The Sunday Times: How it feels to … come face to face with Alesha MacPhail’s murderer

The evidence was harrowing. Details emerged in court that were so horrendous, I wished I had never heard them. I worried I was failing at my job because when it came to writing the news story, I couldn’t bring myself to repeat them. At times, people in the public gallery watching the trial held their heads in their hands and wept. Only one person seemed unaffected by the horror, and that was the boy in the dock.

It was last July when I first started covering the murder of six-year-old Alesha MacPhail. Her brutalised body had been discovered in woodland on the Scottish island of Bute, a day after she had gone missing from her bed. It seemed impossible that something so savage had taken place somewhere so gentle; on a tiny island where locals leave their doors unlocked and seals flop on mossy rocks by silver waves.

The island was on edge when I arrived. Police were warning locals to “be vigilant and look after each other”, as rumours spread. There was some nasty, unfounded speculation that Syrian refugees who had been relocated to the island might somehow be responsible for the little girl’s death, while others whispered that police had been checking ferry passengers and wondered about strange men from out of town.

police

Police forensic teams scour the Isle of Bute

It was shocking when we heard that a local 16-year-old boy had been arrested. I went to Greenock Sheriff Court to hear the charges read. When we heard these charges were rape and murder, I felt sick.

I returned seven months later to cover Aaron Campbell’s trial at the High Court in Glasgow. I don’t know what kind of person I expected to see, but it wasn’t the child standing in the dock. A teenage boy dressed in a smart, fashionable, grey check suit — an outfit I would later learn he had worn to his school prom. He had smooth, milky skin and neat black hair, which he occasionally swept back from his face.

READ THE FULL ARTICLE IN THE SUNDAY TIMES: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/how-it-feels-to-come-face-to-face-with-alesha-macphails-murderer-q63ws90ft

The Sunday Times: Island idyll shattered by a teenage murderer hungry for online fame

Bute seems far from the dark side of modern life — but did Aaron Campbell bring video violence to the savage killing of six-year-old Alesha?

Like many young people, Aaron Campbell wanted to be famous online. Growing up on the Isle of Bute, the teenager dreamed of being as popular as PewDiePie, the world’s best-known YouTuber, whose channel has 86m subscribers. Online, Campbell had a plethora of accounts. It is hard not to look at them now in light of the verdict last week that found the 16-year-old guilty of the abduction, rape and murder of six-year-old Alesha MacPhail — crimes the judge overseeing his trial described as “the most evil in the history of the court”.

alesha

Alesha MacPhail

The pathologist who examined Alesha found 117 “catastrophic” injuries on her small body, which was found dumped in woodland on the island.

Now much of Campbell’s online footprint feels menacing: he held accounts on the gaming website Twitch, where his profile page shows a disturbing collage of images that include one of a girl with blood falling from her eyes and mouth, and another of someone standing in a wooden area looking down at a grave.

On YouTube, Campbell — whose moniker was Poison3d Appl3 — posted hours of footage showing himself playing dark video games. In one he creeps through the gloomy corridors of a virtual house, as a crackly radio plays a news report about a man shooting his wife, son and six-year-old daughter. In Campbell’s other grim videos, a girl is heard screaming for her mother, and a dying foetus shown squirming in a sink. On Reddit, Campbell posted a video commentary on a horror game he had created.

Watching these clips makes you wonder what impact such violent video games had on his young mind. Could watching such horror repeatedly have left him immune to violence or led him to commit his crime? Yet, Campbell’s intentions do not seem dark. He used his online platforms to get attention. In videos he begs people to follow him, asking them to “please appreciate the video”, emphasising how long he spent creating them.

READ THE FULL ARTICLE IN THE SUNDAY TIMES: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/island-idyll-shattered-by-a-teenage-murderer-hungry-for-online-fame-jf00g30nf

 

 

The Sunday Times Magazine: Every year young British tourists fall to their deaths from hotel balconies. Are the all-you-can-drink party packages to blame?

 

The poolside bar opens at 11am, signalled by an eruption of music, and the BH Mallorca hotel the epicentre of holiday hedonism in Magaluf, blinks to life. On balconies littered with last night’s debris, girls in acid-bright bikinis and groggy boys who look as though they’ve barely left school start to emerge. From now until night, the all-inclusive drink flows. At pool parties with limitless alcohol, girls down cocktails and dance to Beyoncé, as lads with reddening six packs high-five over beers. One boy, dressed as a mermaid, passes out on a sunlounger near the stage where DJs play and former Love Island contestants parade in swimwear to launch their after-show careers.

