Carers convicted of murder after making vulnerable woman’s life a ‘living hell’

A man and a woman who made the life of the young woman they should have been caring for “a living hell” have been convicted of her murder.

Margaret Fleming, who had learning difficulties, vanished “from the face of the Earth” around December 1999. Her 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 (pictured), were found guilty of murdering the missing woman.

Jones was also convicted unanimously of fraudulently claiming £182,000 in benefits by pretending Ms Fleming, who would now have been 38, was alive.

Speaking after the conviction, Detective Superintendent Paul Livingstone, senior investigating officer in the case, said money was one of the motivations of the “evil and greedy” pair.

He said: “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.”

Jurors found the couple murdered Margaret by unknown means between December 18 1999 and January 5 2000 at their home in Inverkip, Inverclyde, or elsewhere in Scotland, and then tried to cover up the crime for almost 18 years.

The jury took around three hours over two days to reach their majority verdict on the murder charge.

Lord Matthews told the pair: “You have been convicted of the murder of Margaret Fleming.

“The only sentence the court can impose is one of life imprisonment, however, as part of that I have to fix a period which must pass before you are eligible to apply for parole.”

He deferred sentence until July 17, pending reports.

Police launched an investigation after it became apparent in October 2016 that Ms Fleming was missing.

Routine social services inquiries were said to have sparked concerns over her whereabouts.

It was claimed the last independent sighting of her was actually at a family event on December 17 1999.

Her supposed carers were arrested in October 2017.

During their trial, which began in April this year, Ms Fleming was described by prosecutors as a “friendless and lonely” young woman who had significant difficulties.

She went to live at the Seacroft home of the accused following the death of her father when she was a teenager after those closest to her “didn’t want her”.

By October 1999, various benefits for Ms Fleming 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 Ms Fleming 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 Ms Fleming having “fantastical” illnesses and conditions in correspondence with benefits officials.

As police zoned in on the couple, their fabricated stories to explain Ms Fleming’s absence 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.

TIMELINE OF EVENTS LEADING UP TO MURDER CONVICTIONS

Here is a timeline of events surrounding the police investigation and legal process which led to them being found guilty.

  • October 28 2016 – Margaret Fleming is reported missing by her two carers from her home in Main Road, Inverkip, Inverclyde.
  • December 12 2016 – Police say they will be carrying out excavation work in the garden and are “carefully sifting through the house” where Ms Fleming was believed to live with her two carers. Specialist search teams including the police helicopter, dog unit and dive teams had also been searching across Inverclyde.
  • December 17 2016 – On the anniversary of the last independent sighting of Ms Fleming, which was at a family gathering on December 17 1999, police say it is possible she “may have come to some harm” and say their priority is establishing her movements and lifestyle from 1999 onwards. It is understood police went to the house as part of a routine social services inquiry in October 2016 but were told she was not there, and her carers later reported her missing.
  • December 21 2016 – Police ban the flying of drones over an area where they are searching, with the restriction in place until late February. No aircraft other than Police Scotland, Scottish Ambulance Service or Maritime Coast Guard Agency assets can fly below 1,500ft in the area, police say.
  • April 28 2017 – Police say Ms Fleming’s disappearance may be down to “something more sinister” as their search at the property concludes. Officers have been sifting through thousands of items, paperwork, documents and articles taken from the house and have been in contact with around 1,200 individuals and organisations who may have had contact with Ms Fleming. Police say the search they carried out in the house and the grounds extended into nearby water and woodland. The area searched in the garden alone was around half a hectare.
  • October 26 2017 – Police investigating Ms Fleming’s disappearance arrest her carers Edward Cairney and Avril Jones.
  • October 27 2017 – The pair appear at Greenock Sheriff Court charged with murder, abduction and assault, fraud and an attempt to defeat the ends of justice. They make no plea and are remanded in custody.
  • May 28 2018 – Cairney and Jones appear at the High Court in Livingston charged with abducting and murdering Ms Fleming and claiming £182,000 in benefits by fraud by pretending that she was still alive. The pair’s lawyers enter not-guilty pleas to all the charges on their behalf during the first public hearing of the case.
  • September 26 2018 – The pair go on trial at the High Court in Glasgow accused of abducting and murdering Ms Fleming and fraudulently claiming £182,000 in benefits by pretending she was still alive.
  • October 18 2018 – The trial is deserted pro loco et tempore with the Crown expected to reindict the case with a fresh trial at a later date.
  • April 25 2019 – Cairney and Jones go on trial at the High Court in Glasgow. They are accused of assaulting and murdering Ms Fleming and fraudulently claiming £182,000 in benefits by pretending she was alive.
  • June 14 2019 – Both accused are convicted of murder on a majority verdict.

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