THE MURDER OF KEIGHLEY BARTON
11th AUGUST 1985
How a simple case of a possible runaway London teenager turned in to one of the country’s most complex murder cases without any physical evidence, and solved only by a hunch, a gamble and a remark.
It’s also another shocking example of how the justice system failed a family and allowed a sexual predator to reoffend numerous times, finally resorting to murder.
Keighley Theresia* Best was born on 9th March 1971 in Hackney to Theresia* Van der Have. When she was just 5 months old, Keighley and her mother moved in with Ronald Barton – her mother’s new partner – and took on her stepfather’s surname. Her two half brothers came along some years later.
The family lived in Sebert Road, Forest Gate, East London.
Keighley was described as shy, with blonde hair and around 5ft tall.
Life for Keighley had been difficult. Barton had begun abusing her when she was just 8 years old. He was first convicted of two charges of gross indecency against her on 12th December 1980 and was given a 12 month suspended sentence. He returned to the family home but continued to abuse Keighley and was arrested again in 1982. Sadly the case was dropped as Keighley refused to testify against him. In 1984, Barton was arrested and charged again with abusing Keighley but, once again, she withdrew her accusations at the last minute.
Barton had control of the household by fear. Threats of murder were commonplace, including one incident where he held a gun to Keighley’s head until she agreed to withdraw allegations of abuse. The suspended sentence passed down to Barton on his first conviction against Keighley was without doubt a licence for him to act with impunity. The household was left at his violent, sadistic mercy. Why, when he had so many previous convictions before?
Keighley was placed in to council care but frequently ran away back to her family home – the home where Barton was still living. Were things that bad in care that the prospect of living with her stepfather’s abuse seemed more appealing? Following yet another incident of abuse in 1985, Theresa finally found the strength to take action and was able to remove Barton from the home by obtaining a High Court Order preventing him from going near Keighley or the family home. Theresa then brought Keighley home for good.
Barton moved to Stoke Newington but began a hate campaign of persistent phone calls and spying on the household when he learned that, not only would Theresa and Keighley not drop the charges, but that she also had a new partner.
He used one of two cars he owned to abduct Keighley and admitted to other inmates in Wormwood Scrubs that he had killed her. He initially stated that her body had been put in a car crusher.
Ronald William Barton:
Barton was born in 1940 in Hackney to Henry Barton and Winifred Geary. He and Keighley’s mother, Theresa, moved in together in 1971 and were eventually married in Hackney in 1974.
Unbeknown to Theresa, Barton had a number of convictions for violence and GBH, as well as seven for abusing young girls, and had served time in jail five times, including:
- 1959: Admitted unlawful sex with a 14 year old girl and was given an absolute discharge.
- 1961: Assaulted a 15 year old girl, but remained free.
- 1962: Jailed for six months for indecently assaulting a teenage girl.
- 1963: Jailed for 12 months for an attack.
- 1965: Jailed for nine months for an attack.
- 1966: Jailed for 18 months for ABH with attempt to rob.
- 1970: Jailed for 21 months after luring a 15 year old girl in to his car and assaulting her.
He first abused Keighley when she was 8 years old and was convicted at the end of 1980. Did settling in to domestic family life temporarily stop his need to reoffend or did this prolific sex offender continue during the intervening 10 years?
Barton was a 45 year old mini cab driver who was living at Mildenhall Road, Clapton, when convicted of the abduction and murder of Keighley.
11th August 1985:
It was a sunny Saturday morning when Keighley – as she always did – took her beloved Alsation, Rex, for a walk. Keighley always headed to Wanstead Flats – an area enjoyed by dog walkers, joggers etc – for an hour. Although it had a reputation for flashers, Theresa knew Keighley was well protected when she had Rex alongside her. The pair were inseparable.
However, when Rex returned home alone at 11.30am in a very distressed state, Theresa knew something was wrong.
Detective Inspector Norman MacNamara, who was based at Forest Gate police station, was tasked with solving Keighley’s disappearance and due to its nature (no money, possessions and whilst out walking her dog) he instinctively felt that the case was more than just a teenage runaway. Keighley had also planned to go out and purchase a birthday present for her brother that afternoon.
