JAMIE Fraser was aged just ten and his sister, Natalie, five when they last saw the mother they adored.
Arlene Fraser was still in her nightgown when she vanished forever from their lives, waving them off to school on a cold, grey morning on 28 April, 1998, from the steps of their secluded bungalow in New Elgin.
Jamie, full of excitement, was going on a trip to Inverness to represent his school in a nationwide anti-litter campaign.
But within hours, the lives of Jamie and his little sister were to be ripped apart as their vivacious mother became the focus of the biggest single murder investigation in the history of the Scottish police service.
Quickly, the prime suspect was to be their father, Nat, an affable Jack-the-lad with an easy charm that masked the evil of a calculating mind, prepared to murder the woman he claimed to love and leave the two children, on whom he appeared to dote, without a mother.
Detectives were later to uncover a dark side to the popular Elgin businessman - a ruthless, uncaring and selfish serial womaniser, obsessed by his wife and driven by jealousy.
Later that spring day, Mrs Fraser, 33, should have been at Elgin railway station to collect Jamie when he returned from Inverness, but she never showed up. Jamie returned home shortly after 7pm to find the family’s bungalow in Smith Street deserted.
The boy left a poignant note saying: "You not in. Where are U?" before joining his sister at the home of their neighbours, Graham and Irene Higgins.
The Higgins, too, were worried about Mrs Fraser and they eventually decided to alert the police. The first officers to arrive at the bungalow later that night found a scene of eerie normality. There were clothes still in the washing machine. A 1,000 watch Mrs Fraser treasured lay at her bedside. Her glasses and contact lenses were on a table. And the medication she needed to treat the Crohn’s disease from which she suffered was still in the house.
Detectives gradually uncovered a disturbing picture of Mrs Fraser’s life - a woman desperate to break free from an abusive relationship and trapped in a loveless and violent marriage.
Arlene McInnes had known Fraser since childhood and, when romance finally blossomed between the two in 1985, those who knew the pair saw it as a perfect match.
Mrs Fraser, who worked in a local boutique, was one of the prettiest girls in town, with a personality to match. Fraser, with his boyish good looks, had already embarked on a business career as a wholesale fruit and vegetable merchant, supplementing his income by playing guitar and singing in a local pub band, the Minesweepers.
Mrs Fraser was six-months pregnant when the couple married in May 1987. Fraser, in full Highland dress, sported a black eye - the legacy of a drunken pub scuffle on his stag night. His best man was Hector Dick, a local pig farmer .
Natalie was born five years later. They seemed to have everything going for them but, beneath the surface, the cracks in an increasingly volatile and tempestuous marriage were beginning to show. Fraser had a string of affairs and Mrs Fraser, three years into the marriage, had one brief fling - a one-night stand with one of Fraser’s pals on a work’s night out.
Mrs Fraser consulted lawyers five times about a divorce but each time backed away, worried about the effect a break-up would have on the children.
She also needed Fraser’s money - some of it from an illegal alcohol and cigarette operation he was helping to run.
By 1997, the marriage was becoming increasingly strained. Despite a string of affairs, Fraser had become possessive and obsessive about his wife.
The stormy marriage finally exploded into violence in the early hours of Mother’s Day, on 22 March, 1998, when Mrs Fraser returned home after a night out on the town with three of her female friends. Fraser, convinced his wife was having an affair, was waiting up for her, grabbed her by the throat and began throttling her. Mrs Fraser passed out. When she came to, she was lying in the living room with the ugly red marks, where Fraser had tried to strangle her, starkly visible on her neck.
Mrs Fraser decided the marriage was no longer worth saving. She reported the attack to the police and told her solicitor to start an action to have Fraser excluded from the family home.
Mrs Fraser wanted a divorce and 250,000 as the payoff. It was a decision that was to cost her life.
Fraser, arrested and charged with attempting to kill his wife, began plotting her murder as he languished in a police cell. As soon as he was released on bail, he put the wheels of his callous conspiracy in motion.
On the day Mrs Fraser was murdered, Fraser made sure he had a cast-iron alibi. He spent the entire day on his rounds in the Elgin area with his vanboy constantly at his side.
Fraser thought he had planned the perfect murder and that he would get away scot-free. A body would never be found and the police looking for his wife would simply pack up and go home.
Det Supt Jim Stephen, the detective called in to lead the investigation, and his second-in-command, Det Chief Insp Alan Smith, suspected the popular businessman. But they were confronted by a wall of silence.
DCI Smith explained: "When Arlene first went missing, Nat Fraser was still a very popular guy who went out of his way to endear himself to people. And a lot of people in Elgin were prepared, if not to lie, to refuse to tell us what they knew."
He continued: "The Nat Fraser you could see going about the town was nothing like the true Nat Fraser we now knew - a cold, uncaring, selfish, greedy individual who clearly was driven by jealousy. He was obsessed with the fact that Arlene had found herself a new life and was happy with the way things were going, while he had lost his wife, his house, his family and his car.
"He had lost his life, basically, and she had found her’s."
But gradually, the bricks in Elgin’s wall of silence were beginning to crumble.
The first significant lead came as the result of a chance conversation, overheard in a local pub. Kevin Ritchie, a local mechanic, had delivered a Ford Fiesta to Dick’s farm at Mosstowie on the outskirts of Elgin, the day before Mrs Fraser disappeared. Fraser had been at the farm when the car was delivered and Mr Ritchie had been given an extra 50 to keep quiet about the deal.
In October 1999, both Fraser and Dick were charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice in relation to the purchase of the car, which detectives believed had been used in Mrs Fraser’s abduction and murder.