As evening falls, these balconies become disco boxes. Sounds clash in air ripe with Lynx. Grime meets Come on Eileen, football chants compete with shouted pop lyrics, punctuated by smashed glass and screams. On one balcony, two lads lean over the railings and pour beer on unsuspecting passers-by. I watch them over my balustrade, where a sign reads: “Balconies are the main cause of death and accidents on holidays.”

In 2016, Alexander Forrest, a 20-year-old Scottish charity worker on holiday with friends, fell to his death from his third-floor balcony at this hotel. In May this year, another young man, thought to be 25, fell from another third-floor balcony. His friends tried to grab him as he dropped. He survived, but suffered serious injuries. A month later, a 22-year-old man fell from a balcony on the floor below, breaking a leg and his jaw and losing several teeth.

This year, tens of thousands of British teenagers will embark on package holidays. Tour companies such as Thomas Cook promise them #legendaryholidays, with the motto “Go hard or go home”. So far this season, there have been reports of 16 British people falling from balconies abroad. Eight have died from their injuries.

In June, Conor Morgan, a 19-year-old from Ireland, was found dead after falling from a hotel balcony at the party resort of Aiya Napa, in Cyprus. He had arrived on the island only hours before. The exact circumstances of his death are not yet known. As I write, Tolga Aramaz, a 23-year-old Labour councillor from north London, lies in an intensive-care ward, critically injured after falling from a second-floor balcony in Ibiza.

I began to monitor the growing number of British people dying from balcony falls abroad in 2012, following the inquest into the death of Gethin Williams, an 18-year-old from north Wales. Williams had died nearly a decade earlier, in 2002, at a hotel in the same location as BH Mallorca, then called Fiesta Jungla. He had been one of a group of 15 teenagers from Ysgol Tryfan school, in Bangor, who had been celebrating the end of their A-levels. After a night out, he tried to climb into his room via the balcony, slipped and fell.

In 2013, I saw reports of 12 fatal balcony falls. Seven in 2014. Six in 2015. Ten in 2016. Nine in 2017. This year, I watched horrified as the season began, noticing again that, in most cases, the deaths involved young people, alcohol and package holidays.

Each fall haunted me. These were groups of friends going abroad on their first holidays together. Young people, on the cusp of adulthood, testing boundaries; allowed their first taste of freedom by anxious parents. A modern rite of passage, both scary and exciting, echoed across cultures. In Australia, Aborigines have their walkabout. In America, students go on spring break. For the Amish, it is called rumspringa, from the German verb springen, literally meaning “to jump”.

Williams grew up on a farm on the outskirts of Bangor, near the mountains of Snowdonia, a world away from the vibrant chaos of Magaluf. It is so quiet here, you can hear the wind in the grass, sweeping up the field past the church where Gethin’s ashes are buried.

“It’s very, very vivid,” Nerys Williams says of the day she learnt her son had died. It was early morning. Her husband, Emrys, and their older son, Dafydd, were in the fields milking the cows, so Nerys was alone when she opened the door to two police officers, faces drawn and pale. “They said, Gethin … Oh …” She starts to cry, the pain still fresh, “… and I knew.”

READ THE FULL ARTICLE IN THE SUNDAY TIMES: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/every-year-young-british-tourists-fall-to-their-deaths-from-hotel-balconies-are-the-all-you-can-drink-party-packages-to-blame-68qkz030c

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sunday Times Magazine: Why did Anna Campbell, a young feminist from Lewes, die on the battlefields of Syria?

 

 

It was the first bright morning there had been in a while. The air was clean and sharp. Spring had come late this year to Afrin, a district in northern Syria, and the endless rolling fields were still lined with the stubs of last season’s wheat stalks. At night, the cold wind bit and was thick with the smell of burning wood and plastic. Anna Campbell, a 26-year-old woman from Lewes, East Sussex, sat in an abandoned house waiting for the order to fight.

The date was March 15, 2018, and Campbell had been in the house for a week with three other soldiers: Comrade Siyar, Comrade Sara and Comrade Serhilan. They knew Campbell as Comrade Helin Qerecox, the nom de guerre she had picked when she arrived in Syria as a would-be fighter the previous year. The others were Kurdish and, like Campbell, belonged to local militias that were trying to halt the Turkish-backed advance on the Kurdish-majority district of Afrin. The house would be their base during the battle. Outside, mortar fire whistled in the air and erupted on the front line about a mile away.

