Monday 22 April 2024

"He now had 270 murders to solve"

[What follows is excerpted from the obituary of John Boyd published today on the website of The Times:]

Four days before Christmas 1988 John Boyd was balanced precariously on a chair, hanging wallpaper in the kitchen of his village home. At about 7.30pm a news flash interrupted the programme playing on the television in the next room: an aircraft had crashed over the Border town of Lockerbie. “My God, that’s wrong; there’s something wrong there,” the chief constable of Dumfries and Galloway muttered to himself. Moments later his control room called confirming the incident.

Boyd, who was once described as “a slight man with an unfashionable crew cut and a perpetually quizzical look”, threw on his uniform, jumped in his car and drove the 14 miles to Lockerbie. There he learnt that Pan Am flight 103 from London to New York, a Boeing 747 known as Clipper Maid of the Seas, had crashed carrying 243 passengers and 16 crew. Bodies had rained down on the rooftops of Lockerbie and a fireball had destroyed several houses, killing 11 of the town’s 3,500 residents.

As chief constable of one of the smallest police forces in the country Boyd, a diffident figure, was not accustomed to dealing with many major crimes. He had never dealt with an air crash; in fact, he had rarely flown. With the crash site falling under his jurisdiction, he now had 270 murders to solve.

Using emergency police powers he called in the army, the air force and officers from neighbouring forces. He also requisitioned all private helicopters at Glasgow airport. With Lockerbie police station damaged in the explosion and too small for the role, he set up a control room at Lockerbie Academy. Recalling the bombing of an Air India flight from Montreal to Delhi via London off the Irish coast in 1985, he was suspicious that the crash was the work of terrorists and from the outset urged his officers to treat the case as such.

Within hours the town had been invaded by hundreds of police, military investigators and representatives of the press. Soon their numbers were augmented by intelligence teams from Britain and the US, though Boyd remained unruffled. “He appreciated every bit of amazing help and support that the FBI gave him,” said Brian Duffy, co-author of The Fall of Pan Am 103 (1990).

Boyd understood the need to share as much information as possible. Speaking with dignity at an emotionally charged late-night news conference, he told how debris had been spread over many miles. “Wreckage has fallen at six different locations both within Lockerbie and some miles outside the town. There are bodies at each of these locations,” he said. Within a week evidence had been found of an explosive device, creating what he described as “a criminal inquiry of international dimensions”.

Inevitably there was pressure for answers, with some of the American press demanding immediate results and questioning Boyd’s abilities. A Pan Am pilot whose wife died in the attack claimed that Dumfries and Galloway police were “paralysed by inexperience and incompetence”, adding that the force “reach their upper limit of competence directing traffic and issuing parking tickets”. It was not a view shared by Pan Am or others involved in the investigation.

Reflecting on the disaster during the subsequent judicial inquiry, Boyd described the difficulties his officers encountered when giving information to grieving relatives. [RB: The "judicial inquiry" referred to is probably the fatal accident inquiry held in Dumfries by Sheriff Principal John Mowat QC in 1990.] Because of the severe damage to the victims, they had to be dissuaded from seeing the bodies. Most of their loved ones had to be identified from X-rays, dental records and fingerprints. (...)

The Lockerbie bombing was by far Boyd’s biggest case and he remained determined to investigate it thoroughly, insisting that there would be no shortcuts. “With all the help and assistance from so many different parties, good, solid police work will get us there,” he told The New York Times two years after the crash. “It has not been easy and it won’t be easy. But it will happen.”

He was true to his word and in 2001 Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence officer, was convicted in connection with the attack. Al-Megrahi was released in 2009 on compassionate grounds, having been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and died in Libya in 2012. [RB: The only evidence at his trial that Megrahi was an intelligence officer came from Abdul Majid Giaka whose evidence on every other matter was rejected by the court as incredible and unreliable. The judges gave no reasons for accepting his evidence on this single issue.]

John Boyd CBE, QPM, chief constable of Dumfries and Galloway, 1984-89, was born on October 14, 1933. He died on April 9, 2024, aged 90

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