Two carers were yesterday convicted of murdering a vulnerable and isolated teenager and covering up her death after she appeared to have vanished “from the face of the Earth” nearly two decades ago.
Margaret Fleming, who had significant learning difficulties, was last seen alive in December 1999. It took close to 17 years before it became apparent that she was missing, prompting a police investigation. The 19-year-old’s body has never been found.
Following a seven-week trial at the High Court in Glasgow, her supposed carers, Edward Cairney, 77, and Avril Jones, 59, were found guilty of murdering the missing woman.
Jurors found the couple murdered her by unknown means between 18 December 1999 and 5 January 2000 at their home in the Inverclyde village of Inverkip, or elsewhere in Scotland, and then tried to cover up the crime for almost 18 years.
Jones was convicted unanimously of fraudulently claiming £182,000 in benefits by pretending Margaret, who would now have been 38, was alive.
Police Scotland’s senior investigating officer in the case said Margaret lived her last days in a “living hell,” left feeling alone in the world with “no-one coming to help her.”
Even while Margaret was alive, he added, Cairney and Jones tied her up, deprived her of food and cut her hair short.
The jury took around three hours over two days to reach their majority verdict on the murder charge. Cairney and Jones will be sentenced next month.
Police Scotland launched an investigation in October 2016 after routine social services inquiries over a benefits claim made on Margaret’s behalf sparked concerns over her whereabouts.
The case attracted major police resources and significant media attention. The last independent sighting of Margaret was when Jones’ brother Richard saw her on 17 December 1999.
As the inquiry progressed, it appeared something “sinister” had happened and she may have come to harm.
Specialist search teams combed the squalid and dilapidated cottage where she lived and excavated its grounds for clues to help track her down.
Her supposed carers were arrested in October 2017 at Glasgow Central Station as they attempted to board a train to London while carrying £3,500 in cash.
The few details that exist about Margaret point to a life as bleak as it was short. Born and brought up as an only child in Port Glasgow, she left the family home at the age of 12 when her parents divorced, moving in with her father, Derek, and her grandparents.
However, after her father died of cancer in October 1995, she moved to Seacroft, the home of the accused.
The teenager’s mother, Margaret Cruickshanks, told the trial she last saw her daughter in November 1997, when she was attacked by Cairney and telling him she wanted Margaret to return home.
Margaret’s former GP, Dr James Farrell, who last saw her in October 1999, described her as “socially and educationally” isolated, and someone with “quite significant learning difficulties”.
During the trial, which began in April this year, prosecutors painted a picture of Margaret as a “friendless and lonely” young woman. After her father’s death, those closest to her “didn’t want her”.
By October 1999, various benefits for Margaret flowed into the household, which was said to have had financial difficulties.
The Crown suggested it was “tempting” for the couple to have the money, but not the “inconvenience” of looking after her.
How, and exactly when, Margeret died, may never be fully known. It remains, as the defence highlighted, a case without a body and without a crime scene.
Holding them jointly responsibility for the death, the Crown claimed the couple “literally got away with murder for 16 years.”
Money was the motive behind the “terrible” crime, the court heard, with the pair cooking up an “elaborate scheme” to conceal her disappearance.
They were ultimately brought down by “greed, arrogance and lies” after Jones made claims of Margaret having “fantastical” illnesses and conditions in correspondence with benefits officials.
As police zoned in on the couple, their fabricated stories to explain the absence of the women supposedly under their care became increasingly “farcical,” as they tried to reconcile claims she was both working as a gangmaster and capable of travelling overseas, and that she was someone with major difficulties requiring a number of benefits.
Cairney also claimed Margaret was living in England, with letters supposedly written by the teenager posted to their home from London and Carlisle in an attempt to cover up their crime. He also claimed that Margaret had fled out of the back door when police first arrived at the house searching for her.
Iain McSporran QC, for the Crown, earlier told the trial Cairney and Jones had two overriding motivations to kill Margaret.
“Greed for money and the ease with which this friendless and lonely girl could be made to vanish from the face of the earth led to her murder,” he told the jury in his closing speech.
Speaking outside the court, Detective Superintendent Paul Livingstone, the senior investigating officer in the case, said: “Margaret was a very vulnerable young woman who was manipulated, abused, neglected and ultimately murdered by the two people who should have been looking after her.
“It is clear that one of Cairney and Jones’ motivations was money... For many years, Cairney and Jones kept up the pretence that Margaret was still alive, going as far as to write letters claiming to be from her.
“Margaret was described as being a funny, caring young woman who, despite having some mild learning difficulties, just wanted to be liked and to have friends.”
He added: “The treatment which she was subjected to can only be described as horrific and the conditions in which she lived in were utterly disgusting and uninhabitable.
“For Cairney and Jones to continue the charade that she was still alive for all these years is abhorrent, with one of their reasons for doing so being for financial gain.
“We will never know just how Margaret was killed. What we do know is that she lived her last days in what can only be described as a living hell.
“She must have felt that she was alone in the world with no one coming to help her which is just heartbreaking to think of.”
Lord Matthews, the trial judge, said he would pass sentence on Cairney on Jones on 17 July after social work and medical reports were compiled.