Exclusive: Notorious child killer possible suspect in Sean McGann murder

For the first time Northants Police reveal evil Sidney Cooke has been treated as a possible suspect in the Northampton schoolboy’s death. But he won’t be interviewed.

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By Sarah Ward

One of Britain’s most evil child killers has been investigated by Northants Police as a possible suspect in the murder investigation of Sean McGann.

Fairground worker Sidney Cooke, 94, who is currently serving two life sentences, has been identified by Northamptonshire Police detectives as someone who could possibly have killed Sean,15, in 1979.

But the paedophile, who is a lead member of a notorious child abuse ring nicknamed by the tabloids as The Dirty Dozen, which raped and killed at least three boys, has refused to cooperate with police and has rejected interview requests from detectives. He has been in prison since 1999, when he was jailed for historic child sex abuse crimes.

Sean went missing on April 17, 1979 after leaving his grandparents house on Victoria Gardens, Northampton at around 6pm and going alone to the travelling Easter funfair that was visiting the nearby Midsummer Meadows. He never returned to his home in Kettering Road North and his strangled body was found the next morning dumped in a cobbled alleyway two miles away in Birchfield Road East.

NN Journal asked Northamptonshire Police if it had looked into Sidney Cooke as a possible suspect after being made aware of information its former chief constable Simon Edens had received from a member of the public in 2017, 18 months before the force re-opened the murder investigation on the 40th anniversary of Sean’s murder.

A police spokesman said:

“Sidney Cooke was looked at as a possible suspect. He has always declined to be interviewed by Northamptonshire Police.

“However, from records in our possession neither he nor any of his known associates were working at the funfair. Cooke is a known paedophile and child murderer, currently serving a life term with little or no prospect of release.”

What happened to Sean?

Thomas Becket Upper School pupil Sean, had gone to the fair on his own after leaving the home of his grandparents. His family raised the alarm that evening after he did not return home as expected and at 8.10am the next morning Irmgard King, 57, of The Drive, found Sean’s body on her walk to work.

She told Northampton Chronicle reporters later that day:

“I usually cut through the alleyway and I saw somebody lying on the ground. I thought he’d been taken ill or fainted, but his shoes were off, which seemed funny.”

After attempting to speak to him she realised he was dead and as her son was a policeman she knew not to touch the body. She went to find someone to call the emergency services and then returned to where his body was to stop people from coming across it.

The murder investigation began immediately and was led by head of Northamptonshire Police CID Detective Chief Superintendent (DCS) Arthur Crawley. Police officers swarmed the area and carried out door-to-door enquiries around the Abington area. Becket’s Park and the nearby riverside area was combed for items including Sean’s black wet-look leather jacket and his glasses which were missing. At the time police believed these were key items to help solve the murder. They have never been found.

Sean’s cause of death was shortly afterwards confirmed by a postmortem as asphyxia.

Police pursued a number of lines of enquiry including that Sean had been abducted from the fair, with DCS Crawley telling the media:

“We are quite sure that Sean did not meet his death at the place where the body was found.”

On the evening of his death Northampton Town FC were also playing a home game against Crewe at the nearby County Ground at Wantage Road and police did not rule out in the early days of the investigation that he could have encountered a gang of football hooligans.

The week following Sean’s death police staged for a look-alike teenager to walk the county ground in a jacket identical to the one worn by Sean on the night he vanished.

As Becket’s Park was a known gay cruising area, members of the gay community were also a focus for police attention, with many gay men questioned by police.

The focus caused much upset at the time and gay activist, Chris Dilworth then 27, spoke out saying the way the force was handling the investigation was causing the gay community to close ranks. At that time in the late 1970s, early 1980s the age of consent for gay sex was 21 and so some men in giving information to the police may have been putting themselves at risk of prosecution. (In 2019 police admitted its original investigation was heavy handed and prejudiced.)

But after five months and more than 9,000 statements taken by police, the force was no nearer to catching Sean’s killer. In the October a reward was put up for £1000 by a group of businessmen and DCS Crawley said a theory they were working on was that Sean had been taken by a sex attacker and murdered.

He said:

“Until this criminal is apprehended our children cannot go about the town safely for fear that the killer may strike again”.

