Officers had to contend with a mountain of fabrications by a serial liar who meticulously planned getting away with murder. Joe Leogue reports from Glasgow
Nelson Mandela Place in Glasgow city centre sits at the end of a gradual slope that runs from the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall down the pedestrianised Buchanan St.
The area is the commercial heart of the city, where modern shopping malls have slotted in seamlessly with existing blond sandstone buildings that date back to the Victorian era.
On the afternoon of Wednesday, April 15, as shoppers bustled from one high street store to another, a murderer was in Starbucks, contemplating the past few days.
Alexander Pacteau hadn’t stayed in his apartment the night before, or the night before that — the headed hotel stationery paper in his pocket bore witness to this. It was the only truth the slip of paper told.
Alexander Pacteau’s bedroom
On it, the 21-year-old had scribbled down the lies he had relayed on the previous Monday night, when he attended Helen St police station as a witness in the ongoing search for Karen Buckley, 24. The Irish nurse was last seen in the Sanctuary nightclub in the early hours of Sunday morning, and her worried friends had reported her missing by lunchtime that day.
Monday night was the last time Pacteau had been at his home on Dorchester Avenue — his apartment had since been surrounded by police tape and journalists. Only a select few were given the authority to enter the second floor apartment in the three-storey building in the western district of Kelvindale.
A public appeal had been made on Monday afternoon for information on a man seen on CCTV talking to Karen as she had left the nightclub.
Behind the scenes, police had found their man. Karen’s friends identified her on the club’s CCTV footage. Following her movement across various screens, officers pinpointed the moment she left the club, crossed Dumbarton Rd and engaged in conversation with the man who would soon kill her.
Alexander Pacteau on CCTV outside Sanctuary
Then Pacteau’s movements in the club were traced backwards. He was seen coming in and sharing a pre-booked booth with friends. Reviewing the footage, the nightclub’s manager recognised someone talking to Pacteau. This third party subsequently identified Pacteau to the police.
Having regard to the public appeal, Pacteau had known they were looking for him when the knock on the door had come at 6pm on Monday.
“I was just coming to see you,” he told police officers before going to the station to make his statement.
Pacteau told the lies he would later wrote down. He claimed innocence, even after a doctor who examined the scratches on his arms said they were injuries consistent with a recent struggle. He left the station on Monday night a witness in a missing person case — there wasn’t enough hard evidence yet to suggest anything more sinister.
The lies he told police went public the next day, following a press conference at which Marian and John Buckley pleaded for help in finding their only daughter.
Helen Street Police Station, where Pacteau had attended just the night before, played host to Tuesday’s press conference. The Buckley family faced dozens of journalists and cameras in a packed briefing room in the old shipbuilding district in Govan, on the south bank of the River Clyde.
“She is our only daughter and we love her dearly,” Marian said. “We just want Karen home safely. We are desperate and if anyone has any information, please come forward.”
The Buckleys made their heartfelt appeal for help, and then left.
Detective Superintendent Jim Kerr, leading the investigation, briefed the press that the man seen speaking to Karen had been traced and that he was “assisting us with our inquiries”. “I must stress, at this time, that he is not a suspect,” he said.
Det Supt Kerr then revealed some of the unnamed witness’s story.
Kelvin Way, above, where his car was captured on CCTV shortly afterwards.
The story, which would match the account on the piece of paper later found in Pacteau’s pocket, told of how he had met Karen outside the club. He detailed how he drove them back to his apartment where, he claimed, they spent the night together in his room. He said Karen left his house at 4am and said she would walk home.
What Det Supt Kerr did not reveal was how Pacteau accounted for the strong smell of bleach in his apartment, and the receipt for caustic soda in his pocket. He told police that Karen had injured herself in his room and that he discovered her blood the following morning.
Then, having learned that Karen had since gone missing, he panicked. He claimed that he cleaned the apartment, after which he drove to rural Drymen, north of Glasgow, and destroyed the cleaning equipment.
He said he did all this in a panic, in anticipation of being asked to account for Karen’s whereabouts, given that he was the last person to see her alive leaving his apartment.
All of this was lies. Police would later establish that Karen was dead before she ever came to Dorchester Avenue.
The press conference was then told police were looking to trace the movements of a grey car, seen driving around Drymen and nearby Milngavie between 11am and 3pm on Monday.
