Glasgow & West Scotland

Margaret Fleming's carers claim she is still alive

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Media captionMargaret Fleming's carers speak about her disappearance

The couple who cared for missing woman Margaret Fleming have spoken for the first time since her disappearance was reported almost a year ago.

Police said Margaret, who has learning difficulties, had not been seen by anyone except her carers - Eddie Cairney and Avril Jones - since 1999.

The couple told BBC Scotland Margaret had fled when police arrived because she had a "persecution complex".

They said she had come to "no harm" and had spoken to her recently.

A police spokeswoman confirmed that they knew of no independent sighting of Margaret since 17 December 1999 at a family gathering.

But Mr Cairney, 75, said that over the past year she had been in London and Poland and was now working as a gangmaster.

He said that despite her learning difficulties Margaret was recruiting cheap agricultural labour in the south of England.

Margaret became a missing person in October last year after police visited the five-bedroom cottage on the Clyde coast at Inverkip, Inverclyde, in connection with inquiries from a benefits agency.

Mr Cairney said Margaret had slipped "out of the door" when the police called because she was scared of authority.

Asked if he had seen her since, Mr Cairney said: "Yes, she has been here once. Not here, not to the house, but we have seen her once."

He said this was within a month of her being reported missing.

Image caption Margaret Fleming was reported missing in October 2016

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"When we saw her she was just the way she left, contrary to earlier days, she was clean and behaved, she had stopped this shouting and bawling at you."

He said he had spoken to Margaret on the phone since then.

He told the BBC: "She has come to no harm unless she has got harmed in the past couple of weeks."

Margaret had first gone to live with the couple at their secluded home, looking out over the Clyde estuary, in the late 1990s after her father died and her relationship with her mother broke down.

Reported missing

Mr Cairney said he had known her father, who he described as a "crooked lawyer", and had known Margaret since she was a child.

The police said that Margaret, who will now be 36, has not been seen by anyone but the two carers since 1999, when she was 19.

Before that she had attended a local college but had since never had a job and had no presence in the online world.

They have not managed to trace any friends from the past 18 years.

Image copyright PA
Image caption It is understood Margaret Fleming had lived in the Inverkip house since 1999

Police began a search of the house in November last year which they then extended into the garden, where excavation work was carried out on half an acre of land.

By April this year, the search had concluded.

Officers said Margaret "could have had an accident, possibly wanted to be missing or even something more sinister".

The original police contact was sparked by a call from a benefits agency.

It appears that Margaret's Disability Living Allowance (DLA) was being replaced by a Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and she was required to attend an assessment.

Out of the door

Mr Cairney told the BBC that Margaret had a "persecution complex" and was afraid of authority.

He said she ran off when the police arrived at the house.

Mr Cairney said: "I turned around to get Margaret and she was gone, out of the door.

"There was police at the back, police at the front, she could not get out of that door without being seen.

"I don't know which way she went. She must have just walked right through them."

Image caption The back garden of the house Margaret Fleming shared with her carers was dug up

Mr Cairney described Margaret as a "happy person but she had fits of being very morose".

He said: "She was short, fat, dirty, she would not clean herself."

When asked if he had heard from her since she went missing, he said: "Yes I have.

"I've heard her on the phone but the police took the phones away so she wouldn't know how to contact us.

"The first time that I knew where she was she was in London.

"I told the police that. I told the police where she could be found in the next six hours and they didn't do anything about it."

'Become a gangmaster'

He said over the year since Margaret was reported missing she had been in Poland and London.

"I have got no idea how many other places. She has been doing a gangmaster, do you know what that is?

"In spite of her difficulties she has become a person who recruits and hires out agricultural workers."

Asked to confirm if he meant that she worked for a gangmaster, Mr Cairney replied: "No, she has become a gangmaster. She is hiring people."

Image caption Eddie Cairney in the house the couple shared with Margaret

When asked if Margaret had told him what she was doing, Mr Cairney said: "We knew from people in the area that she was around because obviously she did not disappear and we would not try to get her."

The couple said that the police did not believe their story.

"They didn't believe us or they wanted to disbelieve us," Mr Cairney said.

'Very concerned'

A spokeswoman for Police Scotland said: "This case remains a missing person inquiry, and at this time we continue to appeal to people with any information on Margaret's whereabouts, or anyone who knows her - who has not yet spoken to police - to come forward to police.

"Officers were asked to attend Margaret's home on behalf of a partner agency. Officers attended the house on Friday 28 October 2016, and it is then that she was reported missing."

She said the search of the house and garden failed to find any trace of her.

The spokeswoman confirmed that the last independent sighting of Margaret was on 17 December 1999 at a family gathering.

"This, along with facts such as her having no trace of any job, few friends that are contactable, and no evidence of her contact with partner agencies and local services has led us to become very concerned for her whereabouts and wellbeing," she said.

"The case has been widely reported in the media and although we have carried out extensive inquiries during this almost year-long investigation, we have no information on anyone who has seen Margaret after 17 December 1999."


TIMELINE

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October 1995 - It is believed Ms Fleming lived with her father in Port Glasgow before he died.

1997 - She then lived with her grandparents and mother but moved in with the carers in 1997. She is thought to have been estranged from her mother since then.

17 December 1999 - Family party. Last sighting of Margaret Fleming by anyone except her carers - Eddie Cairney and Avril Jones.

28 October 2016 - Margaret Fleming reported missing by her carers. The 36-year-old woman was described as being 5ft 5in, with collar length, black hair and brown eyes and of heavy build.

10 November - Police reveal that Margaret has not been seen in public for "quite some time". They appealed for people who knew her when she was at James Watt College in Greenock 20 years ago to contact them.

Police launch a large-scale search with police divers deployed and officers are spotted combing a large area of ground near the electricity sub-station in the hillside above the A78.

Police say they have limited information and are unable to issue a recent photograph.

Local residents say they have never seen Margaret.

26 November - Despite numerous appeals and searches by specialist police teams, including the mounted unit, divers and dog branch, there has been no trace of Margaret. Ch Insp Elliot Brown said: "This has been one of the most challenging missing person inquiries of my career because of Margaret's secluded lifestyle."

30 November - Police search the home of the carers

12 December - Search moves from the house to the garden. Police say that, apart from her carers, the last independent sighting of Margaret was on 17 December 1999, at a family gathering. Officers say they have no trace of her having a job, no friends have come forward and she had had no contact with any agencies. Det Ch Insp Paul Livingstone said: "Margaret's carers have said that they believe she has a private side to her life and that she may have friends that they are not aware of."

13 December - Police start to dig up garden.

16 December - Drone footage shows garden being dug up

17 December - Police make fresh appeal exactly 17 years after Margaret was last seen.

21 December - Drones banned from flying over the site

28 April 2017 - Police say search of house, garden and surrounding area is complete but investigations are ongoing

10 August 2017 - A demolition order is served on the house. Inverclyde Council said the property was in a "serious state of disrepair" and was "unfit for human habitation".

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