Edinburgh Unsolved: Parents of murdered Ann Ballantine hope killer can be caught

THE first signs of spring are emerging along the edge of the Union Canal. There are snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils. It's a time of rebirth and regeneration. And for grieving Isobel Ballantine, it signals the beginning of the end of another season in mourning. "The winter months are very hard," she says.

"From November – the last time we saw Ann alive – until the end of February, after they'd found her and we'd had her funeral, every day in winter is difficult."

It's been that way for more than 20 years now and for murder victim Ann Ballantine's grieving mother Isobel, it will never be any different. The grief, she sadly explains, will never go away.

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Instead she clings desperately to the hope that one day the person who inflicted so much pain on her family, the heartless thug who brutally murdered her daughter and tossed her naked body into the cold waters of the canal, will one day pay for their vile crime.

Even though two decades have passed without justice, Isobel refuses to give up believing that Ann's killer will one day be caught. "And when they are caught," she whispers, "I hope they rot in jail."

Ann was only 20, a pretty, lively young woman on the threshold of adult life. When her killer suffocated her, tied up her body and discarded her, they killed some of Isobel's hopes and dreams too.

"I see some of her friends in the street sometimes," she says.

"They are with their children, walking along, just doing everyday things and I think, that should be Ann and her children.

"But Ann didn't get that chance, did she?"

She last saw her daughter on November 17, 1986, just after they visited a friend at the old Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Ann, who had set up home in a flat in Yeaman Place, popped back to her mum and dad's for a chat before heading off with a wave and a promise to see them both soon.

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She had just split up with a boyfriend, but there was nothing to suggest she was anything other than happy and carefree.

Five days later, a friend popped around to tell Isobel they were becoming worried. Ann hadn't kept a pre-arranged appointment and had not been seen or heard of for five days. This was out of character for someone with a wide circle of friends, an active social life and a role as a volunteer worker.

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Isobel and husband Graham popped around expecting to find her at home, shrugging off all the fuss over nothing.

Instead, they resorted to pushing notes and money through the letterbox, increasingly concerned as each day went by at the lack of response.

When she failed to arrive at their neat family home on Christmas Day, the alarm bells became deafening.

By Boxing Day, police had been notified of her disappearance. Four weeks later, on January 21, 1987, her body was fished from the Union Canal at Lower Gilmour Place, just a few hundred yards from her empty Polwarth flat.

She was naked and bound hand and foot. Police later broke the news to her horrified parents that they believed she had been asphyxiated by a ligature around her neck, her body perhaps stored somewhere for weeks before being unceremoniously dumped into the canal.

Isobel and her husband were warned not to view her decomposed remains and told that she was virtually unrecognisable.

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Good advice, perhaps, but it also meant Isobel fought for years afterwards to accept that her daughter was really dead.

Just as hard now is the knowledge that while her daughter's body lies in Mortonhall Cemetery, her murderer continues to walk the streets. Everyone else moves on with their lives – even the person who did that to Ann gets on with their life.

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"But she can't and we can't," says Isobel. "There was always an idea of who might have done this but there just wasn't enough for police to catch them. So you keep hoping and hoping that there will be a breakthrough and something will happen to get over whatever stumbling blocks are in the way."

Her hopes soared two years ago when Lothian and Borders Police announced Ann's unresolved murder was being adopted by their Serious Crime Review Unit, led by retired detective Bert Swanson.

Mr Swanson had been drafted in to probe the Vicky Hamilton case and his team took a key role in work to secure Peter Tobin's conviction last year.

The case has been picked over in minute detail in the search for any potential breakthrough. But there is no sign of one.

Although the case will never be closed, the police are awaiting advice from the procurator fiscal on whether further investigations should be carried out.

A police spokesman said: "The investigation into the murder of Ann Ballantine in 1986 has been subject to a formal review and a report has been sent to the procurator fiscal to assess any subsequent police action."

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It means for now at least there is no sign of any closure for Ann's grieving parents.

"I was so full of hope then," nods Isobel. "I thought, 'this might be it, it might be now', but there's been nothing yet.

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"I suppose it's best that if they are doing this, then it's as good as they can do it. The last thing I'd want is for someone to go to court and be found not proven. It would be my worst nightmare.

"Thing is, I'm not getting any younger," she sighs. "I'll be 61 this year. It's more than 20 years since Ann died and people forget."

Ann was Isobel's eldest child. Her other daughter Grace is now 39 and son Alan is 34.

Isobel copes sometimes, other times she finds harder. On the anniversary of Ann's body being hauled from the chilly canal water, she lights a candle and places it on the mantelpiece near a photograph of her daughter.

While her husband Graham soldiers on quietly – his grief, his wife explains, is bottled up under the surface – Isobel admits it's been a struggle. "I'm on Prozac to help me through it," she nods. "I remember my doctor at the time saying 'how do you manage because some women would be in the Royal Edinburgh by now'.

"I suppose you find the strength from somewhere. I suppose I think of all those women who watched their men march off to war years ago and never saw them again.

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"Parents, grandparents, sisters, who never saw their men folk again. I feel I'm a bit like that.

"You get there, slow but sure."

Come November – and the anniversary of the last time she spoke to her daughter – her mood shifts to what she calls "a dark place" and remains there throughout Christmas and New Year until spring.

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It's then, as the crocuses bloom along the canal's banks, she dares to allow herself to hope. "It's like that song by Sandy Shaw," she says quietly. "There's always something there to remind me.

"What can you do but keep thinking that there will be justice eventually."

When it does come, she hopes Ann's killer is made to pay handsomely for their brutal act – and the terrible impact it has had on her family's lives.

"What keeps me going is the hope that there will be justice," she says. "And that what goes around, comes around."