An 80-year-old man has been found guilty of murdering his secret lover and their three-year-old son almost half a century after the pair vanished without trace from a layby on the A9 near Inverness, concluding one of Scotland’s most extensive and longest-running missing persons investigations.
Although the bodies of Renee MacRae, who was 36 when she disappeared in 1976, and her younger son, Andrew, have never been found, William MacDowell, now 80, was convicted by a “compelling and classic case of circumstantial evidence”, as the prosecutor Alex Prentice KC described it in his closing speech to the jury.
MacDowell will die in prison after the judge sentenced him to a minimum of 30 years, for both the killings and the disposal of the bodies, on Thursday, the day that would have been Andrew’s 48th birthday.
The prosecution case was built on accounts from witnesses, some of whom died in the intervening decades or were too frail to attend court. They described a woman “deeply in love” with her married lover, who had promised her a new life in Shetland in a house “with a veranda and a big kitchen”.
The jury heard testimony from MacRae’s best friend, Valerie Steventon, who was too ill to appear in person, that MacRae told her MacDowell asked her to bring Andrew to what turned out to be their final assignation “because he wanted to get to know him better”. Instead, mother and child were met with the brutal reality of his intentions in a dark layby on the stormy night of 12 November 1976.
Another witness, then living in a nearby farmhouse and now deceased, described hearing “a bloodcurdling scream” that night, her daughter told the court. This was most likely the last sound that MacRae made, Prentice told the jury.
MacRae and Andrew vanished after dropping off her eldest son, Gordon Jr, then aged nine, with her estranged husband, also called Gordon, in Inverness, telling him she was visiting her sister in Kilmarnock.
Steventon, the only person in whom MacRae confided about her relationship, revealed that MacRae was instead meeting MacDowell, who had told her he had booked a chalet for a weekend stay.
Later that night, her BMW car was found burnt out on the A9 south of Inverness and blood was found in the boot.
MacDowell, the company secretary at Gordon MacRae’s building firm, had begun his affair with McRae in 1972, and Andrew was born a year later. MacRae then separated from her husband, but the affair remained a secret.
During the intensive early search phase, about 100 police officers, helped by soldiers from the nearby army base at Fort George and volunteers with intimate knowledge of the rough terrain, scoured moorland around the site of the disappearance and beyond.
Despite thousands of interviews, case reviews by Police Scotland’s major investigations team and extensive searches of two nearby quarries in 2004 and 2019, no trace of the pair has ever been found.
It was Steventon who first drew police attention to MacDowell, who subsequently moved to Penrith in Cumbria. He maintained his innocence for decades, before finally being charged in September 2019.
MacDowell claimed he had an alibi for the evening in question, and accused Gordon MacRae of the killings, a suggestion the latter described as “incredible” when it was put to him in court. He testified that his separation had not been acrimonious, but rather the couple had come to a “mutual recognition” that their lives had moved on.
Gordon MacRae sacked MacDowell when the affair came to light, and the jury heard that when another employee was sent to pick up his company car, MacDowell refused to hand it over because he was scrubbing the boot. It later emerged that the floor of the boot had been destroyed completely.
MacDowell did not give evidence himself, and his wife, Rosemary, described his multiple health problems to the jury, stating: “He’s actually a walking dead man and he has got a DNR [do not resuscitate order] set up already.”
The court heard of discrepancies in the alibi his wife gave him for the night of the disappearance, and testimony from another witness, who saw a man with “wide and staring eyes” pushing what appeared to be a clothed object in a pushchair near the layby on the night the pair disappeared.
Alex Prentice told the jury that MacDowell killed MacRae and her son because he was concerned about what he might lose if the affair became public. “Life for Bill MacDowell would change dramatically if it all came out in the open. He would lose his job, his family and his home,” he said.
MacRae’s sister, Morag Govans, now 84, welcomed the verdict, saying it was a day her family “feared would never come”.
“Renee was a compassionate and caring mother. Both Andrew and his elder brother, Gordon, were her life. She adored them and was so proud of her boys. Andrew would be 48 today. He was never given the chance to build his own life.
“The passage of time has not eased the anguish we feel. We have never been able to lay Renee and Andrew to rest or properly mourn their loss. Not knowing where their remains lie only compounds the pain.”
DCI Brian Geddes appealed directly to MacDowell to tell the police the location of the bodies: “Although justice has now been done, Renee and Andrew’s bodies have not been found, and I would urge anyone who may have information about where they are to come forward so they can be provided with the dignity they deserve.”