It was when MacNamara delved in to the history of the family, and Barton in particular, that alarm bells began to ring and that he may be a likely suspect in Keighley’s disappearance. Rex would have been familiar with Barton and this could explain why Barton was able to take Keighley without any struggle from the dog. So, alongside his superior, DS Charles Farquhar, MacNamara questioned Barton over Keighley’s disappearance.
The difficulty police had was that there was no body and without one it would be difficult to bring a charge of murder (although not impossible). However, any plans to do so where scuppered when a letter – apparently written by Keighley – was sent to her mother in which she said: “Don’t worry Mum, I am alive and well“. The following day another letter was also received. Both had been sent locally.
Farquhar decided to reinterview Barton and this time he told the detectives: “I know who has got Keighley. If you let me go I can arrange for her to be set free“. The detectives knew their hunch was right and so charged Barton with the abduction of Keighley, thus meaning that he could be held until Keighley turned up dead or alive.
Whilst awaiting trial, DI Norman McNamara told magistrates at West Ham court that Barton was the only suspect in the case and recommended he was not given bail as he felt Barton would kill himself, meaning Keighley would never be found. Barton was held on remand in Brixton prison, where he was put on suicide watch to ensure there was no opportunity for him to take his own life.
The case widens:
The police were mindful of the fact that if Barton was telling the truth and Keighley was still alive, they were running out of time to find her alive if she had been kept somewhere by Barton.
Both Barton’s cars were missing and a search of local breakers yards in London and Essex yielded nothing. However, a farmer in Newton Tony near Salisbury, Wiltshire, contacted the police after the number plates of both vehicles were included in an appeal in the national press. He reported seeing one of the cars parked in a lane and, as he had suspected it belonged to poachers, he had taken down the registration details. Despite scores of police scouring the area, nothing was found.
Homes in Rayleigh, east London, Kent and Sussex, belonging to friends and associates of Barton were all searched, to no avail.
People contacted the police with claims of having seen Keighley alive and well. Each were followed up yet yielded nothing, and given Keighley’s nature, detectives were certain she’d attempt to get home or contact her mother if she could.
Barton’s trial was due to start in February 1986 but Barton’s defence, Henry Grunwald QC, asked that the trial be postponed due to the fact that there had been numerous different sightings of Keighley. He argued that it would have been a monstrous miscarriage of justice if a man were to be tried for the abduction and murder of a girl who then turned out to be alive and free.
The case was adjourned for eight months in order to give defence lawyers a chance to investigate and prove the sightings were of Keighley.
In August 1986, a former teacher of Keighley, Mrs Linda Jackson, and her son, Lee, who went to school with Keighley, came forward to say they had spotted Keighley in Walthamstow Market accompanied by a woman with red hair and approximately 40 years old. Jackson claimed Keighley had looked quite happy. Lee stated: “The girl looked just like Keighley. I can’t be 100% certain, but if the girl was someone else then she looks just like Keighley.”
Detectives took Linda and Lee back to the market on numerous occasions to see if they could spot the same girl, but there was no sighting – even media appeals drew a blank. It was looking as if the defence may get their way and Barton would be freed…
Despite numerous appeals for Keighley to come forward or for information from the public, the police kept coming up against brick walls, and it was only due to chance remarks that the case finally turned.
Firstly, during one interview, Barton had blurted out: “Theresa took my two sons away from me when she kicked me out, so I took her girl. Now she can suffer. I hate her, she ruined my life.”
Then came evidence from two remand prisoners who had befriended Barton in Brixton Prison. They had requested to speak with the detectives working on Keighley’s disappearance because, as with many criminals, crimes against children is one they refuse to tolerate.
One of the prisoners told detectives that Barton had asked him to use his influence among other villains to arrange an alibi for him for the time Keighley disappeared.
The second prisoner made a statement that Barton had confessed to murdering his stepdaughter before placing her body in the boot of one of his Peugeot cars, which he then took to a breaker’s yard. Barton had claimed he had stood and watched whilst the car was crushed and said: “I paid a mate of mind in the scrap business £50 to do it. When that block is smelted down her body will come to the top as dross. There will be no other trace“.
On 8th October 1986, Barton stood trial at the Old Bailey. Despite there being no body, the case of abduction and murder against him was based on two motives:
- Barton had been accused yet again of abusing Keighley and he wanted to silence her before she could speak out against him; and
- He wanted revenge on Keighley’s mother, who was allegedly living with a new partner – Eric.
