THE killing of peace campaigner and rose grower Hilda Murrell in 1984 was one of the most extraordinary murder cases West Mercia Police has ever been involved with. As Tony Mullett, the force’s chef constable, said a year later the script was better than any novel.

What was outwardly an investigation into a straightforward burglary gone tragically wrong, became waylaid by allegations of Secret Service intrigue, statements in Parliament, connections with one of the Falklands War’s most controversial episodes and continual chirruping by people with agendas.

Virtually from the start, Det Chief Supt David Cole, head of West Mercia CID, believed Miss Murrell had been killed by a money-seeking burglar during a botched a break-in at her home near Shrewsbury. The problem was who she was. For it was not difficult to spin a web of confusion around the life of Hilda Murrell.

On the face of it a genteel, if feisty, 79-years-old retired rose grower, who had regularly won awards at Chelsea Flower Show and counted the Queen Mother and the Churchills among her clients, Miss Murrell had another major interest in her life. She had become passionately concerned about future threats to the environment and was a particular critic of the nuclear industry. In fact when she was murdered she was about to present her paper “An ordinary citizen’s view of radioactive waste management” to the Sizewell B Inquiry, the first pubic planning inquiry into a new British nuclear power plant.

There was also another “area of interest” in her background. She was the aunt of Commander Robert Green, a former intelligence officer in the Royal Navy, whose name had been mentioned in connection with the dramatic sinking of the Argentine ship General Belgrano by the British nuclear submarine HMS Conqueror during The Falklands War.

The two strands – anti-nuclear protestor and contentious military action – made Hilda Murrell’s death a fertile ground for conspiracy theories.

She had gone missing in broad daylight on March 21, 1984 following a break-in at her home. Her car was seen being driven erratically, and incidentally, straight past the local police station, at around noon. It was soon reported abandoned five miles away in a country lane, but there was no sign of Miss Murrell. Back at her home some cash had been taken and a copy of her planning inquiry report lay on a desk.

It was three days before her body was found. It was lying in a copse 500 yards across a field from her abandoned car. She had been beaten and stabbed multiple times, but Hilda Murrell did not die from her injuries. The cause of her death was given as hypothermia.

Almost immediately problems arose, because a local farmer claimed to have searched the copse with his dog the day after Miss Murrell disappeared, but did not see anything.

Despite extensive enquiries, detectives could not find the assailant and into the void stepped the conspiracy merchants. In particular the maverick MP for Linlithgow in Scotland Tam Dalyell, who claimed Miss Murrell had been killed by Secret Service operatives during a raid on her home to look for sensitive documents related to the Belgrano sinking, which had been passed to her by Commander Green. Dalyell, who had always been opposed to the attack on the ship, claimed to be acting on information passed to him in an anonymous phone call. However, when detectives interviewed him they said he had no fresh viable evidence.

Other theories included Miss Murrell being murdered as part of a Secret Service operation against nuclear protesters. In fact the noise around the case became so great that in 1985, West Mercia’s CC Tony Mullett asked for an independent review into it by Northumbria Police. A report by Northumbria’s assistant chief constable Peter Smith subsequently found that every possible effort had been made by the West Mercia team to find the killer. A £10,000 reward for any information leading to a conviction was even offered, but no-one came forward.

Then in 2003 a cold case review was launched using DNA techniques not available in the 1980s. Local labourer Andrew George was arrested and in 2005 was found guilty of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and murdering Hilda Murrell. George admitted breaking into the house, but claimed others had done the killing. The conspiracy theorists were not convinced and Tam Dalyell and Robert Green both declared the conviction unsafe. QC Michael Mansfield was later to add his four penny’th, calling for an inquiry into what MI5 knew about the case.

The conviction was referred to the Court of Appeal in 2006, which upheld the jury’s decision, saying there was nothing at all unsafe about the verdict returned against George. Det Chief Supt Cole, who had by then retired, was asked by the Worcester Evening News for his view on the Appeal Court’s finding. Unusually for him he responded: “I have no comment to make at all. I won’t even say I told you so.”