Patients remain loyal to doctor in murder case

Sophie Goodchild reports from the small town stunned by the news that another 90 deaths may be investigated
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THE GRAVES of Marie Quinn, Bianka Pomfret and Ivy Lomas are easy to find in Hyde Cemetery. Their smooth blanket of turf has been peeled away and replaced with churned mounds of earth which now scar the once neat and tidy graveyard.

Police dug up the bodies of the three women one by one in the middle of the night. While most of those who live nearby slept on, a few were woken by the hum of the mechanical earth remover, as officers placed a white tent over the graves.

This is the focus of what has become the biggest inquiry of its kind in England's history. The exhumed were all treated by Dr Harold Shipman who has been charged with murdering four of his patients, including Mrs Pomfret, as well as forging the will of one victim. A total of 90 cases - patients Dr Shipman treated who are now dead - are to be investigated. The cemetery on the outskirts of the drab town near Manchester could not be considered sinister, with its trim lawns and neat rows of black gravestones inscribed with eulogies to the dead in bright gold lettering.

But it has become the focus of deep anxiety for the town.

Many wonder when they will hear a knock at the door from police asking to exhume a relative. It has also stirred memories of another time more than 30 years ago when the police came digging for bodies.

Then it was the young victims of Myra Hindley and Ian Brady. Their burial ground was Saddleworth Moor which looms over Hyde. Hindley lived a short bus ride away from the town, in Hattersley.

Hyde seems an unlikely setting for murder. There is little to divert motorists as they roar past on the M67. It is a functional town whose lack of frills is reflected in the sign on the local Kwik Save supermarket which says "No Nonsense Foodstore". For entertainment, Hyde's inhabitants have bingo and a few pubs but they have to take a trip elsewhere to visit the cinema.

Its streets are unremarkable. The concrete shops that line them promise endless discounts, while two incongruous tower blocks cast a shadow over the shopping arcade. The proliferation of medical practices and the new health centre demonstrate the size of its elderly population.

For those who still work, there are few prospects, because many of the mills and factories have shut.

The exhumation of Dr Shipman's patients has distressed many people in Hyde, mainly because the police have been unforthcoming with information about the scale of their inquiry and what it might involve.

Life appears to carry on as normal. People still hunt for bargains at the market with its corrugated iron roof painted red, yellow and green. There have been no mass door-to-door inquiries by police and no screeching sirens in the middle of the night.

Arthur Myatt, a former lorry driver, says it is this silence which causes the anxiety.

"All the information we are getting is from papers or television," he said. "The police have not said anything to anybody. It's horrific. I can't see why they're digging up all these bodies. They've charged him with murder already. Isn't that enough?"

Kim Holt is a retired nurse who once worked with Dr Shipman and also knew another of his alleged victims, Kathleen Grundy, a former mayoress of the town.

"There is an air of intimidation around and a sense of shock," she said. "The police operation seems very furtive and there is the feeling they could be asking to dig up one of your relatives next. The families are very upset."

Ms Holt understands how dreadful it is to be involved in a murder inquiry.

"The mother of Ann Downey used to live near me and I knew what she went through," she said. "The whole Moors murder case meant the town was blacklisted - now this has happened."

Dr Shipman's patients, who attended the practice on Market Street, are fiercely loyal to the doctor who treated some of them for 20 years. The surgery is sandwiched between the Co-op Pharmacy and a vacant shop. Across the road is Age Concern.

There is no brass plate. Instead Dr Shipman's name is displayed in white plastic letters at the top of the surgery's timetable. Once it hung above the window through which flowers and cards of support for the doctor could be seen. Now nothing is visible: a newly frosted glass pane hides the surgery from the unwelcome attention of television crews from around the world.

Inside, life goes on almost as before: a doctor, this time a locum, treats all manner of patients. As people scurry to and fro, most refuse to speak. But from those who do, there is one message - Dr Shipman has their complete support.