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4 killers convicted without a body

Marie McCourt, mother of Helen McCourt, holds an image of her daughter outside court
Image: Marie McCourt, mother of Helen McCourt, holds a photograph of her daughter after giving evidence at a parole board hearing on the release of Ian Simms in November 2019 | PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Contrary to what some might believe, it’s possible to be convicted of murder even if a body is never found – as these killers found out to their cost.

1. Mark Brown

When labourer Mark Brown was put away for life in 2023, it was the culmination of a grim double murder investigation where the body of one victim – Leah Ware – was never found.

Brown had first met Leah back in 2018 when he’d hired her through the website AdultWork. Their relationship progressed to the point where Leah – a drug user with mental health issues – moved into a shipping container Brown was renting on the remote Little Bridge Farm, Hastings. It was a sadomasochistic relationship which became ever more intense, until Leah mysteriously disappeared in May 2021.

Later that year, Brown used AdultWork to hire Alexandra Morgan and lured her to the farm on the pretext of an escorting job worth £100,000. Following her disappearance, CCTV footage of Alexandra’s vehicle led detectives to the farm, and fragments of her incinerated body were later discovered in an oil barrel.

The whereabouts of Leah’s remains are still a mystery, and during his trial, Brown stubbornly maintained that she was still alive. Jurors weren’t buying it – especially given the revelation that, soon after Leah’s disappearance, he’d messaged a friend saying that he had been ‘disposing’ of something using an old oil drum and five litres of diesel and that he was haunted by the terrible things he’d done. ‘A psychopath with a conscience,’ he said of himself. ‘It's a joke really.’

2. Ian Simms

One stormy February evening in 1988, a young woman named Helen McCourt got off a bus in the village of Billinge, Merseyside. The bus stop wasn’t far from her house, and Helen – returning from the insurance office where she worked – was keen to get back quickly because she had a date with her boyfriend.

But Helen vanished during this short walk, leading thousands of villagers to comb the fields and woods for any signs of what had happened to her. The breakthrough came when a witness reported they’d heard screaming coming from a local pub close to the bus stop. It transpired that the pub landlord, Ian Simms, had had a row with Helen just days before, and investigators soon uncovered plenty of grisly forensic evidence tying him to the case, including spots of Helen’s blood on his car and in his flat.

Despite the lack of a body, Simms was found guilty of her murder, making this one of the first convictions which rested almost entirely on DNA fingerprinting. He was released in 2020 after serving 32 years in prison and died two years later having never revealed what he’d done with Helen’s body.

Helen’s mother, Marie, was made an MBE in 2022 in recognition of her campaigning work which led to the creation of Helen’s Law – legislation which makes it more likely that criminals who hold back information on their victims will be denied parole.

3. Mark Bridger

The murder of five-year-old April Jones in October 2012 didn’t just rock the small community of Machynlleth, Wales, it became a major news story, with images of the little girl suddenly known to millions across the world.

Last seen getting into a 4x4 while out playing with friends, April was the subject of the largest manhunt in the history of British police. Yet it only took hours for detectives to zero in on a prime suspect: Mark Bridger, a well-known local man who often claimed to be a former mercenary and SAS soldier.

In fact, he was an alcoholic fantasist who had previously tried to groom April’s older sister on Facebook, and who was hooked on child pornography. Forensic analysis revealed that fragments of human bone were in the fireplace of his cottage, and blood matching April’s DNA was also found.

Despite the damning evidence, Bridger pleaded not guilty, claiming that he’d accidentally run April over in his car and couldn’t remember where he’d left her body due to having been in an alcoholic stupor. The jury didn’t believe this story and he was sentenced to a whole life order.

4. Peter Reyn-Bardt

One of the most remarkable murder convictions without a body occurred back in 1983 when airline employee Peter Reyn-Bardt was sent down for the killing of his estranged wife, Malika de Fernandez, which occurred more than two decades prior.

Reyn-Bardt had dismembered and buried Malika on the edge of Lindow Moss, a peat bog in Cheshire. Although police searched his property for traces of the missing woman, the lack of any evidence or body meant Reyn-Bardt had seemingly gotten away with the crime.

Then, in 1983, labourers in Lindow Moss dug up a human head so well preserved that it still had remnants of the brain and eyes attached. Police assumed it was evidence of a murder – most likely, the cold case killing of Malika de Fernandez.

When questioned about the discovery, Reyn-Bardt quickly cracked and admitted he’d murdered his wife, saying, ‘It’s been so long, I thought I would never be found out.’ But then carbon dating revealed that the head, far from belonging to Malika, actually dated back to Roman Britain and owed its uncanny preservation to the chemical effects of the peat bog.

On hearing the news, a mortified Reyn-Bardt attempted to retract his confession but it was too late – he was convicted of murder and spent the rest of his life in jail. The remains of his wife have never been found.