By Russell Findlay
Margaret Fleming’s killers Eddie Cairney and Avril Jones thought they had got away with murder for 17 years.
But they now face life sentences after being found guilty at the High Court in Glasgow.
Central to their prosecution were a series of claims they made in media interviews in October 2017 – a year after Police Scotland realised Margaret had been missing since 1999 and issued a public plea for information.
The fundamental lie was that they knew Margaret was alive. Just as extraordinary was the couple’s claim that she had been inside Seacroft, their Inverkip home, on the night police came looking for her.
Cairney, a one-time bare-knuckle boxer, deep-sea diver and hotel owner who revels in supposed connections with the gangster Kray twins in 1960s London, said: “Margaret was in here while the police were in the house.”
He claims that she and Margaret had taken a bus back from Wemyss Bay and were walking along a coastal path when they saw blue lights.
He said: “She made to run away. I said ‘Margaret, what’s wrong with you?’. She said, ‘they’re for me, they’re looking for me’ I said ‘don’t be silly, it’ll be an accident on that road, no-one’s looking for you’.
“We went in the back door. She was very timid. When I opened the kitchen door to come into the hall there was this lunatic policeman. His voice had broken, he was shrieking ‘where’s Margaret Fleming?’. That was the trigger for her to take off.
“I says ‘there she’s there’ and I turned to get her in the kitchen but she was gone.”
Cairney says that the police refused to look for Margaret despite his insistence that she had left on foot and could not be far away. He said: “I told them ‘that’s the way she had to go, if you move quickly you’ll get her’. She went through them. They must have seen her.”
Asked how she could vanish with around a dozen police officers swarming around the house, he added: “Earlier we were on the bus she saw a Traveller crony on the pavement. She’d have lifted her phone, phoned him and he’d have picked her up minutes after leaving here. I’ve been told since that is what happened.”
When asked how he knew this is what had happened, he could provide no explanation.
Having spent part of his childhood in the Cambridgeshire town of Wisbech, Cairney allegedly introduced Margaret to Travellers and agricultural workers in the area.
He claimed that Margaret, who had learning difficulties, was living a nomadic life with Travellers around England and Europe and often changed her hair colour and name.
He said: “She stayed with a woman in Wisbech on and off over a period of years. She then became a gangmaster who provided labour to farmers. She was bringing workers from Poland. How she travelled without a passport I have no idea.
“She stayed there with a woman Margaret Coe. That’s where she went to to begin with and she stayed there off and on over a period of years.
“Maraget Coe moved and I know where house is but I don’t know the address in Wisbech. And that’s one of the names she calls herself – Margaret Coe, Margaret Lee, Margaret Crawford, Margaret Cairney, Margaret Jones … and Hamilton.
“It’s really surprising that travellers would have anything to do with her because they don’t like people who are dolly dimple. Mind you, over the years, she had improved greatly.”
Cairney made yet more claims. During their trial, the court heard that Margaret had a reading age of eight. But not only had the troubled young girl with learning difficulties become smart enough to live a complex secret life as a pan-European gangmaster – she was also dealing drugs.
Cairney said: “Incidentally she’s up to things now that I don’t agree with and she won’t be back here.
“Margaret is avoiding us, she’s not missing. I know what she’s up to … not taking drugs, but selling them and buying them. I told the police officer where there was going to be half a tonne of cocaine.
“I’m ashamed of this because I didn’t really ever want her to be caught. She will get the jail. She will get caught. It’s extremely sad that’s what it takes.
“She’s become a frustrated spy. She’s got all these people looking for her. All this happened with this police enquiry. She’s frightened of getting caught.”
The couple claim to have taken Margaret into their home because her dad Derek Fleming asked them to look after before he died of cancer in 1995. Cairney said: “I didn’t even ask Avril, I just said yes we would take her.”
The youngster, who attended James Watt College in Greenock, flitted between Seacroft and her mother Florence Jones with whom she seems to have had a difficult relationship.
Cairney said: “Every time she went back to her mother, Margaret regressed into this creature.”
In 1999, Cairney and Jones say they planned to take 17-year-old Margaret to Italy but there was a row with her mother over her passport.
