Hitman faces life in jail

11 August 2010, 11:30 | Updated: 11 August 2010, 11:56

A swimming world record holder who became a hitman after blowing a fortune on a flamboyant lifestyle in Thailand has been sentenced to life in jail today

Paul Cryne flew back to Britain to commit the ``perfect murder'' for a #30,000 fee to pay off his debts but has been sentenced to Life imprisonment with a minimum tariff of 32 years, but to serve at least 28 years and six months for the murder of Sharon Birchwood at her Ashtead home in December 2007.

The 62-year-old, who still holds a Guinness underwater swimming record, was caught because of a crime he committed more than three decades earlier.

On sentencing Cryne, His Honour Judge Roberts QC praised the investigation by Surrey officers, saying: “I acknowledge that this was a very complicated inquiry, carried out with considerable dedication and fairness.”

Unemployed Cryne pleaded not guilty to the charge of murdering Sharon at her home address of 14 Harriott’s Lane, Ashtead, Surrey on 4 December 2007 but yesterday a jury unanimously found him guilty as charged, following the six week trial.

The prosecution case was that Cryne made a special short trip to England to murder Sharon on behalf of his associate George Birchwood. Despite the spurious reasons for the trip, the jury clearly believed that the circumstantial evidence of the short trip and the constant use of mobile phones by both men during the visit to keep in contact, together with the forensic evidence, was sufficient for a conviction.

Earlier in June 2009, Sharon’s ex-husband George Birchwood had also been convicted of the murder and sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum tariff of 32 years. While Cryne was a suspect there was a delay in obtaining extradition from Thailand as he was already on trial for a murder for which he was subsequently acquitted.

Sharon’s body was found by South East Coast Ambulance Service on 7 December when they were called by George Birchwood to the bungalow in Harriott’s Lane where Sharon lived alone. He alleged he had called in to visit and was shocked to discover her body in her bedroom.

She was found lying dead on her bed, bound and gagged, using a combination of parcel tape and electrical cord. Her wrists and ankles had been tightly bound together by tape, and the tape from the wrists pulled her hands up to her face and then wound round her face and head, acting as a tight gag across the mouth. Electrical cord was wound around her head.

From the onset it was clear to officers that she had been murdered, and that the violent assault on her did not appear to result from a burglary or sexual assault that had gone wrong. Indeed there were no signs of any forced entry to the premises and no sign of struggle elsewhere in the bungalow apart from the fact of the way Sharon’s body was found on her bed.

The post mortem examination found that death resulted from asphyxia caused by the combined effects of ligature compression to the neck and gagging and pressure to the mouth.

The investigating detectives were faced with a murder where there was no apparent motive, no obvious suspects, and no witnesses to the offence other than the offenders.

George and Sharon Birchwood had divorced some 20 years ago although this was not disclosed to many people and Sharon kept up the pretence to her family and friends. Despite the divorce witnesses describe Sharon as devoted to George over all the years and he still visited the property regularly every week.

Birchwood had not worked for a very long time and his various business interests in South East Asia, in particular in Thailand, had come to nothing. He had considerable debts and was threatened with bankruptcy, and his only hope was to find enough money to clear his debts and start over again. If Sharon was to die, as the sole beneficiary of her will Birchwood would inherit their jointly owned property at Ashtead and £75,000 from her life insurance policy.

If Sharon was to die, it was important that the killing was planned with care, that Birchwood could find someone who would be prepared to do such a deed and who could do so without being noticed and who could disappear after the event without attracting attention.

Birchwood was aware that he would inevitably become a possible suspect if his ex-wife was to be murdered. He therefore went to great lengths to distance himself from the circumstances of the death and make it appear he was the innocent finder of her body. He said he hadn’t seen Sharon for two or three days and had called in on her on his way to the diabetic clinic at Epsom Hospital.

Interviewed initially during the murder investigation as a witness, and then as a formal suspect, Birchwood did however change his story as it became clear that detectives were unravelling his web of deceit. He made mention of a Paul Baker who had stayed with him at the end of November 2007 and this man was established to be Paul Cryne.

Manchester-born Cryne, an intimidating, powerfully built man, was a resident of Thailand. He had married in January 1978 and lived in the Devon area. The marriage lasted 19 years, during which time he worked as a nursing home carer, and as a swimming and diving instructor and lifeguard. When the marriage broke down, Cryne moved to Thailand owing money. For many years he lived off a substantial insurance payment arising from a diving accident that had occurred during a family holiday in the Maldives. By 2007 Cryne found himself short of money.

Cryne and Birchwood first met in Thailand in 2005 where it appears they were introduced to one another by Ron Loveridge, a business associate of Birchwood.

Detailed police work established that Cryne had arrived in the U.K. on 27 November 2007 and a mobile phone went the live the following day. This phone was used in regular contacts with a phone used by Birchwood and it was shown to be in use in the Ashtead area during the evening of 4 December.

Painstaking forensic work revealed that DNA traces from Sharon’s right hand and fingernails, and the roll of tape used to bind her, matched the DNA of Paul Cryne. A letter to Cryne’s solicitors from Birchwood making a false job offer was found at 14 Harriott’s Lane and appears to have been the means of facilitating Cryne’s visit to the U.K. on 27 November 2007.

During this short trip, Cryne stayed with Birchwood at his mother’s home in Banstead for three nights from 29 November to 1 December.

Cryne left the U.K. through Heathrow on the 09.35am flight to Bangkok on 5 December 2007, having arrived at the airport at 11.15pm. on the previous evening. Neither of the two mobile phones were used after this time.

An international arrest warrant was issued for his arrest and extradition proceedings were instigated in January 2009. Cryne was returned to the U.K., having been arrested by Surrey Police officers, and landed at Heathrow on 6 August 2009. He was placed immediately before Guildford Magistrates’ Court, charged with the offence for which he has now been convicted.

Commenting on the result, Detective Chief Inspector Maria Woodall said: “This conviction brings to a close a very extensive and detailed police investigation in to the murder of Sharon Birchwood. Sharon lived a quiet, harmless, ordinary life style, burdened by ill health and living in rather poor conditions with little social life and no known enemies. She was totally betrayed by the greed of the man she had married and been devoted to for 30 years.

“I must praise the investigating officers because this conviction reflects their determination to get at the truth in a case where initially there was no obvious motive nor any obvious clues as to the offender. There was meticulous forensic examination of the crime scene and of any article which could possibly have connected the offender with the scene or the victim. The investigation was extremely thorough, looking at every aspect of those involved. This included establishing in detail all their movements over many days and all their communications including their use of a number of mobile phones.

“The case involved over 200 witnesses and a time-consuming extradition process to ensure justice was finally done for Sharon. Surrey detectives had to make enquiries in Thailand to ensure evidence was obtained which ensured a conviction.

“Birchwood made the callous decision that his ex-wife must die and then set about a ruthless plot which he hoped would distance himself from this evil crime. He involved Cryne as part of this devious plan and that his plan failed is a tribute to the officers in the Surrey Major Crime Investigation Team who investigated this case.”