Suzanne Pilley was just yards from her work in a city centre street in broad daylight, when she simply vanished. Richard Bath investigates
‘EXCUSE me sir, would you be interested in a copy of the Big Issue?” asks a young homeless man in a neat jacket and suspiciously clean trousers. He’s outside the branch of Sainsbury’s on the corner of St Andrew Square and Rose Street, and his exaggerated politeness plays well with the thousands of buttoned-up commuters who walk past him every day. His prize pitch, right in the commercial centre of Edinburgh, is strategically placed within two minutes’ walk of the capital’s main bus and railway stations. He says this is the best place in the city to sell the magazine. “Day or night, there are always tons of folk around here.”
The small Sainsbury’s supermarket that was designed to service the commuters who flood into the city each day is always packed. The busiest periods are at lunchtime when there’s a brisk trade selling sandwiches; just after 5pm when the men and women in suits pick up a bottle of wine and a ready-made meal for one on their way back to the suburbs; and first thing in the morning when the area’s office workers pop in to pick up a croissant and the milk for their day’s coffee.
Preparing for her working day was exactly what Suzanne Pilley was doing on the Tuesday morning after the May bank holiday. We know that because 12 days ago at precisely 8:51am the Sainsbury’s CCTV captured her leaving the store, carrying a shoulder bag containing her lunch and a large bottle of mineral water. From there she wandered 100 yards along the west side of St Andrew Square, across George Street and towards her office in Thistle Street. At 8:55, five minutes before she would normally be quietly ensconced at her desk, she was spotted on CCTV next to a black people carrier taxi at the junction of North St David Street and Thistle Street as it dropped off its passengers. From there, it was less than 50 yards to the front door to her employers, financial services firm Infrastructure Managers Limited.
The quietly-spoken and popular 38-year-old book-keeper never made it to her desk. Instead, somewhere between the corner of Thistle Street and her office at No11, she simply disappeared into the ether.
Last year, there were 43,780 incidents of people being reported missing in Scotland, with 75 per cent being found within 48 hours, many of them children who had simply got temporarily lost, or had lost track of time while out playing with friends. This case, however, is far from ordinary. A spokeswoman from the charity Missing People admitted that it is “extremely unusual” for someone to vanish without any underlying cause, yet nothing that the police have so far turned up in her background has suggested that Pilley has any of the issues that commonly explain disappearances. No drugs, no alcohol, no stress, no mental health issues, no debt, no violence, no job loss.
On the contrary, Pilley was an almost model citizen, a font of contentment. Her employer Alan Jessop, the managing director of IML, spoke of a “lovely lady” and a “very valued member of staff” who had an unblemished employment record and who had never missed work without getting in touch beforehand. There was, he stressed, nothing in her behaviour or demeanour in the days leading up to her disappearance that suggested that she had any problems at work, or away from the office. “We’re obviously very concerned at Suzanne’s disappearance,” he said, as forensics officers scoured the office in vain for any signs that Pilley had ever made it there.
Her 67-year-old parents, Sylvia and Robert, were equally dumbfounded. The Pilleys are a very close family, Suzanne living just around the corner from her parents in the city’s Stenhouse area. Ever the dutiful daughter, she would ring or text her mother every day just to keep in touch. It was her parents who alerted the police that evening when she didn’t return home.
Last week they spoke of a healthy young woman who lived life to the full and a “proud Scot” who filled her life with exercise and doing good for others. Her father spoke of the family’s hurt, of how her disappearance was completely out of character for a daughter whose life had stability and routine. Her mother spoke of a daughter who “loves the great outdoors and is always cycling, walking and loves keep fit”, of a woman who “is a great fundraiser for charity, even abseiling off the Forth Road Bridge recently”.
As Sylvia Pilley talked about her daughter, she reacted as any parent would, with a palpable sense of pre-emptive grief and trepidation. “We miss her terribly,” she said. “The past week has just been like our worst nightmare – we almost cannot believe it is actually happening. Every morning you wake up and wonder, is this really happening? You never think it’ll happen to you. You see it on the television with other people, and you feel sorry for them, but you don’t really understand the grief. We just don’t know what’s happened. We just want to find out, get to the bottom of things and put our minds at rest.”
The reaction of the police would have done little to reduce their sense of unease. Throughout the week the Lothian & Borders force screened the CCTV footage of her movements on a big screen in St Andrew Square and dozens of officers questioned passers-by about possible sightings. A large-frame ad trailer depicting Pilley was placed in George Street, and, this weekend, a Facebook appeal page was launched by concerned friends.