For Campbell, this deployment was the culmination of a year’s campaigning. Since she had arrived in Syria, she had pleaded with her commanders in the all-female Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) to send her into battle. They hadn’t wanted her to go. Campbell, though deeply committed to the Kurdish cause, was not an experienced soldier. After a year with the YPJ, she had learnt to fire a Kalashnikov and had practised throwing grenades and shooting a machinegun, but had received no heavy weapons training. To dissuade her, her commanders told Campbell her blonde hair made her look “too western”.

For them, her role was obvious: her value as a fighter was negligible, but her value as a propagandist — recruiting others like her to the YPJ cause — was enormous. Much as young idealists from London and New York were drawn to the trenches and mountain hideouts of the Spanish Civil War, hundreds of westerners, including dozens of Britons, have flocked to join the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the YPJ since 2014. They were drawn to an organisation that claimed to stand for anti-imperialism, women’s rights (particularly in the fight against Isis) and a true revolution.

As the Afrin operation intensified, several male British recruits were reported killed. Eventually, Campbell’s commanders relented. On March 8, she was assigned to a position on the outskirts of Afrin’s Mahmoudiyeh district, alongside the three Kurdish fighters.

As she prepared to leave, her hair dyed black, her face covered with a maroon scarf, she spoke in a video of her duty to fight. “If you love your own people enough to fight for them and die for them,” she said, “you also love people far away enough to fight for them and die for them.”

READ THE FULL ARTICLE IN THE SUNDAY TIMES: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/why-did-anna-campbell-a-young-feminist-from-lewes-die-on-the-battlefields-of-syria-pqsj9rw3f

The Sunday Times News: Alesha MacPhail death: Bute grieves for its innocence

In the burning summer heat the ferry from Wemyss Bay, Inverclyde, to the island of Bute heaves with tourists. Older visitors in comfortable shoes and children with backpacks lean over the railings watching the water as the boat pulls out. Sitting on the deck are four young policemen, their faces impassive, holding their hats and looking solemnly out at the waves.

Locals travelling home speak in hushed tones about the events that are unfolding. “You put them to bed and you think they’re safe,” one woman says to her friend. “Imagine waking up one morning, coming down the stairs and she’s gone.”

Last Monday at 6.25am six-year-old Alesha MacPhail was reported missing from her grandparents’ home on Bute. Less than three hours later her body was found nearby in the overgrown woodland of a former hotel. On Tuesday the police launched a murder investigation. By Wednesday an arrest had been made. In that short time this peaceful island had changed for ever.

Bute lies in an archipelago off the west coast of Scotland. It is not a remote island (Glasgow is barely 90 minutes away), but the waves washing the ferry across the Firth of Clyde seem to carry it to another world. To a world that is not wealthy but is rich in natural beauty and the warmth of a 6,500-strong community.

On the seafront in the town of Rothesay, where the ferry docks, stone cottages breathe the sweet-salty smell of the sea. Behind them dense woodland becomes majestic hills, which turn blue as the sun fades.

During the day seagulls, their bellies fat with chips, skim the water in the bay and perch on mossy rocks. In the evening the water glows silvery gold.

Bute was once a thriving destination. It still attracts tourists in the summer months. They head to the seaside at Rothesay, with its amusement arcade and bucket-and-spade shops. But it is also a place of tranquil pleasures: a moated castle, a putting lawn on the front, prettily planted flower gardens.

The town feels old-fashioned in a friendly, genteel way. Shops with hand-painted signs are named after locals: Jess May’s florist, Liz’s cupcake heaven, Elle’s hair and beauty salon. “Everybody knows each other,” one woman says. Doors are left unlocked.

“My mum wouldn’t even know where her keys are,” she grins.

Alesha lived with her mother, Georgina Lochrane, 23, in Airdrie, north Lanarkshire, but often came to the island on her school holidays. She stayed with her father, Robert MacPhail, 25, who is separated from Georgina and lives in his parents’ seafront house on Ardbeg Road, north of Rothesay.

Alesha was known by locals and often played with their children. “I saw her on the bus,” one woman told me. “I remember — she had such blonde hair.”

