Killing of girls 'every parent's nightmare': Man denies abduction and murder of three young girls in 'Midlands triangle'. Malcolm Pithers reports

THE MURDER of young girls on hot summer's days in the 1980s was 'every parent's nightmare', a court was told yesterday as the trial began in Newcastle upon Tyne of the man accused of three killings.

The bodies of the girls were all found in what was termed the 'Midlands triangle' but the crimes remained unsolved despite a huge investigation.

Robert Black, 46, who was born in Scotland but who had been living in Stamford Hill, London, faces 10 charges involving three child murders, kidnapping and preventing the proper burial of some of his victims. He pleaded not guilty to all the charges. The girls who died were Susan Maxwell, then aged 11, of Cornhill-on-Tweed, Northumberland, Caroline Hogg, five, from Portobello, Edinburgh, and Sarah Harper, 10, from Morley, near Leeds.

Mr Black, wearing a light blue suit, blue shirt and black tie, sat in the panelled dock in the Moot Hall saying only 'It is,' when his name was read out and then 'not guilty' as each of the 10 charges were put to him. Relatives of the dead children burst into tears as the detail of the killings were given to the court.

John Milford QC, opening the case for the prosecution, said that police had eventually arrested Mr Black in a Scottish border town after a child there had been abducted, bound, gagged and hooded and concealed in a sleeping bag, which was found in a van driven by Mr Black. Mr Milford said that the similarities of that abduction with the others had been remarkable.

Mr Milford said that on Friday, 30 July 1982, Susan Claire Maxwell was just 11 years of age. It had been a 'lovely summer's day' and Susan had been playing tennis with a friend at Coldstream, not far from her home.

For the first time in her life she had been allowed to walk home. She was wearing a yellow T-shirt, shorts, white ankle socks and tennis shoes and as she walked, said Mr Milford, she swung her tennis racket. She then 'disappeared as if into thin air'. A short while later her mother set out from the family home and drove along the route her daughter had taken. There was no sign of her and she discovered that the tennis game she had been playing had ended and the court was closed. She called the police.

Mr Milford said: 'Susan had been a bright, friendly, cautious girl. A girl guide, she was a member of her school tennis team and had a pony called Peanuts. On 13 August that same year her decomposing body was found 264 miles away, adjacent to a lay-by at Loxley in Nottinghamshire.'

The jury were then told: 'For a child to be taken away and murdered is every parent's nightmare. It would be too easy to dwell on the suffering but we have to put that to one side, along with all our natural emotions and consider only this: is it proved by the evidence that this defendant, Robert Black, abducted and killed them.'

He described how, almost exactly a year later, again on a hot day in July, Caroline Hogg, then five, disappeared while playing near her home. Her decomposing remains were found 308 miles away, in a lay- by near Twycross, Leicestershire.

Sarah Harper, 10, was abducted as she walked from a corner shop near her home in Morley, Leeds, on 26 March 1986. Her body, said Mr Milford, was found floating in the River Trent, in Nottinghamshire, a month later.

Mr Milford said that the kidnappings and killings had common features. The girls had each been taken in a vehicle, each had been concealed and driven long distances. Each had their shoes removed and parts of their clothing had been taken for sexual gratification.

As he described what happened to the girls, the jury looked at large, coloured maps of the 'Midlands triangle', each spot where the bodies were found marked in pink, yellow or green circles.

Mr Milford said: 'These three offences were so unusual, points of similarity so numerous and peculiar, that you can, members of the jury, safely conclude that they were all the work of one man. The Crown alleges that Robert Black kidnapped each of these children and did so for sexual gratification and then transported them and murdered them.'

He said that Mr Black had been arrested and police had then begun a detailed check of his movements as a poster delivery man.

He said the police had been able to identify most of Mr Black's movements around the country through credit records for fuel he bought using his company account. One the day Susan Maxwell was kidnapped, Mr Black refuelled his vehicle at a garage only a few miles away. When Caroline Hogg vanished he had been delivering posters in her home town and had only been 150 yards away from Sarah Harper's home when she was taken.

The trial continues today and is expected to last between two and three months.