Mother-of-three Allison...

11 June 2007
The Scotsman
Martyn McLaughlin
Was she murdered to silence her - and what do her paedophile cousins know?

THE cramped home of the modest police presence in the Ayrshire seaside town of Largs could easily pass muster as a set from the television show Heartbeat. Few people walk through its door and once inside there is little of note to be found. The contents of the noticeboards seldom change - a scattering of crime prevention leaflets, perhaps, or pamphlets on home security.

One poster has been part of the fabric for years. Pinned to a wall, the face of a woman looks out. Wearing a white vest, her eyes are bright and she bears a wide smile. For a decade, the image has persisted. It is the last photograph taken of a mother of three before she seemingly slipped off the face of the earth.

Tomorrow it will be ten years since Allison McGarrigle was last seen. No-one expects her to be seen again. Police and members of her family long believe her to have been murdered and she has been declared legally dead by her estranged husband. Her remains have never been found, but most agree where her body rests, somewhere under the Firth of Clyde, possibly inside a plastic bin.

The only people to have been charged with Ms McGarrigle's murder are her two cousins, who have already been convicted of a litany of sex offences against young boys. It has been alleged that Ms McGarrigle was due to give evidence in court about their paedophile activities at the time of her death.

But with their whereabouts now unknown, court proceedings against the men have been in limbo for the past two years. One solicitor involved in the case said it is likely the cousins have assumed new identities.

Officially, the case remains open, but until new evidence or information comes to light, the family of Ms McGarrigle will never find full closure.

The Scotsman has learned, however, that one child who was sexually abused by the men in the late 1990s, told his counsellor the pair had told him they killed Ms McGarrigle.

It was on the morning of 12 June, 1997 that the 40-year-old was last seen by relatives in her home town, Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute. Two days later, she is believed to have made the short walk from her home in the town's Prospect Terrace, where she lived alone, to the esplanade, where she caught the 35-minute ferry across the Clyde to Wemyss Bay. Wearing a white silk shirt, embroidered jeans with a flower pattern, and black Nike Air Max trainers, she then travelled down the coast to Largs.

There, she took up lodgings with Charles O'Neill and William Lauchlan at their town centre flat in Waterside Street. No-one knows why Ms McGarrigle moved in with her cousins, or how long she stayed there. Police suggest, however, she met her death after barely a week.

That was the supposition put forward by the Crown in April 2005, when O'Neill and Lauchlan appeared in private at Kilmarnock Sheriff Court, charged with murdering Ms McGarrigle and attempting to pervert the course of justice by disposing of her body. Neither made any plea or declaration. It was alleged she met her death at the Waterside Street address, or elsewhere, on 21 June or 22 June, 1997.

However, after "very careful consideration" of the available evidence, the case was not indicted. A Crown Office spokesman told The Scotsman that that decision was being "kept regularly under review" with any "further developments" being considered.

It was, the spokesman added, the results of a "very detailed and thorough investigation of the case" that were passed to Crown counsel to scrutinise. At the time, Detective Superintendent Stephen Heath of Strathclyde Police, now retired, said "new information" had come to light, but declined to expand.

That spring, police carried out a search of an eight-square-mile area of the Firth of Clyde in the Millport channel, using sonar equipment. It was to no avail. The information that was presented to the Crown was not deemed sufficient to proceed with the case, and it has now, in effect, been put on hold.

Police maintain it is an open inquiry. Detective Superintendent John Mitchell, the officer currently in charge of the case - and the third to lead the investigation after two others retired - declined The Scotsman's request for an interview. A force spokeswoman would say only that it has previously submitted reports to the Crown.

Elizabethe Marshall, who represents Largs on North Ayrshire Council, worked with Victim Support in the town at the time the two men were sexually abusing male pupils from Largs Academy between 1993 and 1998. She personally counselled some of those involved.

Ms Marshall said one of the pupils told her he had heard O'Neill and Lauchlan, now aged 44 and 30, talking about Ms McGarrigle's murder. "He said they told him they killed her," she said. "That's what most people think. She's in the sea."

