POLICE believe missing mum Heather McKay most likely died in a tragic accident after they discovered a body in woodland around 500 yards from her home in West Lothian.
• Body may have lain for 12 days
• Residents question length of time to find body which was lying so close by
The body, believed to be that of the 51-year-old mother-of-two, was found in an “inaccessible” part of Dechmont Woods, which is popular with local dog walkers, yesterday afternoon.
A postmortem will be carried out in the coming days to determine the exact cause of death, but police sources said they believe she was probably the victim of a tragic accident, that there were no “signs of criminality” and that they could not yet rule out the possibility that she may have taken her own life.
The woodland where the body was found contains steep slopes and ravines, although it is not generally considered dangerous by village residents.
Today Ms McKay’s neighbours questioned why it had taken the police so long to find the body when it appears to have been lying for 12 days so close to where she had been living.
But police said the area where the body was found could only be reached by “specialist search teams”.
She had not been seen since leaving a friend’s house in Craiglaw, Dechmont, at around 7.30am on Friday, August 24.
Police said they had informed Ms McKay’s family of the grim discovery.
Search and rescue teams were understood to have been combing the area since Saturday.
A keen walker, Ms McKay, who was not carrying her mobile phone, was last seen on a day which became increasingly windy and cold, wearing a rain jacket and walking boots.
Residents and police carried out searches in the local woods in the days immediately following her disappearance, but found no sign of her.
Police yesterday cordoned off a section of the Loan Path, which forks its way through the dense wood, after her body was found by specialist search teams.
A police van parked near to the woodland, bounded to the north by the A89 and to the south by the M8 motorway, still displayed a poster appealing for Ms McKay’s whereabouts on a window.
One Dechmont resident, who did not want to be named, said she had walked along the Loan Path just half an hour before the discovery was made.
She said: “The police were there but there was nothing to suggest something like this had happened.
“I’m just stunned.”
In Dechmont, a small, close-knit community which is home to approximately 1000 people, the streets were quiet.
Little over a week ago, residents came together to comb the woods as news of Ms McKay’s disappearance – described as “completely out of character” – spread.
Her children, Andrea and Kevin Waddell, and her sister, Deirdre McKay, made an emotional appeal to members of the public via the media for anyone with any information to come forward.
They told how Heather appeared to be bouncing back from the end of a relationship with Gary Winters, 45.
Heartbreakingly, Andrea posted a message online appealing for her mum to come home just a few hours before police broke the news that they had found a body.
She wrote: “2moro is another day, and the only wish I have is to have my Mum home. If your [sic] reading this Mum, at least let me know you are safe, I understand you may be scared because of the media attention, but i am not mad at you, i dont know why you have done this.
“I just want to hold you in my arms. Please please come home. Me and Kevin need our Mum.”
The dense woodland where Ms McKay’s body was found is made up of winding paths, of which some are fairly steep.
It is populated with pine trees, many of which have been felled and remain on the forest floor.
But it is not an area which would be associated with dangerous terrain.
Lorraine Murray, who runs a dog walking business in Bellsquarry, said: “I certainly wouldn’t have thought it was a dangerous place, but dangerous things can happen anywhere to a certain extent.”
Another Dechmont resident, who also asked not to be named, said many locals believed the police could have searched the area more thoroughly earlier.
She said: “As far as I’m concerned, the police did not do a big enough search at the time.
“The body has been found so close to home.
“If they had gone in with dogs and done a proper search straight away, perhaps it wouldn’t have taken as long to find her.
“The community got together and went out searching for her and the police did not.
“The news is terrible, people are incredibly upset about it.
“Dechmont is a quiet place and everybody knows each other here.”
Dechmont resident Jim Scobie, 67, said today that he was shocked and saddened by the tragedy but surprised the body had not been discovered sooner.
He said: “It’s amazing the number of people that walk their dogs there. She’s been missing for two weeks and the police have been round here twice.”
