A chance find by divers 25 years ago this month led to a husband being jailed for killing his wife. Alan Irving reports

AIRLINE pilot Peter Hogg believed he had committed the perfect crime. Eight years after dropping the weighted body of his strangled wife from an inflatable rowing boat into the watery grave of England’s deepest lake, he was sure he had got away with it.

Had it not been for the disappearance of Veronique Marre on a walking tour in the western lakes, he might well have done, and Wastwater – 72 metres deep – might have held its grizzly secret forever.

The personable Air Europe holiday pilot flying Boeing 757s was not to know that police, aided by amateur divers, were carrying out intensive searches for the 21-year-old student from France.

Eight years earlier – in October 1976 – Hogg had driven 300 miles from Guildford, Surrey, to lonely Wasdale and, as darkness fell, rowed his dead wife into Wastwater. She was wrapped in plastic inside a sack tied to a block of concrete.

Police frogmen brought the body ashore from the icy water after being alerted by local amateur divers. One of them, Colin McCourt, from Moresby Parks, revealed to The Whitehaven News this week that the sack had been seen in the lake years before but the divers in the Egremont and Solway clubs had been completely oblivious of its content. Now and again the divers used it for lifting exercises.

Twenty-five years ago to the month since police brought the body ashore, the drama continues to fascinate locals, criminologists and anyone interested in mystery stories, however macabre. It was also one of the most fascinating news stories I have been involved with.

It all started with an early evening phone call from a friendly police officer. “There’s been a body found in Wastwater and you’d better get out there,” said the caller.

First thoughts were that it was the body of Veronique, who had vanished without trace. But despite many years in the water the body was so well-preserved that within six days of discovery it was positively identified as Margaret Hogg. Police travelled from Whitehaven to Surrey and knocked on the door of a 56-year-old stunned husband, a former boarder at Keswick School.

The couple met while she was working as an airline stewardess. Her husband, 19 years older, was the prime suspect. He was immediately arrested, and charged with murder, which he denied, at the Old Bailey.

Had he rowed further out into Wastwater, his wife’s body would almost certainly have fallen to the very bottom of the lake, below normal diving depths at the time. Instead the grim package settled on a shallow part of the lake bed – not on a ledge as commonly thought – and due to the lack of oxygen it failed to decompose: it was preserved like wax because Wastwater is so cold.

Hogg’s trial at the Old Bailey brought out revelations of Margaret’s infidelity and a stormy relationship. He had strangled her after another row in their home.

But it was the events in the local police investigation that led directly to his own discovery. The local media were summoned to Whitehaven police station to witness a gold wedding ring.

Hidden engraved around its inside face were the wedding details of Margaret and Peter Hogg. This was the fatal mistake: Hogg, notwithstanding all his meticulous pre-meditated preparations, forgot to remove it from the body.

The inscription read: “Margaret 15-11-63 Peter.”

A friend in Surrey recognised the well- publicised description and Whitehaven police were hot on the trail.

Another vital clue which confirmed her identity was her dentures.

Then followed the knock on the door of the couple’s £90,000 home.

Detective Des Byrne was one of the officers there. He and Whitehaven CID colleague David Harrison were already in Guildford making initial inquiries before a second team followed on to make the arrest.

Des recalls: “We found out that the sack or the wrapping had links with carpet-making in Surrey and we were also able to locate the dead woman’s dentist. It was a lucky break because her dental records were just about to be destroyed. With this and publicity over the wedding ring, we quickly found out where the couple lived.”

While other West Cumbrian officers went to the house to be greeted by a bemused Peter Hogg, Acting Detective Sergeant Byrne kept watch round the side of the property. “You could say it was a shock to him. He had been out of the country and knew nothing about what was going on

“In an interview, Hogg told us what had happened. He said his wife was having an affair, an argument developed and he killed her. He thought about how to dispose of her body, decided to wrap it up and put it in the boot of his car, drove his son to school in Taunton and then up to Wasdale.”

