Vol. 46 No. 6 · 21 March 2024


Jim Wilson on the investigation into the death of Emma Caldwell

3935 words

Inthe darkness, high above the glare of the streetlights, Emma Caldwell gazed out over Cumberland Street. It was a Monday evening in May 2005 and the young woman’s photograph had been projected onto a block of flats near where she was last seen in Glasgow, on the edge of the Gorbals, not far from the Clyde. She had been murdered just seven weeks before. Appealing for witnesses in this way was an innovation, the detective leading the inquiry told reporters. If it was, it would not be repeated. The decision of Strathclyde Police to beam a 70-foot image of a recently murdered woman across five floors of a condemned building seemed crass even then.

In recent weeks, the same photograph has appeared in every British newspaper after a man finally stood trial, almost nineteen years later, for Caldwell’s death. Yet the bringing of this long-delayed prosecution was not the result of advances in DNA technology, or testament to dogged detective work. Instead, the trial exposed a shameful failure of Scotland’s justice system, as the country’s most senior police officers and prosecutors became complicit in concealing a killer.

The photograph was the family’s last picture of Caldwell, snapped in the countryside and found on an undeveloped film after her death. It looks like it was taken on a cold, bright spring day: there are leaves on the trees and she is wearing a winter jacket with a fur-trimmed hood. She is half-smiling, looking off to the left. Emma’s mother, Margaret Caldwell, thinks her husband, Willie, took the picture. Her daughter was, she says, determined to get off heroin, an addiction which began after her older sister died of cancer and which forced her onto ‘the drag’, the red-light streets just west of the city centre. She would get clean and then return to her parents’ house in Erskine, just twenty minutes down the M8.

Margaret and Willie Caldwell were there that night on Cumberland Street. ‘No one asked us to go, the police didn’t know,’ she remembers. ‘We had driven up to Glasgow so many nights after Emma disappeared, just driving around, looking for her, asking if anyone had seen her. We parked in a side street near the flats and waited in the car until Emma’s picture appeared. It was a damp night and we just sat and looked at Emma through the windscreen. Then she disappeared and it all went dark.’

A young woman, thin, blonde, dressed in black, can be seen on grainy CCTV footage leaving a hostel on the Southside of Glasgow at 10.56 p.m. on 4 April 2005. Caldwell was also caught on camera walking into the city centre and her phone was last traced to a street that crosses the Clyde. The discovery of her naked body, five weeks later, by a man walking his dog in forestry land forty miles south of the city prompted one of Scotland’s biggest and most expensive murder investigations. Strathclyde Police – which was merged with the other regional forces into a single national service in 2013 – had come under sustained criticism after a series of unsolved murders of sex workers, and the inquiry into Caldwell’s death was promised every possible resource.

The police took statements from many of the women working on the streets around Glasgow Green, just east of the city centre, and among the deserted night-time office blocks of Anderston, on its western edge. One man in particular recurred often in these statements, slowly driving around the streets looking at the women, talking to them, paying for sex, demanding more than he paid for. He was short but powerfully built, and his lack of personal hygiene was so extreme that some of the women believed it must be a power thing. A few knew him as Peter, others as Craig or John. One woman had him in her phone as Blue Van Man. Shown ranks of photographs by detectives, however, the women all pointed to the same man. His name was Iain Packer.

He knew Emma, they told the police. He’d had sex with her regularly, at least once by force, according to a woman who had comforted her afterwards. In one statement made in June 2005, weeks after Caldwell’s body was found, one of her friends told detectives Packer had been obsessed: ‘Once he started going with Emma, I can’t remember him going with anyone else. Even when Emma was not out, he would drive around looking for her. I thought he was stalking her. He would not leave her alone, constantly following her, pestering her.’ In March 2006, the same woman was interviewed again: ‘I really had bad vibes from him. It was Emma, Emma, Emma, no one else interested him.’

By the summer, detectives were looking at Packer, a 32-year-old neon-sign maintenance man, with increasing suspicion. His former colleagues, friends and partners had been interviewed, his vehicles traced. On 21 June, he was picked up kerb-crawling and interviewed by detectives for the first time. He said he might have seen Caldwell at one of her usual spots in Cadogan Street but had never spoken to her. An officer noted that he became ‘increasingly agitated and uncomfortable’ when asked about her. He was interviewed several times in the following months, changing his story every time. Meanwhile, other witnesses described his compulsive use of sex workers, which had cost him, as he later admitted to the police, £30,000 and two marriages; his enthusiasm for rough, outdoor sex; his habit of picking women up in the city centre and driving them far into the countryside to have sex; his tendency to lose control and fly into violent rages; and the way he enjoyed throttling women, and had threatened at least one with a knife.