A high-profile campaign, including a Facebook appeal with more than 10,000 supporters, posters and searches of nearby fields failed to shed any light on Ms McKay’s disappearance.
On Friday, police spoke to commuters and parents dropping their children off at the local primary school in a bid to find a breakthrough.
Police began following a number of lines of inquiry after receiving more than 20 calls from people who believed that they had seen Ms McKay.
Dozens of officers and members of Borders Search and Rescue Team began searching for Heather, who often hiked in the areas around Dechmont and Broxburn.
But only a short time after this information was disclosed, it was announced that a body had been found at around 1.30pm yesterday.
A spokesman for Lothian and Borders Police said: “Officers searching for a missing person from West Lothian have this afternoon found the body of a woman.
“The discovery was made at around 1.30pm in dense woodland between the A89 just south of Dechmont and the M8 motorway at Livingston.
“Formal identification will take place following a postmortem examination.
“In the meantime, the family of missing woman Heather McKay have been informed.”
‘Bubbly and sociable’
Heather McKay, 51, was a well-known face in the small community of Dechmont where she had raised her family, and it was a mark of her standing in the community that so many rallied round to help find her in the days after she was first reported missing.
Described as an independent and outgoing person with a wide circle of friends and a close family, it was completely out of character for her to disappear without leaving any message.
An NHS worker, she had been on annual leave from her job at the time of her disappearance.
Her husband, and the father of her two children, Andrea and Kevin Waddell, died in 1999.
During emotional appeals for information it emerged that Heather had recently split up with Gary Winters, 45.
Mr Winters later joined police in helping to search local woods, without success.
She had a sister, Deidre, 52, who had recently moved to Alicante, Spain, but returned last week after hearing about Heather’s disappearance.
Family members said she was a “bubbly, sociable” person who barely went a day without speaking to her daughter and was constantly sending text messages.
She was also known to be a keen walker who regularly wandered the local countryside, and a picture of her on the Facebook page set up by her family to help appeal for information featured a picture of her in a natural beauty spot.
• Thursday evening, August 23: Heather has “upbeat” conversation with her daughter. They joke and talk about her mother getting her own one-bedroom flat.
• Friday, August 24, 7.30am: Heather, who was staying with her friend, Susan, in Craiglaw, waves her off to work.
• Friday, 8.30am: A friend knocks on Heather’s door. There is no answer. She makes no contact with her friends and family. Her mobile phone is later found in the house.
• Friday, until 12.30pm: Various unconfirmed sightings are made of Heather, including one near Burnhouse Road where she was apparently chatting “animatedly” to a man and a woman.
• Friday, 5pm: Heather’s daughter realises something is badly wrong after her mother fails to make contact with her.
• Saturday morning, August 25: Heather’s disappearance is reported to police. The home where she is staying is searched.
• Monday, August 27: Heather’s community organises searches to help the police.
• Friday, August 31: Police mount an appeal in Dechmont. It emerges she had recently ended a short-term relationship. Her family make an emotional appeal for anyone with information to get in touch.
• Saturday, September 1: Heather’s ex-boyfriend, Gary Winters, 45, posts a series of messages on Facebook urging people to help find the 51-year-old, who has now been missing for ten days.
• Tuesday, September 4: Police announce that the Tweed Valley Mountain Rescue are searching areas around Dechmont, as Heather is a keen walker.
• Tuesday, 1.30pm: A body is discovered in dense woodland just outside Dechmont. Heather’s family are informed.
‘Everyone is on this page because we care’
As news that a body had been discovered in woods close to Dechmont spread, people began leaving tributes on the “Heather McKay Missing Person” Facebook page.
Natalie Brown posted: “Thinking of Heathers family and friends at this very sad time.”
Cherry Bow said: “Just seen the news, I’m so sorry for what you’re going through. Thinking of you all xx”.
Amy Wightman wrote: “Thoughts r with u all such tragic news xx”, while Pam Brown posted: “To Heather’s family and friends I will say that everyone on this page is here because we care. Thinking of you all during this traumatic time. Take strength from each other. x”