Tales from the Storyteller: Uncovering a Dartmoor scandal

The picture I took of Higher Halstock Farm that led to my discovery

The picture I took of Higher Halstock Farm that led to my discovery - Credit: David Phillips

Tales from the Storyteller with David Phillips: 

It’s not everyday that you stumble across a national scandal that gripped the nation while doing some research after a walk on Dartmoor but that’s exactly what happened to me last week.

I’ve got a friend who grew up in a farm on the edge of the moor just outside Okehampton, not far from the army camp.

It's called Higher Halstock Farm, and whenever I go walking in that area, I can’t help feeling a pang of jealously as I contemplate what it would have been like growing up with Dartmoor as your playground! 

Just last week I went searching for a letterbox on the slopes of the hill in sight of the farm, and as I passed, I took a picture for my collection, little realising where that perfectly innocent action would lead...

The walk had started interestingly, as I parked up below Row Tor, on the other side of the hill, three police cars followed me and kept going further into the moor.

Boots on, I started walking in the direction the cars had gone and, as I rounded a bend in the track, there they were parked up near a little bridge and a ford, part of the army track.

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They were police dog handlers, and one of them was actually in the shallow water of the ford teaching his dog how to take down a bad guy in flowing water... you don’t see that everyday!

As I passed them by, a policeman gave me a cheery hello, while other walkers with their dogs stood and watched, much to the annoyance of the other dogs in their cages awaiting their turn, who barked their displeasure at seeing dogs running free.

The rest of the walk was pretty uneventful, I found a few boxes, took more pictures and just enjoyed the warm autumnal sunshine, making a mental note that this would be a good route to bring my walking group on.

It’s just the right length for shorter daylight hours, taking in more remote areas of the north moor, yet sticking to a worn circular track with no boggy bits - most important for some less hardy members of the gang!

Back at the car it was time to head for home to post my latest clutch of pics on Facebook, as is my wont.

When it came to posting the picture of the farm, I felt the need to check its name and the spelling before adding a caption.

Googling Higher Halstock Farm - yes, I know that’s the spelling now - I came across a website that featured a walk in the same area I’d just come back from, complete with pictures.

Scrolling through them I came across one of the same farm, with some text that stated this had been the location for a shocking event that had gripped the nation back in the late 1970s.

It would appear that a certain Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen from the United States, had become obsessed with a young Mormon missionary after having a thing for the Osmonds... it gets worse!

He had rejected her after a brief fling and, at his church’s suggestion he went to continue his good works in England.

Finding out that he was now living in Surrey, McKinney and her accomplice flew from the States and kidnapped him off the steps of the church where he now worked.

Having rented a secluded honeymoon retreat in Devon, she took him there and kept him manacled to a bed for several days until the poor guy agreed to marry her!

She then released him, expecting him to keep his promise.

Instead, he went to the police reporting them for abduction, false imprisonment and rape!

This allegation was very rare, even by 1970s standards, so the police were forced to take it seriously, eventually tracking down and arresting the kidnappers.

They were charged and given a court date but the pair jumped bail and managed to get a flight back to the States where they avoided further attempts to apprehend them.

It isn’t surprising then that this bizarre story made headlines all around the world at the time, and Joyce McKinney’s life continued to gain notoriety as her behaviour just got worse.

A film was made and books written and if you wish to find out more just Google her, but that isn’t what I want to cover here, my main concern was that these events were being attributed to this particular farm on Dartmoor... my friend’s old home! 

I got in touch with her to share what I had discovered, and to see if she was aware of the farm’s alleged dark past.

As it turned out she hadn’t heard this story, as far as she knew it had always been a working farm, her family having worked it throughout the 1980s but she thought it cool if she had lived in a place where those events had occurred!

I now made it my mission to get to the bottom of this mystery.

Having proved useful with my investigation into David Essex and the Winter’s Tale video, I posted my findings on a Dartmoor information Facebook page and waited - sure enough, it didn’t take long before I started to get replies.

Some agreed and said yes it was that farm, others offered up names of other cottages in that area.

I managed to get a reply from the owner of the site where I’d found the photo in the first place. He said he had been reliably informed of his facts by a National Park guide but he was in the process of getting hold of a recent book that covered the case and was happy to check them for himself.

Then I got the definitive answer I was looking for - from a former policeman who had been based in Okehampton at the time of the incident.

He was able to confirm it had occurred in an isolated cottage in the woods below the army camp that had been demolished to make way for the Okehampton bypass.

So now it was a case of move along nothing to see here! He was reluctant to reveal the actual name of the property, all he would confirm was that it wasn’t Higher Halstock Farm.

If you look through all the online articles and references all you get is a Devon cottage, as vague as that! Even in the book that the originator of the post looked through there was nothing more definitive.

Maybe the powers that be back in the 1970s had ordered it kept quiet. Had I discovered a cover up? Whatever, it was enough for the owner of the photo to remove the caption from his website... my job was done! 

When I informed my friend that the honour of her former home had been restored, she was quite disappointed that she was not part of the story of the Manacled Mormon, as the tabloids of the day had dubbed it!

Maybe there is another tale to be told here... Fifty Shades of Dartmoor anyone?