Millionaire found guilty of killing wife

Last updated at 15:05 01 August 2005

Millionaire architect Michael Morton was today jailed for seven years after being convicted of killing his wife. She had been trying to divorce him.

Gracia Morton, 40, disappeared without trace eight years ago after going to her estranged husband's house.

Despite extensive searches, her body has not been found. Police believe it may have been disposed of locally by Morton who had a professional knowledge of building work.

A jury at the Old Bailey today found Morton guilty of his wife's manslaughter but not guilty of her murder.

Jailing Morton, Judge Jeremy Roberts said if the architect had been able to accept what he had done he might have been able to make a considerable reduction to the sentence.

But Morton's denial had "resulted in years of agonising on the part of his wife's family on what had happened to her".

"There is no evidence that you or anyone can explain exactly what happened," said the judge.

"I am sure it was a sudden flare-up brought about by a disagreement about schooling about which you felt strongly."

There was evidence that Morton was in a state of emotional turmoil when it happened. "But it is still an unlawful killing," Judge Roberts told Morton.

The defendant showed no emotion as he was led to cells - still keeping the secret of where his wife's remain lay and what happened to her.

The court heard how Gracia's car containing her mobile phone was left parked outside Morton's £800,000 house in St Ann's Road, Notting Hill, west London.

Morton, 67, told police she had asked him to look after the car and their four-year-old daughter. But it was not until six years later that police discovered CCTV footage of him making a secret visit using her keys to her Kensington, west London, flat.

Morton denied murder at the Old Bailey. He was convicted of manslaughter following a retrial. A jury at an earlier trial in November, last year, failed to agree on a verdict.

But at the second trial, the prosecution was able to introduce "bad character" evidence that Morton had been violent to his wife in the past.

Morton, who was said to be "besotted and still in love" with Gracia, was devastated when the former violinist left him nine months earlier.

Bitter divorce

He attempted suicide and begged her to return. But Gracia had found a new love, a new home and was looking forward to a new life with her beloved daughter.

As the divorce proceedings became more bitter, Morton accused Gracia of trying to steal his money - particularly £480,000 which he said was his.

They also argued about their daughter's education with Gracia insisting she should go to a fee-paying school.

Morton had a hatred of boarding schools because of his own unhappy experiences and was said to dislike "posh little schools where little girls went around in straw hats".

On the day she disappeared, Wednesday November 12, 1997, and with only a few weeks to go to the divorce, Gracia told her solicitor she was going to see Morton about it.

The prosecution said it was this argument against a "boiling cauldron" of issues, which led to her death. Morton became the prime suspect and was arrested after her close-knit Argentinian family accused him of harming her.

The defendant, who was accused of being arrogant, continued to be unhelpful to police as officers scoured Britain for her.

He was eventually charged in October, 2003, after detectives built up a case against him. Gracia's family, some travelling from Argentina, and friends helped to convict him.

A neighbour said he saw Morton cleaning out his estate car on the Thursday and emptying the dustpan into the drain in the road. He then emptied the contents of a bucket into a different drain.

Gracia's older sister Constanza Lezama said she saw a rolled up piece of carpet in the back of the car on Friday.

Constanza said Morton broke down earlier in the day and told her "She's dead, she's dead". Morton reported Gracia missing on that Friday after her new boyfriend, businessman Sandy MacDonald, and a friend went to her flat to find a pile of post and her starving cat.

Obsessive behaviour

To their astonishment, Morton let himself into the flat using Gracia's keys - despite her being "obsessive" about not letting him know where she lived.

Detectives found a recording of him going to the flat but it was not until January 2003 that they re-examined the videos and found he had also been there the day before.

A detective who went to Morton's house and to his cottage at Stonesfield, Oxfordshire, found "shrines" to Gracia. Last year, documents found on Morton's computer appeared to be aimed at "justifying killing" and revealed his divorce torment.

One said: "I am nothing, nobody. there is no longer for me any basis of existence." Brian Altman, prosecuting, said: "Her disappearance was entirely out of character.

"She left behind her daughter to whom she was utterly devoted, her family to whom she was extremely close, and her future life, for which she was busily planning."

But Morton could not accept the divorce. "He regarded his marriage as indissoluble," said Mr Altman. He had sent a fax when she left. It said: "I can foresee no prospect of happiness, remotely equivalent of the distress I would suffer in the loss of my wife and daughter, and my future actions will be directed to minimising distress."

Morton had other girlfriends after she left him but he "remained besotted with Garcia and was distressed about her leaving him", Mr Altman added.

"There was a dark and sinister side to the relationship. On occasions, the defendant had been violent towards her."

A year before she disappeared, Gracia's psychotherapist had seen her with a black eye which she said Morton had given her.

Around the time Gracia left her husband, a friend had seen her. "She told her the defendant had become depressed and violent," said Mr Altman.

A year after her disappearance, her sister Carolina met Morton and asked him if he had ever hit her. "He admitted he had punched Gracia in the face once when they were in Spain," said Mr Altman.

"He laughed when he told her Gracia had had to buy sunglasses in order to hide her bruise."

Detective Chief Superintendent Hamish Campbell, who was in charge of the case, said he would be seeing Morton in prison to see whether he would give Gracia's body up.

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