Twists and turns in decades-long hunt for 'mystery of A9' killer

Bizarre twists and turns in decades-long hunt for ‘mystery of A9’ killer: How Scottish police turned to Swiss clairvoyant for help and suspect claimed lover and son, three, he murdered in 1976 were alive and sending him coded messages

  • William MacDowell was convicted of the killing his lover and their three-year-old son more than 45 years ago 
  • The murder was having an affair with Renee MacRae, when she and her son Andrew disappeared in 1976 
  • Police have never found the bodies and officers are now urging the killer to disclose what he did with them   

The conviction of 80-year-old William MacDowell for murdering his lover and their young son more than 45 years ago finally brings an end to a case full of remarkable twists and turns. 

The road to justice for Renee MacRae, 36, and Andrew, her baby, has been long and painful, with police at one point growing so desperate that they turned to the services of a Swiss clairvoyant. 

MacDowell only gave one media interview, days after the police investigation began, in which he admitted he was Andrew’s real father and claimed he had ended the affair, that Renee was still alive and that, bizarrely, he was receiving coded telephone calls from her, although she never spoke.

Asked by a Glasgow Herald journalist if he had mentioned this to police, he said it must have slipped his mind. There were numerous accounts of MacDowell’s strange behaviour in the days after the murders in November 1976. 

At one point, he visited a Volvo dealership urgently demanding a replacement floor for the rear cargo area of his car, saying he had burned the original after damaging it by throwing building material from a house-building project in the back.

He left furious that a new one could not be fitted that day. He had been ordered to return the company car after he was sacked but stalled, claiming he needed to clean the car first. A colleague sent to collect it found him scrubbing out the boot.

William MacDowell with wife Rosemary at Inverness court before he was sentenced to serve at least 30 years in jail


William MacDowell, 80, has been found guilty murdering 36-year-old Renee MacRae (left) and their son Andrew (right) at a layby south of Inverness on November 12, 1976

At one point, MacDowell visited a Volvo dealership urgently demanding a replacement floor for the rear cargo area of his car, saying he had burned the original after damaging it by throwing building material from a house-building project in the back. This picture shows a replica 

Although suspicion soon fell upon MacDowell after he tried to lie about his involvement with Renee, an alibi provided by his loyal wife, Rosemary, placed a major roadblock in the police’s way.

MacDowell claimed he had drinks with colleagues at the Mercury Motor Inn in Inverness until just after 7pm on the day Renee and Andrew went missing before returning home via a visit to the office by 8.15pm. 

Mrs MacDowell insisted that he had arrived back between 8 and 8.30pm, after her daughters watched a television programme about cowboys, then gone to bed.

But when detectives re-interviewed her under caution a decade later and pointed out that the programme in question, The Quest, did not start until 9.25pm, she angrily retorted: ‘I don’t know what you’re getting on at me for, I never stabbed her or whatever happened to her.’

MacDowell joins the handful of people found guilty of murder in the absence of a body.

His wickedness extended to killing a defenceless child – his own flesh and blood. Such unfathomable evil has long been compounded by his implacable refusal either to admit his guilt or reveal where his victims are buried in order to allow their relatives and friends a chance to properly grieve their loss.

Now, at least, a jury has ensured the man responsible for their long years of suffering will face a reckoning for his crimes. 

At the start of the police investigation, nothing seemed so clear-cut. The first inkling anything was wrong came after a blue BMW 1602 saloon was spotted on fire on Friday, November 12, 1976, in a lay-by on the A9 at Dalmagarry, 14 miles south of Inverness.

The burning vehicle belonged to Hugh MacRae & Co, a local building firm and major employer in Inverness, but it was always driven by Christina Catherine MacRae, 36, known as Renee, the estranged wife of company boss Gordon MacRae.

Doting Mum Renee MacRae with Andrew when he was about three months old and oldest son Gordon junior. Her disappearance in November 1976 was one of the biggest and most baffling murder mysteries ever investigated by a Scottish police force

Bill MacDowell, was finally convicted of the murder of Renee MacRae and of their three-year-old lovechild, Andrew. He joins the handful of people found guilty of murder in the absence of a body

Gordon and Renee MacRae on their wedding day on May 17, 1963

The couple had married in 1963 but, by 1974, they had split up and petite, blonde mother-of-two Renee was living in a luxury bungalow in Inverness, supported financially by her husband, who had taken up with his receptionist, Vivienne.

Unbeknown to him, though, Renee had also fallen for someone at his offices – company secretary Bill MacDowell.

MacDowell was a well-known figure in Inverness long before his name was linked with Renee MacRae. Trim and athletic, he played tennis, squash and badminton and opponents recall a powerful, quick-tempered player who ‘hated to lose face’. One said: ‘He always gave 100 per cent and often smashed his racquet.’

