Malcolm Webster guilty of wife's murder

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The Independent Online

A man was convicted today of murdering his first wife and attempting to kill his second in staged car crashes as part of a plot to pocket almost £1 million in insurance payouts.

Malcolm Webster, 52, a qualified nurse, murdered Claire Morris, 32, in a staged car crash in 1994 and fraudulently claimed more than £200,000 from insurance policies following her death.

She died when the vehicle in which she was a passenger crashed and caught fire in Aberdeenshire in May 1994.

Webster, from Guildford in Surrey, drugged her, driving the car off the road and starting a fire while she was unconscious in the vehicle.

He was also convicted at the High Court in Glasgow of attempting to murder Felicity Drumm in a deliberate car crash in New Zealand in February 1999, in a bid to claim more than £750,000 of insurance money.

Webster drugged Ms Drumm at locations in New Zealand and the UK between July 1996 and February 1999, to the danger of her life and the wellbeing of her unborn child.

The jury took less than four hours to convict Webster following the longest criminal trial with a single accused in Scottish legal history.

Webster claimed his first wife's death was a tragic accident and denied the charges against him, but the jury of nine women and six men found him unanimously guilty of the murder.

Described in court as a "cruel, practised deceiver", Webster obtained more than £200,000 in insurance payouts after killing Ms Morris.

Webster sat still and showed little emotion in court as the guilty verdicts were announced.

On the day he killed his first wife, Webster coldly told people who stopped to help at the crash scene that no one was inside the Daihatsu 4x4 vehicle before it was engulfed in flames.

Petrol cans were also stacked in the back of the vehicle.

Webster was previously spotted in a field looking at the area where Ms Morris would later die.

Webster, who went on trial on February 1, told police in 1994 that he swerved to avoid a motorcyclist and crashed.

But after the investigation into Ms Morris's death was re-opened in 2008, forensic tests on a tissue sample from her liver revealed she had been given a sedative before the crash.

Experts also said the crash would have been at low speed as Ms Morris's body had not moved in her seat.

Witnesses travelled from Peru, Yemen, Australia, New Zealand and America to give evidence during the trial.

In his closing address to the jury, prosecutor Derek Ogg QC said Webster's "reign of destruction is at an end".

Defence QC Edgar Prais argued that Webster was a liar, a philanderer and a thief, but not a killer. But the jury did not believe Webster's version of events.

Chief Inspector Phil Chapman, the senior investigating officer in the case for Grampian Police, said: "The thing that struck me was he was an individual who has, and will continue to have, an insatiable appetite for wealth and the trappings of wealth which knew literally no bounds.

"He basically has used his wife as a vehicle to obtain money.

"He literally spent over £200,000 in a six-month period (after the death of Ms Morris), so that basically took him back to being almost insolvent again. Seventeen years ago that amount of money was a huge, huge amount of money to spend in six months."

Webster decided not to spend the insurance money on paying off his mortgage. Instead he lavished gifts on women he was involved with soon after Ms Morris's death. He also splashed out on a Range Rover and yacht.

Mr Chapman said Webster then had to "try and reconcile money from somewhere" through selling the vehicle and boat at a loss, but the money was then "frittered away very, very quickly".

Police started investigating Webster's past when one of his second wife's sisters, while on a business trip to England, contacted British police in June 2006 to report her suspicions about him.

Webster tried to kill Ms Drumm, 50, to gain more than £750,000-worth of insurance money.

Ms Drumm, a New Zealand citizen, told the court she and Webster, whom she married in 1997, travelled to New Zealand from Scotland towards the end of 1998 with a view to setting up a permanent home there.

Webster told the court he feigned a heart attack and deliberately drove the car off the road because they were on their way to their bank, and he knew there were no funds in a joint account.

During the trial, he insisted he did not want to kill or hurt his wife, but the jury found him guilty of attempted murder.

Ms Drumm also told the court that during the time of their house-buying negotiations in New Zealand, she added Webster's name to one of her bank accounts at his suggestion, after being made to feel "churlish" for saying she did not want to do so.

She later found nearly all of the 140,000 New Zealand dollars in the account had vanished.

On a trip to the bank, Webster accelerated to around 60mph and veered across two motorway lanes before leaving the carriageway in an attempt to kill her.

Prosecutors were able to try Webster for crimes in New Zealand because his bank accounts linked to the insurance policies were in Scotland.

The planning for the fraud had begun and been executed in Scotland.

Giving evidence earlier in the trial, Ms Drumm described the terrifying moment Webster crashed the car they were travelling in.

Neither was injured when the vehicle came to a stop, but Webster screamed at his second wife to stay in the car.

Ms Drumm got out of the vehicle to safety.

