Sex, witchcraft and the murder of a druid

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.


Witchcraft, or Wicca, is a form of neo-Paganism. It is officially recognized as a religion by the U.S. government.

This is a diverse movement that knows no central authority. Practitioners do not all have the same views, beliefs and practices.

While all witches are pagans, not all pagans are witches. Likewise, while all Wiccans are witches, not all witches are Wiccans.

Note: The Witchcraft news tracker includes news items about a wide variety of diverse movements reported in the media as ‘witchcraft.’

“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.”


An openly flirtatious man, it is clear that James did not trust Solheim in the least. On one occasion when he was out, she searched his house and later told a friend how she had found a doll with pins in it, a video camera and ladies’ underwear hidden in the attic.

All the time her suspicions were fuelled by the knowledge that Solheim had been having a 20-year on-off relationship with a woman by the name of Jean Knowles. “We had a sexual relationship, except when I was in other sexual relationships, but we stayed in contact, we were there for each other,” thrice-divorced 63-year-old Mrs Knowles would tell the court.

“I knew of Margaret and that there were possibly other women. We each did what we wanted to do.” James, however, did not share this laissez-faire approach and on one occasion telephoned Mrs Knowles to tell her to stop contacting Solheim.

But they continued to communicate by phone and in the three years before Solheim’s death started to see one another more and more. “He sometimes stayed overnight,” said Mrs Knowles. “And we had sex three or four times a month. He liked it – that is for sure.”

Indeed, so much did he like ‘it’ that by the end of 2003 he had decided that his future lay with his long-term mistress. He bought her an engagement ring and began to renovate his mother’s vacant home with a view to moving there after they married.

“He asked me not to wear the ring until the time was right,” she told the court. Solheim, it would appear, was nervous about telling James that their relationship was going to end. He told Mrs Knowles that once she knew, “the muck will hit the fan”. On June 15th 2004 Solheim made one last entry in his calendar. It simply read: “Secret’s found out.”

This, police assume, meant that he had told James that they were finished. On the following day his jilted girlfriend wreaked her terrible revenge. Using the powerful sedative Lorazepam, Solheim was first drugged and then set about with a machete or axe. A total of 18 injuries, including four deep cuts to the head that would have left him unconscious but not dead, were inflicted.

He had three broken ribs and bruising to his chest and back, grazing on his buttocks where he had been dragged across rough ground and a deep cut to his left knee that had broken the kneecap. Another ‘targeted’ injury had almost severed his right big toe.

It is accepted that James, who stands at little more than 5ft tall, did not act alone and detectives believe that given Solheim’s abrasive character and illicit dealings in guns and pornography, there would have been no shortage of willing accomplices.

“Don’t be fooled by this diminutive woman. In truth she has a heart of stone,” prosecutor Sarah Munro QC, told the jury at Truro Crown Court. “The injuries were caused by blunt and sharp weapons likely to be a machete or axe. The injuries have been deliberately targeted. You will have to consider whether to make his suffering more severe or to ensure his movement was heavily restricted.”

Notable amongst the injuries was damage to his fingers. A ring given to Solheim by Mrs Knowles had been ripped off and replaced by one of James’s. For two days Solheim was held captive (where, exactly, remains unclear) before being taken out to sea and dumped. He was alive when he entered the water but would have drowned quickly.

‘Red herring’

Had the plot gone to plan then Solheim’s body would never have been found. Instead, a passing trawler picked it up within a matter of hours. Clearly, James was not immediately aware of this. She had Solheim’s mobile phone and sent a series of ‘red herring’ texts to her own phone and to that of Mrs Knowles purporting to be from him. In them she wrote that he had met a friend named Charlie, that they were going fishing together and could be heading for France or Spain.

But checks subsequently showed that all the calls had been routed through the St Keverne transmission mast near James’s home and that some were sent up to 36 hours after his body had been recovered.

The texts received by Mrs Knowles aroused instant suspicion. Normally, Solheim never referred to James by her first name, Margaret, but as ‘M’ or ‘It’. But in the texts Mrs Knowles received from the 17th onwards the name Margaret was used in full.

In the days and weeks following the discovery of Solheim’s body James stuck to the story that she had last seen him on June 16th when he had gone off fishing with the mysterious Charlie. But when officers spoke with her they found her vague – unable to say at what time she had last seen him – and unemotional.

Suspicions were heightened when a search of Solheim’s house – named Valhalla in honour of the Viking gods – found just ?20. A safe was missing and £24,000 cash was subsequently found at James’s mother’s house. A further £900 was found hidden under a mattress in James’s own home with a note that read: “What goes around, comes around.”

Police also discovered a list in her handwriting of lethal poisons, each annotated with the dose needed for it to be fatal to humans. Arrested the following month, James was not charged until February 2005.

During the trial the three men and nine women of the jury heard evidence from James who attempted to blacken her former lovers name in any way she could. She told the court that Solheim was obsessed with black magic, on one occasion spending three nights stood in a stone circle reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards.

She also claimed that he was obsessed with pornography and had forced himself on her sexually “a couple of dozen times” during their relationship.

Further, Paul Dunkels QC, her barrister, claimed that Solheim had received hate mail branding him a paedophile which could have provided a motive for whoever it was that wanted him dead. Originally accused of murder and conspiracy to murder, during the trial the jury was instructed by the judge that there was insufficient evidence to convict James of murder and on his orders they returned a not guilty verdict.

But after nine hours of deliberations, yesterday they found James guilty of the conspiracy charge. As well as the prison term, James was also ordered to pay £120,000 towards the costs of the prosecution.

Told by Judge Cottle she had shown no remorse for her crime, she shouted: “I can’t feel remorse for something I haven’t done.” Two years ago, shortly after the killing, James gave a brief interview to the Mail.

Then, she told of Solheim’s interest in the Norse Gods, how she believed he was a Satanist and how she was “coping as well as she might” Asked if she had any idea about who killed Solheim she paused and then said: “You only know about a person what they choose to tell you.”

Until now James has chosen to reveal nothing about how her boyfriend really died. And yet, as the jury concluded, despite her lies the whole world now knows the truth about her.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Daily Mail, UK
July 5, 2006
Tom Rawthorne and Luke Salkeld

Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday July 6, 2006.
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