The mysterious death of Hilda Murrell

Published March 1994

It was a rotten time, aggressive and cynical. The task force was back from the South Atlantic, the cruise missiles were coming into Greenham Common, they were shooting to kill in Belfast, they were banning unions at GCHQ and trampling down strikers in the coal fields. It was a time of ruthlessness in Government and of the crushing of enemies. And everywhere, there was the shadow of the secret state, arrogant and apparently ominipotent.

Trade unionists, peace activists and almost anyone else who disapproved of the Government watched for signs of the security services tapping their phones or reading their letters or bugging their meetings and, while Ministers sneered at their anxiety, hard evidence trickled out from the hidden corners of the corridors of power to confirm the worst of their fears.

West Midlands Special Branch were caught spying on a housewife whose only offence was to have written to a newspaper about nuclear weapons. The European Court accused London of tapping phones illegally. Devon and Cornwall Special Branch were ordered to weed their files when the new Chief Constable discovered the extent of their surveillance. The Government tried to suppress the evidence of Peter Wright and Cathy Massiter, but both of them emerged to disclose how their former colleagues in MI5 had bugged and burgled and opened files on “the enemy within”.

It was during this rotten time that Hilda Murrell died. She was a 78-year-old spinster from Shrewsbury, an amiable old English lady from the cast of Ealing studios, who liked to welcome good news by chirping “hear, hear” and who had spent her life growing roses and supporting interesting causes. She was last seen alive just before mid-day on March 21 1984, exactly ten years ago, as she returned from a shopping trip and walked into her home in the suburbs of Shrewsbury.

Somebody broke into her home that day. He kicked Miss Murrell in the head and shoulders, stabbed her half a dozen times in the belly and once again in the arm with such force that the blade came right through her bicep, he masturbated on her underwear, stole her cash and drove her out to the countryside in her own car where he dumped her half-alive, naked from the waist down, and left her in a lightly wooded field to die slowly from the cold. This person has never been caught.

This ugly but apparently straightforward crime became the subject of an extraordinary controversy. In the two years after her death, it was explored by three television documentaries, two books, several stage plays, two Parliamentary debates and endless columns of newsprint. The British Council of Churches, the former Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall police, Paddy Ashdown, Neil Kinnock and numerous others joined the debate. They were all drawn to one central thesis: this elderly horticulturalist had been murdered by the secret state.

Ten years later, it looks very different. The conspiracy theories seem outlandish and crazed, the evidence from which they were built looks like a swamp of error and, even though the heavy-booted blunderings of the security services were real enough, it seems most likely that we were seduced by the anxiety of that era into believing a version of events that was, at best, simply a fairy story for the 1980s. Go back to the beginning and see how the story grew.

It started in the New Statesman, on November 9 1984, when the freelance writer Judith Cook suggested that there might be a political motive for the murder. She listed a series of discrepancies in the police account, disclosed that Miss Murrell had been an active member of several anti-nuclear groups and speculated that she had been killed by an intruder who was looking for a paper which she was due to present at the public inquiry into the construction of the Sizewell B nuclear power station. Other newspapers began to wonder out loud whether this was the British version of the death of Karen Silkwood, who died mysteriously as she was about to blow the whistle on the American nuclear industry.

In the House of Commons, on December 19 1984, the Labour MP Tam Dalyell produced an entirely different theory. Listing the same discrepancies which had been noted by the New Statesman, he declared that there was nothing at all in the Sizewell theory since Miss Murrell’s paper was “elegantly expressed but unoriginal”. The answer, he said, was that Miss Murrell had been killed by “men of the British Intelligence” who were looking for documents concerning the Belgrano, the Argentinian cruiser whose sinking had been turned by Dalyell into a devastating political attack on the Prime Minister.

Dalyell said he had a source who had told him that Miss Murrell’s nephew, Commander Robert Green, had been working as an intelligence officer with the Royal Navy during the Falklands war and had personally sent the signal which ordered the sinking of the Belgrano. According to this source, Green had been appalled by the sinking and had taken early retirement, making him a suspect for the security services when they started hunting around to see if anyone had removed any paperwork about the incident.