Webster also drugged his second wife. She told the court she slept for 36 hours after drinking a cup of tea he had given her on their honeymoon.

Webster was found guilty of a range of crimes stretching over a 14-year period, from 1994 to 2008, including theft, fraud and attempted bigamy.

The charges on which he was convicted spanned 11 pages on the indictment.

Following the jury's verdict after a 16-week trial, prosecutors said his conviction represents the culmination of a "vast and painstaking" investigation by Grampian Police, New Zealand police, the Crown Office and other criminal justice agencies in the UK and New Zealand over a number of years.

Developments in forensic toxicology, forensic accountancy, crash investigation and fire investigation techniques were also crucial in gathering the evidence required to prosecute Webster, they said.

Lindsey Miller, head of the serious and organised crime division at the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS), said: "This was a hugely complex case, involving hundreds of witnesses, productions, and financial documentary evidence stretching over a 14-year period. A vast amount of painstaking work went into this investigation and prosecution.

"Webster was a calculating criminal who wove a web of lies and deceit around people who entered his life in good faith. He took careful steps to cover up his crimes, including using specialist medical knowledge gained through his career as a nurse.

"It is thanks also to the determination of police and prosecutors, together with significant advancements made in forensic science technology and investigation techniques over the last two decades, that the evidence required to prosecute Webster became available.

"I would like to commend the persistence and tenacity of all those who worked tirelessly to bring Webster to justice for these appalling crimes."

Judge Lord Bannatyne adjourned the case until July 5 at the High Court in Edinburgh.

He said he would like to obtain a social inquiry report and also asked for information about Webster's financial position.

He said: "I would like to have some understanding of the accused's financial position as I would like to consider a compensation order, given what happened to Ms Drumm."

Advocate Steven Borthwick, defending Webster, said he understood there were no assets.

Edgar Prais QC, who defended Webster throughout the trial, was not in court for the verdict.

Lord Bannatyne thanked the jury for their conduct during a "long, complicated and really most difficult trial".

He said: "The only prize I can give you is that you are excused for the rest of your lives as jurors."

The judge also thanked the lawyers involved in the case, saying: "It shows the very high standards of the Scottish Bar, the way this has been conducted."

Speaking outside court today, the brother of Ms Morris said he felt "elated" and that there was "justice for Claire".

Peter Morris said: "I now feel that Claire, who has waited 17 years for this, after her death, will now be able to rest in peace."

Reading from a statement, he said: "Today is a good day. There is now justice for Claire.

"The guilty verdict of murder has proven that Malcolm Webster is a wicked murderer.

"I feel today is a good day as the psychological sadism over me and my family, and many other people, is now broken.

"As the truth came out it broke the web of deception Malcolm Webster had created around him.

"Since the reopening of the case in 2008, it has taken approximately three years and three months to arrive at this conclusion. During this time my family and I have experienced every range of emotion which is impossible to convey, but at times it has been a rollercoaster ride."

He said he was "very happy" the "process was at an end".

The 48-year-old also thanked Chief Inspector Chapman and his team, and the Crown Office.

Mr Morris said it was a "thorough and tenacious" re-investigation of the case.

He continued: "Claire is greatly missed. She was good company.

"We were proud of Claire becoming a nurse. Claire's death is devastating. We get upset when we think about how she suffered when she died and are sad at the loss.

"My mother has lost a daughter and her best friend. I have lost a sister, my dearest sister."

Mr Chapman paid tribute to the "dignity and courage" shown by Ms Morris's family, including her mother Betty.

He said: "In February 2008, I first met Claire's family and had to tell them that we believed Claire's death, 14 years earlier, was not a tragic accident, but a premeditated and planned murder, committed by her husband, the man to whom she had pledged her life.

"This was clearly a devastating revelation, which generated many questions and a range of traumatic emotions for them."

He also praised Ms Drumm and her family for their determination to bring Webster to justice.

He said: "Their lives have been blighted since February 19, 1999 when the web of lies spun by Malcolm Webster began to unravel. Indeed it was the family's pursuit of Malcolm Webster which led us to reconsider the circumstances surrounding Claire's death.

"Malcolm Webster's actions display a complete contempt for human life, which were apparently fuelled by an insatiable appetite for wealth. For 17 years it was the perfect murder. He got away with it for 17 years, because he made it look like an accident.

"A skilled conman, his desire for the trappings of wealth to fund his affluent lifestyle led him to routinely betray those who placed their trust and faith in him.

"He peddled his lies across different continents believing his chilling and callous crimes would go undetected. But he severely underestimated the determination and will of the many people whom he had deceived.

"It was only after a painstaking investigation into Malcolm Webster's life, taking us literally to the other side of the world, and using truly innovative technology and investigative techniques, that the true magnitude of his crimes became clear."