IT was a plot which could have come straight from the pages of an Agatha Christie novel.

A partially-sighted recluse, working on a book centring around King Arthur, found bludgeoned to death at his remote country house.

Add to this a once wealthy elderly aristocrat, left to die penniless in a nursing home, and rumours of £12m worth of missing gold bullion, and the tale would be almost complete.

Except that instead of fiction, the facts are chillingly real, and the misery wrought on the families involved will be with them forever.

The killing of 68-year-old Simon Dale is one of West Mercia Constabulary's relatively few unsolved murders.

Mr Dale, who lived alone, was found dead in the kitchen of his 12-bedroom mansion, Heath House, in Hopton Heath, Leintwardine, Herefordshire, by his housekeeper, in September, 1987.

He had been beaten around the head with a weapon.

Police immediately launched a murder investigation.

Mr Dale, a retired architect, had lived in the imposing Queen Anne mansion for nearly 30 years.

University-educated, he had been a partner in an architects' practice in London, but upon moving to Herefordshire, he became self-employed.

He moved into Heath House in 1959 with his wife Susan, 15 years his junior - who used her money to buy the house for £2,000 - and they had five children.

In 1973 the couple divorced and the children remained with Mrs Dale, who later married into European nobility acquiring the title Baroness de Stempel.

Mr Dale continued to live in Heath House while the Baroness tended the grounds as the battle over possession of their former marital home raged on.

Following his death, she was arrested, and later charged with his murder, but was acquitted by a unanimous "not guilty" verdict in a two-week trial at Worcester Crown Court.

It was during a police investigation into the case

/continued from facing page

that officers uncovered a plot by the Baroness to fleece her elderly aunt, Lady Margaret Illingworth, out of £500,000.

Lady Illingworth, widow of former cabinet minister Lord Albert Illingworth, died in poverty at a Hereford nursing home after being stripped of her fortune by the Baroness.

In 1990, the 56-year-old Baroness, of Docklow, near Leominster, was convicted of stealing more than £500,000 and jailed for seven years.

The court head that the penniless last days of Lady Illingworth were in stark contrast to the glittering life she had led as a society hostess in 1930s London.

Her husband died in 1942, and 25 years later, she sold their Grosvenor Square mansion and moved in with a cousin in Kensington.

When the Baroness invited her elderly aunt to Herefordshire for a holiday in 1984, little did the old lady know her will would be forged and the "holiday" become permanent.

The increasingly senile widow was moved into a nursing home where she died in 1986 aged 84.

None of her family, except the Baroness, knew of her death until months later. By then, she had been cremated - despite the fact she had wanted to be buried at her husband's side.

Her funeral bill went unpaid and when no one collected the ashes, they were scattered over the garden of remembrance.

During the police probe into the case, a witness told detectives of once seeing a pyramid of gold bars at Lady Illingworth's London home shortly before she moved out in 1967.

Police, armed with metal detectors, scoured the mansion's three-acre grounds looking for the bullion, but despite an exhaustive search, the gold has never been found.

Over the years, several parts of the grounds had been dug up by the eccentric Mr Dale, who believed it was the site of King Arthur's legendary castle, Camelot.

His killer, like the gold, remains elusive...