Ageing hitman 'may spend rest of life in jail'

An ageing hitman who thought he would get away with the "perfect murder" was today told he was likely to spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Paul Cryne, 62, was a swimming world record-holder who became a contract killer after blowing a fortune on a flamboyant lifestyle in Thailand.

He flew back to Britain in 2007 to strangle frail 52-year-old Sharon Birchwood at her bungalow in Ashtead, Surrey.

Cryne was hired to carry out the murder for £30,000 by her ex-husband Graham Birchwood, 54 - who stood to gain a £475,000 "pot of gold" on her death.

He turned to jurors who had convicted him and said "innocent man" before being led away to begin his life sentence today.

Birchwood had met the former bodyguard and diving expert in Thailand where both were members of the expatriate community.

In 2005, Cryne had been cleared by a Thai court of murdering another Briton, Robert Henry, who was shot six times, after prosecution witnesses failed to turn up for his trial.

By 2007, he had accrued debts of £11,000 and was hired by Birchwood, who was £150,000 in the red, to kill his ex-wife - who remained devoted to him despite their divorce in 1989.

Mrs Birchwood was strangled and left "cruelly trussed-up" with parcel tape and electrical cord on her bed, the Old Bailey heard.

Cryne left few clues when he carried out the "execution" in December 2007 but was caught out because of a crime he had committed more than 30 years earlier.

His DNA was found at the scene and matched to that found on a cup at Birchwood's mother's house, on which there was also a set of fingerprints.

The prints were linked to Cryne's 1972 conviction for holding his girlfriend hostage, for which he had been jailed for seven years.

Detectives were able to trace Cryne to Thailand and he was extradited.

Mark Dennis QC, prosecuting, said: "The police were able to unravel the plot, thereby frustrating the otherwise perfect murder."

Cryne, who was originally from Manchester and had also lived in Devon, had once set a world record for underwater swimming with scuba equipment.

He began a new life in Pattaya in the 1990s after a £500,000 payout following an accident involving a boat in the Maldives.

But after living the high-life and having relationships with a string of different women the money ran out.

He was jailed for life today after being found guilty of murdering Mrs Birchwood and told he must serve at least 28-and-a-half years in prison.

Judge Jeremy Roberts told him: "You may well spend the rest of your life behind bars. If you do, I am afraid that will be the consequence of your own actions."

Birchwood was jailed for life last year with a minimum term of 32 years following a trial at Croydon Crown Court.

Judge Roberts said the men were in it together but gave Cryne a different sentence to reflect time he had already spent in custody here and in Thailand.

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