Beck, 52, suffered a heart attack on Tuesday night after playing badminton at Whitemoor prison in Cambridgeshire, where he was kept segregated on a wing with other 'vulnerable' prisoners, mainly other sex offenders and child molesters. A prison spokesman said: 'We are treating it as cardiac arrest. There is no suggestion there was anyone else involved.'
He was convicted at Leicester Crown Court in November 1991 of 17 charges of sexual and physical abuse of boys and girls including rape, buggery, indecent assault and assault. Sentencing Beck to five life terms, the judge, Mr Justice Jowitt, told him: 'You are a man with considerable talents and very great evil. You were entrusted with the care of some of the most disturbed children . . . many had been sexually abused already and could hardly have been more vulnerable.'
Beck had a lonely and disturbed childhood. He was teased for being effeminate and before he was 13 he was sexually assaulted by a man on a train. He went on to become a Liberal councillor and leading childcare worker.
It was a chance remark by a mother that sparked Britain's biggest investigation into child abuse. The conversation between the woman, accused of ill-treating her son, and a Leicestershire council officer did not take place until 1989, three years after Beck resigned as head of three children's homes, the Poplars in Market Harborough, the Ratcliffe Road home in Leicester, and the Beeches in Leicester Forest East.
She confided in the official, blaming her own behaviour on the abuse she suffered herself while in Beck's care at the Ratcliffe Road home in the mid-1970s. She was advised to go to the police and detectives she spoke to noted the names of other children who also claimed they were abused. Senior police officers decided to interview every child who had been in care in homes run by Beck from when he started work at them in 1973.
Dozens of witnesses, in their twenties and thirties by the time of the trial in 1991, gave evidence during the 11-week hearing. Many of the adult victims spoke from behind screens, detailing incidents from when they were as young as eight, of being forced to perform oral sex with Beck or of being buggered or raped by him.
But 12 social workers spoke up for Beck at the trial, saying he was caring and concerned when it came to the children. Beck was appealing against his conviction and sentence. Leave to appeal and legal aid were granted in January 1993 and Anthony Scrivener QC, one of Britain's most eminent lawyers and former chairman of the Bar, agreed at the end of last year to take the case.
Beck's solicitor, Oliver D'Sa, said: 'He was very impatient for the appeal to go ahead. His death came out of the blue. Normally the case would lapse and die with him but his family and close friends are discussing the possibility of carrying on with the appeal. This would not be unprecedented.'
Mr D'Sa said Beck was convinced there was enough new evidence and material that was not put before the original court due to non-disclosure by the prosecution which would have made the original conviction unsafe and proved his innocence.
Two damning independent reports published in February 1993 criticised police and social services in Leicestershire. One report, by West Mercia Police for the Police Complaints Authority, accused officers of 'incompetence, negligence and prejudice' in dealing with Beck. It said his activities should have been uncovered earlier and blamed police for tending to disbelieve children who complained because they regarded them as young criminals.
The other report followed a government-ordered inquiry into the management of the county's social services department. It judged managers 'inadequate, nave and out of their depth' and afraid to challenge Beck despite numerous complaints against him.
Legal action is also proceeding on behalf of more than 80 of Beck's victims who were seeking to sue his former employer, Leicestershire County Council, over the abuse they suffered while they were in the council's care.