He eventually admitted that he had known Caldwell, and during his sixth police interview, almost two years after the murder, in March 2007, he offered to take detectives to the woods where he used to go with her and the other women he picked up. He directed the officers out of the city and south down the M74, off at Junction 11 and along a succession of small country roads, before telling them to take a hard right onto a farm road potholed with broken red asphalt. After a quarter of a mile, they stopped at a turning point, with a battered cattle grid on one side and a silver gate on the other. ‘This is it,’ Packer told the detectives. They were at Limefield Woods, not far from Biggar, where Caldwell’s body had been found. He told them he had taken her there six times, although he would later change that story too. On their return to Cathcart police station, the detectives, certain that Packer was on the verge of confessing, asked for guidance from senior officers, but were told to let him go and not to speak to him again. He left soon after. It was Tuesday, 13 March 2007.

Five months later, in August, officers involved in the case were called to a meeting at Baird Street police station. ‘It’s all in here,’ Detective Superintendent John Cuddihy said, smacking the fat file on the desk in front of him. ‘The evidence is all in here.’ Months of covert inquiries had targeted a Turkish café on Bridge Street and identified four men as Caldwell’s killers. These were supposed to be Scotland’s first murder convictions based on surveillance evidence. A long and elaborate investigation, costing £4 million, had involved undercover officers from foreign forces, electronic surveillance of the café, and the translation and transcription of countless hours of allegedly incriminating conversations. Cuddihy, one of the detectives who had led the surveillance operation (codenamed Operation Guard, which ran in tandem with Grail, the public-facing murder inquiry), summarised the investigation for the assembled officers and detailed the evidence against the suspects. He seems to have realised the room was not with him, however, and, his voice rising, insisted that the Turkish men were guilty.

Caldwell’s phone records showed that the final call to her mobile, made at 11.20 p.m. on the night she disappeared, was a 76-second call from a Turkish man. Police interest in the man grew when they found out he had returned to Turkey soon afterwards. The call had been made near the Turkish café on Bridge Street, not far from the last spot where Caldwell’s phone had pinged. The café was, according to some of the women the police had interviewed, a drinking and gambling den. Some claimed they had been raped there, and after Caldwell’s DNA was found there too, in a drop of blood on a quilt, the detectives’ focus on the café became relentless.

At the end of May 2006, transcripts of conversations covertly recorded in the café suddenly began to deliver new evidence. ‘They brought her here.’ ‘They killed the girl.’ They killed her like an animal.’ ‘Halil did it.’ The men were recorded apparently confessing to killing Caldwell and removing her body wrapped in a carpet: ‘They lifted her with the rug cover.’ ‘Who doesn’t have cable? Did you take it?’ The transcripts seemed conclusive, but after the men were arrested translators commissioned by their lawyers found no talk of murder and bodies, rugs and cables. Kerem Öktem, an academic who was asked to listen to four hundred hours of tapes during a police review of the inquiry, said ‘It was not possible to make any conclusive statement about their involvement in the murder. It was simply not possible.’ Experts would later suggest the men had talked about being questioned at the police station, which had resulted in some of the seemingly damning quotes; others were phrases used in a game called okey. Aksoy Ozer, a Grampian Police officer who had been drafted in to help translate the tapes, despite having no training with the equipment or qualification in translation, later said he had been put under ‘immense pressure’ and told to suppress some things he had heard. He also admitted that his Turkish was limited. Ozer left the force in 2010 claiming he had been made a scapegoat. The tapes had been the only real evidence. There were no witnesses and, despite a painstaking search of the café after the men were arrested, there was no forensic evidence. After spending eighty days in custody, they were freed. The café owner, Huseyin Cobanoglu, was sentenced to ten years for rape and sexual assault in 2009.

It remains difficult to understand why the detectives set Packer aside to focus entirely on the Turkish men. They weren’t rookies. Ruaraidh Nicolson, later deputy chief constable of Police Scotland, was in charge of Strathclyde CID when Willie Johnston, a detective superintendent, was put in charge of the murder inquiry. Johnston was trusted by Caldwell’s family and kept in touch when he retired from the force and took a consultancy job in the Middle East. His texts and calls from Abu Dhabi ended abruptly, however, after the suspicions about Packer became public. John Mitchell, a detective chief superintendent, took over the investigation when Johnston left. He also became head of CID at Strathclyde Police and, after retiring, the director of investigations for the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner. Two more senior detectives, Cuddihy and Colin Field, took charge of the surveillance operation against the Turkish men. The exciting trappings of that investigation, the covert taping and Turkish-speaking undercover officers, seem to have blinded these men to the more mundane truth. ‘They thought they were in an episode of The Wire. Their heads were turned,’ one former colleague said. The endless suspicion around Packer must have given them pause: they spent months vainly attempting to link him to the Turkish men. Yet after the case against those men collapsed, they did not go back to reinvestigate Packer. They did nothing at all.

