It was one of those unforgettable stories that come along once in a lifetime for most journalists on provincial newspapers.
Nikki Allan, a seven-year-old girl from The Garths, in Sunderland’s East End, went missing from home on the night of October 7, 1992.
A huge search operation involving police and more than 100 members of the public is mounted, but finds no trace of her, and is stood down in the early hours.
The next morning, police convene a press conference, to make a public appeal to help find Nikki.
Time is of the essence, and they know the first few hours in any missing persons investigation are crucial.
Reporters, photographers, radio journalists and TV crews gather in an upstairs room at Gill Bridge Avenue police station in Sunderland, hoping for more details on the missing girl, and ready to do their bit to help find her.Moments before the press conference is due to begin, an officer enters the room and speaks to Superintendent Alex Price, the senior officer due to hold the ‘presser’.
He’s a man I know well, from regular dealings in my job as the Sunderland Echo’s crime reporter, and from the way his face changes and he exits the room, I can tell something is wrong.
The press conference is delayed and the journalists start to become restless. Then I received a call on the office mobile – the big old-fashioned device which bulges in my coat pocket.
I’m told a body has been found in the Old Exchange Building in High Street East, and you get the feeling this story is about to change.
The press conference duly goes ahead as an appeal for missing Nikki as the police issue her picture, some details of her last known movements, and what she was wearing.
Most of the media pack disperse, heading back to file their stories. Except for me and Gilbert Johnston, the Echo’s chief photographer.We quickly jump in the car and go down High Street East, to the Old Exchange Building.
The police have the front of the building taped off and the white-suited scenes-of-crime officers (Soco) are heading in to begin the thankless task of examining what’s inside.
I approach a Soco I’ve got to know during my two years as crime reporter. “Go away, you’ll get me shot,” he says.
He’s usually helpful in an off-the-record sort of way, and Gilbert and I know we’re onto something here. Gil snaps off a few scene shots and we get in the car and head back to Pennywell, where I file the story for that day’s paper.
Later in the day the police confirm they have found a body, and it is identified as that of missing Nikki. We’re now covering a child murder.
We return to the East End and begin ‘door knocking’ in the Garths – asking residents if they knew Nikki, what they’ve heard, and if they were involved in the previous night’s fruitless search.
It’s a thankless task, and the police are doing the same, conducting their door-to-door inquiries, and people in this close-knit community aren’t too keen on outsiders asking questions.
The mood is one of overwhelming sadness, and concern. Who could have done this, and could he strike again? We return to the office to update the story for later editions of the paper, and so it goes on, with colleagues joining me in the quest for information about the victim, her family, and how this could have happened.
Murders, sadly, are something you get used to covering as a crime reporter, but this one is different. It’s someone’s little girl, and she was so close to home.
I’m told by a source later in the day that Nikki was stabbed to death, so am initially confused when police release a statement saying she’s been bludgeoned with a blunt instrument.
It quickly dawns on me that the information I’ve been given is their ‘holdback line’ – something that isn’t made public, and only the killer will know. For obvious reasons I don’t print it, as it could jeopardise the whole inquiry.
Over the next days the story unfolds. Mum Sharon Prest had taken Nikki and her other three children to visit their grandfather Dickie at his home just a few doors away, and Nikki left at about 8.30pm to go home. She never arrived. It’s said she was seen begging for pennies outside the Boar’s Head pub, over the road from the Garths. It’s feasible, as Halloween and Guy Fawkes’ Night aren’t too far away.
There’s an angry mood developing as the people of the East End wonder who can have committed such a heinous crime, and you hope the police find him first.
Police release fuzzy CCTV images of a man in a light-coloured shirt walking with a little girl towards the Exchange Building. It’s got to be Nikki and her killer. Who else would be walking down there with a young girl at 9pm in October?
A week after the murder there’s a reconstruction, with a girl dressed in similar clothing to Nikki’s on the night she disappeared walking from the Boar’s Head towards the Old Exchange Building. She’s with a man dressed the same as the one seen in the CCTV footage.
