Babes in the Wood
The bodies of two children are discovered by a man walking his dog in the woods. On the evening of 17 June 1970 the police cordon off the shallow graves in Epping Forest, Essex. The area is so overgrown that it’s difficult to walk upright and sunlight barely penetrates. Forensic investigators and a Home Office pathologist begin their work. Lighting is brought in as the last of the light goes. The badly decomposed bodies are huddled together under bracken and twigs:
“Susan had got her arm around Gary’s body. They looked like they were cuddling up for warmth.”
Chief Superintendent Leonard Read
It’s not clear if they’d innocently sought cover in the undergrowth, or if their covering was a crude and criminal attempt to conceal.
Eleven weeks before, 11-year-old Susan Blatchford and 12-year-old Gary Hanlon had gone missing. The Metropolitan Police had placed ‘Missing Children’ posters with Gary and Susan’s photos.
Detectives assigned to tracking them down are now called to the woods. Further searches by police dogs locate clothing and a plimsoll.
The bodies are confirmed as Susan Blatchford and Gary Hanlon.
They’d last been seen playing together six miles away near their homes in Enfield, North London. At about half four in the afternoon of 31 March 1970 Susan had knocked on Gary’s door. She asked if Gary could come out and play. Gary, football under his arm, asked his mum if it was ok. Beryl said he could as long as he played by the side of the house. His favourite dinner of lamb chops and roast potatoes was nearly ready - so if he played next to the house, Beryl would be able to hear the ball banging about and know that he was nearby - but when she checked on him, he and Susan were gone.
She would never see him again.
The tomboyish Susan was into playing football and climbing trees and was a perfect playmate for Gary. Looking older and taller than the small for his age Gary, it would be difficult at a distance to know if she was his big sister or bigger best mate. Susan had originally noticed Gary’s older brother Frank but had clicked better with Gary. They’d made friends only a few months before.
An hour after Gary and Susan had run off to play the two were seen walking through a field.
That was their last sighting.
That night the temperature fell below freezing. The next day it snowed.
Gary’s parents Frank Hanlon, a painter and decorator, and his wife, Beryl, sat waiting all night for their son to return.
Susan’s parents, Lionel Blatchford, a lab assistant, and his wife did the same.
That year, 24 children under the age of 14 had gone missing in London. Most are found within 24 hours. When Gary and Susan aren’t, Scotland Yard is called.
FROM THE KRAYS TO THE BABES
Fresh from helping send down the Krays, Scotland Yard’s top criminal investigator, Chief Inspector Leonard Read takes charge.
Over 500 police interview nearly 15,000 people, searching over 4,000 homes, garages and sheds. Within three weeks they’ve followed up more than 200 sightings. Divers investigate the surrounding rivers, reservoirs and canals. Even the barges and boats that use them are followed up and inspected. Half of London’s police dogs scour 5,000 acres. And up above, a first for the police according to Chief Inspector Read, a helicopter does an aerial investigation.
And, after this massive deployment of resources, the police have nothing.
The children appear to have vanished without trace.
Many believe they’d run away together. But Read believes that as they were new friends to each other, they were unlikely to have taken such a drastic step:
“...we never went to bed for the whole twelve weeks. We just sat in the front room and I kept the fire going and the light on.”
17 JUNE 1970
Then less than two miles from Gary’s home, 78 days after he’d last been seen, his and Susan’s body are discovered.
Their parents are bereft. Beryl can hardly leave her room for weeks and barely eats.
The press publicise the story as one of misadventure, a tragic accident. Fleet Street suggests two ‘babes in the wood’ had simply played and strayed too far from home.
This simplified account is virtually pure speculation. But it’s presented as definitive. Chief Inspector Read now knows the family well, and knows that Gary was afraid of the dark. There is no way Gary would have sought shelter somewhere that was pitch black.
But few, even in the police, suspect foul play.
And despite recent headline cases like the Moors Murders in 1965, cases of children being killed by a stranger were, and are, small in number.
“On average, and this is a figure that’s remained stable since the 1970s, six children a year are abducted and murdered by a stranger...we are dealing with a very rare phenomenon.”
David Wilson, Author and criminologist
The idea that two children could have been simultaneously targeted, kidnapped and killed seemed unlikely:
“Paedophiles tend to be inadequate people, lacking in confidence and it is actually very unusual for them to attempt abductions.”
Colin Wilson, Author and criminologist