IT was one of the most haunting images of any crime scene. The sort that might be used on the front cover of what Americans would call a dime store detective novel to add mystery to a murder plot.

 Except this was not America, but England and the photograph of a public telephone handset left dangling by its cord off the hook was for real and not taken in some dimly lit alley in The Bronx, but beside the leafy M50 motorway in mid summer.

 Sadly,  there was a murder involved. That of pregnant Worcester mother Marie Wilks, who in June, 1988 was using a motorway phone to call for help when her killer pulled up.

 Marie’s car had broken down as she returned home after visiting her husband on Territorial Army exercise in Wales. These were the days before mobile phones, so  leaving her baby son and 11-year-old sister in the family’s stranded Morris Marina, she walked off along the hard shoulder to use an emergency call box.

Marie’s conversation with the police was suddenly interrupted and when they tried to ring back there was no reply. A patrol despatched to the scene found the car and the children, but no sign of 22-year-old Marie. The hand piece she had left hanging on its cord became the abiding image of the tragedy.

 Two days later the young mother’s body was discovered in thick undergrowth at the bottom of an embankment on the M50 near Bushley, Tewkesbury, about three miles from where her car had stuttered to a halt. A post mortem revealed she had died from a stab wound in the neck, which caused fatal loss of blood. She also had a broken jaw and severe facial bruising.

 It appeared she had been kidnapped from the side of the two lane motorway in broad daylight on a mid summer evening, brutally beaten, knifed and then thrown down the steep slope. Given the place, the time of day and time of year, surely someone must have seen something.

 Within four days, police thought they had their man. Nightclub bouncer Eddie Browning was arrested  outside a club in the Rhondda Valley, Mid-Glamorgan. “Hello boys, are you looking for me,” he said as officers approached the group he was with.

 The prosecution believed it had a strong circumstantial case. A car similar to Browning’s silver Renault 25 was seen parked on the hard shoulder near to where Marie was abducted and a photofit of the chief suspect bore an uncanny resemblance to the blond former Welsh guardsman.

 Browning stood trial at Shrewsbury Crown Court in October, 1989. He said that on the day Marie was killed he had driven from his home in Wales to Scotland to see a friend, but had not used the M50. To observers the one weak point in the prosecution case appeared to be that Browning’s clothes, which were the same ones he wore throughout the journey, did not have any blood on them despite Marie having suffered massive injuries, particularly the stab wound to her neck.

 Nevertheless, the jury found him guilty and Browning was sentenced to life imprisonment with a recommended 25 years minimum term.

 His first appeal failed, but another, in April, 1994, was successful. His flamboyant QC Michael Mansfield argued that police failure to release a witness video interview to the defence could have affected the outcome of the original case.

This involved the testimony of an off duty West Mercia police inspector who happened to be on the M50 at the time Marie was abducted and saw a silver Renault car. However his subsequent recollection of its number plate (C856 HFK) differed from that of Browning’s vehicle (C754 VAD).

 This contributed to Lord Chief Justice Lord Taylor, sitting with Mr Justice Garland and Mr Justice Curtis in the Court of Appeal, saying they could not be sure the jury would have inevitably reached the same decision had material irregularities, involving non-disclosure, not occurred.

 Eddie Browning walked free and picked up more than £600,000 in compensation. So the murder of Marie Wilks passed into the “unsolved” category, although West Mercia police made no great effort to reopen enquiries.

There were some suggestions in the years following that Marie might have been one of the victims of the notorious Fred and Rose West, who were engaged in their horrendous campaign of abducting, torturing and killing young women throughout the 1980s and knew the M50 area well.

 The idea never gained traction with the man who was in overall charge of the case. Det Chief Supt David Cole, head of West Mercia CID at the time, declined to comment on specifics, but later added: “All I would say is that I was completely satisfied with the investigation.

 “However, I would add that with the advances in DNA techniques that have been made since and were not available to us at the time, I would be very interested if West Mercia was to re-open the case and submit certain items of evidence to renewed examination.”