Scottish Daily Mail
A shocking murder and a killer jailed for life. So, 8 years on, why DO the doubts still linger?
THE Mumtaz restaurant was always packed on Thursday nights. Tucked away down a side street in Kirkwall, the only Indian restaurant in Orkney was popular among locals. In a tight-knit community where almost everyone knew everyone else, it was a place for couples and families to catch up, see friends and enjoy a curry.
But at 7.15pm on Thursday, June, 2, 1994, the cosy atmosphere was shattered when a masked gunman burst in, walked up to a waiter and in full view of diners shot him in the head.
The bullet entered 26-year-old Shamsuddin Mahmood’s left eye, passed through his brain and wedged into the wall behind him. He was killed instantly. The gunman fled.
And so began an extraordinary 14-year murder inquiry that gripped the intricately woven Orkney community, and at times threatened to tear it apart. It was not until 2008 that Michael Ross, 30, a well-known local and a decorated Black Watch soldier, was convicted of Mr Mahmood’s murder. He was sentenced to a minimum of 25 years in jail. Over the years, questions have been raised over Ross’s conviction. Evidence was circumstantial; descriptions of the killer suggested he was 6ft tall, while he is only 5ft 7in; at the time he was just 15 years old, leading some to dub him ‘the schoolboy assassin’, others to claim he could not possibly be responsible for such a professional contract-style killing.
While there were claims Ross did not have a motive, the prosecution suggested had been heard around that time to say ‘blacks should be shot and have a gun put to their head’.
In 2012 Ross lost an appeal, and in 2014 the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) ruled there was not enough evidence to support another. Yet a local campaign group based in Orkney has long protested Ross’s innocence and worked tirelessly for his release.
‘All we want out there is the truth,’ says a campaign spokesman. ‘We know, without a shadow of a doubt, that this conviction is a miscarriage of justice. Michael has a massive amount of support in the community. A lot of people are behind him and a lot of people speak openly about wanting to fix this terrible situation.’
This week that campaign received a significant boost when local Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael, the former Scottish Secretary, wrote an astonishing letter in support of the campaign, describing the verdict as ‘controversial’ and admitting he had met Ross.
‘Michael was a teenage boy at the time of the murder and a fully grown man and professional soldier by the time of his indictment and trial,’ he wrote.
‘When I met Michael I was struck that at 5ft 7in he is not particularly tall. It is easy to be critical with hindsight but I suspect that, given the opportunity to do things again, some aspects of the police investigation might be done differently.’
He also criticised the SCCRC, remarking that the commission ‘has not properly engaged with these issues and appear not to have analysed your submissions in the way that I would have expected’.
Mr Carmichael’s comments carry weight. A trained lawyer and a former procurator fiscal depute, he famously championed the case of Kenny Richey, the Scot who spent 21 years on death row in the US, leading a campaign in parliament for his release, visiting him in prison and petitioning Tony Blair to intervene in the case. Richey’s conviction was ultimately overturned and he was released in 1998. Whether his intervention in a case rather closer to home will carry weight however, is less than clear-cut.
Brian McConnachie, QC, prosecutor in the case against Ross, says: ‘It strikes me it’s a letter borne out of ignorance of what the evidence was in the case. Certainly, height is far from the most significant piece of evidence in the case.
‘It appears to be something written to constituents without true consideration of the material. The SCCRC does not do things slapdash or without a great deal of thought, and they have access to everything they could wish for in terms of reaching their decision. They having done so, for Alistair Carmichael to come out with this letter seems to me dismissive of the commission and also demonstrates a lack of understanding.’
ON June 2, 1994, Mr Mahmood was on his second stint working at the Mumtaz. An immigrant from Bangladesh, he had originally spent around nine months in Orkney in 1993 before moving to London, where he had a brother. In April 1994 he phoned asking if work was available and arrived on Orkney shortly afterwards. His family said he had no enemies and was a kindhearted man. After working the summer in Orkney, he planned on returning to Bangladesh to get married.
Mr Mahmood’s seemingly motiveless killing shocked the small, insular Orkney community. It was the first murder on the islands for 25 years in a place where a car having its wing mirror knocked off still made headline news. Extra police were brought in to search bays and inlets on the islands, and coastguards and fishermen were questioned about the movements of boats.
Perhaps most shocking of all was the professional, execution style of the murder. ‘When the gunman came in, it looked like a fancy dress,’ said Donald Glue, who was in the restaurant with his family at the time.
‘When the gun went off and I realised it wasn’t, it was a horrible thought to have your children there and not be able to do anything about it.’
Accounts about the height and build of the murderer varied from diner to diner. Some said he was 6ft, others that he was smaller.
‘Everybody saw something different,’ said Catherine Turnbull, then editor of local newspaper Orkney Today. ‘I don’t think anyone had a clue what had happened, even after it had happened.’
In the immediate aftermath, with rumours rife of a professional hit and concerns over racial tension towards the island’s tiny Asian community, Moina Miah, the restaurant’s owner, went into hiding under police guard with his wife and children. ‘We are really scared in case whoever did this comes after us as well,’ he said.
