GLASGOW PROSTITUTE MURDERS
An article on sex and death. The murder of seven Glasgow prostitutes. Edited Version. First Published in The Guardian Weekend Magazine - 14/3/99
Friday night and it was freezing, one of the coldest nights of the winter. But it was warm inside Base 75, the prostitutes' drop-in centre in Glasgow. Margo Lafferty lingered there for a while, trying on a new suit she'd bought. It was pale blue lace, a wee skirt and top to match, nice, though one of the other girls teased her about putting on weight.Then Margo went out to work. At some point in the early hours of Saturday, 28th February, she went to one of the lanes that run off Glasgow's major shopping and business streets. There are security lights up on the buildings, so you'd think there'd be nowhere to hide there, but look in most of the doorways and you'll find a used condom.
In a dark car park in one of the lanes, 27 year old Margo was found dead, viciously battered and strangled and lying in a swamp of mud and blood. She was left naked, a detail which made the other working girls pause. Margo would never have undressed for a client. Sex on Glasgow's streets is a brutal business - Margo is the seventh prostitute to be murdered here in six years.
Seven murders and not one has produced a conviction: the men accused in two cases were acquitted and suspects in two others were never even brought to trial. There have been no arrests in the last three murders. But then prostitute murders are notoriously difficult for the police. As many as 35-40 went unsolved in England and Wales last year.Traditionally prostitutes have always been regarded as worthless in our society, their deaths of little moment. The lives of ordinary women are of no interest to the press and that is even more true of these women whose lives are less than ordinary. They become a quick headline, usually with the word 'hooker' or 'junkie' in it, and their stories are discarded as lightly as their lives.
All of the murdered women were drug addicts, Diane McInally in 1991, Karen McGregor in 1993, Leona McGovern and Marjorie Roberts in 1995, Jackie Gallacher in 1996, Tracey Wylde in 1997 and now Margo Lafferty. But some were further down the line than others. Tracey Wylde, the 21year old single mother who was murdered in November, only went out on the street a couple of nights a week. Her three year old daughter Megan was always beautifully dressed and their flat impeccably kept.
Tracey was killed in the early hours of Monday 24th November in her top floor flat. Like most post-war flats these have poor soundproofing. You can hear neighbours' conversations and kids running about and floorboards squeaking. But nobody heard anything that night, not even Kelly McCord (not her real name), a young mother living downstairs who was often up in the night for her 11 week old baby.'I feel sad for her,' says Kelly. 'It couldn't have been an easy life for her.'
Tracey was brought up by her grandparents, and her grandfather, whom she called 'Dad,' came up to the flat most days. He even dropped her off in the town sometimes when she went to work on the streets. If Tracey felt her life was difficult she never said so. She was warm and funny, talking to everybody. People were always trooping up and down the stairs to her flat, till neighbours wondered if she was a dealer.Her friends say she wasn't, that she was a timid girl who couldn't say no. 'I was shocked when I heard about the prostitution,' says Kelly. 'I said to her about the risks she was taking, but she said she'd rather go out and earn money like that than steal it off anyone else. She knew what that was like.'
The constantly shifting nature of the drug world has made it difficult for Strathclyde police to track down the prostitute killers. We are talking killers in the plural here. The police have found nothing to link any of the murders. It would be easier if there was a single serial killer out there, one man to pin all the darkness to; one man to take the blame for all the men who beat and stab and rape and live off these girls.
Diane McInally was the first to die, on October 15th, 1991. She was 23 years old and she came from the Gorbals, where drugs are sold in broad daylight in some of the streets. But they found her body in Pollok Estate, home of the Burrell Collection, Glasgow's famous art gallery. There she lay, the junkie hooker, hidden under the bushes in her black mini-dress and stockings, with nothing but the clothes she died in. Left for dead near the shipping tycoon William Burrell's temple to art, his magpie hoard of artifacts from places Diane couldn't dream of going to.