The depth of the concern felt at her abrupt disappearance, and in particular the fact that her bank cards have not been used since she left Sainsbury’s, was underlined by Detective Chief Inspector Gary Flannigan. The man who heads up the investigation said that “we have very grave – and I must underline the word grave – concerns for the wellbeing of Suzanne. We are desperate to speak to anyone who saw her last Tuesday. A large team has carried out extensive inquiries in the last week, and I have to say there are strong indications that a criminal act could account for Suzanne’s disappearance.”
The clear implication was she could have been abducted. If so, the time and the place – daylight in a busy city centre street – suggests it was by someone who knew her and her daily routine. This is a line of inquiry being mined by the police, who are trying to unravel her private life.
The focus of the investigation has now moved to the unmarried 38-year-old’s apparently complicated romantic life. According to neighbours, a boyfriend had been sharing her home for the past six months, with his Vauxhall Vectra parked outside every evening until around six weeks ago. Police sources, however, say that this relationship had ended and a new one had started. Amid speculation that she was involved in a “love triangle”, police have prioritised tracing anyone who was romantically involved with Pilley, scouring her mobile phone records in an effort to try and reconstruct her life.
YET if an abduction by a current or ex-boyfriend seems to be the main line of inquiry, officers have not discounted the possibility that Pilley has simply disappeared in the wake of a failed relationship and doesn’t want to be found. Research in 2003 suggested that 30 per cent of people who went missing did so because of a failed relationship. These people were also the most resistant to being found or reconciled with friends and family when they were tracked down, with 58 per cent refusing go back to their former lives when located by the National Missing Persons Hotline.
However, the lack of any apparent plans to vanish, the fact that she was so clearly on her way to work, and the fact that her bank and credit cards haven’t been used, have led police to suspect the worst. Certainly, the tenor and style of the investigation is more like that for a major crime than a missing person. Specially trained officers from four Scottish police forces have been called in to form a major incident co-ordination and development unit, while 60 detectives from Lothian and Borders Police are now working full-time on the case, poring over 300 hours of central Edinburgh CCTV footage and speaking to Pilley’s friends, family and colleagues.
A great deal of attention has been paid to piecing together her journey to work that Tuesday morning. The detail they have managed to collate has been impressive, but not so far illuminating. They know it was a day much like any other for Pilley, one that began with the usual bus journey from her home in Whitson Drive in Saughton, to the West End. She had caught a No2 bus from Stevenson Drive at 8:20, texting her mother to say she was on her way to work. Twelve minutes later she got off the bus on the Dalry Road opposite Caledonian Terrace, catching the No4 bus into town three minutes later.
Three minutes after stepping off the bus outside Jenners at 8:48, she was caught on CCTV in Sainsbury’s, which she left at 8:51. By 8:55 she was caught on CCTV at the corner of Thistle Street, wearing a light blue waterproof jacket, red fleece top, light blue trousers or jeans, and trainers. Despite intensive searches of the lanes behind Thistle Street and the high-profile publicity drive, that’s where the trail abruptly goes cold.
As the face of Madeleine McCann became a cause célèbre among the many children abducted each year, so the smiling photos of exuberant everywoman Suzanne Pilley have become the face of the disappeared. It is a strange and macabre sort of fame she and her family neither sought nor want. For the rest of us, it is an unwelcome reminder that even in the middle of the day, in the middle of one of the busiest streets in the capital, no-one can take their safety for granted.
A 2004 study found of the 1 per cent of missing people unresolved after a year, most will be people who have “drifted” away, but a proportion will be people whose disappearance was sudden and out of character.
• A 1999 study found that the number of people who went missing each year was 3.6 per 1,000 members of the population.
• A 2005 study by Parents & Abducted Children Together (PACT) estimated that more than 100,000 children go missing every year, or “one every five minutes”.
• The under-18 age group accounts for about two-thirds of all missing person reports.
• 71 per cent of 13-17 year olds reported missing are female, whereas 73 per cent of those over 24 who go missing are male.
• 75 per cent of missing cases are solved within 48 hours. Some 99 per cent of missing people are found within one year, while 0.6 per cent of missing people are found to have died.
• Since 2002, police have recorded between 600 and 1,000 child abductions every year.