The Price of a Life

updated 10/20/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/20/1997 01:00AM

YVONNE GILFORD HAD ONE SWEET passion in life. After finishing her 10-hour shifts at the Johannesburg hospital where she had worked since 1991, the Australian-born nurse loved baking cakes, which she decorated with fanciful sugary figures of cats, elves and ballerinas. "If she promised [you] a cake for the next day, she'd be in the kitchen at 2 a.m. finishing it," says a longtime friend, nurse Sue Taylor. It came as no surprise, then, when Gilford told friends early last year that she had accepted a tax-free $21,000-a-year job in Saudi Arabia. She hoped to save enough money to open her own cake-decorating business in Australia in just two years. "We all encouraged her to go," says another friend.

But Yvonne Gilford's dream ended in tragedy last Dec. 12. According to press reports, Gilford, 55, was stabbed 13 times, bludgeoned and finally smothered with a pillow during an early-morning struggle in her bedroom at the King Fahd Military Medical Complex in Dhahran. Within a week, Saudi authorities, who had monitored a series of cash withdrawals made with the dead woman's bank card, arrested two British nurses who also worked at the hospital—Deborah Parry, 41, and Lucille McLauchlan, 31. Both women signed detailed murder confessions and were tried earlier this year under the country's secretive Islamic legal system with, their lawyers point out, no witnesses, no cross-examination and no forensic evidence presented. McLauchlan was sentenced to eight years in prison and 500 lashes for being an accessory, while Parry could face a far harsher punishment—public execution by beheading.

The possibility of that draconian sentence—Parry would be the first western woman ever executed by the Saudis—has sparked a diplomatic crisis. Both nurses vehemently deny they are guilty and have retracted their confessions, which they claim were coerced by authorities who physically abused them, deprived them of sleep and threatened them with rape. Last month, British foreign secretary Robin Cook expressed outrage at the brutality of the punishments.

Meanwhile lawyers for the two nurses have been negotiating with the victim's brother, deliveryman Frank Gilford, 60, of Jamestown, South Australia, who, according to Sharia, the Islamic legal code, has the right, as the victim's closest male relative, to accept a cash payment—known as "blood money"—in place of the punishment meted out by the courts. For months, Gilford refused to make a deal. "Whatever [Saudi] law dictates, that is the appropriate sentence for the crime," he told Australia's WHO magazine last summer. But last week the nurses' lawyers confirmed that $1.2 million, raised with help from British companies with interests in Saudi Arabia, had been put in trust—$700,000 for the Women's and Children's Hospital in Adelaide and $500,000 for Gilford—after Gilford signed a preliminary agreement to ask formally for clemency.

In life, Yvonne Gilford was nobody's victim. Strong and self-reliant, she was a sheep farmer's daughter brought up on a ranch so remote that she and Frank, her only sibling, at first had to be educated by correspondence, communicating with School of the Air teachers via two-way radio. After winning a scholarship to a high school in Adelaide and completing a four-year nursing course there, Yvonne, then 28, worked in Auckland, New Zealand. But wanting to see more of the world, she and Sue Taylor sailed for London in 1973. "We would work hard for three or four months, pay the rent in advance," says Taylor, 51, now living in New Zealand, "then take off for five or six weeks to travel."

Three years later, Gilford and Taylor moved on to Johannesburg, where Gilford eventually became head nurse on the surgical ward of Lady Dudley Hospital. "Her ward was run like clockwork," says nurse Hilda Schwartz, a colleague. According to Taylor, Gilford was generous with her time and money, volunteering to give therapy to a girl with cerebral palsy on Saturday mornings and loaning small sums to friends. But still single and nearing retirement, Gilford became increasingly concerned about earning a nest egg and opted for the job in Dhahran in April 1996.

At first she found her new home rather lonely. In letters to friends in South Africa, she complained that the hospital was slow to pay its employees, causing constant turnover. In August she wrote that she had few English-speaking colleagues and that she was looking forward to the arrival of two nurses from Britain.

The two arrived soon after, each with her own reason for moving to Saudi Arabia. Between 1978 and 1987, Deborah Parry, who once nursed members of the British royal family at London's King Edward VII Hospital, had lost her mother, her father, a brother and brother-in-law to sudden illness and accidents, and in 1989 nearly died herself in a car crash. She first sought psychological care, then, hoping to start over, left for her first yearlong nursing stint in Saudi Arabia in 1993. She returned for a second tour in September 1996. Lucille McLauchlan, daughter of a Scottish shipyard worker, had recently been fired from Dundee's King's Cross Hospital after allegedly using a dying patient's cash card to withdraw $2,000—a charge she denies.

Together in their isolation, the three expatriate nurses soon became friends. On the night of Dec. 11, they reportedly gathered in Gilford's room at the hospital housing complex for an early Christmas party. The following day, when guards entered the locked room after Gilford failed to report to work, they found her body. According to the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat, Parry allegedly struck Gilford on the head with a teapot during an argument. When Gilford tried to defend herself with a kitchen knife, Parry allegedly overpowered her, stabbing her repeatedly with the knife. Saudi police arrested the two nurses after they allegedly made four withdrawals of $1,000 each from Gilford's account with National Arab Bank.

In their prison cells in Al-Khobar, Parry and McLauchlan, who deny both making the withdrawals and any involvement in their friend's murder, suggest the killer is still on the loose. They now await the final verdict of the man with the power to set them free. "Now," says one of Parry's attorneys, Robert Thorns, rather anxiously, "the ball is with Mr. Gilford."

PATRICK ROGERS
LOUSE TALBOT in Melbourne, PAT REBER in Johannesburg and PETE NORMAN and JOANNA BLOXSKA in London

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