Keith’s loved ones refused to forgive or forget. They kept up the battle to locate the remains of their Keith for decades. Winnie would even visit and scour Saddleworth Moor regularly. Perhaps in hope of finding him, more likely in order merely to be close to the son that had been so cruelly snatched away from her.
Some grieving and distraught families can do nothing but try to move on. Perhaps the most obvious way to do this is to try and put their murdered loved one behind them.
Winnie, however, refused to do that. She couldn't stand people avoiding the subject in her company. Quizzed by a journalist from The Guardian about whether she minded people asking her about Keith in 2012, she said:
'No! Do I heck! I'd rather people talked to me about Keith than look at me and stare at me – I can't stand that. It makes me feel better talking about him.'
Ian Brady’s unrelenting cruelty
Even on his deathbed, Brady wouldn’t allow Keith’s family to find any peace. After five years of hunger-striking and being fed through a nasogastric tube - as well as receiving round-the-clock cancer treatment - Brady died at Ashworth Hospital in Merseyside on the 15th May 2017. At no point prior to his death did he relent and tell police anything. Despite their best attempts.
He knew perfectly well what he had done with Keith
Despite being declared insane, Brady had full control over his faculties throughout his confinement. There is, of course, a chance he might’ve forgotten Keith Bennett’s burial site. More likely, however, is that he knew perfectly well what he had done with Keith and simply refused to tell anyone.
Some claim Brady’s refusal to help locate the remains can be explained by a lack of empathy or the fact that he ‘just didn’t care’. The truth is this, however: keeping the knowledge was keeping the power. Revealing the whereabouts drew a line under the Moors Murders and made Brady a footnote in history. His cruelty in saying nothing was a way to wield control and continue flexing both his philosophical immorality and criminal immortality.
Keith’s mother Winnie died in 2012, never living to see her son’s burial whereabouts revealed. Not only that but she was robbed of the chance to outlive Brady, who died some five years after her. Unsurprisingly, he took his secrets to the grave. The family are still none the wiser as to Keith’s final resting place.
There did look to be some glimmer of hope for the Bennetts when fire swept through Saddleworth Moor in June 2017, one month after Brady’s death. It took hundreds of firemen and soldiers from the 4th Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland to eventually put out the many pockets of fire which had ravaged the moor. Unfortunately for the surviving family members, the blazes did not uncover Keith’s remains. The Bennett family may struggle to find peace with Keith’s murder, but let’s hope that wherever he lay, Keith himself can rest in some sort of peace. Loved and remembered.