Detective Byrne searched the house. “We found quite a lot of evidence connected to the crime. There were still bloodstains under the carpet in the bedroom. We also found rope matching what was used to tie the sack.

“What we also learned was that Hogg had gone to see a solicitor to get a divorce claiming she had run off with somebody else.”

At Hogg’s Old Bailey trial, the jury heard in his defence that, for years, he had been provoked by the unfaithful and bad behaviour of his wife who had flaunted her three-year affair with banker Graham Ryan.

Hogg’s QC said: “The law recognises that within every human being lies the fires of emotion and you can provoke a human being so far.”

Margaret Hogg was strangled in October 1976, only a week after she had been to Dorset with her lover. When asked if he had murdered his wife, Hogg said: “Murder is not the right word. Certainly she died. I think I strangled her. We had an argument, she did her usual act, she was always throwing things at me. She was scratching my face, kicking me in the crotch and I belted her. She flew at me, hitting and kicking, then I grabbed her round the neck and squeezed hard. I realised one of her eyes was glazed and I let go. She fell back on the floor and I realised she was dead.”

But the accused was described to the jury as cool and calculating, for within minutes of the strangulation he had changed his clothes and trussed up his wife before working out how best to dispose of her.

Describing his long drive north and rowing an inflatable boat out on to pitch-black Wastwater, he said: “It was the longest day of my life. You don’t realise how difficult it was. I nearly went in with her.

“I was in a perfectly logical frame of mind once I put my mind to dealing with the current emergency.”

One month later Hogg reported his wife’s apparent disappearance to Surrey police.

The jury found Hogg not guilty of murder but convicted him of manslaughter. He was jailed for three years and another year was added for obstructing a coroner and for perjury in divorce proceedings.

Margaret’s ashes had been scattered on Wastwater (her family’s wishes) after her body was cremated at Distington. When deputy coroner John Taylor opened an inquest in Whitehaven he heard from a Home Office pathologist that death was from strangulation and also from a Hertfordshire dentist that the dentures belonged to Margaret Hogg.

Former Marchon worker Colin McCourt, a member of the Solway diving club, said: “I remember thinking what a scene it must have been. Wastwater is a particularly desolate spot in winter with the dark screes on far side of the lake. So imagine somebody rowing out there, probably as darkness was falling and just as the sun was going down so there was still enough light to see where he was going and what he was doing.

“Also imagine someone rowing out and trying to tip a dead body in a sack with a heavy kerbstone tied to it and trying to roll it off the inflatable.

“People still say you would never have found the body if it hadn’t dropped on to a ledge, but we had previously moved it on to the ledge before the police removed it. The actual resting place was 36 metres on the bottom of the lake and we were led to believe it had been in the lake for a number of years.”

Both the Egremont and Solway frogmen were using Wastwater for diving and lifting exercises. “Our understanding was that this package had been seen for many years, you couldn’t tell what it was, it wasn’t like a body. We never opened many packages underwater because it was not unusual to find dead dogs or cats. We located this particular package at 36 metres which meant we had under 20 minutes diving time.

“This day was particularly cold when we went down, I remember the package was tied to a concrete block, we lifted it up to a higher level, decided to leave it and go back.

“It was Neil Pritt who went to tell the police who were searching for Veronique at the time. We knew it couldn’t be her because the sack had been seen long before she went missing.”

Colin’s diving record read: “It was nice calm day, we actually went looking for the package in a lifting exercise, we lifted it but never opened it. Perhaps next time. I added later ‘No next time, female body found.’

“We were down there for 14 minutes, that was the first time I myself had seen the package, we decided we would go back and move it, probably one of the reasons as a bit of fun get one back on the Egremont divers. We had a good relationship and some friendly banter.”

And the missing French student Veronique Marre? In April 1984, she was found lying dead at the foot of Broken Rib Cragg where she had fallen 1,100 ft above awe-inspiring Wastwater a month or so after the divers recovered the body of Wastwater’s Lady in the Lake.