Peter Solheim and Margaret James
Dressed in a horned helmet, metal breastplate and wielding a double-edged four-foot long sword, Peter Solheim cut a truly extraordinary figure.
“I make a very good friend,” he solemnly informed the gathering of fellow witches and Druids, “and a very bad enemy.”
High drama but never could the 56-year-old parish councillor turned pagan have guessed how those words would one day come back to haunt him. A few months on, almost exactly two years ago now, Solheim was brutally murdered – dumped in the Channel off the coast of Cornwall and left to drown.
Drugged and with his limbs and head bludgeoned to a bloody pulp with a machete, he had no hope of saving himself. Yesterday, Margaret James, his lover of nine years, was convicted of masterminding the plot to kill him.
In a cruel echo of Solheim’s own words, the best of friends had indeed turned into the worst of enemies. “It was you who wanted him dead and you who masterminded and orchestrated the events which culminated in his death,” Judge Graham Cottle told James, 58, as he jailed her for 20 years at Truro Crown Court. “What you orchestrated was a horrific and slow death.”
The story of James’s bloody betrayal of her boyfriend is in equal measure extraordinary and horrifying, its plotline built around a volatile, unstable mixture of sex, witchcraft, greed and jealousy. Its conclusion also hangs in the air. To this day, James’s accomplice, whoever he or she may be, remains very much at large.
Played out to the ancient backdrop of the Cornish countryside, a land of folklore and myth, the roots of this murder mystery can be traced back to 1995 and an advert placed in the lonely hearts’ column of a local newspaper. James, a petite vegan with a penchant for nettle tea and a voracious sexual appetite, was looking for companionship and replied.
A mother of two, she had been single since the mid-80s when her first husband Francis James died in a fire at the gravel pit where he was working.
She received a £50,000 insurance settlement following the accident which she used to buy a former coastguard cottage on an exposed bluff of land above the Cornish hamlet of Porthoustock. To locals, she cut an eccentric, remote figure – swimming naked in the sea and living in near-squalor. She got by on a widow’s pension and made a bit of extra pocket money selling mobile phones and SIM cards.
‘Sex, pills and potions’
Like James, Solheim was also divorced and when the two met they quickly discovered they shared an interest in ‘alternative’ lifestyles – or “sex, pills and potions” as the prosecuting barrister in the trial would put it.
“We ended up going to bed and, to coin a phrase, were ‘at it like rabbits’,” was how James described the early days of their relationship to police.
“When it started I would say it was ridiculous, we never seemed to be out of bed. That returned to normality over time but our relationship continued with a high sexual and physical attraction.”
Evidently, theirs’ was a highly-charged relationship from the start. And it was never a particularly easy one. For starters, Solheim was a difficult and unpopular individual. Cornish-born, he was the only child of the chief engineer of a Norwegian whaling ship, a heritage that in later life would lead to a fascination with the Viking gods.
With his father often away at sea, he was raised by his mother Dorothy in the village of Budock Water on the outskirts of Falmouth and as a child was obsessed with knives and guns. Following a stint as a panel beater, Solheim worked for the printing company Stralfords in Camborne but is understood to have taken early retirement in the mid-nineties suffering from manic depression.
He received incapacity benefit and, with money earned selling pirated hardcore porn DVDs and antique weapons (his collection was worth £30,000) was considered a relatively wealthy man. By the time he met James he had not only split from his wife, Jean (a dispatch clerk whom he married in 1971) but had also severed contact with his two children, Lisa, 29, and Daniel, 25.
“I last spoke to my father on Christmas Day 1995 and we didn’t leave on the best of terms,” Lisa told the Mail. “He’d just met Margaret and I didn’t get on very well with her – nothing specific but we never hit it off. As I was old enough to move out, I moved out.
“In any case I wasn’t happy with all the guns and knives he kept in the house. He had a fiery temper and I was always afraid that he would lose his cool one day and do something that he would regret. Most of the friends he used to have when I was living with him have drifted away. He completely changed after he divorced my mum.”
The change, in particular, could be seen in two areas of his life: women and witchcraft. And James fell into both camps. At first, it seems, she was happy to accompany him to various solstice and equinox celebrations but it quickly became apparent to onlookers that he was more serious about the occult than she was.
“He became very taken by the gods Oden and Thor and was definitely veering towards the dark side of magic,” Tamsin Parish, a 23-year-old Druid who first met Solheim in the late nineties told the Mail. “Oden and Thor are Nordic gods and are very powerful and we were all worried that he thought he could tap into that power and was somehow being a messenger for those gods. Put it this way, we didn’t get the feeling that he was using that power in a good way.”
Having parted company with the Druids, Solheim joined a local group of Wiccans, devotees of a pre-Christian pagan religion who honour gods and goddesses and hold rituals to mark the changing seasons.
Peter Petrauske, high priest of the Falmouth coven, says that while they would worship in plain white robes Solheim insisted on wearing a horned helmet and breastplate. He would also carry a sword.
“He told us he wanted to be known as Thor’s Hammer,” said Mr Petrauske. “He was following the Norse way and was far more interested in that side of things.”
He was also very interested in sex. Pagan priestess Ann Bryn-Evans recalled how Solheim thought he was irresistible to women.
“He spoke about it very frequently,” said Mrs Bryn-Evans. “At first it was amusing but then there was too much of it. Margaret smiled and smirked as if she felt proud about it. But as time went on she became uncomfortable if he mentioned other women and said he was attracted to them. He was a boaster. He described himself as hot stuff. He felt he was very attractive to women and had no trouble in attracting them.”