And yet they didn’t. Instead the murderer melted back into the Orkney community and for months, despite extensive publicity and a Crimewatch appeal, local police officers were stumped as to a lead.
They included PC Edmund Ross, who the morning after the murder had been tasked with keeping curious onlookers away from the restaurant. A firearms expert with a keen interest in guns, Eddy Ross was a former Royal Green Jacket and Special Branch officer who once protected Prince Charles and Princess Diana.
The policeman was asked by a scene of crime officer to examine the fatal bullet, which had wedged in the wall behind where Mr Mahmood fell. ‘I could see right away that it was from a 9mm calibre,’ he said, years later.
In fact, the bullet was from military ammunition supplied to the British Army in 1972 and exceedingly rare.
PC Ross was tasked with checking all the 9mm guns on Orkney, but he concluded that none was capable of firing the bullet. He also reported that he could not find the same type of ammunition anywhere on the island.
Yet ten weeks into the inquiry Eddy Ross stunned detectives when he informed them that in fact he owned a sealed box of similar bullets that had been provided to him by James Spence, a retired Royal Marine and road sweeper.
PC Ross claimed there was only one box, but Mr Spence told police he had supplied two, one of which was open. He further claimed the officer had asked him to lie on three occasions about the bullets. There was a further twist: PC Ross was Michael Ross’s father.
By this time, police were already eyeing the younger Ross with suspicion. Two weeks prior to the shooting he had been seen in a local area known as Papdale Woods wearing similar clothing to the killer, and carrying out military-type exercises – something Mr McConnachie described as the ‘best bit of evidence in the case’.
‘The clothing being worn on that occasion was, broadly speaking, identical to the clothing worn by the gunman. And ultimately, he accepted that he was indeed the person who had been seen in Papdale Woods.’
The family home was searched and a notebook with a swastika and an SS symbol written on it was found, along with the words ‘death to the English’. A balaclava was also discovered. Yet Ross claimed to have an alibi for the night and said he was in another part of Kirkwall at the time. Ultimately, police had nothing to pin on him. They also had no other suspects,
In 1997 it was Eddy Ross who faced trial and the disgraced policeman received a four-year jail sentence after being found guilty of perverting the course of justice in relation to the boxes of bullets. He spent two years behind bars. Meanwhile, his son was
building a new life for himself. As a teenager there is no doubt that Ross had been fascinated by guns and the military.
His father, who had a large collection of hardware, had nurtured a keen interest in firearms in his son and even gave him a deactivated machine gun as a present.
A year after Mr Mahmood’s murder Ross joined the British Army, where he steadily rose through the ranks of the Black Watch and saw active military combat as a sniper. In 2004 his armoured vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq.
Ross put himself in danger in order to administer first aid before organising the evacuation of his wounded men, and was mentioned in dispatches for his bravery.
Contrary to comments that he was racist, when one black soldier who was under his command died, he openly wept. In his role as a soldier, he once guarded the Queen. He also married and had two children.
Meanwhile, as the years passed and no alternative suspects emerged, Mr Mahmood’s family despaired of ever seeing justice.
It was not until 2006 that there was another break in the case, when an anonymous letter was handed in to Kirkwall police station, claiming to identify the killer.
The man said he had been in the town’s public toilets just before the shooting and had seen someone fitting Ross’s description wielding a firearm.
‘I saw his face in full and the handgun,’ the letter read.
‘It was in toilets at Kiln Corner. I have lived long enough with the guilt at not coming forward. The person was about 15+ years approx – white and had a balaclava on head but still not turned down.’
DESPITE the letter being anonymous, Orkney being Orkney the worker behind the desk at the police station recognised the man who handed it in as a local named William Grant.
It was enough to prompt a cold case review of the murder and a year later, Michael Ross was finally arrested.
In court, he was defended by Donald Findlay, QC, who claimed Ross was an innocent victim. The prosecution, however, portrayed him as a racist teenager with an obsession with guns who had murdered Mr Mahmood in cold blood and then fled the scene.
There was to be a final twist. When Ross was found guilty at the High Court in Glasgow in June 2008, he leapt from the dock and made an attempt at escape.
He apparently got ‘some way down the corridor’ before an official jumped on him and prevented his bid for freedom.
Some weeks later, an abandoned Avis hire car was found in the car park of a Tesco store in Springburn, around a mile from the court where the soldier was being tried.
Inside were a tent, sleeping bag, grenades, ammunition, and a machine pistol loaded and ready to fire. Although he later claimed the gun was so he could ‘head for the hills’ and live rough, surviving on fish and game he killed, another five years were added on to his sentence.
Today Ross remains in prison, while his two daughters grow up with a father who has been behind bars now for eight years. He is, says Mr Mahmood’s family, where he belongs. Yet on Orkney, not everyone agrees.
‘Michael is how he has always been,’ says a campaigner. ‘The very definition of resilience. He has a lot of support. People won’t forget about him.’