This summer Alesha had come for a three-week stay. One parent, whose daughter was to have a playdate with her on Thursday, described how her grandparents had recently created a bedroom for the little girl on the top floor.

It says something of the island’s close-knit community that when Angela King, 46, and Calum MacPhail, 49, discovered their granddaughter was not in her bed, they first turned to friends.

On Monday at 6.43am King posted on Facebook: “Alesha has gone missing from our house please help look for her.” Worried neighbours shared the post, offering support and help in looking for her, or suggesting where she might be.

That morning, in the Bonnie Clyde cafe in Rothesay, Raymond Yost heard helicopters whirring overhead. He assumed they were taking somebody to hospital on the mainland — their usual job.

At about 9am one of his customers received a text message to say “a wee lassie” was missing. Yost immediately logged on to Facebook to see if he knew who it was. “We’re all one big family here,” he said. “Most of us grew up together, we went to school together, then we came back.” That’s when he saw Angela’s post.

It was amid this social media activity that it seems Georgina learnt her daughter had disappeared — and later discovered that she had died. In a series of increasingly desperate posts, she wrote, “Someone tell me what’s happened that’s my daughter”, and, “Angela answer me now”.

Alesha MacPhail‘s body was found on the Isle of Bute last week
Alesha MacPhail‘s body was found on the Isle of Bute last week
By Tuesday bouquets were piling up outside the house from which Alesha had vanished. Flowers with cards reading “Sleep tight beautiful girl” and “You’re with the angels now” lined the whitewashed garden wall facing the sea, along with fluffy toys and purple balloons floating in the breeze.

Georgina travelled to the island, escorted by police, and visited the memorial. Bending down to read the messages, she sobbed. Beside her, police vans guarded the house.

As police launched a murder investigation, they warned the islanders to secure their homes, to “be vigilant and look after each other”.

One mother spoke about how she had moved her three children here from Glasgow nine months ago because it felt so safe. “We could let our children run free outside. Now we won’t let them out of our sight,” she said.

“My kids used to play in the woods where they found her [Alesha]. The thing that’s so wonderful about it here — the fact you can be all alone — now that’s what’s so terrifying.”

In the bookshop in Rothesay, Alesha’s death was being reported on the local radio news bulletins. In the post office her photograph was on the front page of all the newspapers. Many locals, unsure about speaking to the media, asked not to be named. But when they came together, the case was the only thing they were discussing.

In the pubs and cafes and on the seafront, groups gathered, sharing their grief. “The whole island is in shock,” said one local woman in the pub. “Nothing like this has ever happened before here. It doesn’t feel real.”

It is an island with little serious crime: it is rare for residents even to see police officers on Bute, one resident, Janet Vernal, told me. Now officers were drafted from the Argyll & Bute and West Dunbartonshire division, driving round roads in marked and unmarked vehicles, dotting the coast in their yellow jackets, conducting 24-hour high-visibility patrols.

At times the contrast between the tranquil island and the police activity was so jarring that it felt surreal. Blue-and-white police cordons fluttered across leafy lanes, running between stone walls and ivy hedges. Police vans rolled heavily along the seaside lanes while officers in black uniforms combed the beach near rocks where seals lazed, overturning sun-bleached rowing boats. At night the still, quiet bay was pierced by the shriek of sirens and flashing of blue lights.

Stranger than the police presence was the eerie silence. Last Wednesday night the streets were empty. Residents peered out from behind windows. Although the summer holidays had started, the beach and children’s park were empty.

 

“It’s a lot quieter than it usually is,” one resident told me. “A lot of the children are being kept in.”

One local claimed his children were so terrified that they would not sleep in their own beds.

“Everyone is so shocked. No one can believe something like this has happened here,” said another resident, Elizabeth Taylor.

“It will change it for a while,” Vernal agreed. “Especially for parents with children. They’ll feel it longer and be scared to let their children out.”

Last Thursday a 16-year-old boy was charged in connection with Alesha’s death. It is said that he is known to her family. Police have not released details of how Alesha died.

On Friday the teenager appeared in Greenock sheriff court on the mainland. He was charged with rape and murder. He entered no plea.

Everyone in this small community has their opinion about the tragedy. But nothing will be known until a trial is held.

For now, this once peaceful island and Alesha’s family are left only with questions — and their grief.

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/alesha-macphail-death-bute-grieves-for-its-innocence-d8vr256ll

The Sunday Times: County lines — a new form of modern-day slavery

Inner-city gangs are trafficking children to sell drugs in towns and villages across Britain — a practice known as “county lines”. Why are their victims being criminalised?

