Doorstep killing brings fear and suspicion to a Highland town

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The Independent Online

As the Christmas lights were switched on in Nairn this week, the festive spirit in the small Highland town was marred by feelings of fear, grief and, most of all, bewilderment.

As the Christmas lights were switched on in Nairn this week, the festive spirit in the small Highland town was marred by feelings of fear, grief and, most of all, bewilderment.

Almost a week after the tranquillity of the seaside resort was shattered by the doorstep killing of a popular bank manager, detectives have admitted they are still no closer to finding the killer. Yesterday, the Northern Constabulary said that Alistair Wilson's murderer may have fled by speedboat after shooting the 30-year-old at his detached Victorian home.

Someone was seen on a boat in Nairn harbour hours before the killing and officers are also investigating the discovery of a speedboat at the other side of the Moray Firth.

In one of the biggest police operations mounted by the force, tomorrow about 40 officers will stop and question passersby and motorists in Nairn, which has a population of 11,000, in an attempt to jog memories and solicit even the smallest clue to the murder last Sunday.

Mr Wilson was attacked shortly after 7pm as he was putting his two sons, Graham, four, and Andrew, two, to bed. In an area where winter darkness falls by mid-afternoon, a stranger wearing a baseball cap had approached the house in Crescent Road overlooking the beach and rang the bell.

He asked Mr Wilson's wife Veronica, 33, to speak to her husband. Concerned at the caller's aggressive body language, Mrs Wilson is said to have told her husband that a "weird guy" was at the door. The man is believed to have handed his victim a blue or green envelope which Mr Wilson took back into the house and briefly discussed with his wife who was tending to their boys. Moments later, Mr Wilson returned to the door and was shot at point-blank range at least once in the body and twice in the head with what is thought to have been a small, automatic handgun.

Despite the efforts of Mrs Wilson, who twice ran to the Havelock Hotel opposite their home for help, her husband of six years was pronounced dead soon after he was rushed to Raigmore Hospital 16 miles away in Inverness. Despite exhaustive searches of the area, the A4 envelope has never been found, raising suspicions that the gunman snatched it back.

Detective Chief Inspector Peter MacPhee, leading the murder hunt, said the murder was one of the most unusual he has investigated in his 27-year career. "There appears to be no motive," he said. "Alistair was an upstanding member of the community and respected within banking circles," he said.

So far, more than 100 people have been interviewed, and thousands of man-hours have been invested in door-to-door inquiries and finger-tip searches - aided by dog teams and metal detectors - of adjoining streets, playing fields and beaches.

But despite all the activity, there are few clues to the identity of the white, clean-shaven, 5ft 4in, stocky man aged 35-40 who pulled the trigger. For days now in the pubs, shops and cafés of the old fishing village - which in recent times has become a retirement community for middle-class professionals, a dormitory town for Inverness commuters and a tourist destination - most of the 11,000 residents have been preoccupied with the murder. It is almost 20 years since another happened in Nairn, in 1986, when a fight broke out at a wedding party.

Now, in place of facts, speculation is common. Rumours that a family member was involved have been dismissed by police who have ruled out any domestic motive. Likewise, officers have played down suggestions of a "professional hit" as the gunman could have shot Mr Wilson when he first appeared at the door but instead engaged him in conversation.

"Nobody gets shot for nothing," said one man who claimed to have heard that, in the days leading up to the shooting, Mr Wilson had appeared a "troubled man" and had been keeping a low profile in town. Even though he had no connection to Mr Wilson, the middle-aged man admitted he felt uneasy and said he didn't want to give his name because there was a "lunatic with a gun out there".

"The town is devastated by this tragedy," said the provost of Nairn, Sandy Park. "People are concerned that someone in their midst has done this. I can hardly believe something like this has happened in our town."

Although the police have tried to assure the public that the murder is an "extremely unusual" crime, they have moved Mrs Wilson and her two children to a secret location. As their main witness, who saw and spoke to the gunman, she has continued to provide detectives as she remembers what happened and is able to piece together events.

For the moment, the police are concentrating on the likelihood that the killing is in some way business-related and that possibly Mr Wilson's response to the letter proved fatal.

Originally from Ayrshire, Mr Wilson joined the Bank of Scotland as a new graduate. He transferred to business banking in Inverness in November 1999, with responsibility for dealing with loan applications from small and medium-sized companies. He had been due to leave the bank yesterday to start a new job as commercial director of a business consultancy.

"We are trying to build up a picture of Mr Wilson's lifestyle," said Det Ch Insp MacPhee. "We are still at the information-gathering stage and we need to sift through that information to find vital clues. The fact we haven't identified this individual [the killer] is concerning to me and the sooner we do so the better."