I never saw Ernie Clarke (you can read the first part here) again, apart from on television and that was on the occasion of his trial where the TV camera followed him from a white van. He had a blanket over his head. The torso and the head were recovered in the dregs of the giant oil vat at Velva Liquids Ltd which had preserved both, more or less: not sufficiently to provide a picture of the young woman who had died, but enough to enable them to calculate her age, her height and the cause of death – a blunt instrument to the head. There were two other facts to distinguish the girl (aged between 16 and 20, and in all probability nearer the lower end of that scale) – she had had her appendix out and had once fractured her collar bone.
All sorts of tidbits were given on the news and we all took a sudden interest – hanging around for the 9 o’clock rather than scurrying off to bed. It seemed surreal that the man who had, up to a few months before, lived opposite us could have done such a thing when he seemed so ordinary and dull.
“I don’t think Ernie did it!” Mrs Petty said, leaning on her yard brush – something she often did though rarely did she bother to sweep in anger. It was like a stage prop, something to give her purpose from A to B that explained her reason for being in the tableaux of three women outside our front. She loved a gossip.
“Me either,” my mam said washing the sills down like a whirling dervish, “And his kids are gorgeous too.”
Val Petty lit a cigarette, sucked the nicotine into the very pits of her lungs. “He once winked at me,” she said, a moment of genuine excitement in her perimenopausal life.
“He never winked at me,” Jacky Frame sounded a bit disappointed. She was small but perfectly formed as though she’d gone in the quick wash the right size, and come out shrunken, “I thought he was a bit shifty,” she said.
“No you didn’t Jacky,” it was my mam who was now washing the step with an inappropriate ferociousness, “You said he had a look of Sidney Poitier…”
“He did,” Val drew in another lungful of smoke, a habit that would see her dead within 4 years, “He really did. Gorgeous.”
There was more talk and then, the women turned to exclude me. I knew their mouths would be shaping out the words – fierce ones like ‘rape’ and ‘sexual assault’ and ‘battery.’
Val drew away first, “He didn’t seem the type to me – he’d only have to ask!” My mother looked a bit shocked and continued her frenzied cleaning of the front.
“Well,” she said, “We’ll see.”
A few nights later on the news we were given more info about the girl in the tank. They’d found out who she was and when she went missing. The biggest clue had been her teeth – the forensic dentist was able to identify she was from South Shields because of the level of fluoride and then, an unusual number of cusps on her teeth had led to an identification. She was Eileen McDougall.
Eileen was a 17 year old girl who went missing in January 1970, nine years before, and as bad luck would have it, from Ernie’s point of view she had been found where he had worked.
To hear Peter Frame talk it was an open and shut case: because of course he, a young boy along with Dave Petty only marginally older, knew all along that there was something of the night about Ernie and they’d never trusted him.
“Don’t be so ridiculous, the pair of you,” I’d said but no one was listening. Rumour abounded. His three kids kept a low profile – going to school, coming home, not playing out on the street, not joining in with a knock-a-bout, not being one of us so that somehow this added to the possibility that all this was true about Ernie. And we couldn’t rib them without breaking them in two, a tell-tale sign of guilt by association.
“He had an eye for the ladies,” Dave Petty said, “especially younger ones.”
“You’re making it up!” I was outraged.
“My dad heard from someone in the pub, who heard it from a friend of his: there was a young lass on Bransholme, and one up in Hessle…”
“So that must be true! Honestly!”
“Are you calling me a liar?” Dave seemed hurt.
“Yes,” I said, “Yes, I suppose I am.” And walked off before they could call me anything…
But the truth was Ernie was in deep: not only had he worked at the place Eileen had been found but her sister had babysat his three children. And because Ernie was a man of his time, and in the spirit of some kind of misguided camaraderie, he’d sought to impress the police with his sexual conquests suggesting he’d slept with Eileen’s sister and her friend too.
I could picture the scene: 1979 police station, a black guy trying to impress the while police officers, trying to sound like his misguided idea of what a real man would do. The big I am. The man women couldn’t resist. That was Ernie. He had not a single problem with admitting sexual encounters (of which there were many, he said) or with making up a few because he thought it enhanced his reputation. That was what male bravado looked like (that’s what it still looks like in some quarters!) But he didn’t think it through. Ernie committed a suicidal error because he also admitted he knew Eileen and had had contact with her and that, wedded to the fact that he knew the Velva site like the back of his hand, meant his guilt was confirmed in the eyes of the police.
There was more to come – as we discovered on the news. The reporter stood outside the courtroom telling us that a colleague also remembered Ernie digging a hole, and then filling it with a liquid that solidified as if he was hiding something. When the police excavated the site and found some items of what might have been clothes (although later proved to be cleaning rags) the situation got graver still.
All in all, it was a very bad situation for Ernie Clarke. Not only had he dug his own grave, he’d helped to fill it with handfuls of soil. He was found guilty of murder in 1980 and sentenced to life in prison.
But the story didn’t end there. Ernie always maintained his innocence, even when an acceptance of his guilt would have been more likely to reduce his sentence. He never deviated. And the Clarke kids couldn’t stay off the street forever so they came out fighting, defending their father and saying it was none of it true. Later, Liz would take every opportunity she could to say that her dad hadn’t done it…
In 1984 we were all very excited when the TV programme Rough Justice conducted a re-investigation of the evidence. They believed that Ernie was innocent. They wanted to know where Eileen was hanging out, who else might have known her, what other potential mistakes may have been made. In the end, their evidence was compelling (see here for a discussion on it…)
And the programme believed Ernie innocent. But he was never released from prison – not until the end of his sentence in 1994 by which time, we’d gone from the street and had lost track of all the people we’d lived with. By which time, Ernie had aged and was old for his 64 years. Innocent or not he’d paid a price…
Hard to say where the truth lay. A girl of 17 could fall out of the world without much notice, be brutally murdered and lie in the vast bottom of a tank for 9 years – whether Ernie killed her or not – that’s the real tragedy.