The Northern Scot's Arlene Fraser and Nat Fraser files: 2003 – Emotional bond
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This story appeared in the Northern Scot, February 7, 2003.
EMOTIONAL bond that will never leave him.
These were words of a police officer to describe the unique relationship he built with the family of Arlene Fraser.
After 30 years with Grampian Police, no case has personally affected Willie Robertson more than this inquiry.
Little did he know on Tuesday, April 28, 1998 just how profound an effect the case would have on him and where it would take him.
The detective sergeant ( 49) was the first officer to cross the threshold of 2 Smith Street, New Elgin, when it became clear that they were dealing with much more than a missing person inquiry.
And nearly five years later, he was still at the heart of the inquiry when the case reached its dramatic conclusion at the High Court in Edinburgh.
During the intervening years, he formed a close relationship with the family of Arlene Fraser as the search unfolded to find her killer.
As family liaison officer (FLO), Det Sgt Robertson shared many of their deepest emotions and moments of crisis during an investigation which had more than its fair share of twists and turns.
As he reflected on the case this week, he admitted that the role of FLO was, ironically, one which he stumbled into, having never been asked to carry out the job in his previous 25 years with the police.
"I very quickly struck up a very good rapport with the family in the first 48 hours," he recalled.
He still had an important investigating role to play – the job of liaison officer is about much more than "tea and sympathy" – and he was able to glean important information from the family.
"The family provided me with important facts about Arlene's lifestyle, her daily routine, her fears and, more importantly, everything they knew about her relationship with her husband and his close associates."
He developed a partnership with the family which was maintained throughout the highs and lows of the case.
Although there were many highs – the ultimate one being the guilty verdict returned against Nat Fraser last week – there have been as many, if not more, lows along that road.
Perhaps the biggest test of the relationship came last year when gruesome details of the indictment emerged in the press, revealing that Fraser had been charged with dismembering Arlene's body, burning it and grinding it down, including her teeth.
"This was a really difficult time for the family, when they saw it in print for the first time. I immediately went down to Glasgow to reassure them, and it was a question of managing the shock and the torment."
This contact with the family was a key component of the relationship, with DS Robertson and deputy senior investigating officer, Chief Inspector Alan Smith, visiting them about every six weeks, in addition to weekly and sometimes daily phone conversations.
"The strength of this family is its unity. We spoke to them as a unit, never individually. They jollied us along and we jollied them along," said DS Robertson.
"We built up a mutual trust and genuine willingness to work together to establish the truth," he added.
"We clicked from day one, and in the initial days of the inquiry, they wanted updates in the morning and afternoon."
That posed some problems, given that Nat Fraser was still within the family environment at that stage, and the police had to gauge how much information they could safely give the family without compromising the investigation.
However, DS Robertson could be certain that at no time did the family breach any confidence.
"I have never experienced that level of mutual trust in my job before," he said.
The family were steadfast in their belief, from an early stage, that Arlene had not run off and had, in fact, been murdered.
While there were many difficult times for the family, DS Robertson himself encountered a period of personal sadness which, he admitted, left him shaken.
"The hardest time was the second anniversary of Arlene's disappearance.
"I had a pre-arranged meeting with the family, but the night before, Bruce and Laraine Macintosh from New Elgin, close friends of mine and my wife's, died in a road accident.
"I knew their daughters very well, and had to break the news to them, but also keep my appointment with the family. That was a hard weekend for me."
As the investigation continued and it became clear that it would end with a High Court trial, a second family liaison officer was drafted in to help the family as DS Robertson took a step back, conscious of the fact that he could be called as a witness.
"I had no contact with the family during the trial because we had to maintain the integrity of the evidence," he said.
For the past year, another officer has been providing support to Arlene's children, Jamie and Natalie, and is still providing that support.
After the closing speeches last week, DS Robertson met with the family, and admitted that it was an emotional moment.
"I saw the distress the family were in waiting for the jury to come back, and they just wanted to be hugged," he said.
In the court, as the foreman of the jury prepared to announce the guilty verdict, the family joined hands, and both DS Robertson and Ch Insp Smith were part of that human chain.
As the verdict was delivered, shouts of "yes" echoed round the court, to be followed by uncontrollable floods of tears.
"I turned to the family and said 'Well done'. I congratulated them on playing their part in bringing Nat Fraser to justice," said DS Robertson.
There was no celebration afterwards, merely a sense of satisfaction.
"All credit to them for their courage, willpower and commitment.
"This family has been on a rollercoaster ride, and have been the target of ill-founded and hostile rumour and innuendo by Nat Fraser and his associates.
"There was a drive and determination to get justice for the family because I saw the pain they were in and the anxiety they were suffering," he added.