Look of a saint. But she was a brutal racketeer

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The Independent Online
Yvonne Gilford, the Australian nurse murdered in Saudi Arabia, used Filipino martial arts experts to enforce widespread loan-sharking activities, according to a British pharmacist. While Deborah Parry and Lucille McLauchlan continue to deny killing Gilford, it has become clear that many other people could have had a motive for the murder.

The picture released by Yvonne Gilford's family after her murder last December made her look angelic. In fact, the 55-year-old Australian nurse had a fearsome reputation as a brutal loan-shark who employed hired heavies to beat loan repayments out of her victims.

A witness statement made by a part-time pharmacist at the King Fahd Military Medical Centre in Dhahran, and obtained by The Independent, describes Ms Gilford as a ruthless operator and tells how one of her debtors suffered broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder at the hands of her enforcers.

The statement was made by Jacqueline Taylor, 48, who used to work at the medical centre. It paints a far from angelic picture, describing how Ms Gilford cashed in on the Saudi authorities' failure to pay salaries regularly, resulting in many young nurses having to borrow from the older Ms Gilford at exorbitant rates of interest. Mrs Taylor also describes how one of Ms Gilford's heavies tried to recruit her son, a karate blackbelt, into the debt collection operation.

Mrs Taylor said she had returned to her home in Scotland when Ms Gilford was found stabbed, beaten and suffocated last December.

But, she added: "No-one was surprised by the fact she had been murdered. I think most people expected it to happen long before this."

Mrs Taylor, 48, met Ms Gilford in May 1996 while she was working in Saudi with her husband, Robert, the general manager of a local company. She covered for a colleague at the King Fahd complex and soon discovered that Ms Gilford's tough reputation went before her.

During the summer of 1996, Mrs Taylor's son, Derek, a second dan blackbelt, visited her and was approached by one of the enforcers, a named karate instructor in Dhahran, and asked if he wanted to earn some money. Most of the enforcers were Filipinos. "Derek told me he was being asked to approach various people to intimidate and threaten them because they owed Yvonne Gilford sums of money they had borrowed from her," said Mrs Taylor.

"The reason Derek had been approached was because apparently the Filipinos operated in threes. One member of a particular group was on holiday and they were asking Derek to fill in in his absence.

"It was common knowledge that persons who were in debt to Yvonne Gilford were followed by the Filipinos, who had been issued with photographs of their victims. Derek told me that he had been asked to work two nights for a fee of 500 Riyals (pounds 83)." Her son declined.

Mrs Taylor said Ms Gilford would charge rates of interest at 25 per cent a month. Failure to pay would result in another 25 per cent being added to the debt.

"My understanding is that most people who owed Yvonne Gilford money and failed to repay on time were threatened and intimidated and eventually paid their outstanding debts to her," she said.

"It was common gossip that if you borrowed the sum of 1,000 Riyals (pounds 167) you had to pay back 1,250 Riyals. That was the amount of interest, approximately 25 per cent, that she charged on a loan. If, however, the borrower was late in make a payment and had to be warned more than once, then she charged a further 25 per cent on the outstanding amount.

"I remember being told of a nurse ... at the King Fahd Military Medical Centre who had been beaten up by three Filipinos and she sustained three broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder because she had not paid her debt," she added.

However, her statement - which the Sharia court refused to consider - also contains information which the nurses' defence lawyers will not find helpful. She claims that it was "common knowledge" that Ms Gilford was a lesbian - a main plank of the prosecution case and something the defence is trying to disprove.

Last week, $1.2m (pounds 730,000) was paid to Frank Gilford in "blood money" to persuade him to ask for clemency should the Saudi courts find Deborah Parry guilty of "intentional murder". Ms McLauchlan has already been found guilty of a lesser charge and sentenced to eight years in prison and 500 lashes.

The women claim false confessions - centering round a furious row over a broken lesbian relationship - were forced out of them. Their defence lawyer, Salah Hejailan, has made it a condition of the payment that Mr Gilford repeats to the court earlier assertions that his sister was not a lesbian. The two nurses claim no such relationship existed.

Mr Hejailan is also demanding that Mr Gilford joins the defence in calling for the release of all police evidence against the nurses. There is no provision for disclosure under Saudi law, but Mr Hejailan hopes a plea from the nurses and the victim's brother may result in at least the most basic information being released.