Again, the whole truth had yet to be revealed at what was a delicate stage of the investigation. What the gathered press were not told on that Tuesday was that Pacteau’s grey Ford Focus had already been looked over by forensic specialists, and how a victim recovery dog gave indications a body had been in the boot of the car.
Karen’s disappearance had captured the public imagination in Scotland. The Tories and Labour may have been battling for supremacy in Westminster, but the general election was shifted from the front pages by pictures of the beaming Irish nurse and the accompanying updates on the search for her.
Once the location of Pacteau’s apartment was revealed on Tuesday, the media descended en masse onto Dorchester Avenue. Dawsholm Park, where Karen’s bag had been found, also became a source of a level of activity unprecedented for the area.
Separated by a 1km walk and the Forth and Clyde canal, Dorchester Avenue and Dawsholm Park were tied together by blue and white police tape and a heavy presence of reporters.
Significant police resources were put on the case. As plainclothes officers went door to door on Dorchester Avenue, scores of uniformed police meticulously combed the closed off Dawsholm Park seeking clues.
Police busses would routinely arrive at the entrance to the park, its passengers alighting to replace those emerging from the park at the end of their shift. Their searches would go right through the night.
As this went on, Police divers began to search the Forth and Clyde Canal.
Meanwhile, as forensic specialists in hazmat suits were seen coming and going from the front door of Pacteau’s apartment, observers in the close behind the building could see more officers searching the building’s back garden.
Off the record, police sources insisted to incredulous press that the man who last saw Karen was not a suspect at that time.
All this changed by Wednesday. That morning, Pacteau’s name was revealed by Scottish tabloids, and his mother had told media her son had nothing to do with Karen’s disappearance. She said Karen had been seen walking through Glasgow after she had left Pacteau’s apartment. This was not true.
By the afternoon, the police decided to bring him in.
At 1.55pm on a sunny April day, Alexander Pacteau was detained by Scottish police in Starbucks on Nelson Mandela Place. The coffee chain store would be the last place he would visit as a free man. In his pocket, on hotel-headed paper, police found a written account of what he had told them two nights previously.
In less than 48 hours, the mammoth investigation had followed two parallel yet intertwined threads — one public, the other more discreet. These behind-the-scenes investigations would establish what really happened in the days after Karen’s disappearance.
While busloads of officers scoured the park and canal near Pacteau’s flat where Karen’s bag had been found, others poured over hours of CCTV footage from cameras across Glasgow to pinpoint where Pacteau had been since he was spotted leaving the nightclub in the early hours of Sunday morning. All the while, forensic experts fast tracked samples taken from his apartment through their labs.
The blood from Pacteau’s apartment matched Karen’s DNA, despite his efforts to scrub clean his home of any trace of the slain nurse.
Pacteau’s status was updated from a witness to someone who was detained for questioning. He still was not under arrest, though a breakthrough just over an hour after his detention changed everything.
A man who spotted Pacteau’s name in the media, and saw that police were looking for any reports of a grey car in rural areas north of Glasgow, called and told investigators that Pacteau once sold fireworks — and that he kept the goods in a storage unit on a farm in Milngavie.
Within half an hour, High Craigton Farm was sealed off. Using the information they had from a visit Pacteau had made to Asda, police identified the lock on one of the unit doors. Inside, they found a barrel.
Fire and Rescue were called for safety concerns, given that police rightly believed there were chemicals in the container.
By this time, word had emerged about police activity at the farm. The entrance to High Craigton Farm, an uphill laneway off the main road that dissected the fields around the farm, was manned by officers. The tall evergreen trees that surrounded the farm obstructed the view of what was happening 400m up the laneway, where the site was being prepared. Media vans set up for the night along a quiet laneway opposite the farm entrance.
At 8pm, the barrel was opened and police found Karen’s body.
Shortly afterwards, a Scottish newspaper reported on its website that a body had been found on High Craigton Farm. The police refused to confirm the story, and the article was quickly removed.
It would be the early hours of Thursday before the police would announce that a body had been found in High Craigton Farm, and that the man detained in relation to Karen’s disappearance had been arrested in connection with her death.
High Craigton Farm
The next day, the police held another press conference, this time outside Govan station in order to accommodate the huge media gathering.
