Family in plea for information on case of murdered publican

Lorraine Syme, sister of Billy Sibbald.

 Picture: Neil Hanna
Lorraine Syme, sister of Billy Sibbald. Picture: Neil Hanna

LARGER-than-life character Billy Sibbald was a lovable rogue to those around him.

The dapper dresser took on daredevil stunts for local charities and helped out struggling families with funeral costs.

But the Portobello pub landlord and sauna boss also rubbed shoulders with some shady figures.

Lured to a car outside his family home one Tuesday evening 15 years ago, the devoted husband and father to three boys was never seen alive again.

Three months later, Billy was found dead in undergrowth by the side of the A1.

The 48-year-old had been repeatedly stabbed and the body stripped in a crude attempt to mask his identity and get rid of DNA.

It bared the hallmarks of a rushed gangland hit and it was Billy’s underworld dealings that his family believe may have ultimately led to his violent demise.

“He was very protective of his family and very protective of me,” says older sister Lorraine Syme, 65.

And in a heartfelt plea to anyone who might know what happened that fateful night, she adds: “Just come forward, we want to know. Give us closure, have a heart.”

Lorraine has fond memories of growing up with Billy in Niddrie. “He was fun-loving and always looking to make a shilling,” says the great-grandmother-of-two.

“He was a prankster and always liked a practical joke.”

Billy went to St Anthony’s School in Leith but left early ,keen to make his way in the world.

He trained as a chef at the George, now Principal Hotel, on George Street and dreamt of running his own guesthouse.

Billy would go on to run Portobello’s Pop Inn with wife Julie, where he was landlord when murdered.

“He was always laughing,” says Lorraine, smiling at the memories. “He had a lot of character and a big heart, the biggest heart of anyone I know.

“He was always helping out. He would help out with local families’ funerals if they didn’t have too much money and he did a lot of unseen charity work. He didn’t like to brag about it.”

Billy’s support for good causes even saw him do a parachute jump for the Thistle Foundation.

“He was a family man,“ says Lorraine. “He didn’t like to see us fall out and did his best to get things sorted out.”

Lorraine points out the family home Billy shared with Julie and sons Craig, Paul and Liam from her living room window.

“He loved his boys,” she says. “If Billy was in the pub at 8pm and Liam wanted him home for a cuddle before he went to sleep, that’s it, he’d be home.”

Billy’s brutal slaying hit the boys hard. “They didn’t show much at the time,” says Lorraine. “But Paul still gets quite emotional if we’re at a party and we talk about him.”

Lorraine recalls Billy’s blissful family life all beginning to change when a few “unsavoury characters” started drinking at his pub in the months leading up to his murder.

Yet on the day he disappeared, Billy gave no clue as to the violent end to come. “I met him for a few pints,” says Lorraine’s husband Jim, 70. “He was his normal – laughing, joking self. “He wasn’t frightened, he just said he’d got someone to see. He was relaxed and his cheery self, nothing to worry about.”

Lorraine adds: “If he was in trouble it would be me he would turn to. That’s the bit I keep seeing in my head over and over, why didn’t he get in touch.”

Billy was preparing for his regular Tuesday date night out with Julie on October 8, 2002, when his mobile phone rang – there was a brief chat and dinner was cancelled.

A car pulled up outside the family home in Joppa at around 8pm, Billy grabbed his distinctive Gant coat, kissed his 35-year-old wife for what would be the last time, and headed off.

Detectives were immediately worried at his out-of-character disappearance. Billy, it turned out, had just sold his Orchard House sauna in the New Town.

Christmas came and went with no word from Billy. Family appeals were met with a wall of silence.

Then came the moment Billy’s family had dreaded when a dog-walker made a gruesome find in undergrowth off the A1 near Musselburgh.

Billy had been stabbed several times in what police described as a “violent and substantial” attack.

Detectives thought he was killed elsewhere, his body stripped, the Gant jacket probably destroyed and his gold bracelets and distinctive Dupont lighter disposed of.

Later, a car stolen in Edinburgh the night Billy disappeared was discovered burned out just a few miles from his body – was it the car used by Billy’s killers?

The rumour mill went into overdrive with theories.

Lorraine treats talk of Russian gangsters with disdain and dismisses any connection to the sale of Billy’s New Town sauna.

“It was probably over drugs,” she says. “Billy was no angel.”

Lorraine believes Billy even foresaw his death – with a premonition of being reunited with sisters Catherine and Avril who tragically died young.

“I was in the pub and he said to me, ‘I will see my sisters’ and it stuck in my head. It was only weeks before he went missing.”

She describes the three months before Billy’s body was found as a “living hell” as the family tried in vain to find him.

“I still remember how bad it was,” she says. “We tried everything. We even sent off to a psychic in London and it came back that he was suffering amnesia. I was never away from the window. I used to look for him on buses.”

Billy’s family point to a Glasgow connection with notorious gangster Martin Hamilton, ‘The Blackhill Butcher’ implicated.

“I’d see Billy and ask where he was going and he’d say he had to go through to Glasgow,” says Lorraine. “We were having a drink and asked him over for a pint and he said he had to take a load of money over to Glasgow in a carrier bag – thousands of pounds.”

But Hamilton, found brutally killed in 2015, was in prison at the time and Billy’s family wonder whether someone he knew lured him to the car that fateful night.

What is clear, is that the severity of Billy’s wounds point to a struggle, possibly in the car as the hardman realised he was being driven to his death.

Was his body then thrown from the vehicle by his panicked killers before they returned to strip him of his clothes and gold rolex in case they gave up DNA evidence?

Eventually detectives turned up at Lorraine’s door to break the news she had started to fear.

“By that time I knew,” she says. “It was very, very hard but I was glad we could give him a burial. To get him back and bury him with dignity.”

Lorraine is convinced there were mourners present at the Leith service who knew more about Billy’s death than they were letting on.

“It was emotional but I was very strong. While I was there, I was in control.

“I went to pieces after it but was strong on the day,” says Lorraine.

“There were people I wouldn’t shake hands with back at the club and they understood why. Because they had something to do with it or knew who did it but wouldn’t say anything.”

So convinced is Lorraine that someone in Portobello knows who killed her brother she has cut herself off, only going out to do the shopping.

“That’s what’s put me off going out. I’ve never been out in Portobello since and I used to go out a lot.”

Perhaps hardest of all is Billy’s birthday, April 6. “That’s still very hard,” says Lorraine. “I just want to be left alone.

“I want to know who’s done it. It’s not going to bring him back but I want the truth and closure definitely.

“The hardest thing is how he felt when he was taken away knowing what was going to happen to him. I know how he must’ve felt.

“I still have hope that someone will come forward. He’s never missing from my mind. There’s hardly a day goes by when I don’t think about it all these years. I love him so very much, we were very close.”