The experience of the boy in question was one endured by many others in the town during the 1990s. O'Neill and Lauchlan, themselves believed to have been conducting an incestuous relationship, were jailed at the High Court in Glasgow for eight and six years respectively after being convicted of 21 charges of indecent assault against six boys - aged between 11 and 15 - at a series of addresses in Ayrshire.

"As someone in Victim Support, it was very, very sad [to listen to] what happened," Ms Marshall recalled. "It's sick what they did to those boys. They drugged them, then abused them, and I heard the boys tell me things they couldn't tell their mothers."

Such actions may paint the picture of two impulsive paedophiles, but one lawyer involved in the McGarrigle case suggests O'Neill, a former professional boxer, and Lauchlan, were coy.

"These weren't wee daft laddies... they were not a good piece of work," he said. "The two were very disturbed, but they were fairly sophisticated as well. I would be extremely surprised if they were still using their real names now. It has to be a concern that they are out there among the public."

During their respective sentences, O'Neill and Lauchlan breached their parole conditions in the early part of this decade, and fled to Alfaz del Pi, near Benidorm in Spain. They were subsequently arrested and returned to prison. However, the Scottish Prison Service said yesterday neither individual was in its custody and since their release, authorities have lost track of them.

With the only people linked with her murder free, it is the family of Ms McGarrigle, now scattered across the west coast, who have suffered most of all over the past decade. Her three children, William, Elizabeth, and Robert, two of whom were just teenagers when she disappeared, are now adults. They have taken what steps they can to find closure and properly grieve her loss.

Ms McGarrigle split from her husband Robert in 1994, but they stayed in touch with one another for the sake of their family.

One friend, who knew the McGarrigles in the early 1990s, said Ms McGarrigle regarded her children as the most important thing in her life. "Allison was totally devoted to them," she said. "We knew she was dead when she didn't keep in touch with her kids."

Members of Ms McGarrigle's family did not return The Scotsman's calls, but at a press conference two years ago, her youngest child Robert, now 23, told of what he had gone through since that summer day in 1997 when he lost his mother.

"I have never stopped wondering what happened to her," he said. "The police now believe she is dead and it would help myself and the rest of my family if we were given the chance to lay her to rest."

Even after a decade, no-one knows when that day might arrive.


12 June, 1997: Allison McGarrigle was last seen by relatives in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute.

14 June, 1997: Dressed in jeans, Nike trainers and a silk shirt, she is believed to have left her home in the town's Prestwick Terrace, walked to the esplanade and caught the ferry to Wemyss Bay.

She is then believed to have made her way to Largs, where she moved into a flat in Waterside Street with her two cousins, Charles O'Neill and William Lauchlan.

21-22 June, 1997: Police believe Ms McGarrigle is murdered and her body disposed of by her two cousins.

January 1998: The disappearance of Ms McGarrigle only comes to light when police begin investigating another matter. As she was estranged from her husband, her family had not reported her missing.

26 February, 1998: Elizabeth McGarrigle, her daughter, makes an emotional appeal for her mother to contact the family.

2 July, 1998: Police question O'Neill, 35 and Lauchlan, 21, over her disappearance. At the time, both men were remanded in Barlinne Prison, awaiting sentencing for a string of sex attacks on boys aged between nine and 17.

O'Neill had reportedly confessed to a fellow inmate that Ms McGarrigle was "feeding the fish in Rothesay harbour".

21 April, 2004: O'Neill and Lauchlan are arrested in Benidorm in Spain, after breaking their parole in Scotland.

17 February, 2005: Strathclyde Police begin an underwater search of the Millport Channel for her body.

April 2005: O'Neill and Lauchlan are charged at Kilmarnock Sheriff Court with Ms McGarrigle's murder and attempting to pervert the course of justice by disposing of her body.

Yet after "a very careful consideration" of the available evidence, the case was not indicted. A Crown Office spokesman said that the decision was "kept regularly under review".

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