On that fateful weekend, Renee had told her husband she was heading to Kilmarnock to visit her sister, Morag Govans, and was taking Andrew with her while their son Gordon junior, then aged nine, would stay with his father.

Renee would be back in plenty of time to collect him from school on Monday afternoon.

When Gordon was informed about the BMW by police, he phoned Morag and discovered Renee and Andrew were not in Kilmarnock. At first, he was not concerned, as he suspected Renee’s story was a cover because he knew he was not Andrew’s father and had known for years she had a lover, although he did not know who.

He told the police he thought Renee had parked the car somewhere and gone to her destination in another vehicle, so presumed it had been stolen by joyriders. He imagined she would be home by Monday with Andrew, but when neither turned up, the worry set in and a search was launched.

Renee Macrae and her son Andrew who have been missing since 1976. MacDowell was today convicted of their murders

William MacDowell (left) and his wife Rosemary (right). He was today convicted of the murders of Renee and Andrew MacRae

Poignant: A photo was previously released showing Renee had packed up possessions, ready to start a new life

As police sifted for clues to her whereabouts, they lifted the lid on a hidden world of middle-class infidelity in the 1970s Highlands, where the MacRaes and the MacDowells crossed paths.

They moved in the same social circles, attending the same parties – one picture from this time shows Renee and MacDowell’s wife, Rosemary, at a New Year party.

By then the secret, extramarital affair was in full swing – in fact Renee may already have been pregnant with MacDowell’s son.

Andrew was born nine months later in 1973. Even when Renee moved out of the family home and into the bungalow, she told her husband nothing about the identity of her lover.

The only person let into this secret – and the truth of Andrew’s parentage – was her best friend and confidante Val Steventon.

Mrs Steventon knew many more of her friend’s secrets. She knew a besotted Renee had been quietly packing everything in her bungalow in the belief that she would be moving to Shetland with MacDowell later that month.

She knew that, on the weekend of her disappearance, her friend had not been on her way to her sister’s in Kilmarnock, as she had told friends, but had plans to meet her lover, who had insisted she take little Andrew along so he could get to know him better.

When Renee had failed to show up three days after her burning car was found, Mrs Steventon told the police everything she knew, fearing she might never see her friend alive again. She hinted at the volatility of the affair, later recalling her last words to her friend were: ‘Have a nice weekend Renee, no fighting.’

A Northern Police appeal poster from late 1976. For decades the case was Scotland’s most baffling unsolved murder mystery

A photo of pushchair identical to that owned by Mrs Macrae was released by police, in a bid to try and find her

On the night of their disappearance, a farmer’s wife told the police she heard a ‘blood-curdling’ scream

MacDowell had to admit to the police that he was Renee’s secret lover, and Andrew’s father. Gordon MacRae, devastated and embarrassed, promptly sacked him.

MacDowell told police that although the couple had a tentative arrangement to spend the weekend together, it was never confirmed and he had decided not to go. He denied any plan to move to Shetland with Renee or that he had secured a job or house there.

What is clear is that by the time Renee disappeared, her long affair with MacDowell had come to a make or break point.

Mrs Steventon recalled: ‘He really took Renee in completely. She even packed up everything. Things were getting a bit hot for MacDowell because little Andrew was starting to point at him and call him Daddy. I think he knew Renee was getting very involved with him, more than he was with her.’

Some believed she had threatened to reveal he was Andrew’s father unless he left his wife and lived with her. He was motivated, detectives now believe, by the fact he had a comfortable lifestyle and stood to lose everything if the affair became public knowledge.

Events became increasingly dramatic after it emerged MacDowell had gone to police the month after Renee and Andrew vanished to give them ‘significant’ information. A police source revealed the accountant had seemed ‘very upset’ but his furious wife spotted his car outside police HQ and removed him from the building before he could complete his statement. Detectives were frustrated, believing it may have been his time to talk about his involvement.

William MacDowell was the biological father of Andrew Macrae, who he was found guilty of murdering

The two women in Bill MacDowell’s life – Renee MacRae (left) and Rosemary MacDowell at a New Year party in 1973

Meanwhile, a routine missing persons inquiry hardened into a full-blown murder hunt that was gripping the public imagination, although early blunders and delays hampered the police’s best chance of finding the killer.

In the burnt-out shell of the BMW, since destroyed, the only hard evidence was a bloodstain the size of a half-crown found in the boot which matched Renee’s type. It is thought the fire brigade’s hoses washed away what other evidence there may have been. However inconclusive, the blood spot was the first clue to foul play.

An episode of the BBC Current Account programme, first aired on November 26, 1976, and shown in court, gave a flavour of the ‘mystery of the A9’ and the early confusion in police minds about what they were dealing with.

Donald Henderson, the then chief constable of Northern Constabulary, told the programme: ‘We’ve got no idea if a crime was committed. There was a clandestine association involved. When people are involved in a clandestine association you get deceit.’