The building was used by drug takers, vagrants and local youths as somewhere to hide out, but it now has a darker resonance, as a place where a little girl met a brutal death.
Then, 10 days into the inquiry, there’s a breakthrough. Neighbour George Heron, 24, who lives in the same Garth as Nikki’s family, is arrested and charged with her murder.
He’s remanded in custody until he can be brought before a court, and his family are moved elsewhere for their own safety, as the mood in the community has now turned decidedly ugly. I attend Sunderland Magistrates’ Court, and there’s standing room only, with the usually sparsely-populated public gallery and press bench packed to overflowing.
Threats are shouted from the public area as Heron is brought up from the cells below, and you can feel the tension in the air as the charge of murder is put to him.
This is a case of such magnitude that it can’t be tried by magistrates, it will end up at crown court, and it’s adjourned, with the suspect remanded back into custody.
As the thin, dark-haired bespectacled Heron turns to face the public gallery and be led back down to the cells, those in the public gallery unleash their anger at him.One man lunges forward and tries to attack him, and has to be restrained by police officers guarding the dock. The thick brass handrail around it is left visibly bent as he’s led away and a shaken Heron is ushered downstairs.
There are people outside Gill Bridge Avenue police station too, making angry threats and banging on the side of the unmarked van as Heron is driven away, to be remanded in prison until his trial.
Nikki’s funeral, held at Holy Trinity Church, sees the East End turn out in force to grieve for a little girl whose life has been cruelly taken away before it’s really begun. Hundreds of people can’t get in, and listen outside.
As we await the trial, I get to know some of Nikki’s family, thanks to my colleague Paul Watson (sadly no longer with us), who gets an ‘in’ through a friend of a friend. They’re proud people, with Nikki’s grandad Dickie, an ex-docker, burning for justice.But in November 1993, a year and a month after Nikki’s death, George Heron, the man accused of killing her, is acquitted of her murder.
After a six-week trial – held 90 miles away in Leeds so the jury aren’t prejudiced by any media coverage they’ve seen about the case – he walks free.
The full horrific details of little Nikki’s death emerge. She was hit over the head with a brick, and then stabbed 37 times. Her killer must have been covered in blood, yet there’s little forensic evidence.
What the jury aren’t allowed to hear is that during interviews with police, George Heron admitted killing her, but the judge decides the confession has been obtained ‘under duress’. And once the judge decides the jury can’t hear the crucial plank of the police’s case – there’s no eye-witness evidence or meaningful DNA linking Heron to the crime – their case is substantially weakened.
So George Heron walks free, and a colleague, investigative journalist Nigel Green, who has been writing to him while he’s in prison awaiting trial, meets him afterwards.
Heron maintains his innocence, and although he admits he knew Nikki – he lived in the same Garth – he insists he didn’t kill her.
Nigel leaves George Heron on a railway station platform, ready to start a new life well away from Sunderland – a place he can never return to, even though in the eyes of the law he is an innocent man.
George Sinclair, the detective superintendent in charge of the murder inquiry, retires and later passes away without ever seeing Nikki’s killer brought to justice.
Nikki’s grandad Dickie and uncle Greg both also die without seeing the killer caught, and mum Sharon continues her one-woman campaign to stop her daughter’s unsolved murder being forgotten.
It’s been featured on the BBC’s Crimewatch, and Northumbria Police, who came in for intense criticism over their handling of the investigation, have had the murder reinvestigated by a “cold case” review team, using DNA-testing techniques to re-examine the physical evidence they have.
The theories around ‘whodunnit’ have never gone away.
Certainly one person knows the truth, though there may be others. I have my own opinion, but that’s all it is.
For the sake of Nikki’s family, and the stain this tragic episode has left on the East End, I hope the truth does eventually emerge. It’s the least they deserve after being denied closure for the last 25 years.