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The hunt for Genette Tate

Written by Peter Hinchliffe

Page added 28th October 2013

Back to historic events in Exeter

The biggest operation ever mounted by the Devon & Cornwall Constabulary was the search for Genette Tate, who disappeared from Aylesbeare on Saturday, 19th August 1978.

All available resources were activated in the search for the 13-year-old schoolgirl, who was delivering the evening newspaper in the rural area near Exeter Airport, when she vanished from a narrow country lane.

Immediately officers were rushed to Aylesbeare. An R.A.F. helicopter was called in and the massive investigation to find out what had become of Genette Tate was underway.

The village hall was taken over as an incident room and, for the next six weeks, more than eighty officers combed the fields and woodlands within a five-mile radius of the village. They were joined by Royal Marines and, during one Saturday afternoon, more than 7,000 members of the public responded to an appeal for help in searching nearby Woodbury Common.

Further helicopters, an RAF reconnaissance aircraft equipped with the latest aerial photographic equipment, mounted officers from Avon and Somerset and police dogs from West Mercia, specially trained to sniff out human remains, searched hundreds of acres.

The Force's Sub Aqua Unit mounted an operation to explore 387 gravel pits, ponds, wells and streams in the area. Hundreds of barns, ricks and silage pits were thoroughly searched and acres of undergrowth cleared as the hunt widened.

A team of seventy divisional and Regional Crime Squad detectives mounted intensive enquiries in and around Aylesbeare, nationally and abroad. For many months Genette's disappearance attracted tremendous local and national publicity. Pictures of the missing girl and the story of her disappearance reached almost every town and village in Britain through newspapers, television, radio and thousands of posters issued by the Force. One local television station set up a special telephone inviting the public to call in with information, but not a single clue as to Genette's whereabouts emerged.

Information, which poured in as a result of the publicity campaign, was fully explored together with well over 500 letters from people who claimed to have psychic powers. Determined to leave no stone unturned, police organized special searches in response to suggestions from “mediums” in this country and overseas; but all to no avail.

The teams of searchers were eventually disbanded and the incident room switched from Aylesbeare to Heavitree Road Police Station, Exeter. The detectives continued the painstaking work of sifting through the masses of information which had been accumulated in the hope that, somewhere they may yet find the key to the mystery.

Robert Black is arrested

On 14 July 1990, Robert Black was arrested in the Borders area of Scotland He was seen snatching a six-year-old girl off the street and bundling her into his van. An alert member of the public called the police who chased after the van and subsequently apprehended Black when he doubled back. The little girl's father discovered his child in the back of the van, tied up, gagged with tape and stuffed head-first into a sleeping bag. Apart from suffering from shock, the girl was uninjured. A later search of Black's home revealed a large collection of child pornography. Early enquiries suggested that he was going to be of great interest to the police. He was tried in Scotland in September 1990, convicted of abduction and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Soon the police suspected that he was the culprit in the disappearance and murders of Susan Maxwell 11 years (taken from Cornhill on Tweed in July 1982 ), Caroline Hogg 5 years (taken from Portobello, Edinburgh in July 83) and Sarah Harper 10 years (taken from Morley, Leeds in March 1986). All their bodies were found in the same area in the East Midlands

Black was a van driver employed by a company that places adverts on hoardings all over the British Isles. He lived in North London. The advertising industry operates to a very strict time table; customers pay for their advert on the hoarding by the day, and often they are part of a nationwide campaign, sometimes the advertiser wanting to replace one display with another in a strictly controlled schedule. This entailed Black driving all over the country to deliver the posters on time.

The police checked the fuel receipts for his van, co-relating the various advertising requirements. He was in every locality “at the right time” and eventually there was enough evidence to charge Black with the three murders, in addition to the attempted kidnapping of a 15-year-old girl who had escaped his clutches in 1988.

Black stood trial at Newcastle on Tyne in 1994 and denied all the charges. The trial judge allowed the details of the kidnap that led to his arrest to be set before the jury.

The prosecution then showed the similarities between that and the murders, the fuel receipts showing that Black was at all the scenes at the time of the disappearance, and in the area where the bodies were found at the relevant times. He was convicted, sentenced to life, given a minimum of 35 years (but has since joined the ranks of the “never to be released”)

Black was in East Devon on the day that Genette Tate disappeared, his fuel transactions have been recovered, he has been interviewed by officers from Exeter, but it has been decided that there is insufficient evidence to charge him with the murder of Genette.

There is a great deal about Black on the internet - simply “Google” - Robert Black. There it is suggested that he may be responsible for the murder of 17 young girls.

Although Genette Tate disappeared from Aylsebeare, this article is included in Exeter Memories because of the involvement of the Heavitree Road Police Station, and the extensive searches made in the suburbs of Exeter.

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