By now, the search was costing £10,000 a day and involved police divers, search dogs, helicopters and door-to-door inquiries. RAF bombers with heat-seeking devices flew over the Highlands hoping to pick up a reading which could indicate a body, while a Swiss clairvoyant was consulted and a hypnotist called in to tap the inner minds of key figures such as Mr MacRae and Mrs Steventon for forgotten information. Only MacDowell refused to take part.

Officers were already slowly building up a different, more disturbing picture of events that wet and foggy Friday night.

Farmer’s wife Eva MacQueen heard a ‘blood-curdling’ scream between 7.30pm and 8pm as she stood outside at Dalmagarry Farm close to where Renee’s car was found, while another witness told officers he saw a Volvo and a BMW parked nose to tail in the lay-by. MacDowell drove a dark-coloured Volvo 145 estate. A man was also seen ducking down out of sight beside a Volvo estate on a single-track lane near Dalmagarry by two workmen as they drove to meet their girlfriends in a pub. They assumed his attempts to hide from them were because he was a poacher.

Another witness, teacher Jean Wallace, saw a man with ‘wide and staring’ eyes wheeling a pushchair on the A9. Andrew’s pushchair has never been found. Nor has their luggage.

The hunt to bring Renee MacRae’s killer to justice began in November 1976 when her unoccupied BMW was found ablaze in a Highland lay-by

Extensive searches took place decades after the disappearance of Renee MacRae and her son Andrew

The police focused their attention on two quarries near the A9 lay-by where a killer could have dumped the bodies. In 1977, press and police were gathered by Leanach quarry near Culloden Moor when they recoiled in collective horror at what they saw on a diver’s monitor – what appeared to be the outline of eye sockets and a mouth wrapped in a plastic bag.

All who saw it were convinced of what they saw, yet divers failed to recover anything more sinister than a bag filled with garden waste.

Several months on, a digger was called in to excavate part of Dalmagarry quarry, but the search was called off as funds ran out and nothing of significance was found. When the quarry was set to be reopened in 2004 to provide material for A9 works, a comprehensive new search took place.

More than 30,000 tons of earth and 1,800 trees were removed under the scrutiny of forensic anthropologist Professor Dame Sue Black, only for the huge disappointment of finding nothing. Again.

A year later, another lead emerged when a convicted housebreaker called Dennis Tyronney wrote to Northern Constabulary saying that a man he identified as MacDowell had offered him cash in 1976 to kill a ‘wife and bairn’ by dousing them in acid. Tyronney, who has since died, gave a statement but it did not provide the breakthrough detectives had been hoping for.

Anniversaries came and went, stirring up painful memories for Renee’s loved ones. Despite their anguish, they agreed to interviews, hoping to maintain the pressure on the killer and spark new leads.

In one, her sister Mrs Govans summed up her feelings: ‘Time can never heal the pain and I can’t believe time will ease the conscience so much that someone out there can believe they will get away with murder. It always gives me some hope when I read of an old crime being solved. Maybe one day.’

Worn down by the gossip in his native Inverness, MacDowell became increasingly nomadic, moving to Aberdeen, then Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s.

A photofit image that was released by police to try and track down the killer of Renee MacRae and son Andrew

The High Court in Inverness has previously been told by Alex Prentice KC, prosecuting, that the now 80-year-old William MacDowell (pictured) was the only man with the motive to kill because of the risk of his more than four-year affair with Mrs MacRae being exposed and him losing everything

The emptied Leanach Quarry near Inverness was searched as part of the investigation into the disappearance of Renee and Andrew MacRae

On his return, he became beset by financial problems which led him into crime. In May 1990, MacDowell was jailed for 30 months at Knightsbridge Crown Court in London for ten offences involving the theft of £238,000 as part of a substantial fraud from his ex-employer, Stancroft Securities.

Out on parole a year later, he found himself in court again. This time he was fined £750 at Inverness Sheriff Court for defrauding the Abbey National of £144,000.

In 2006, police passed a report to the procurator fiscal naming MacDowell in relation to Renee, but prosecutors decided not to act upon it. No other name has ever been in the frame.

It would be another 13 years before MacDowell was arrested and charged with the murder of Renee MacRae and his son Andrew. By then, he was living in a cottage up a lonely farm track near Penrith, Cumbria, his wife steadfastly by his side. She told the court that her husband, who sat in the dock in a wheelchair, was in such poor health that he was a ‘walking dead man’.

No longer able to outrun justice, MacDowell will undoubtedly spend what little time is left to him behind bars, haunted by his crimes.

Perhaps it is too much to hope that he will now reveal where his victims are buried, so the restless spirits of Renee MacRae and her son Andrew can finally be laid to rest.

An underwater camera captured this picture of what seems to be a human head at Leanach Quarry, divers said it appeared to be the outline of eye sockets and a mouth wrapped in a plastic bag

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