The man leading the investigation confirmed the body was that of Karen Buckley.
“We cannot begin to imagine the pain and suffering of Karen’s family and friends and all our thoughts are with them at this very sad time,” said Det Supt Kerr.
He also read a statement from John Buckley.
“Marian and I, together with our sons Brendan, Kieran, and Damian, are absolutely heartbroken,” it read. “Karen was our only daughter, cherished by our family and loved by her friends. She was an outgoing girl, who travelled the world where she met lots of people and thoroughly enjoyed her life. We will miss her terribly.”
Even after he was confronted with the new evidence, and after confessing to killing Karen, Pacteau continued to lie.
He maintained the falsehood that his victim willingly came to his apartment, and that she injured himself in his bedroom. Pacteau claimed that Karen reacted angrily to this and started hitting him. He said that, in self-defence, he grabbed the nearest thing on the floor — a large spanner — and hit her with it.
Once again, police work would establish that this was another fabrication by a serial liar. A combination of forensic work and tireless researching of CCTV proved the truth.
Having left the area of the nightclub on Sunday morning, Pacteau’s car was seen on camera driving in the direction of Karen’s apartment. It was seen driving into Kelvin Way, but was not seen emerging from the street for another 12 minutes.
During those 12 minutes, Alexander Pacteau choked Karen Buckley and beat her to death with a spanner.
Forensics found traces of Karen’s blood in the vehicle — despite Pacteau having the car cleaned inside and out by a valet service.
Soon after killing her, he drove to Dalsholm Park where he dumped her bag. While his housemate slept, Pacteau brought Karen’s body into the apartment. His housemate’s mother — who was visiting her son for the weekend — was also unaware.
Forth and Clyde canal, where the murder weapon was found
Pacteau began to try to hide his crime almost immediately, and his internet search history showed his harrowing intent. Within seven hours of killing Karen, while in his bedroom with her body, Pacteau had looked up the properties of sodium hydroxide, a highly alkaline solution better known as caustic soda, and soon after began buying quantities of the chemical in stores across Glasgow.
It emerged that Pacteau made a number of visits to High Craigton Farm in the 48 hours after he killed Karen. He would bring evidence to the site and burn it, visiting stores across North Glasgow to collect his supplies.
CCTV footage showed Pacteau on camera in a number of stores buying caustic soda. Besides its more mainstream use as a drain cleaner, the chemical is also used in the disposal of animals. He was also observed buying padlocks, lighter fluid, and cleaning material. One Tesco staff member told of a young man asking for advice on removing blood from a mattress.
While his housemate was out hillwalking with his mother, Pacteau submerged Karen’s body in caustic soda in his bath, hoping to dissolve her remains.
He drained the bath by 5pm on Sunday, wrapped Karen’s body in a duvet, and brought it back to his room. His surprised housemate came home at 8.15pm to find Pacteau meticulously cleaning the apartment, which was unusual for him.
He again kept the body in his room overnight into Monday.
On Monday morning, he threw the murder weapon into the canal. He attempted to destroy his mattress, and then bought a blue 220 litre barrel. In it he stored Karen’s body, using more sodium hydroxide, before storing it in a unit on High Craighton Farm. He agreed a rental fee of £10 a week with a farmer who had no idea that his land was to become a major crime scene.
He stored the barrel on Monday afternoon, and came back to his apartment for, unbeknown to him, the last time. Then came the police knock.
Faced with a mountain of lies by a man who meticulously planned getting away with murder, Scottish police deployed vast resources to find Karen, and then to bring her killer to justice.
Four months to the day since Karen Buckley went to Santuary Nightclub with her friends, her killer pleaded guilty to her murder.
Karen’s blood in his car and on the spanner later recovered from the Forth and Clyde Canal, grit from his car tyres tying him to the location where her body was found, and swabs from his apartment all told part of the true story.
Moments plucked from hours of CCTV footage from a number of cameras across Glasgow filled in the blanks.
This narrative, stitched together with strands of forensic evidence, camera footage, and hard police work, is what Pacteau has yesterday admitted is the true story.
The only truth that has evaded this thorough investigation is what motivated Alexander Pacteau to kill Karen Buckley? Only the two people who were in that car during those 12 minutes on Kelvin Way know this. One is a serial liar. The other can never tell us.
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