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Aaron Campbell: The clean cut, popular 16-year old was an unlikely culprit

Kids Who Kill: Evil Up Close
Image: Kids Who Kill

Kids Who Kill: Evil Up Close takes a close look at one of the most distressing sub-types of murder: those carried out by children. A particularly heinous example in recent times was the killing of six-year-old Scottish school girl Alesha MacPhail, who was abducted from the seeming safety of her own bedroom in the middle of the night. The unlikely culprit: a clean-cut, popular, 16-year-old called Aaron Campbell.

Alesha’s parents were separated, and she was staying at the home of her father and paternal grandparents on the scenic Isle of Bute at the time of her disappearance on 2 July 2018. That night, not too far away from that house, Aaron Campbell was feeling despondent and restless after a party with friends. His hankering for drugs would lead him on the path to commit acts of unfathomable violence that night.

Campbell’s childhood gave no indication of what he was capable of. Though he had a history of self-harm and depression, he was a popular local lad with a close circle of friends who enjoyed his “dark sense of humour”. One of his ambitions was to be a YouTuber, and he had in fact uploaded videos doing innocuous things like jumping up and down on a trampoline and playing video games. Even the apparently ominous things he sometimes said – including a Facebook message suggesting he “might kill 1 day for the lifetime experience” – would probably have been written off as teenage bravado, or juvenile attempts at edgy humour, if they’d come to wider notice before he committed his crime.

On the night of 1 July 2018, as Alesha lay sleeping after watching a Peppa Pig DVD in her bedroom, Campbell had around 15 mates over to his large house. The party ended at midnight, and a friend later recalled Campbell seemed worryingly depressed. A short time later, Campbell sent out messages to see if anyone could sell him cannabis. Among them were Robert MacPhail, Alesha’s dad, and Robert’s girlfriend Toni McLachlan, as Campbell had bought drugs from them before.

Getting no response, Campbell hatched a plan to creep into the MacPhail residence and make off with the cannabis he assumed was there. In the early hours of 2 July, he walked the short distance and gained easy entry without waking anyone up. But, once inside, he glimpsed Alesha sleeping in her bedroom, and the sight of the vulnerable child clearly triggered the dark urges he had secretly been nursing for some time. As he later bluntly put it, “All I thought about was killing her once I saw her.”

Campbell carefully lifted Alesha from her bed and stole out of the house. He later said she woke up in his arms as he walked by the shoreline, and he comforted her by saying he was a friend of her father. In the moments that followed, he raped and murdered the child, leaving her body on the grounds of a hotel.

Getting up for work at around 6am, Alesha’s grandfather discovered her bed empty and the police were immediately contacted. Toni McLachlan noticed missed messages from Campbell the night before and tried to call him back. He replied with laughing emojis, telling her it didn’t matter. When she told him Alesha was missing, he sent the message: “Am sure she's not went too far x".

It wasn’t long before Alesha’s body was found, and a massive manhunt for the killer was underway. The breakthrough came thanks to Campbell’s own mother, who inspected footage from CCTV cameras she’d placed outside her home. She was hoping they might have picked up something suspicious in the night. To her surprise, however, she saw her son leaving and entering the house in the small hours.

She notified the police in order to eliminate Campbell from suspicion. Instead, the boy was soon arrested on suspicion of murder, with DNA evidence connecting him to Alesha. What followed was a gruelling trial, during which the calm and unflappable Campbell outlandishly claimed Toni McLachlan was the killer. According to his unlikely version of events, he and Toni met for sex earlier that night, and she later killed Alesha and planted Campbell’s semen at the crime scene using the condom from their encounter. The reason? She was apparently in a homicidally jealous rage over the affection her boyfriend lavished on his daughter.

Unsurprisingly, this story didn’t sway the court, and Aaron Campbell was found guilty of what the judge called “some of the most wicked and evil crimes this court has ever heard of in decades of dealing with depravity”.

In the run up to being sentenced, Campbell finally admitted the truth to a prison psychologist. His psychopathic lack of empathy and remorse was displayed when he admitted he had to try very hard not to laugh during his trial, and that he was “quite satisfied with the murder”.

Campbell was sentenced to 27 years, although this was controversially reduced by three years due to his young age. Whether he actually will ever be deemed suitable to walk the streets again remains to be seen in the decades to come. As one former Scotland Yard detective put it after the trial, “In my experience and in my opinion I don't think it will ever be safe to release Aaron Campbell from prison.”

Read more:

She was the brightest thing: The murder of Alesha MacPhail