A vulnerable pensioner a suffered a stroke when she was left locked in a public toilet for 21 hours – as police with sniffer dogs and helicopters mounted a huge search for her.
Stricken Norma Webster, 78, was found unconscious in a cubicle when cleaners finally arrived in the morning to open up the toilets.
She’d been there since mid-morning the day before and had gone unnoticed during the entire day and was left languishing behind a cubicle door when the toilets were locked up for the night.
Her worried family had reported her missing when she failed to return from a shopping trip to the high street in Forres, Moray, leading to a massive land and air search swinging into action.
But all the time, she was inside the public toilets in the town 200 yards from the town’s Co-Op supermarket where she was seen on CCTV going in to do her shopping at 10.30am.
Now her outraged son Martin McDonald has questioned why no-one checked the toilets were empty before they were locked up.
And he has criticised police for the way they searched the homes of Mrs Webster’s relatives in the hours after her disappearance, saying police appeared preoccupied with the notion that she was dead rather than alive.
Mrs Webster is now recovering in hospital from her ordeal, and Martin says her condition is improving following her stroke.
Martin, 46, from Elgin, Moray, said: “The only consolation is that she doesn’t remember the whole thing.
“It’s horrible to think that she was in there all night.
“Obviously, the toilets have just been locked without anybody checking to see if there was anyone inside.”
Mrs Webster was seen on CCTV going into the Co-op store around 10.30am on July 31, and was reported missing by worried husband James, 84, around 5pm after she failed to return to the couple’s home in Forres.
As fears grew for her safety that evening, police sniffer dogs were drafted in and helicopters scoured the area for signs of her.
She was found in the toilet around 8am the next morning – just 200 yards from where had been seen on CCTV.
Martin, who works for a car dealership, says police had their priorities wrong during the search.
He said of Police Scotland: “I wanted their help. I wanted my mum found.
“They came to Elgin to look in my 80-year-old uncle’s house, they looked in my shed, when they could have been looking for her.
“They never said it in so many words, but they were looking for a body.”
He revealed officers even scoured the attic of his parents’ home – on the apparent theory that Mrs Webster had been dumped there by her husband.
“They looked in the attic at my mum’s house. My old man’s hardly capable of walking, let along getting in a loft through a threefoot hatch.”
A spokesman for Moray Council said: “The council can only apologise most sincerely to Mrs Webster and her family for what must have been a distressing ordeal for all of them.
“An urgent review of procedures will now be done to ensure that where we operate toilets in partnership with the local community who open and close them, as was the case here, there is no prospect of a similar incident happening again.”
Chief Inspector Stewart Mackie, Police Scotland’s Moray area commander, apologised to Mrs Webster’s relatives.
He said: “There have been instances in the past where people have been reported missing when they have taken unwell in sheds.
“We certainly did everything we could in terms of the missing person search and used considerable resources.
“We carried out searches in the area where she was last seen and work under the assumption that when toilets are locked up they are checked, clearly that was not the case this time.
“It’s a very tragic set of circumstances.”
Mrs Webster’s son Martin added: “The person responsible for checking the toilet didn’t bother actually going in to see if anyone was there, obviously.
“They might have shouted in before locking the door but as my mum couldn’t speak or move, she wasn’t able to respond to them in any way.
“We could have had my mum at the hospital by 8pm that night if we had known she was actually in there.
“Unfortunately, this is just a case of someone not bothering to do their job properly.”
Since the ordeal, the grandmother-of-three, who worked for Marks and Spencer before retiring, has been steadily recovering in hospital.
Martin added: “She is improving on a daily basis.
“She still has no vision in her right eye and some difficulty moving, but she has been taken off her drip and has been able to eat again.”