Mother of Alesha MacPhail's killer led police to his door

A police officer in Rothesay, Isle of Bute, last summer.
The trial of Alesha’s killer revealed the reality of life on Bute beyond the picture postcard. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

On the afternoon of 2 July last year, floral tributes and cuddly toys for Alesha MacPhail were already accumulating outside the house on Ardbeg Road, to the north of Rothesay town, where she had been staying with her father and grandparents.

Following the discovery of the child’s body early in the morning, it was all locals and holidaymakers on the island of Bute could talk about that scorching summer day, although the police had yet to confirm they were conducting a murder inquiry.

In a nearby house, a few minutes’ walk away from Ardbeg Road, a local woman had just discovered something that initially surprised her, and would ultimately lead police to the schoolgirl’s killer.

The mother of the 16-year-old boy who has now been found guilty of the abduction, rape and murder of Alesha but cannot be named, decided to review footage from the home CCTV system she had installed as a precaution when her mother, who suffered from dementia, had lived with the family.

A school picture of Alesha MacPhail left at a house on Ardbeg Road on 4 July 2018.
A school picture of Alesha MacPhail left at a house on Ardbeg Road on 4 July 2018. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

“I was looking at it to see if there was a little girl wandering past my area,” she told the high court in Glasgow during the first week of the trial. “Instead I saw [my son] come back into the house round about 3am.”

She gave her evidence immediately after the court had heard from a pathologist who carried out the postmortem examination of Alesha. He had described in grim detail a series of injuries that he said were the worst he had encountered in his broad experience.

With these images still vivid, the jury then heard from the accused’s mother that, after consulting a friend, she had called the police late on Monday night, with the intention of “eliminating [her son] from their inquiries”.

When the police arrived, the killer immediately began to lie about his movements the previous night, telling officers that he had gone out to buy cannabis from a friend, who later denied it in court. He insisted he had left the property on two more occasions, also captured on CCTV, to search for his missing phone.

The jury rejected this explanation, choosing to accept the prosecution’s position that he was disposing of bloodstained clothing and the knife he had used to abduct Alesha – items that were later found on the nearby shoreline by dog walkers.

The killer’s demeanour in court was strikingly composed. While the other young people who took the witness stand to talk about their partying or Snapchat exchanges were palpably nervous, he remained neutral and articulate as he gave evidence for over two hours, refusing the breaks offered to him by the judge.

Wearing a light grey suit, he appeared completely unfazed by the severity of the charges facing him as he offered an alternative explanation for every point of evidence put to him by the prosecution.

He even had an explanation for the overwhelming DNA evidence that proved he had raped the six-year-old. In a plot that seemed plucked from an American crime scene investigation drama, he claimed Toni McLachlan, the girlfriend of Alesha’s father, Robert, had planted his semen on the child’s body with a used condom.

The killer told the court that he had enjoyed a “friends with benefits” arrangement with McLachlan, a claim she denied. He also said she had sold him cannabis along with Robert McPhail, something the pair both admitted in court.

Alesha’s father, Robert MacPhail.
Alesha’s father, Robert MacPhail. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA

He claimed that the pair had met for sex in a disused garage on the night of Alesha’s disappearance, and proposed that the young woman, driven by jealousy at the attention Robert lavished on his daughter, had then abducted and murdered the child herself.

The jury rejected this concoction too, but not before McLachlan – who only discovered that the killer intended to blame her on the first day of the trial – had endured lurid headlines detailing the accusations, which she described in court as “horrible”. At 18, she is only two years older than her accuser but does not benefit from the same anonymity by law.

A number of the killer’s contemporaries on the island were called to give evidence. He was described as “well-liked”, and it was plain that he was a key part of the friendship group who exchanged messages on Snapchat and partied together that summer. Older members of the court struggled to grasp the etiquette of social media messaging, and concepts such as “friends with benefits” and “two-draw killer”, a smoking game.

However, following his arrest, a number of his friends went to the police because they felt uneasy about comments he had made, which they had previously dismissed as dark adolescent humour.

One boy, whom the accused described as “one of my best friends”, reflected on one of these apparent jokes, footage of the killer filming himself in the bathroom mirror with the message: “Found the guy who’s done it.”

“At the time, knowing him, I thought it was just a joke. He had a dark sense of humour. A lot of us do,” the boy said.

The witness went on to describe the killer’s state of mind in the hours before the murder. He said that the teenager was drunk and in tears following an argument with his mother, who was said to have a persistent drink problem. He was so worried about his friend that he tried to persuade him to spend the night at his house. The killer assured him that he planned to get stoned and go to bed. He did not.

Looking across at his friend sitting in the dock, the witness added: “I was one of the last folk to think he done it. A lot of folk jumped on the bandwagon once he was arrested.” He paused painfully. “Now I’m not sure.”

Local residents have maintained a dignified silence throughout the trial, anxious not to contribute to sensationalism and wary of a fresh media onslaught following the verdict.

Privately, they speak of their deep sorrow and sympathy for all those affected, but also emphasise that day-to-day island life goes on as usual. There is also a sense that there are no great lessons to be learned from the case, other than that bad things happen even on a small island where local police cannot recall such a serious crime.

Many locals have been shocked at the casual attitudes to drug-taking, alcohol and sex revealed by the trial, but they are also keenly aware that Bute is viewed with nostalgia by some. Known as “Glasgow on Sea”, Rothesay was one of Scotland’s most popular postwar resorts, with thousands of city workers travelling “Doon the Watter” on steam ferries for their annual holiday, before the thriving tourist economy slumped with the advent of cheap package holidays.

The trial of Alesha’s killer revealed the reality of life on Bute beyond the picture postcard: a warm-hearted community that welcomed Syrian refugees when they were resettled there in 2015, but also one with pockets of deprivation, its population half what it was in the 1950s as younger generations move away to find employment.

Alesha’s mother, Georgina Lochrane, arrives at the high court in Glasgow.
Alesha’s mother, Georgina Lochrane arrives at the high court in Glasgow. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA

The trial did not hear from Alesha’s 23-year-old mother, Georgina Lochrane, although she attended court every day, a slight figure with white blond hair like her daughter.

In an interview given to mark what would have been Alesha’s seventh birthday last October she recalled her daughter’s birth, saying: “I was only 16 and she changed my life for the better. She gave me the best six and a half years of my life.”