Care home owners arrested in murder inquiry

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The Independent Online

The owners of a care home in a Somerset village were in custody last night after being arrested on suspicion of murdering five of their elderly residents.

Leigh Baker, 48, and his wife Rachel, 45, took over the running of the Parkfields Residential Home in Butleigh, close to Glastonbury, in 1988 and were initially questioned by police in January this year on suspicion of administering a noxious substance after the death of a 97-year-old client, Lucy Cox.

But Avon and Somerset Police revealed yesterday there was a dramatic escalation in their investigation into deaths dating back to 2004 by announcing that Mr and Mrs Baker, who were answering police bail, will be questioned on suspicion of murdering Mrs Cox, three other women and 81-year-old Fred Green.

The couple, who have a five-year-old daughter, were also arrested on suspicion of the theft and unlawful possession of prescribed drugs and attempting to pervert the course of justice.

The home housed 22 people and passed an official inspection last year, receiving praise for its "comfortable and homely atmosphere" and staff who were "kind and caring towards residents".

The decision to re-arrest the owners came followed an investigation that included the first exhumations of human remains conducted by the Avon and Somerset force. The work was carried out to allow forensic specialists to conduct toxicology tests on three former residents to establish if they were poisoned.

As well as the remains of Mr Green, the bodies of two women were removed Nellie Pickford, 89, and Marion Adler, 79. All three exhumations were carried out at cemeteries close to the care home, which was described by villagers yesterday as "expensive" and "upmarket". The remains of three other residents, whose deaths were also being treated as suspicious by detectives, have been cremated.

Mrs Baker, who was in charge of the day-to-day running of the home, was arrested four days after the death of Mrs Cox in January. Her husband, a chef, was detained two days later.

The watchdog in charge of standards in care homes, the Commission for Social Care Inspectorate (CSCI), obtained an emergency court order requiring the immediate closure of Parkfields in March after saying it alerted to police to "serious concerns" about the standards on the site, which consists of a number of bungalows and apartments. Imelda Richardson, the CSCI's director in south-west England, said: "We carried out an unannounced inspection at the home on 24 January and found that standards had deteriorated significantly.

"Following the January inspection, we received a total lack of co-operation and commitment from the home's owners towards improving standards at the home. This could not be allowed to continue."

The remaining residents of the home were rehoused and the business has stayed closed since March.

Mr and Mrs Baker, who live in Glastonbury, were expected to remain in custody today at a police station in Yeovil to allow officers' questioning to continue.

Residents in Butleigh spoke of their shock at the arrests. Maureen Wade, 71, said: "When you are old, this sort of thing strikes a cold chill down your spine. There is a widespread feeling of complete disbelief."

Another elderly resident said: "Leigh is a nice man and he comes to cut my lawn regularly and we always have a nice chat. I don't see Rachel as much but she is always friendly and ready to help."