Michael Worsley QC, opening for the prosecution, told the jury: “There is no body in this case and this is quite unusual. But when Ronald Barton killed his stepdaughter and got rid of her body he was under the common misapprehension that there could be no murder charge without a corpse.”
Theresa told the court that Barton had threatened to “put Keighley 10 feet under” if she proceeded with her allegations of abuse. She said: “Four days before Keighley disappeared he told me to make sure Keighley dropped the charges. He told me he had a gun and he was going to take someone with him. I asked him if he meant he would kill Keighley. He just laughed and said ‘Dead people don’t talk’.”
Following the evidence given by the two prisoners, Barton took to the stand where he furiously denied he had harmed Keighley, accused the prisoners of lying, and stating that the abuse allegations that had been pending were concocted by Keighley and her mother, also claiming that he had been watching the changing of the guard outside Buckingham Palace at the time of Keighley’s disappearance.
Linda and Lee Jackson also appeared to testify that they believed they had seen Keighley alive and well and the defence also produced two more surprise witnesses – one of whom claimed to have seen Keighley at Victoria Station.
In his closing speech for the defence, Robin Grey QC warned the jury that there could be a terrible miscarriage of justice if they convicted Barton as “…there is a real possibility that Keighley is alive…”
On 30th October 1986, the jury returned a guilty verdict. Barton groaned and collapsed in the dock. After he was given a moment to recover, Judge Turner told him: “You are an evil, cynical and depraved man from who society, your wife and family deserve to be protected for many years.” He sentenced Barton to life imprisonment with a recommendation he served at least 25 years before Barton was taken to Wormwood Scrubs prison.
Following the sentence, Theresa gave an emotional insight in to the home life of the family under the control of Barton. Breaking down outside court, she said:
“He was a bastard to us all of the time. Keighley lived in fear of him, her life was a misery. He forced her to do disgusting things with him many times when I was not there. The first time I reported it to the police he was taken to court and given a suspended sentence. But when I reported the subsequent incidents to the police he threatened to kill me if I went ahead.
One night he flew in to a rage, grabbed Keighley and pressed a powerful .22 air gun against her head. He said he would shoot her and me unless we both withdrew the charges against him. There are no words to describe him. He is pure evil.
At least he has been put away for the rest of his life, but we still live in misery because we don’t know where she is and we cannot give her a decent burial.”
Finding Keighley’s body:
The day after his conviction, Barton gave a confession to the assistant governor at Wormwood Scrubs prison, where he finally admitted where Keighley’s body was. He told the governor: “I want to clear up the Keighley business once and for all.” Detectives Farquhar and MacNamara went to see Barton and he told them: “I didn’t put her body through the car crusher. I hid it in a cemetery.”
Barton told them he had put Keighley’s body in Abney Park Cemetery – a 32 acre Victorian, densely overgrown cemetery in Stoke Newington. He refused to provide any further information on where exactly he had hidden her body – keeping his control of the case until the very last moment.
Police initially searched a mausoleum which had been broken to on the day Keighley had disappeared by suspected Satanic worshippers and resealed. Despite a careful search, it was fruitless.
It wasn’t until the following day that Keighley’s body was found in dense brambles. A cardigan, skirt and shoe identical to Keighley’s were also found nearby, as well as a ring Keighley always wore.
In February 1987, a Pathologist, Dr Peter Vanezis, concluded that Keighley had been repeatedly stabbed in the chest and also, that despite being just 5ft and terrified, injuries upon her arm showed that Keighley had attempted to defend herself. She had five stab wounds to the chest and six to her left arm.
Keighley was eventually laid to rest in February 1987.
High Court Sentencing:
Neutral Citation Number:  EWHC 358 (QB)
Case No: 2005/56/MTR
IN THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE
QUEEN’S BENCH DIVISION
Royal Courts of Justice
Strand, London, WC2A 2LL
MR JUSTICE MITTING
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
– and –
RONALD WILLIAM BARTON Defendant
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
I direct that pursuant to CPR PD 39A para 6.1 no official shorthand note shall be taken of this Judgment and that copies of this version as handed down may be treated as authentic.
