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Horror and tragedy when murderer James Moir escaped from Perth Prison in 1997

ames Moir who escaped from prison in 1997.
ames Moir who escaped from prison in 1997.

The words emblazoned on the front page of the Evening Express offered a chilling message 25 years ago: “City killer on the loose”.

The story sparked a manhunt in pursuit of Aberdeen man James Moir, 38, who was serving a life sentence for the murder of teenager Colin Main in the Clipper Lounge in the Shiprow area of the city in 1979.

And this was a case whose aftermath claimed two further lives, and led to an investigation into the suicides of Moir and prison officer James McAllister, 33.

It also posed questions as to why Moir had decided to smash a window and break out of Perth Prison in August 1997 when he was in a hostel for soon-to-be-released prisoners.

The Scottish Prison Service confirmed the details of how the inmate had escaped from his cell in the institution’s Training for Freedom hostel.

His disappearance had been discovered around 6.45am by a guard, but there was puzzlement as to why Moir had taken such steps when he was so close to gaining his freedom.

A spokesman for the SPS said at the time: “He was moved to the hostel so that he could complete the last leg of his sentence. It was to prepare him for the outside world.

“Today’s events will not have helped his chances of getting released soon at all. There is a good chance that he will be moved back into proper prison once he has been apprehended”.

Events soon took a ghastly turn

But although the police stated that they did not regard Moir as a threat to the public – and he was back in custody within a few hours of going missing – that was only the beginning of a tragic sequence of events which led to a major investigation.

On August 11, the Evening Express, under the headline “Prisoner Hanged in Cell”, reported that he had been found dead in the early hours of the morning.

Building exterior of Perth Prison.

The paper said: “The tragedy comes just days after he was recaptured after escaping from the jail’s hostel. His bid for freedom baffled the authorities because the low-risk category D prisoner had only eight months left to serve of his sentence.

“The killer had earlier sparked a nationwide alert when he returned to prison late from a five-day home leave last month. And, in 1985, he slipped his prison escort while attending Aberdeen Royal Infirmary for treatment, but was caught hours later.

“It it not thought that he was under suicide watch and the circumstances surrounding his death will be investigated by a fatal accident inquiry.”

The latter looked into the matter for more than a year. But sadly, by the time it revealed its findings in October 1998, prison officer Mr McAllister had also taken his own life.

A sense of guilt over James Moir death

The FAI highlighted how Moir had been dead in his cell for seven hours before being discovered, despite being under strict supervision.

The hearing in Perth heard that he had become increasingly depressed after reading about the grim details surrounding the death of nine-year-old schoolboy Scott Simpson, who was murdered by paedophile Steven Leisk at a playpark in Aberdeen in July 1997.

Steven Leisk is led from Aberdeen High Court after pleading guilty to the abduction and murder of Scott Simpson.

The ensuing search involved as much as a third of the then Grampian Police force’s manpower, as well as coastguards, mountain rescue and scores of family and friends.

It was five days before his body was found hidden in thick bushes in an unnamed lane in Old Aberdeen – an area which had already been scoured by the police.

The inquiry was also told that Mr McAllister, the Dundee prison officer who finally found Moir, had taken his own life, but not before issuing a statement in which he said: “I carried out checks at regular intervals and my main concern was that the window was intact. Each time I checked him, he was never out of bed.

“It appeared to be occupied and the quilt was puffed up. In retrospect, he may not have been there for some time. He was a small, slight man.”

A sense of guilt had weighed heavily on both prisoner and prison officer. Moir told his guards that he couldn’t bear the thought of re-entering the world after nearly 20 years of incarceration and seemed scared he would be subject to retribution.

The end to a grim series of events

In a note he left behind, he wrote: “I hate prison, but what made me leave Training For Freedom that night? The outcome is back to closed prison and death.

”This may sound funny, but for the first time in years I felt a great peace come over me and a great weight off my shoulders. All my life, I was rejected. I have cut the sheet to make the rope. It’s 9.45pm – I’ll hang myself at 10.30pm.

“I was never happy in my life and I hope in death that God will be good to me.”

Convicted murderer James Moir escaped from prison in 1997.

Sheriff Peter Hamilton eventually ruled at the FAI that there had been no failures on the part of the authorities at Perth Prison.

However, it emerged that the inquiry had been due to start at Perth Sheriff Court in July 1998, but was adjourned, following the news Mr McAllister had hanged himself in a friend’s flat in Dundee the day before he was to have been a principal witness.

He later died in hospital, but the sheriff exonerated him of any blame and returned a formal verdict, saying there were no defects in the systems of work or failure on the part of the prison authorities that in any way contributed to the circumstances of the death.

It was a prosaic ending to a series of grim events and senseless deaths.

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