How ‘Babes in the Wood’ lay hidden in shallow graves for months – in chilling paedo murder that still shocks 50 years on – The Sun
WHEN 11-year-old Susan Blatchford knocked for her friend Gary Hanlon, 12, on a blustery spring day, his mum told him not to go far because his dinner was almost ready.
But the pair failed to return to their homes in North London that evening and for eleven weeks, as police trawled the area, their families lived in constant agony, desperate to know what had happened to them.
Finally, on June 17, 1970, a dog walker found their bodies, huddled together under thin blanket of twigs and leaves, 13 miles away in Epping Forest.
Their bodies were so badly decomposed police were unable to tell what had happened to the children – dubbed the Babes in the Wood 16 years before the murders of Brighton nine-year-olds Karen Hathaway and Nicola Fellows were given the same name.
It would be another 30 years before their parents discovered the truth, when paedophile Ronald Lebson – already serving a life sentence for the murder of Rosemary Papper in 1974 – confessed he had raped and murdered both the children.
Now, 50 years after the original Babes in the Wood were found, we look at how the vile crime sparked a decades-long mystery that left the bereaved families in torment.
Popped out for a kickabout but never came home
Soccer mad Gary Scanlon said a cheery goodbye to mum Beryl as left his house in Enfield with pal Susan, clutching his ever present football, on March 31, 1970.
She was busy cooking his favourite dinner of lamb chops and roast potatoes and told him to stay close to the house, so she could call him when it was ready.
Gary had met Susan just a few months before. As a tomboy who loved football and climbing trees, she became a close friend and it was not unusual for them to go for a kickabout.
Describing the events of that day, some time later, Beryl Hanlon said: “You could always hear his football when he was kicking it around.
“I realised I couldn't hear him playing football and I looked out of the window. He was gone.”
She added: “All the children used to play together on the estate. We all thought of it as such a safe place.
“In the 1970s no one knew about paedophiles. We were just told about dirty old men.”
'We waited up for eleven weeks for Gary to come home'
An hour after the children went out to play they were seen walking through a field, laughing, a ball tucked under Gary’s arm.
That was the last sighting of them alive.
At 8pm, Frank and Beryl called the police, but they were told to stay home and the kids were bound to show up.
That night, as the temperature fell below freezing, Beryl and husband Frank Hanlon, a painter and decorator, sat up all night, waiting for their son to return.
Susan’s parents, lab assistant Lionel Blatchford and wife Muriel, did the same.
The next day it snowed and the police, aware the pair had only gone out in light jackets, finally launched a search.
More than 600 police officers combed a huge area around the children’s estate, assisted by members of the public who turned up to help.
Police divers searched local rivers and lakes and teams of sniffer dogs were brought in but the friends appeared to have vanished, leaving the desperate Hanlons clinging on to the hope Gary would one day come home.
“We never went to bed for the whole eleven weeks," said Beryl. "We just sat in the front room and I kept the fire going and the light on.”
Coroner claims missing underwear was 'removed by a fox'
Three months after the disappearance, on June 17, a man walking his dog stumbled across their two bodies in a copse in Epping Forest, Essex, 30 minutes drive from their home.
Susan had her arm around Gary’s body, as if they were cuddling up for warmth. Susan’s bra, knickers and tights were missing.
Because of the length of time the bodies had lain undiscovered, the medical examiner was unable to determine cause of death, despite a battery of tests, and classified it as “unascertainable”.
At the inquest, the coroner even speculated that Susan’s underwear had been “removed by foxes” – despite the fact she was still dressed in her blouse, coat and trousers.
With no proof of foul play, the unofficial view of most investigators was that the two had got lost and frozen to death.
But the families believed they had been murdered.
“The only animal that could remove Susan’s bra, pants and tights is a human animal,” Muriel said at the time.
“If these people are not caught, the same thing will happen again.”
The only animal that could remove Susan’s bra, pants and tights is a human animal
One man who shared their belief was Detective Chief Superintendent Leonard ‘Nipper’ Read, the man who had put the notorious Kray twins behind bars.