But tragedy struck again that month as Sean’s close friend and fellow Thomas Becket pupil John Condon, 15, committed suicide. 

At the time the local media pointed out the similarities between the two boys’ lives. Both were quiet, polite teenagers from Irish Catholic families and had been visiting their grandparents shortly before their deaths. John, then 15, was found by his grandfather Christopher Conlon in a bedroom at his home in Burn’s Street. Just eight doors down from his home. Along with a number of other school children John had been quizzed by police shortly after Sean’s murder, but police said he was unable to assist in any way.

Who is Sidney Cooke?

Sidney Cooke has been described by The Guardian as Britain’s ‘most notorious paedophile’.

He is a lead member of a depraved gang who hired out vulnerable rent boys in the 1970s and 80s and even snatched boys off the streets.

He is currently serving two life sentences imposed in 1999 for the abuse of two young brothers in the 1970s. He was jailed for these crimes less than a year after being released from a 16 year sentence for the manslaughter of teenager Jason Swift, 14, who was killed by Cooke and three others in November 1985 in Hackney, London, after being drugged and gang raped. He was found by a dog walker in a shallow grave in Essex farmland.

A week after Jason’s body was found, Barry Lewis, six, was found having been murdered. He had been snatched from the streets of South London in September and investigations found that like Swift he had been drugged, sexually abused and then killed. Police said at the time they thought the same people had been involved in both killings.

Cooke was also said to have been involved in the abduction of Mark Tildesley, seven who disappeared from Wokingham Fair in 1984. In 1989 as part of Operation Orchid, which was looking into missing children, Cooke’s associate Leslie Bailey was convicted of Mark’s murder aswell as admitting Barry Lewis’s killing and given two life sentences. The Crown Prosecution Service said there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Cooke for any involvement in Mark Tildesley’s murder.

Cooke allegedly later confessed to a cellmate that he had been involved in the murders of 15 or more children.

Cooke’s gang, which operated largely across London, has for many years been rumoured to have been involved in supplying young boys to establishment figures for abuse. 

Northamptonshire links

While there is no evidence of Sidney Cooke having a link to the county, other associates of his, including Robert Oliver and Stephen Barrell who were involved in the 1985 killing of Jason Swift have been linked to the county. Barrell was tracked down to a house in Abington in 1998 - then going under the name of Steven Cutting - and moved on after being exposed by the local and national media. Oliver was also reported to have lived in recent years in a hostel in the town after he was released from prison for Jason Swift’s murder.

Cold case opens

After four decades of not being able to bring anyone to justice for Sean’s murder, Northamptonshire Police reopened the murder investigation in April 2019. There was a high profile media campaign and Sean’s murder was featured on BBC’s Crimewatch. 

They said that while Sean’s body was not sexually assaulted they believed there was a sexual motivation for his killing.

The force also made public crime scene images of some chalk graffiti found on the wall of the alleyway where Sean was found. Someone had written ‘very sorry’ and ‘no I’m not’.

And they revealed for the first time the existence of an anonymous letter received by the family at their business address and made known to police back in 1991, which claimed to have information about Sean’s death. Police said they had received funding to conduct a full forensic review of the case and DNA had been found on the letter.

In a statement released around the 40th anniversary Sean's parents Dave and Mary McGann said:

"Forty years on we still think of him every day."

Over the past few months NN Journal has unsuccessfully tried to contact Sean’s family - he had two siblings- who have not spoken directly to any media since the immediate months after his death. Northants Police have said this week his family will not speak with any media.

The last public statement made by Northants Police on the murder was in December 2019 when DCI Joe Banfield said the reappeal had led to some helpful calls from members of the public.

He said:

"I am convinced someone out there knows something and I would ask them to search their consciences for the sake of Sean's family and tell us what they know."

The murder investigation is still live.

Northamptonshire Police told NN Journal this week:

“We are very grateful to those members of the public who took the time, following our 40th anniversary appeal, to contact us with information no matter how small or insignificant they thought it was.

 “We are currently examining all relevant exhibits using the latest forensic technology in the hope that we may be able to obtain some further forensic evidence.”

Anyone who has any information that could be of use to Northamptonshire police and help solve the murder can call 101, or can call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555111.