MR JUSTICE MITTING
Mr Justice Mitting :
1. The defendant was convicted on 30th October 1986 of the abduction and murder of his 14 year old step daughter Keighley Barton on or after 10th August 1985. He was 45 at the date of the offence and 46 at the date of trial. The trial judge Turner J, recommended a tariff of 25 years. The Lord Chief Justice recommended a whole life tariff. The Secretary of State accepted the Lord Chief Justice’s recommendation. The tariff was re-set by the Secretary of State, who notified a tariff of 25 years by letter dated 5th December 1997.
2. The defendant had been convicted on 7 previous occasions of sexual offences against young women and girls. On the last occasion, on 12th December 1980, he was convicted of 2 offences of gross indecency with Keighley Barton. The trial judge described him as a depraved and evil man. He abducted her on 10th August 1985 and killed her soon afterwards. Her body was not found until he revealed it after his conviction. The trial judge described his motives as, probably, two fold: to prevent her from giving evidence against him, about her allegations of sexual abuse against her, and to get at his wife because of the hatred he felt for her. The abduction and murder were described as carefully planned and executed.
3. This is a case in which the general principles set out in schedule 21, to which I am required to have regard by paragraph 4 (2)(a) of Schedule 22 to the Criminal Justice Act 2003 would require me to take as a starting point a whole life order. This case fell squarely within paragraph 4 (2)(b). Not withstanding the recommendation of the trial judge, to which I have regard under paragraph 4 (2)(b) of Schedule 22, I can see no good reason to depart from the starting point.
4. This is a case to which the prohibition of setting a minimum term greater than the tariff notified to the defendant by the Secretary of State in paragraph 3 (1)(a) of Schedule 22 is relevant. Because the term ultimately notified was 25 years, I cannot set a minimum term greater than that. Under paragraph 4(1)(b) of Schedule 22, the whole period spent on remand – 14 months and 9 days – should be deducted for the purpose of setting the minimum term.
5. For the reasons given, I direct that the provisions of Section 28 (5) – (8) of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 are to apply to the defendant as soon as he has served 23 years 9 months and 21 days after the date upon which he was sentenced.
The Mirror: 21st August 1985
Fears that missing schoolgirl Keighley Barton, 14, may be dead were growing last night.
Her stepfather, unemployed minicab driver Ronald Burton, 45, has been charged with abducting her. He has denied it.
Police said in court yesterday: “He has intimated that he can secure the release of her body or herself if he is allowed bail.” Bail was refused.
Ponds near Keighley’s home in Forest Gate, East London, have been dredged.
Detectives are asking at every house if anyone has seen her.
They also appealed for information about the involvement of two blue Peugeot cars, reg KLT 856P and JOO 590N.
The Mirror: 31st October 1986:
Wicked stepfather Ronald Barton was jailed for a minimum of 25 years yesterday in the murder case without a body.
As Barton was sentenced for killing his stepdaughter Keighley, whom he had been sexually abusing for years, his estranged wife Theresa screamed: “You bastard – I hope you rot!”
It was one of the most bizarre cases in legal history.
Keighley’s body has never been found but more than 20 people have said they saw her after she had vanished.
The Old Bailey jury accepted Barton was telling the truth when he told a cellmate that he put her body in a car crusher.
The jury returned a 10:2 majority verdict after spending the night in a hotel.
Barton, 46, groaned and collapsed into the arms of a prison officer when Mr Justice Turner passed sentence.
The judge revealed that Barton had been molesting 14 year old Keighley for at least six years.
He told the mini cab driver: “You are an evil, cynical and depraved man from whom society, your wife and family deserved to be protected for many years.”
Just how tormented teenager Keighley met her death may never be known.
She vanished from her home in Forest Gate, London, in August 1985.
Barton later admitted to his cellmate that he wanted her dead for two reasons. To silence her over a long catalogue of sexual abuse and to get revenge on his wife, who had taken a lover.
Right from the beginning of the investigation he was the obvious suspect. He had a history of sex crimes and dishonesty.
The trouble for detectives was that they had no direct evidence against him.
After Keighley vanished Barton and his wife received two letters from her.
Police said Barton forced her to write them after abducting her.
But people kept reporting they had seen Keighley alive and well.
After his arrest Barton admitted that he had spied on his family the night before Keighley disappeared.
Through a window he saw his wife sitting at the feet of her new boyfriend and his two sons and Keighley watching TV.
It was the last straw for Barton. Next day he lay in wait for Keighley.
Only he knows what happened in the next few hours before he turned up at his parents home in Essex at midnight.
*Theresia – as stated on official records