He later revealed: “Many senior officials at Scotland Yard tried to dissuade me and insisted that it was simply a tragic accident that the children had become lost and died of exposure in each other’s arms.”
During the investigation 14,272 people were interviewed, including convicted paedophile Ronald Jebson.
He had been released from prison just 29 days before the pair disappeared after serving four years for the sexual assault of a six year old.
But no one was brought to justice, making it the only murder 'Nipper' Read failed to solve during his long career.
Drug addict with history of crimes against kids
As Muriel predicted, the failure to catch the killer meant another child would die at his hands.
Jebson, an alcoholic addicted to amphetamines, had a history of crimes against children stretching back 15 years by the time he killed Susan and Gary.
The former soldier, discharged from the army in 1960, once told a prison psychiatrist that “he was evil” and that “he was afraid of himself.”
“If I get a few drinks and poppers, nothing would stop me,” he reportedly said.
On his release from prison in early March 1970, Jebson went to stay in Hatfield, near Epping Forest, with an old school friend, Robert Papper, his wife Maureen and their five-year-old daughter Rosemary.
He later told police of his gift for “making people feel sorry for me so I can manipulate them.”
He was living with the family when Susan and Gary disappeared.
Four days later, he enticed an 11-year-old boy from Nottinghamshire into his car, took the boy to the nearby woods and sexually assaulted him.
He was arrested shortly afterwards and was sentenced to five years in prison.
On his release is 1973, Papper and his wife once again took pity and gave him a home but when he was asked to leave in 1974, furious Jebson vowed revenge, telling the couple: “I’ll get even with both of you.”
Raped and strangled friend's daughter to 'get even'
The next day he picked up Rosemary, now nine, from school, gave her some sweets and then raped her before driving her round for several hours and strangling her.
On his arrest the following day, he confessed and, at the subsequent trial, he was sentenced to life in prison with a minimum 20 year term.
Jebson, intent on tormenting the Papper family further, waited twenty years before contacting detectives from Wakefield prison, in 1996, claiming the Pappers were Susan and Gary’s killers.
Nipper Read had retired and Detective Chief Inspector Declan Donnelly of Scotland Yard, who was now handling the case, became convinced that this was the break they had been waiting for – and that Jebson was the real killer.
After another four years of intense investigation, during which Susan's body was exhumed, the evidence began piling up against him and Jebson finally confessed.
Beaten and raped as Gary begged to go home
The tale he told of the children’s final hours was chilling.
Jebson told detectives he had come across his victim by chance as he drove home from an employment office in Enfield.
He enticed them into the car, shared some cannabis with them then drove them to a field where he raped Susan.
When Gary begged him to let them go home, he told him: “You’re not going anywhere.”
He then beat and raped him, before strangling both children and keeping Susan’s tights, bra and underwear as “trophies.”
“The only thing he wouldn’t do was go into the copse again,” Donnelly said at the time. "He told us he didn’t want to run into their ghosts.”
In May 2000, he was given two more life sentences for the murders of the Babes in the Wood.
“Jebson is a fixated, sadistic pedophile,” said Donnelly,
“I do not think he confessed to clear his conscience. There is a certain element of status building in prison. We have seen justice done but we have also boosted his ego.”
Muriel and Beryl were in court to see Jebson sentenced but, tragically, both their husbands died before they saw justice done.
Both widows blamed the stress over the murders for their husbands’ deaths.
Muriel revealed the pain and ongoing grief she had lived with for decades.
“I was working in the afternoons and I remember being in such a rush that I never got to kiss her goodbye,” said Muriel.
“Can you imagine that? I never got to kiss her goodbye.”
In 2016, Jebson died in prison from kidney failure. Even then, he was loathe to offer comfort to the devastated families, begging the authorities not to pass on news of his death.
On hearing of it from The Sun, Beryl Hanlon, then 82, said: “I’m glad. I don’t want him to hurt anyone else’s children.”
She added: “I still have nightmares. I just can't sleep at night.
"I wake up crying sometimes. I just can't understand how some people are so evil. I keep imagining what Jebson did to him.”
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