Cairney added: “Her mother was slavering, shrieking at me and stamping her feet. Wee Margaret got alarmed at this and ran in and put her arms round me. That was the last straw.
“Her mother charged out the door. It’s easy to see where the wean got her lunacy from. The police arrived saying we were keeping Margaret prisoner but she was 17, it was her choice.”
We now know that within a year – no later than January 5, 2000 – Margaret had been murdered. What is unknown to anyone other than Cairney and Jones is exactly how her life was taken and where her body was disposed of.
During the 2017 media interviews, the couple claimed that Margaret began to leave Seacroft without saying where she was going. On the first occasion she went to see the Millennium Dome in London after it opened in 2000.
Cairney said: “We told Margaret she couldn’t keep disappearing because it was a worry. She would need to stop it but she took off again.”
The couple claim Margaret sent them letters from her first two trips, which were seized by the police. These were faked – cynical attempts in the immediate aftermath of the murder to plant proof that Margaret was alive.
Only many years later, after the 2016 police raid, did they carry out a similar exercise. When the police returned to Seacroft, they found a card from the couple for Margaret’s imminent 36th birthday. Inside was the message, ‘all our love, as always’.
The police inquiry was prompted by concerns over Margaret’s state benefits.
According to Cairney and Jones, Margaret was happy for Jones to claim them which she then came to collect.
Cairney said: “Avril drew social money for her and gave it to me and I gave it to Margaret.”
When Margaret’s Disability Living Allowance (DLA) was replaced by a Personal Independence Payment (PIP), she was required to attend an assessment with health firm Atos in Glasgow on October 27, 2016.
Jones, 56, explained: “She had an appointment for PIP but I knew she wouldn’t go. She was petrified of authority. We were going out the door and I said ‘right, you ready?’. She pushed me, down I went, and she shot out the door, saying ‘I’m not going’.”
An Atos nurse who spoke to Jones by phone raised concerns with Inverclyde Council social workers. The next day, October 28, the police were alerted. At 5.20pm they raided Seacroft.
During the period between 1999 and 2016, the couple are vague about how often Margaret visited and how long she stayed. In fact, they offered no evidence that she was ever there.
Cairney said: “After she became 17 I’ve got no idea of how long or where we seen her. She came here for money, it was always money. That’s the only reason she came back. She typically stayed from two days to a fortnight.”
Standing beside a soiled and bare mattress on which Margaret supposedly slept in the nights before the police turned up, Cairney was unable to produce any personal items of hers.
He said: “She came with a bag and left with the same bag. There’s wee bits of ornaments and stuff but I don’t know what’s hers and what’s not.”
The couple also told the media that the police had many photos of Margaret – including one taken a year earlier. This, Cairney suggested, “will never surface again, will it? If they’ve got that they’ll not allow that to surface if she’s been missing for 20 years”.
Cairney was critical and mocking towards the police. Pointing to paving slabs at the front door, he said: “They’ve not touched that bit. How could she not be buried under there? If you’re going to dig a garden to look for a body, you’ve got to dig every inch.
“They had divers but the tide goes out nearly a quarter of a mile here. They were splashing about in 10 feet of water looking for a body that doesn’t exist.”
One Police Scotland Major Investigation Team officer told STV News: “We strongly suspect that Margaret’s body was disposed of at sea. Eddie was a diver who would know how to do this so that it would never be found.”
The couple were also adamant that numerous people can vouch for seeing Margaret during the wilderness years.
Cairney said: “There are people all over England who have seen her. The last person I know who seen her alive is now dead and that was three years ago.”
During their media interviews, the couple were pressed to provide any hard information about addresses, associates or the identity of anyone who could corroborate any of their claims. These requests were met with obfuscation.
The decision to speak to the media was a spectacular misjudgement. Within weeks of their interviews being published and broadcast, Cairney and Avril Jones were charged with murder.
Serious questions will now be asked about how a vulnerable young woman was able to drop off the radar without anyone in authority noticing and how her state benefits could be claimed by someone else, without challenge, for 17 years.