This was when the story really took off, as journalists and politicians joined the hunt for the elusive evidence which would finally nail the security services. They were unworried by the fact that the New Statesman and Dalyell were generating conflicting theories. And they remained unworried when Commander Green joined the fray and rejected both accounts.

Green said Judith Cook was unreliable and Tam Dalyell had been misled, but, with the help of some of Hilda’s friends, he began to develop several new theories of his own. It was the nuclear industry, he said, who were behind the crime but they were not involved in a burglary which went wrong. They had set out to abduct his aunt in order to interrogate her. They had drugged her – and stabbed her through the arm in order to disguise the puncture mark – and then taken her to a safe house for questioning before murdering her in a way which suggested she had been attacked by a sex maniac. The commander found a tumbledown wooden stable near the field where Miss Murrell’s body was found and decided this must be the safe house. He filled several sacks with old soil and manure from the floor in case it contained clues.

And that was not all. The nuclear industry, he decided, had not acted alone. After months of inquiry, the retired naval intelligence officer listed his conclusions: “I used to think that only MI5 and their private detective stooges, over laid by the CIA and Westinghouse thugs, were likely to be involved. But now British Telecom, the Post Office, the Fire Service and the police themselves seem to be up to their necks in it… I can think of only one secret, all-pervasive organisation which could pull all these strings and which might have the motive to do so: the Freemasons.” Masonic symbols had been sketched in the pebbles in his aunt’s drive, he surmised, to warn off the police.

But there was more than that. He recorded in his log a warning “that the psychic element in the case had now come into play and that this was indeed a major struggle between the forces of good and evil.” It was significant, he suggested, that his aunt had been abducted on March 21, the Vernal equinox. This indicated occult practices. And the field where her body was dumped was chosen through ancient Ley lines. There was a strong hint of Satanism in the crime, he said. He set off for Blackpool to find a local Romany woman who was supposed to know about witchcraft in the area but Gypsy Rosalee told him she was dead, so he went home. “My hypothesis rests,” he wrote. “Now all I have to do is prove it.”

This should have been enough to warn us off. It was not simply the daftness of Rob Green’s theories but – much more important – that they were the only logical way to explain how the security services were supposed to have behaved. Green is a decent, honest and intelligent man and he saw very quickly that the New Statesman and Tam Dalyell must be wrong.

No intelligence agency would burgle a house without checking that it was empty and ensuring that they had look-outs to warn them if the householder returned. So, if these people had confronted his aunt, it had to be because they wanted to. Hence, the theory of abduction and interrogation. That meant that the killing had to have been premeditated. But why do it in such a macabre and vicious way? There was no explanation unless you assumed that there were very dark forces involved. But if that was the case, why was there no evidence of them? A massive, masonic-satanic cover-up was the only answer.

Why did anybody believe any of these theories? The simple answer ought to be that there was evidence to support them, evidence that was so strong that we were compelled to accept the conspiracy theories, no matter how weird they seemed. But go back and look at the evidence.

These theories were launched on a series of discrepancies in the police version of the case, originally listed by Judith Cook in the New Statesman. She complained, for example, that the police had said Miss Murrell was sexually assaulted. Tam Dalyell asked the House of Commons “Why did they say that when it turned out on their own evidence to be untrue? What is the purpose of that kind of inaccuracy other than to sweep uncomfortable suspicions under the carpet?” This whole line of criticism subsequently collapsed when the police disclosed that Miss Murrell’s attacker had stripped her from the waist down and masturbated over her petticoat.

Judith Cook went on to suggest that Miss Murrell’s telephone had been cut off in such a way that anybody calling her would have thought the phone was ringing when it was, in fact, silent. She said the police agreed this was “sophisticated”. This line of thought also collapsed when the police produced their video of the scene of the crime to prove that the phone line had been simply ripped from its socket. They said they had never told anyone it was sophisticated. There was, in any event, no clear reason why MI5 or any other intruder would want to silence Miss Murrell’s phone since they had dumped her dying in a field and knew very well that she was not in the house to hear it.