Then, on 1 March, 2000, Fraser eventually appeared in court, charged with the vicious Mother’s Day assault on Mrs Fraser. Originally charged with attempted murder, he was jailed for 18 months on a reduced charge of assault to danger of life. Fraser served only nine months of his sentence.
On 1 February, 2001, Dick was jailed for twelve months for lying to the police about the Ford Fiesta at the centre of the inquiry.
Two months later, Dick was joined at Porterfield Prison, in Inverness, by Fraser, jailed for fraudulently obtaining 18,000 in legal aid in connection with his earlier appearance at the High Court.
The second major breakthrough came when the force obtained CCTV tapes, taken inside Porterfield, of conversations recorded between Fraser and Glenn Lucas, a business associate, who was also charged at the start of the trial with conspiracy to murder.
The tapes were sent to a forensic lip reader, Jessica Rees, for examination. They showed Fraser making cutting motions across his arms and speaking about removing teeth .
Both Dick and Fraser were still in Porterfield when they were charged on 19 June, 2001, with conspiracy to murder Mrs Fraser. Two days later, Dick tried to hang himself in his cell.
Detectives now knew for certain that Dick offered their best chance to nail Fraser for murdering his wife. It was just a question of time before Dick told them all he knew.
The family's perspective
CAROL Gillies waited almost five years to discover how her younger sister, Arlene Fraser, died.
When the truth finally emerged, it was even worse than the darkest imaginings that have haunted her since Mrs Fraser disappeared.
"I was stupid enough and naive enough to think he had buried her whole," said Mrs Gillies, 40, recalling the moment Hector Dick delivered his chilling account to the court.
"But we heard some terrible things in that courtroom. To hear what he had done to her hands and teeth was really difficult.
"I never thought I would know someone like that. We used to be related to him."
Nat Fraser’s conviction at the High Court in Edinburgh yesterday was the moment when Fraser was officially held responsible for the murder of his 33-year-old wife.
But for her sister and parents, there had never been any doubt who had murdered Mrs Fraser.
From the moment she was reported missing, they feared Fraser had orchestrated a murderous end to an 11-year marriage which was a catalogue of violence.
When she married Fraser in 1987, Mrs Fraser was already pregnant with their son, Jamie, now 15. But within weeks of Jamie’s birth, she fled the marital home and moved into a women’s refuge, after her husband beat her up. After just a few days, however, Fraser persuaded his wife to return home with their baby.
But the violence became a constant in the marriage which friends and family described as volatile. Early in 1998, Fraser struck his wife so hard across the face that she visited her doctor fearing her jaw was broken, but she refused to go to the police.
She also had to deal with the emotional trauma and humiliation of Fraser’s womanising. Even before their marriage, she picked up the telephone extension at home to discover him engaged in an intimate conversation with another woman.
But she hid her torment from her sister and their mother, Isabelle Thompson.
It was only after she had decided to divorce Fraser, that her family learned the truth.
Five weeks before Mrs Fraser’s disappearance, in 1998, Fraser was charged with attempting to murder his wife by almost strangling her. She passed out and suffered haemorrhaging to one eye. She visited her doctor and was told she must go to the police. The attempted murder charge was dropped when Fraser pleaded guilty to assault to the endangerment of her life, and served nine months in jail.
But the attack seemed to give Mrs Fraser the strength at last to escape her miserable marriage, and she began the divorce proceedings which Fraser proved determined to avoid.
Mrs Gillies said: "Arlene was a very deep person and you had to pull everything out of her. It was not until things came to a head that she told us about the earlier times when Nat had assaulted her.
"She looked really troubled, really worried. You very rarely saw Arlene crying. If you did, you knew it was bad."
"Arlene would say, ‘I didn’t want to worry you’," her mother recalled.
Although unaware of the beatings Mrs Fraser suffered, her family were already concerned about her relationship with Fraser.
Prior to the marriage, he was known to be a womaniser and a control freak capable of charming those around him.
Mrs Fraser’s father, Hector McInnes said. "He would check the cut of your cloth and would decide how much he would charge you for a bunch of bananas, and both of you would go away thinking you had got a bargain. He was a right Jack-the-Lad."
Fraser blocked his wife out of household decisions. She was even unaware their home was not mortgaged.
"It was not a partnership, it was not a marriage," said Mrs Thompson. "She was his possession. If Arlene needed something, he would decide whether she needed it."
Little surprise, then, that when Mrs Fraser began to make decisions for herself, her husband became more violent.
In the months before her disappearance, she enrolled as a business student at Elgin College. Their children, Jamie, then ten, and Natalie, then five, were at school and she saw the chance to escape the drudgery of life within the confines of her home.
"Arlene was becoming a wee bit more independent and Nat would not have liked that," said her mother. "She was beginning to get a bit of confidence in herself. Until then, Nat had controlled more or less everything in her life. He kept Arlene under the thumb."
Five weeks after the attack which almost ended her life, Mrs Fraser went missing and became the subject of a 2 million police hunt and a quest for justice which has lasted almost five years.
Last week, her family’s worst fears came true when the High Court heard that Mrs Fraser’s body had been reduced to dust. "My heart was pounding," Mrs Gillies said of the moment she heard her sister’s fate. "I could only sit there listening to his evidence for half an hour. I couldn’t stomach any more of Nat’s lies in the witness box. But I needed to hear what had happened."
Yesterday, as the verdict they have waited so long for was delivered, Mrs Gillies’ overwhelming feeling was one of sadness - for the loss of a much-loved sister, and sadness for two young children who were last night being told that the father who has cared for them since their mother disappeared had murdered her. They are now living with his mother in the Elgin area.
"He’s ruined his life," said Mrs Gillies. "He’s ruined our lives and he’s ruined Jamie and Natalie’s lives.
"It all seems so unnecessary."