None of the 700 men here share a room. It is a high-security facility that houses long-term prisoners. Here, prisoners were locked inside their cells for long periods. Maghaberry has seen it all, and worse.
Robert Black suffered a stroke in 1996, just two years after his sentencing for the murders of Susan Maxwell, Caroline Hogg and Sarah Harper. His left side had weakened considerably as a result, and the intervening years hadn’t been too kind, a combination of heart attacks, angina, and deep vein thrombosis.
A lifelong smoker, he had also been diagnosed with diabetes the year before; a time bomb of high cholesterol and blood pressure, he had been urged to quit smoking, but he claimed he was not interested in doing so.
On the morning of January 12, a decade after his stroke, Black was preparing to move cells. He packed up his few belongings and prepared to leave. The familiar shooting pain down his left arm was the first sign of a seizure; the collapse of him was the second. In an instant, he was lying dead on the floor of his cell.
His body was brought to Belfast for cremation at Roselawn Cemetery. The crematorium usually closes its doors after the final service at 4:00 pm On January 29, the lights went out as usual and all was quiet inside the chapel. What no one knew was that an additional secret service was scheduled for 5 pm, and 20 minutes before the hour, the lights flickered dimly and came back on.
Black’s body arrived in a black Ford Mondeo car, its seats folded down to make room for the wooden coffin, which was placed on a trolley and carried into the chapel. There were no flowers or mourners, despite attempts by the prison to locate family members.
Prisons are required to arrange a final service for those in their custody who die without family or friends to claim responsibility for funeral plans.
In this case, the authorities tried to hide the plans from the press: the outcry over any spending of public money would probably have been enormous.
Maghaberry’s chaplain presided over the six-minute service, which included a passage from Psalm 90. No reference was made to Black’s life or crimes. His coffin was dragged into the furnace, his ashes were then scattered into the sea.
In 1982, 11-year-old Susan Maxwell was abducted on her way back from a tennis match near the Scottish border. Her body was discovered two weeks later, some 250 miles away. The following year, five-year-old Caroline Hogg was last seen riding a carousel in the company of a scruffy-looking man in Portobello, near Edinburgh. The nude remains of her were discovered not far from those of Susan Maxwell.
In 1986, the body of ten-year-old Sarah Harper was found in the River Trent, three weeks after she was abducted from the streets of Morley, Leeds. Black was eventually arrested after returning to Stow after his escape with a six-year-old girl, who was found, half suffocated, in the back of his van.
Little is known about what prompted Black to take the children away from home and leave them littering the road. In her new book End of Innocence, Zoe Apostolides revisits the stories of kidnapped and missing children, including 13-year-old victim Genette Tate, whose remains were never discovered.
Black’s death inevitably brought a lot of grief to the families of his victims. For decades, her pain had moved into a new dimension, from fresh, sharp wounds to the kind of scar that penetrates deep into skin tissue, the kind that will never heal. From time to time, they might run a tentative hand over her surface, testing her ability to awaken memories, to recall torment. The kind that, from time to time, and particularly on days like this, seems to ache and ache.
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