Island community shattered by abduction and murder of Alesha MacPhail
It was going to be a summer holiday filled with playing on the beach, bike rides and trips to the park.
Alesha MacPhail was to spend three weeks on the Isle of Bute at the home of her adoring grandparents, who were looking forward to surprising the six-year-old with the bubble machine they had ordered.
Three days into her stay, she was as high as a kite as she returned from a party clutching a balloon and, like most young children, took some persuading to go to bed.
It was the last her family saw of Alesha.
In the early hours of Monday July 2, an intruder crept into her room, took the child from her bed and subjected her to a horrific sexual assault.
Her naked body was found in nearby woodland the next day, her pink polka-dot pyjama shorts and white vest a short distance away.
The crime would have shocked any community to the core, but no more so than on Bute, the small island in the Firth of Clyde where many people did not even feel the need to lock their doors.
There was further disbelief as a local teenager was charged with Alesha’s rape and murder, a 16-year-old boy who would try to blame her father’s live-in girlfriend for the killing.
A jury at the High Court in Glasgow rejected his story and took just three hours to find the boy, who cannot be named due to his age, guilty of all charges.
The nine-day trial heard evidence from Alesha’s 26-year-old father Robert MacPhail and from her grandparents Calum MacPhail and Angela King, who described their last hours with the youngster.
Jurors heard from Mr MacPhail’s 18-year-old partner Toni McLachlan, who said she loved Alesha “to pieces” and had only found out she was being incriminated a few days before she gave evidence.
Lastly came the evidence of the smartly-turned out and composed accused, who told the court Ms McLachlan could have been “fantasising about killing Alesha for months” after defence suggestions she was jealous of the child and felt threatened by the attention Mr MacPhail paid his daughter.
The intensive work of crime scene examiners, forensic experts and detectives told a different story.
Ms King, 47, had picked Alesha up from her mother’s home in Airdrie the Thursday before her death, treating her to a visit to Fun World play centre in Greenock before returning to Bute.
Robert MacPhail had split from Georgina Lochrane around three months after Alesha was born on October 22, 2011 and the pair shared custody.
Unemployed Mr MacPhail moved back from the mainland to Rothesay and was living with his parents in their attic flat, where Alesha would spend every second weekend and part of the holidays.
He said his daughter “couldn’t have got on any better” with her grandparents, who had cleared a small room for her.
Ms King said: “I loved her, we got on great, absolutely brilliantly.”
Of Alesha’s relationship with her partner, she told the court: “If everybody else said no, grandpa said yes.”
On July 1, Alesha had fallen asleep watching a Peppa Pig DVD after being put to bed for the last time at around 10.30pm.
When Ms King went to bed around two hours later, she did so having left the flat key in the door. She routinely did this during the day so that family members could come and go as they pleased.
No-one heard a thing later as Alesha’s bedroom door was opened and the child was snatched and taken down the stairs.
Mr MacPhail Senior was the one to raise the alarm at around 6am, after almost walking into the door which opened out into the hallway as he went to the bathroom.
The family immediately began the search for Alesha, looking under beds, opening cupboards and pulling out drawers in desperation.
Ms King could still be heard checking a cupboard as she spoke to a police operator after dialling 999 at 6.23am.
In the conversation played to the jury, she said: “We’ve just got up this morning and my granddaughter’s missing.”
Describing Alesha, she said: “She’s a pretty wee girl with long blonde hair.”
A Facebook post appealing for help rallied neighbours, friends and strangers who searched the beach and park, and made inquiries at the taxi rank and ferry terminal.
By 9am, Alesha’s body had been found and the family were told to gather at the police station where they received the news they had been dreading.
Alesha’s grandfather’s eyes filled with tears as he told the jury: “We were all put into a room and about five minutes later a police officer came in and said ‘we found her but she’s passed'”.
The court heard Alesha suffered a total of 117 separate injuries, with those to her neck and face consistent with being gripped and those to her nose and mouth indicating she had been smothered.
During the trial it emerged Alesha’s father had sold cannabis to her killer in the months before, in order to fund his own habit.
The court was shown screen displays from a phone said to be the accused’s which suggested it had been used to call Alesha’s father at 1.40am on July 2.
Ms McLachlan, who had been in an on-off relationship with Mr MacPhail for around two years, had also received a call from the teenager in the early hours.
But prosecutors dismissed as a “pack of lies” the accused’s claims that he had sexual intercourse with Ms McLachlan in a shed in the early hours before Alesha was found.
His semen was found on the six-year-old, and the boy claimed it was planted by Ms McLachlan from the condom they used.
But the trial heard evidence fibres from clothes recovered from the shoreline on Bute matched those discovered on Alesha’s vest, shorts and pants.
In further evidence, the phone – said to belong to the teenager – was used to Google “how do police find DNA” in the days after the child’s murder.