Backin the days when papers had newsrooms and desks had telephones, my first editor told me never to let one ring. ‘You just never know,’ she would say. When my phone at the Sunday Mail rang at half-past six on Wednesday, 25 March 2015, I was tempted to ignore it. Off-stone was three days away, and if it was important my mobile would be ringing. Well-trained, I picked up anyway. ‘Jim, it’s Gerry Gallacher,’ the caller said. ‘I might have the biggest crime story for ten years.’ My heart sank: if a reporter knows anything, it is that big stories never arrive so easily. Gallacher was a retired police detective, an experienced investigator and a trusted contact. We had kept in touch after the Mail serialised his memoirs a few years before. He had been reinvestigating the inquiry into Caldwell’s murder for a potential book and had some documents to show me. He had scoured the paperwork from the original investigation, methodically marking it up with pink and yellow Post-it notes and handwritten annotations, but the signposting was hardly necessary – Packer’s name was all over the lever arch files. Every mention trailed suspicion: the accounts from women who didn’t like him, the recollections of colleagues who didn’t trust him, his own interviews with detectives as his story twisted and turned. Finally, there was his journey with the detectives to the woods where Caldwell was killed, only for him to be let go within hours and remain free for years. It seemed preposterous to me then, almost unbelievable. It still does.

I rang to arrange to meet Gallacher at Limefield Woods, but was told I would never find it on my own. Instead, we met in a service station car park before twisting our way through the South Lanarkshire countryside. Finally, we turned onto a farm track that led into a pine forest. We stopped where the track was blocked by a silver gate and sat in silence for a moment. Almost nine years later, the jury at Packer’s trial made the same journey in a minibus escorted by ten police motorbikes. The trial judge, Lord Beckett, lawyers, court staff and Packer, now 51, wearing a mask and walking with a stick, were there too. They went off the track and into the woods to the stream where Caldwell was found. I had been almost persuaded of Packer’s guilt by the police files, but the length and intricacy of the journey to this remote spot was, for me at least, conclusive.

In 2015, I had been editing the Sunday Mail for six years and, after returning from South Lanarkshire, I asked deputy editor Brendan McGinty for his help. Normally, editors pass tip-offs to reporters, but accusing a man of murder – a man who hadn’t been arrested, never mind charged – and the police of concealing his crime was the kind of story that, if it goes badly, gets journalists the sack. If anyone was to be in the firing line, we agreed, it should be us. The next few days were frenetic. We wrote thousands of words based on the police files, interviewed Gallacher at length, and traced Packer to his parents’ home in Baillieston. We spoke to women who had known him. Some were terrified of him. Some were furious. One was sick when shown his photograph. Finally, I invited Caldwell’s mother to our office, to tell her what we were about to report. She had never heard of Packer and seemed at first bewildered and then dismayed as I summarised the evidence against him.

We gave Police Scotland the chance to comment or offer guidance off the record. There was no substantive response. Late on Saturday afternoon, with the pages being checked and the deadline looming, the paper’s duty lawyer was unimpressed with our intention to identify Packer. We were, she said, not just suggesting he was a suspect but calling him the killer. If he sued for defamation, how could we prove it? If the police didn’t have the evidence to charge him, never mind convict him, how did we? Why not run the story but remove his name and picture? These were hard, inconvenient questions, but I was, by then, certain of the story. Anonymising Packer would reduce the clarity and impact of the reporting and it seemed important that this first account was as clear and impactful as it could be. We ran it on Sunday, 5 April 2015, which was, coincidentally, the tenth anniversary of Caldwell’s disappearance, clearing the front page of the Mail and eight pages inside. The headline was ‘The Forgotten Suspect’ and there was a six-column photograph snatched in the street of a scowling Packer, wearing a black hoodie and with an unlit cigarette clamped in his mouth.

Then we waited. Perhaps the police had good reason for not pursuing Packer? Perhaps he was abroad when Caldwell died? Or in prison? Perhaps we had missed the obvious proof of his innocence in the files? Surely he wouldn’t have been allowed to remain free for so long if the evidence against him was so damning? Early on the Tuesday, Police Scotland launched an urgent investigation, but not into Caldwell’s murder. They wanted to find our sources.

