Mother of Moors victim Keith Bennett dies without the closure she craved
WINNIE Johnson kept a set of rosary beads draped over a photograph of her beloved son Keith. In the end, it was the closest she would ever come to laying to rest the boy she lost almost 50 years ago, for whom she never gave up searching.
Johnson’s death early on Saturday morning in a Manchester hospice at the age of 78 added a cruel twist to the brutal and unfinished saga of the Moors Murders, whose dark horror has hung over Britain for half a century.
Her death from cancer came just hours after it emerged that Keith’s killer, Ian Brady, had apparently written a letter to Johnson to be opened in the event of Brady’s death, revealing where he had buried her son – the only one of his and Myra Hindley’s victims never to have been found.
But if it does exist, it will have come too late for the tortured mother who wrote hundreds of unanswered letters to Brady and even, following her diagnosis, recorded a DVD begging him to tell her where he had buried her son before she died. Brady had always ignored her.
Her devastated son Alan said on Saturday: “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.”
Her lawyer John Ainley said Brady still held the key to finding the burial spot. “Despite her personal appeals directly to Brady and via my office, Brady had persistently ignored the wishes of a grieving mother,” he said.
“She has died without knowing Keith’s whereabouts and without the opportunity to finally put him at rest in a decent grave. It is a truly heartbreaking situation that this opportunity has now been irrevocably lost.”
Martin Bottomley, head of investigative review of Greater Manchester Police’s major and cold case crime unit, paid tribute to Winnie for spending the majority of her life “courageously fighting to get justice for Keith”.
“There is only one person who knows where Keith is buried and that is Ian Brady himself. I would implore him at this extremely sad time, and knowing that Winnie has died not knowing where Keith is buried, to at last do the decent thing and tell us where he is.”
Johnson devoted 48 years to finding her boy, the cheeky and happy-go-lucky lad who loved marbles and cycling, and collected leaves in a scrapbook. Four days after his 12th birthday, on 16 June, 1964, he set off to stay the night at his grandmother’s house in the Longsight area of Manchester, a trip he made every Tuesday. On that day, however, he never made it. Instead, he was lured into a car by Hindley and driven to a layby on Saddleworth Moor. Brady was in the backseat. On the pretence of searching for a lost glove, Brady took him out on to the barren, forbidding moors. He was never seen again.
Keith’s death was brutal. There was no mercy. Brady raped the boy and strangled him with a piece of string. What he did with the child’s body after that, only Brady knows.
Johnson always believed that Brady and Hindley, who were convicted in 1966 for the murders of John Kilbride, 12, Lesley Ann Downey, 10 and Edward Evans, 17, killed her son, although it was over 20 years before either of them admitted it. In 1986, Johnson wrote to the woman she heartbreakingly referred to as “Miss Hindley”, begging her to reveal what had happened to her son. “I am a simple woman, I work in the kitchens of Christie’s hospital,” she wrote. “It has taken me five weeks labour to write this letter because it is so important to me that it is understood by you for what it is, a plea for help.”
Hindley, and then Brady, confessed shortly afterwards, to both Keith’s murder and that of 16-year-old Pauline Reade, who had disappeared the year before. The pair made several trips to the moors with police to try to find the bodies, but only Reade’s was discovered.
That did not deter Johnson, however. Over the years, she spent thousands of hours up on Saddleworth Moor, peering out at the bleak landscape, wondering where her son might be buried. She was photographed relentlessly, spade in hand, attaching teddies to fence-posts, laying bouquets of flowers, convening with psychics who claimed to know where Keith was. They didn’t.
She made no attempt to hide her grief, to “get over it” or “move on”. Instead, she deliberately held the gaping wound of loss open for all to see, her raw emotions forever worn on her sleeve. For some, her relentlessness may have been too much, distasteful almost, but for Johnson it was simple. She was a mother. Giving up on her son was never an option. “When he’s found, I’ll know I’ve done my duty as a mother,” she said.
She wanted to be able to give the child she had given birth to a Christian burial, but more than that, she wanted to continue to be his mother, even though he was no longer here. Keeping up the search for Keith allowed her to be his mum again. It kept his memory alive.
The living room of Johnson’s modest Manchester home was adorned with pictures of Keith. There was Keith, toothy and smiley, hair a bit scruffy and wire-rimmed glasses askew, in the picture that had peered out from newspaper pages for years, now draped in rosary beads. There were paintings of him she had commissioned, interwoven with images of Christ. She had turned the room into a shrine to her son, a place where – denied a grave to visit – she could mourn him in peace.
In 2010, she received closure, of sorts, when a memorial service was held for her son at Manchester Cathedral a year after another large-scale search of the moors in 2009 had proved fruitless. Greater Manchester police force had told her it would be the last, unless significant new information came to light.
Standing in front of one of the portraits of her son and sobbing loudly, she told the congregation: “I’ve lived through this life knowing he is on those moors. I just want him back. I’ll do anything, go anywhere for him. As long as I know one day, I’ll be grateful.”
And she was true to her word. Even from her hospice bed she was directing operations for a new search of the moors, this one with sniffer dogs, while she continued her campaign of letters to Brady. Right until the end, she never stopped fighting.
As for Brady’s letter – its existence is the central focus of a TV documentary to be screened on Monday – it emerged that Jackie Powell, Brady’s mental health advocate, who was arrested on Friday and later released on bail, had told police that she had given the letter back to Brady at some point in the past three weeks. Yet a search both of her own papers and Brady’s cell at Ashworth Hospital in Merseyside have failed to uncover the alleged letter.
This week, Johnson will be laid to rest, while her lost son still lies out somewhere on the moors. Yet the hope remains that one day he will be found, and that when he is, he will be buried next to the mother whose fiercely protective love meant she never gave up on her quest.
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