Two men were arrested for the murder - said to be over money Diane owed them for drugs - but no charges were ever made by the Procurator Fiscal (Prosecutor). There just wasn't enough evidence. But Scotland's legal system, with its Not Proven verdict, has also contributed to the police's problems in solving the murders. It's a verdict that is fine and logical in theory, but in practice allows juries to absolve themselves from the responsibility of making a decision.
Take the case of Karen McGregor, who in April 1993 was found dead at the Scottish Exhibition Centre. 26 year old Karen had been struck viciously round the head and face, battered with a hard object; her neck had been throttled and she had either been raped or an object had been forcibly inserted into her private parts.Her husband, Charles McGregor, was charged with the murder. He appeared in court with a new short hair cut and a smart suit and overcoat, looking like a prosperous young businessman, not the desperate, drugged-up addict he was. A street girl gave evidence that Karen was fed up giving all her money over to him for his habit. Another woman said she saw him in the cemetery, crouched over his wife's grave and saying, 'I'm sorry, Karen. I'm sorry. I didn't mean it.'
Two witnesses retracted their statements in court. Both had told the police that they saw McGregor battering his wife to death with a hammer. A third witness stuck to his story of having seen Karen's cut and bruised body through the curtains. He had been afraid, and had run off home without going into the house. Charles McGregor left court with a Not Proven verdict.
He died recently, of a drugs overdose. A sad life, sad man, a sad end. But an end that in his world was the norm. Take the case of Leona McGovern, who was murdered on a warm summer night in 1995. Her best friend had died just before - Leona had found her dead in bed. And then two weeks before Leona's murder, her boyfriend died of an overdose. 'He meant a lot to her. When he died she really lost it,' says Detective Chief Inspector Nanette Pollock, who was in charge of the investigation.
Leona was tiny, barely five feet tall, though her slight build made her look even smaller. She was skippering, living rough. On the night she died she owed a dealer money and asked her brother for the loan of £35, but he didn't have it to give her. It was June, bright and sunny. At seven o'clock in the evening a security guard saw a man stabbing something on the ground. He thought it was a bag of rubbish. He did not think he would ever walk along a Glasgow street and see a murder in broad daylight. But he did. He saw Leona McGovern being stabbed seven times with a screwdriver.
In court the man accused of her murder was acquitted on a Not Proven verdict. He fingered another man, a man who had been with Leona in the last two weeks of her life, not as a boyfriend but as a pal. Like her he too was homeless. 'Homeless people tend to stick together,' says Nanette Pollock. 'They're in the same situation. She'd lost a lot in her life.'
Drugs left all the girls open to attack, but at least three of them were also inexperienced. Tracey Wylde, Marjorie Roberts and Jacqueline Gallacher had all been on the street only five or six months. Jacqueline's own mother didn't even know she was on the game. 'I know those girls,' says Alice Wilson. 'See the way they're dressed? When I saw Jacqueline she was never like that. She was always prim and proper. People used to say, My God, she's beautiful. If she was a wee bit taller she could be a model.' Like Leona McGovern and Margo Lafferty, Jackie was only five feet tall. But then these are the logistics of assault the world over - the small, the slight, the vulnerable all are easy targets.
Jacqueline's partner, Gordon Fraser, is vulnerable in a different way, a wreck of a man destroyed by grief - and drugs. He describes his life with Jackie as idyllic, marred only by the drugs and his various spells in prison for shoplifting. She wrote to him when he was inside, hundreds of love letters that he keeps in plastic shopping bags. 'Gordon, I know myself it's not going to be long till you're walking through the door, and baby I will be there for you. I always will be, Gordon, no matter what. You know that yourself, baby.'
