Mother of Moors victim dies with her pleas rejected

Ian Brady turned down all Winnie Johnson's requests to reveal Keith Bennett's burial place

Winnie Johnson, the mother of the Moors murder victim Keith Bennett, who for decades had appealed to his killers to reveal where her son's remains were buried, died yesterday. She was 78, and went to her grave with her pleas unanswered.

First, Ian Brady killed her son, and then – despite decades of poignant requests from the child's grieving mother – he slowly murdered her hopes of her son's body being found. And, in the last week of her life, he positively teased the family, allowing a mysterious, and possibly non-existent, letter to feature in inquiries made by a television documentary crew, and which is now the subject of a police investigation.

For nearly half a century, Winnie – only 30 when her son was abducted by Brady and his partner Myra Hindley – yearned for answers. Her son was seized in Longsight, Manchester, while on the way to visit his grandmother on 16 June 1964. He was one of five children known to have been sexually tortured and murdered by Brady and his accomplice and girlfriend, Hindley, between 1963 and 1965.

Brady and Hindley were jailed in 1966 over the murders of John Kilbride, 12, Lesley Ann Downey, 10, and Edward Evans, 17. Mrs Johnson had to endure a wait of 23 years before Brady and Hindley confessed in 1987 to killing Keith Bennett and Pauline Reade. That year, the killers were taken back to Saddleworth Moor to help police find the remains of the missing victims, but only Pauline's body was found.

The grieving Mrs Johnson never gave up hope, even after Greater Manchester Police called off the official police search in 2009. The following year yet another search of the Moors was mounted, this time paid for by private donations, but without success.

Yet she still continued to hope. On a DVD that she recorded in April 2011, she appealed directly to Brady, saying she was receiving treatment for cancer of the womb: "I've got cancer and if you've got any decency or respect for yourself and for me, you would tell me where Keith is because that is the last thing I want to happen before I die."

Last month, knowing that she was dying in a Manchester hospice, she wrote to Brady: "If you have got it in your heart to tell me where Keith is, it would end the trouble I have had for 47 years. I would like him found and buried before anything happens to me."

Her family have pledged to continue the fight to find Keith's body, in memory of Mrs Johnson, "a much-loved mother, grandmother and great-grandmother".

A statement on the website searchingforkeith.com said: "Winnie fought tirelessly for decades to find Keith and give him a Christian burial. Although this was not possible during her lifetime we, her family, intend to continue this fight now for her and for Keith. We hope that the authorities and the public will support us in this."

For millions, the photograph of a happy Keith, 12, with his round schoolboy glasses and toothy grin, was a symbol of the evil acts committed by Brady and Hindley. It was a contrast with the gaunt, psychotic stare of Brady, still the most memorable image from the worst series of child murders in modern British history. Yet Keith, his bespectacled face frozen in time, is the only victim whose body has never been found.

Almost all hope of Brady relenting and revealing the boy's whereabouts had evaporated, until last week when they were suddenly revived. Two days ago, police said they were investigating claims that Brady might have revealed the location of the grave in a letter given to his mental health advocate, Jackie Powell.

This emerged during the making of a documentary about Brady's mental health tribunal, a process that took an unexpected turn on 3 July, when the 74-year-old Brady was taken to hospital after suffering a seizure. The tribunal – to consider his application to be transferred from Ashworth Hospital in Merseyside to a Scottish prison and be allowed to die – was postponed. The turn of events reportedly prompted the killer, who has been tube-fed since refusing food 12 years ago, to begin putting his affairs in order. His long-time "advocate", Ms Powell, understood to be an executor of his will, was filmed filling out an application for power of attorney over health and welfare forms.

Two weeks later, during an interview filmed on 20 July, Ms Powell claimed: "I received a letter and a sealed envelope which said on the front of it, 'to be opened in the event of my death'. [Brady] says he doesn't wish to take secrets to his grave and, within the sealed envelope is a letter to Winnie Johnson. Within that is the means of her possibly being able to rest." When asked what Brady meant, Ms Powell replied: "Well, clearly there's something within the letter that may be able to find her son, I would suggest."