Not only was the inquiry mounted by the force’s Counter Corruption Unit (CCU) an appalling misjudgment, it would later be ruled unlawful. The detectives involved ignored warnings from their own colleagues that the law had changed and they now needed judicial approval before seizing data in an attempt to identify journalists’ sources. Four officers, two serving, two retired, including Gallacher, had their phone and email records secretly examined. This was discovered during a routine inspection by a watchdog, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, and in 2016 an Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) ruled that the collection of the officers’ data breached the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights. Six years later, another IPT hearing in Edinburgh heard that the CCU had also obtained my number and, despite dropping plans to seize my call data after being told it would be unlawful, had breached the ECHR in my case too. The three-judge panel ruled that ‘the information about individuals was recovered with a view, it is now admitted, to discovering Mr Wilson’s sources, therefore it represents an interference with his Article 10 rights as a journalist … There is a real risk that conduct of that sort will have a chilling effect on his ability to obtain and disseminate information in the public interest.’

By the time of that hearing, the second investigation into the murder of Emma Caldwell was in its seventh year. While the hunt for our sources was launched within days, the murder inquiry was not reopened until seven weeks after the story was published, and then only after the direct intervention of Frank Mulholland, the lord advocate, Scotland’s most senior prosecutor. Caldwell’s mother was disappointed when told the new inquiry might take two years. It was very complicated, they told her. It was going to take time to have all the conversations from the Turkish café retranslated and retranscribed. Well, it would, but why was that necessary? It is difficult not to believe that the delays in bringing Packer to trial were caused by the deep reluctance of senior officers in Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service to explain in court why they had not put him in the dock ten years earlier.

Journalists were reluctant to say anything further, fearful of jeopardising a future trial by influencing the jury. They might have been less concerned if they had known Packer would not stand trial for another nine years. Eventually, the patience of BBC Scotland journalists snapped and, resisting pressure from police and prosecutors, they broadcast an interview with Packer in February 2019. He had approached them in an attempt to clear his name, but at his trial, a former partner said he was as ‘white as a sheet’ after filming and looked like he had been ‘found out’. Mulholland’s successor as lord advocate, James Wolffe, seemed to have done little to advance the case. He agreed to meet Emma’s mother – ‘A condescending man,’ she remembers. ‘He never looked at me once’ – but not much more. His successor, Dorothy Bain, arriving in 2021, quickly met Margaret Caldwell and Aamer Anwar, her lawyer, and Packer was finally arrested in February 2022.

Many of the women who gave statements about Packer nearly twenty years ago are themselves now dead, lost to addiction, violence or illness. There are still some who remember Caldwell fondly, while insisting she was too polite, too well-spoken, for the life she was living. Her mother did not understand the depth of her daughter’s addiction or the reality of her life. ‘After she died, a police officer asked if we had known Emma had frequented the city centre and I said, well, I know she goes to this shop and that one, but that wasn’t what he meant at all, not at all.’ She and her husband would visit Emma twice a week in the hostel, bringing her food and seeking reassurance that this was only temporary, that she would, one day, come home. ‘Willie and I were so naive,’ she says now. ‘We didn’t realise Emma was taking drugs for such a long time and when she finally told us, we didn’t have a clue what to do. I remember we took her to the hospital the night she told us to ask for help but the doctor just looked at us as if we were daft. We went home and talked and talked, cried and cried. I remember thinking we had got through to her and went to bed that night happy, thinking we had got her back. Looking back, I think that was the night we lost her.’

On 28 February, at the High Court in Glasgow, a jury found Iain Packer guilty of murdering Emma Caldwell. He was also found guilty of 32 other charges against 22 women, including 11 rapes and multiple sexual assaults, most of them committed after the murder. He was sentenced to a minimum of 36 years, the second longest sentence ever handed down in Scotland. The verdict answered some questions of guilt, but many more remain, for Police Scotland and for the Crown Office. The trial heard no compelling evidence that had not been available within months of Caldwell’s death. For example, one key witness was Dr Stefan Uitdehaag, from the Netherlands Forensic Institute, who told the jury that soil found in Packer’s van was very likely to have come from the woods where Emma’s body was found. The soil sample was collected in 2005; Dr Uitdehaag was asked to analyse it in 2022. On 7 March, eight days after the verdicts, the Scottish government announced a judge-led public inquiry; the lord advocate confirmed that a criminal investigation into the first police investigation is also planned.

Margaret Caldwell sat in court for much of the evidence and was there to hear the verdict. She is scathing about those responsible for delaying justice so long, for allowing Packer to attack and abuse so many more women. She believes only an outside police force and independent prosecutors can properly scrutinise the decisions made in the first inquiry into her daughter’s murder and throughout the years since. ‘At so many points, the police and the lawyers could have done the right thing but instead did the opposite. They will all have something to say now, blaming each other, but the time for them to say something was all those years ago. Let them say it to a judge.’

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