Some of the discrepancies were tiny, like the complaint that the police had described the house as “ransacked” when the truth was that it had been “carefully searched”. Others flowed from ignorance of police work, like the complaint that they refused to release the post-mortem report and kept delaying the date of the inquest. Others were hyperbole: when the FBI were asked to help with a psychological profile of the likely offender, this was seized as evidence of an international intelligence link. Some were just wrong, like the claim that the police had found Miss Murrell’s car but failed to identify her as the owner because they had fed the wrong registration number into their computer. It never happened. But the story took off, gathering more fuel from more discrepancies which seemed significant at the time.

Rob Green disclosed that the final draft of his aunt’s paper on Sizewell had been stolen from her house. That looked significant, until the police proved he was wrong by producing it on television. There was a fire at Miss Murrell’s country cottage. Her friends said this was caused by a sophisticated incendiary device. That looked significant until forensic experts said it had been caused by setting fire to damp newspaper in a box of logs outside the back door. They said police had approached a local psychotherapist and asked about men who might molest old women and this must be significant because it had happened 24 hours before the police said they knew anything about the attack on Miss Murrell. The police explained that they had approached the counsellor for help over another, entirely separate indecent assault in their area.

The whole affair leaped forward when the Observer ran a front-page news story revealing that private detectives had been hired to spy on objectors at the Sizewell inquiry and suggested that West Mercia police should investigate the possibility that Hilda Murrell was one of their targets. Everyone involved in the Murrell saga thought that was significant until it became clear that the private detectives had stopped work in February 1983, a clear six months before Miss Murrell had first registered any objection to Sizewell. There was no connection between Hilda Murrell’s murder and the Observer story (I know. I wrote it.)

Three of Miss Murrell’s friends reported that Miss Murrell had been frightened in the weeks before her death. One was an 83-year-old woman, Con Purser, who took nearly two years to produce this information and volunteered that she had recently seen Hilda in a cloud over her garden, smiling at her. Another was a Shrewsbury peace campaigner, Laurens Otter, who took more than a year to produce the information; his latest theory is that Miss Murrell was not only under surveillance before her murder but that on the day of the crime she attracted two different hit squads who turned up to kill her and ended up squabbling about who should do the job. The third witness, Gerard Morgan-Grenville, has always maintained that Miss Murrell rang him in fear one night. Maybe she was frightened. Everyone else was.

It was not only the details of the conspiracy theories which collapsed on closer inspection. The foundations crumbled, too. No one who examined Hilda Murrell’s work on Sizewell could ever point to any fact or argument which she had uncovered which could conceivably justify spying on her. When Rob Green later read her paper to the inquiry, it created no controversy at all, and he escaped with his life. There was no Sizewell motive. And Tam Dalyell’s source, who had launched the Belgrano conspiracy theory, turned out to be wrong. He was wrong, for example, in believing that Green had sent the signal ordering the cruiser’s sinking and wrong, too, about the circumstances of his leaving the Navy. He was never able to deliver any detail at all to corroborate the story. If the Belgrano theory is true, no one has ever been able to produce a single slither of evidence to support it.

The most striking feature of all this is that the people who generated these theories and all the thousands of others who took them seriously were all honest, honourable people who were doing their best to make sense of a mystery. We were dragged off course by a common fear – that the security services were ready to break the law to beat the “enemy within”. The fear was real and justified, but there is still no evidence that Miss Murrell’s murder had anything to do with it.

West Mercia police continue to say that she died at the hands of a most vicious burglar. In the evidence room at Shrewsbury police station, detectives still hold the evidence which may identify him – unmatched finger prints from the car and from the inside of her house, casts of a footprint, hair, semen, photofit pictures. But they have not found the man. And they have not stopped the conspiracy theorists.

Last year, a private detective from Surrey named Gary Murray, who claims to be a former MI5 agent, published a book in which he reviewed the Murrell mystery. He reworked all the old discrepancies in the police account and then disclosed that a prisoner serving 15 years for armed robbery had admitted that he had killed Hilda Murrell along with four other criminals, all of them working for the Security Services. On closer inspection, it turned out that two of the other criminals had never heard of this theory, the third was dead and the fourth was confined in a mental hospital with psychotic delusions while the prisoner who had produced the original claim confessed that he had concocted the whole thing from a story in the Independent magazine in November 1989 in the hope that it might help him appeal against his conviction for armed robbery. Murray now says that he never claimed to know whether the story was true. It was just another rotten tale from a very rotten time.

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