After the interview, the documentary team pressured her to go to the police. Yet it was "several days" before they managed to speak to her – only to be informed that Ms Powell had returned the letter to Brady. This is according to Emma Loach, the executive producer of the Channel 4 film, due to be shown tomorrow, a scheduling now under review pending talks with the late Mrs Johnson's family.

The production team informed Greater Manchester Police on 30 July. Yet it took more than two weeks before police arrested Ms Powell, Brady's mental health advocate since 1999, and conducted searches of her house and Brady's cell last Thursday. The 49-year-old, from Llangennech near Llanelli, arrested on suspicion of preventing the burial of a body without lawful exercise, has since been released on bail pending further inquiries. The crucial delay in searching Brady's cell could have given the killer ample time to destroy the letter. Detectives have yet to find any trace of it.

Professor Tony Maden, the former head of the Dangerous Severe Personality Disorder unit at Broadmoor and one of the psychiatrists to have examined Brady in the past, described Ms Powell's actions as "completely bizarre" and "incomprehensible". Now a forensic psychiatrist at Imperial College London, he commented: "Certain high-profile highly disordered serial killers and people like that just tend to attract bizarre attachments ... it's a well-recognised phenomenon that people are sometimes inappropriately attracted to some of these rather charismatic and highly psychopathic individuals and they sometimes behave very badly." Professor Maden added: "I do think something serious has gone wrong here."

Winnie Johnson's solicitor, John Ainley, a senior partner at North Ainley Halliwell, said yesterday: "Brady had persistently ignored the wishes of a grieving mother. She has died without knowing Keith's whereabouts and without the opportunity to finally put him at rest in a decent grave. It is truly heartbreaking that this opportunity has now been irrevocably lost. She died not knowing of the letter's possible existence but the steadfast conviction of Ian Brady can resolve the situation."

While Winnie Johnson's death has freed her from the torment of Brady's actions, the killer continues to cast a shadow over the families of the children he murdered. Terry Kilbride, the brother of John Kilbride, says: "How many more that we don't know about? How many more has he got up his sleeve that he's not said anything about? Nobody knows, do they? ... He's always there. It is a shadow in your life. He's still got us all. He's still got all the families."

The advocate: Jackie Powell

Jackie Powell, 49, acts as the Moors Murderer's "mental health advocate". Her precise status and professional background remains unclear: she is not registered with Action for Advocacy, the umbrella organisation for advocates, nor employed by Mersey Care NHS Trust, which manages Ashworth high-security hospital where Brady is detained, or its local advocacy service. She is regarded as a "visitor" by the hospital.

Martin Coyle, the interim chief executive of Action for Advocacy, said: "The Mental Health Act gives independent mental health advocates a right to talk to patients who have been referred to them. It also gives them a right to interview professionals who provide care to the patient. Someone calling themselves an advocate, but not attached to an organisation, should have no greater access to a ward than any other member of the public, but someone can ask for them to be present or to visit. However, calling yourself a mental health advocate does not give you any special powers or bestow rights upon you."

The letter

Police are investigating whether there is any truth in the existence of a letter from Ian Brady that could reveal the location of the body of the murder victim Keith Bennett. Martin Bottomley, the head of Greater Manchester Police's cold case unit, said they are investigating the "possibility", adding: "We do not know if this is true or simply a ruse." Warrants were obtained under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act to search Jackie Powell's home and Ashworth high-security hospital in Merseyside, where Brady has been held since 1985. Nothing was found during a search of his cell.

Geoff Knupfer, the former detective chief inspector who searched Saddleworth Moor in the 1980s for Keith Bennett's body, gave a warning that new claims should be treated with caution. "I would be instinctively cautious. You have to consider that Brady is an intelligent and controlling man. He has also suffered from a serious psychiatric disorder for a good part of his life," he told Manchester Evening News.

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