They met when Jacqueline was a teenager and Gordon 10 years older. He was taking drugs when she met him; so were most of her friends. But she seems to have been besotted with him. 'On our 10th anniversary together she was running and singing, Our House in the Middle of the Street,' remembers Gordon. 'She was happy. I came in with a big, massive card and I got her a gold necklace. She loved gold. I put bits of gold in her coffin, things that we'd given each other.'Six months after Jacqueline's death, Gordon was up on the roof of his close, throwing down slates and threatening to set fire to and kill himself. Without Jackie his life seems to have disintegrated. Perhaps it was disintegrating already. On his last prison stint Jacqueline didn't visit him the way she had before. 'She knew I hated this,' admits Gordon. 'I told her, I worry about you from the moment you walk out that door to the moment you walk back in. It's frightening. You don't know how much strain you're putting on me.'
Jacqueline was picked up by car from the drag in Glasgow, but her partially clothed body was found near a bus stop in Bowling, a village some way out of the city. She was hidden in shrubbery and wrapped in an unusual home-made curtain, in grey and pink fabric, its white lining covered with blue polka dots. It's the nearest to a detective novel clue the police have had in any of the killings, but not even a showing on 'Crimewatch' has unearthed it provenance.
For the police this is just part of the long, painful process of trying to solve prostitute murders. It's like trying to trap moonlight. There are around 100 unsolved on the Holmes computer, the country-wide police database. The girls can't remember; the places are remote and dark; the punters fade away into the shadows. 'The same names come into the frame all the time, the same punters, the same cars going down the drag, the same car numbers,' sighs D.C.S. Fleming. 'But folk don't want to get involved.'
Even when a murder appears to be solved, there is the difficulty of pinning down the evidence. Marjorie Roberts' body was pulled out of the River Clyde in August 1995, four days after she drowned. The Citywatch cameras picked her up, walking down by the river with a man. A month later the same man was in trouble again after trying to push another working girl into the river. She struggled with him and ran for help to a taxi driver, but afterwards she didn't want to take matters further. She was a prostitute and she slipped back into the shadows, leaving the procurator fiscal unable to put forward a case. 'She was a drug addict. They don't care about their own life,' says Marjorie's younger sister, Betty.
It was Marjorie's boyfriend who introduced her to drugs, temgesics at first, until people began selling heroin in the scheme where they lived. Marjorie's boyfriend left her and their two children and she started letting prostitutes use the house to take their hits. 'He came back when Maj was on the game, but he just went, "Well, hen. As long as you're using plenty of protection." He didn't care,' says Betty venomously. In the last few months of her life 34 year old Maj seemed to be slipping downhill. The doctor put her on Valium and she looked like a skeleton. Her habit grew. She had thick black curly hair and one day she came in and sat with the black weight of hair all over her face. She sat for eight hours. 'She was dead shy and quiet. She never had any confidence. That's how we couldn't believe she could go and do that,' says Betty.
There were no marks on Marjorie's body and no witnesses, nothing to say she didn't slip accidentally into the water and drown. Betty stands looking at the river running where her sister died. 'When she went into that Clyde she had no strength to fight. She had Valium in her body. It's been dark. Pitch black. No lights or anything. ...'
It's a strange and potent experience to stand in a place where you know someone has been murdered, as if the ground there takes on some deep meaning. What is there here, in the lane where Margo Lafferty died? Only a few flowers, bleached of colour in the darkness. You need to flick on a cigarette lighter to see the small card attached to one bunch. My Angel, it says. Mum.Margo Lafferty was no angel. Some people say she was violent to other women, a drug dealer as well as user. Others say she was kind, the sort of girl who'd give you money if you wanted to get tights from the all night garage down by the river. She was certainly brave, as all the women who walk the streets are. On the threshold of the disused car park where she died, it is so dark that you can't see what is in front of you. You have to put a foot out to test the ground, which is shifting with water and mud.Inside there are a few places where light from a building hits the wall, but just a step takes you back into the shadows, with old plastic sheeting and bits of tree branch. This is no place to be, this piece of muddy ground, open to the sky. Outside you hear people shouting from a street beyond, but you don't go to help them, any more than anyone came to help a woman who was dying.