THEY were three rings that symbolised love, marriage and eternal devotion that outdid Nat Fraser but appear now to be his saving grace.

Fraser is set to be freed on appeal after serving three years of a 25-year life sentence for the murder of his wife, Arlene Fraser, the 33-year-old mother of his two children, who vanished without trace from her Elgin home in April 1998.

Her disappearance sparked the biggest criminal inquiry in Scotland since the Lockerbie trial and eventually led to the conviction of her husband five years later.

Fraser, the estranged, wayward and sometime violent husband of Arlene, was always the prime suspect in her murder but he eluded the police for several years.

Only three weeks before Arlene's disappearance Fraser had almost strangled her to death in the latest of a series of increasingly violent, jealous rages. She was seeking a divorce, and a settlement of GBP250,000 which would have ruined Fraser's fruit and veg business and humiliated him in the Elgin area.

It seemed an open and shut case but there was simply no evidence against him, except a circumstantial case, and with no trace of a body obtaining a conviction was always going to be hard.

That didn't stop the Crown and the police from trying, and after years of having him swaggering around Elgin as if nothing had happened they had Nat Fraser in the dock with his co-accused Hector Dick and Glenn Lucas. In prison video footage, while he served time for assaulting Arlene, a lip reader employed by police said Fraser had incriminated himself in a conversation with Lucas.

The lip reader's evidence wasn't even put to the court because the prosecution thought it would be shredded by the defence counsel. In fact, there was very little the Crown was sure of in attempting to obtain a murder conviction without a body.

Even before the trial started the prosecutor, Alan Turnbull QC, must have known there was little certainty in securing a conviction. A jealous husband, infidelity and greed were the ingredients of a great murder case. But other factors - no body, no forensics and no witnesses - did not make for great prosecution material.

Killers had walked free before and with GBP2 million spent on the case, the reputation of Grampian Police and the Scottish criminal justice system were at stake.

But one week into the packed trial there was a sensational development when Hector Dick turned Queen's evidence and told a stunned courtroom that Fraser had hired an anonymous hitman to strangle his wife before he began the gruesome business of burning her body, then grinding it to dust and scattering it over the Moray landscape. With Lucas already cleared, Fraser was left alone in the dock.

The evidence of Hector Dick, a farmer friend who had asked Nat Fraser to be his best man, was hardly rock solid. He had been a prime suspect in the case himself at one time and was implicated inconcealing Arlene's murder by destroying a car belonging to Fraser that police were convinced was connected to the murder. His evidence would not be enough, the prosecution felt, to put the husband away. After all, he had already received a jail sentence for perverting the course of justice and had misled police at every turn. Now the jury were to believe that the liar was telling the truth. It was not going to be enough and it would in any case taint the prosecution.

So the prosecution threw attention on to Arlene Fraser's wedding, engagement and eternity rings. According to the prosecution, they re-appeared in the bathroom of the family home 10 days after she disappeared. The rings were nowhere to be seen when the interior of the house was searched and videotaped in detail by police in the immediate aftermath of her disappearance.

The Crown implied that Arlene Fraser's murderer had returned the rings to ensure they could not be used to link him to the case or identify the body.

The prosecution described the rings as "the most compelling evidence" at the trial and to many it seemed that the jury had been turned by the story of the rings rather than by Dick's evidence.

The jurors were told that Fraser had removed them from his wife's body after she had been murdered and had returned them to the bathroom of the house in Smith Street, New Elgin, to make it look as if she had run away.

INhis closing speech at the High Court in Edinburgh, prosecutor Alan Turnbull held up the rings and said they were "the undoing of a husband consumed by jealousy and greed and tell us that as eloquently and poignantly as a witness who tells us he saw Nat Fraser kill Arlene".

On the last day of the trial, Judge Lord Mackay told the jury they would be able to return a guilty verdict even if they rejected the evidence of Hector Dick. He said the cornerstone of the Crown's evidence was whether or not they accepted evidence that Fraser was responsible for putting his wife's rings back in the bathroom of the family home.

The defence branded Dick a liar who had concocted a plot worthy of a bad episode of EastEnders but in the end it made no difference. The jury had the rings to believe in and Dick walked away a free man, profiting from his experience by selling his story.

Fraser was sent down for 25 years with the judge's description of him as "evil" ringing in his ears. "It is difficult to comprehend how any man can bring himself to plan and arrange the coldblooded killing of his wife, the mother of two young children, " said Lord Mackay.

"Having suffered the body-blow of losing their mother five years ago, they will now learn their mother was killed by their father, the same father who has consistently lied to them these last five years."

Fraser, who for the past three years has proclaimed his innocence to his children from his prison cell, later claimed there could be a second set of almost identical rings, as the originals had been stolen from the family home in 1996.

A pre-cognition statement from the couple's son, never presented in court, claims the rings were always in the house, in an ashtray. Later reports stated that he may have moved them from a bathroom windowsill to the soapdish where they were found. Using his son, who never accepted his father's guilt, as the basis for appeal was seen as a desperate throw of the dice by Nat Fraser.

A former policeman, David Alexander, who was acquainted with Nat Fraser, has also alleged that the rings were removed and later returned by officers working on the case. Because of the impending appeal Grampian Police felt unable to comment on Alexander's allegations.

Nat Fraser's appeal, which hinges on the rings as much as the prosecution evidence that put him away, is known to centre on the pre-cognition of a police officer who claimed he had seen the rings in another part of the house early in the investigation.

The prima facia evidence, which has been lodged with authorities for some time, appears to have been enough for the Crown Office and the police to throw in the towel. It seems that the appeal case, when it is presented this week, will not be contested. If so, Nat Fraser will likely walk out of jail a free man to pick up the pieces of his shattered life and the murder prosecution will be overturned.

The last time it is known for certain that contact was made with Arlene Fraser was at 9.40am on Tuesday, April 28, 1998. That was when the she phoned her son's school to find out when he would be back from a trip to Inverness.

At 9.55am, the school secretary called back. The phone rang out. Arlene was never seen again. Something happened in those 15 minutes that spawned a fiveyear police probe, left two children motherless, saw a family grieving and angry, and sentenced a man to life in prison.

This week nobody is any nearer to finding out what happened. There is no body, no forensics, no corroboration - no trace of Arlene Fraser.