Catching a killer can be an expensive business – Tom Wood

Margaret Fleming.
Margaret Fleming.
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Once there was an open chequebook for major investigations, but these days senior officers must count the pennies while bringing criminals to justices, writes Tom Wood.

The conviction of Edward Cairney and Avril Jones last month for the murder of Margaret Fleming was the culmination of three years of dogged police work with false starts, a failed trial and a lot of digging.

All murders are awful but the circumstances of this crime could hardly have been worse. Teenager Margaret, an isolated girl with significant learning difficulties, fell into the hands of Cairney and Jones when her father died in the 90s.

In a story line of wickedness worthy of Dickens, she was exploited for her financial worth then disposed of when a scam was devised that would see her financial value maintained without the inconvenient presence of the girl herself.

It is a damning indictment that in 21st Scotland a vulnerable young woman can remain unseen for 17 years and slip between the cracks without being noticed by social services.

What exactly happened to Margaret may never be known but one witness testifying to the smell of burning flesh in the vicinity of the house at Inverkip some years ago may lead us to a horrific conclusion.

In pursuit of that line of enquiry, hundreds of tons of earth were removed from the grounds of Cairney’s house in search of evidence.

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No quick ‘slash and burn’ job for a JCB this, but a slow and meticulous scraping of soil, always accompanied by a team of forensic examiners srutinising every particle in search of tiny body parts or other evidence.

It is a time-consuming and costly business requiring lots of specialist time and equipment.

Long gone are the days when major investigations had an open cheque book, now they are categorised, a budget allocated with the senior investigating officer – or SIO – responsible for the financial, as well as the investigative, management of the case.

If the budget is exceeded, a case must be made for extra funds and some of the more experienced and wily SIOs have elevated this special pleading to an art form.

It’s one of the many juggling acts that very senior officers must balance and, as budgets tighten, it’s getting harder.

It’s a perennial problem. And, as forensic science moves forward, techniques at the cutting edge are always expensive.

In the late 1980s, the first breakthroughs in DNA were developed by private companies and were prohibitively expensive. The enormous benefits of DNA that we now accept as routine only came about as a result of considerable speculative investment by police forces and The Crown Office.

Of course, it’s not always successful, just as little significant evidence resulted from the excavations in the Margaret Fleming case, so over the years many costly investigative ploys have failed only for new directions to be taken, new lines of enquiry found.

So it should be in cases of suspected murder. Police Scotland and The Crown should be congratulated for bringing Cairney and Jones to justice.

And as I write, police are once again searching for long-missing estate agent Susie Lamplugh and a quarry near Inverness is being expensively drained in what may be the final attempt to solve the 40-year mystery of the disappearance of Renee MacRae and her wee boy Andrew.

Quite right, in cases like these we should keep digging.

Tom Wood is a writer and former Deputy Chief Constable