I used to worry about his education and what he’d want to be when he grew up. Now I worry he could end up dead.” Sarah looks down at her hands clasped tight on her lap and starts to cry. “I don’t know what it’s like to have a son pass away, but that’s how it feels — that sense of loss.”

Theirs had been a “calm, loving family”. Sarah and her son, James, had always been close. Her family doted on him. “Spoilt rotten,” Sarah says, remembering how “every weekend, without fail, we’d get together as a family for dinner and he’d be doing a little performance”. They had a good life in London. Sarah worked in the City. Sometimes James would join her at her office, playing on the spare computer, legs swinging under the desk. They took holidays at their second home in Spain and did things together every weekend. But when James started secondary school, things changed dramatically.

Well-mannered, bright and popular, it was in sports that James shone. He represented the school in rugby, basketball and football. In hindsight, Sarah wonders if her first warning should have been how out-of-character it was when, one week, James refused to go to practice. He just didn’t feel up to it, he told his mother, who reassured his coaches he would be back next week. Then he refused to go again. “Initially, I thought maybe he was doing too much, with training in the week and matches on weekends. I thought perhaps he needed a break.”

Then James started coming home late. “Really late for a 14-year-old — 8pm, 9pm, then, on a few occasions, after midnight,” says Sarah. He’d make excuses — claim practice had overrun, or he had been with mates. “He was getting older and I assumed it was the usual teenage stuff of wanting to hang out with friends. I got upset with him, but that only seemed to escalate the situation.” James started disappearing overnight, then for weeks at a time, returning dirty, dishevelled and anxious. He refused to say where he’d been. His mother tried “everything”. She grounded him, confiscated his mobile, questioned him: where was he going? Who was he with?

“Nothing worked — he would go out anyway,” says Sarah, explaining that, by then, James’s behaviour had drastically changed. “He would spit in my face and call me names. It’s so hard to expect anyone to imagine it. What I didn’t know then was that normal parental boundaries wouldn’t work, because he was under duress.”

One day when James was 15 he jumped out of a window at their home and disappeared for three months. Frantic, Sarah searched his bedroom, finding a train ticket to Norfolk. Not long afterwards, she heard that James had been spotted at a mainline station. Sarah reported her son missing to the police, but it would be months before she learnt the truth.

James had become a victim of an alarming and underreported form of modern-day slavery affecting British teenagers. Police and local authorities call it “county lines”. It involves young people being recruited by inner-city gangs, put in cars or on trains, and trafficked hundreds of miles away from their home to seaside towns and small villages. Once there, they are given a mobile phone through which to sell drugs, usually crack and heroin. By running these telephone lines in different counties, city gangs have expanded their operations outside the saturated markets into new territories.

Available: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/county-lines-a-new-form-of-modern-day-slavery-9lzw8kss2

Image: GETTY

The Sunday Times: Candice Carty-Williams: my Queenie speaks for a whole other Britain

Queenie opens with a woman sarcastically texting “Wish you were here” to her ex-boyfriend while she lies with her legs in the stirrups for a gynaecological examination. From that moment, the book is a whirlwind of WhatsApp chats, terrible OkCupid dates, maddening millennials, horrendous flat-shares, humiliating trips to the sexual health clinic, friendship, therapy and lots of casual sex. “I put more sex in it but it was cut out,” Queenie’s author, Candice Carty-Williams, laughs.

Queenie — the book’s heroine — is a funny, sensitive, 25-year-old black woman contending with modern life. At turns hilarious and reflective, the book is also an exploration of race, sex and shame among young women. Queenie’s is a rare and urgently needed voice. “I believe that this voice needs to be part of literature,” Carty-Williams says. She’s right.

I meet her at the Penguin Random House office in London, where she works as a publishing executive. The success of her debut novel has turned her overnight into a bright young thing whose name appears on influencers’ Twitter feeds, in Radio 4 debates, and who is No 6 in The Sunday Times hardback bestseller list. Queenie has already been optioned for television. Carty-Williams is writing the pilot.
“I’ve never thought I could be here. When I was growing up I didn’t have any aspirations for myself. I didn’t think I’d amount to anything,” she says.Carty-Williams, who grew up in south London, always loved books. “They were my saviours.” She wanted to study English but her school encouraged her to read media studies instead.