Farmer killed in hit-and-run after disturbing burglary

A farmer was run down and killed after disturbing a burglary "with tragic consequences", detectives said today.

Police investigating the apparent hit-and-run death of Julian Gardner said they have recovered two off-road vehicles near the scene of his murder.

The "hard-working" 52-year-old was found sprawled on the ground near outbuildings at his remote farm in Robertsbridge, East Sussex, the morning after the break-in.

Police said relatives had been left devastated, while locals expressed anger at thieves for "leaving him for dead".

Detective Chief Inspector Adam Hibbert, of Sussex Police, said: "We are treating this as a murder inquiry and believe that this was a burglary that went wrong, with tragic consequences.

"Julian Gardner possibly disturbed an unknown number of people forcing outbuildings where he ran an agricultural and car repair business."

He was found near the buildings by his business partner just after 8am yesterday.

Post-mortem examinations are taking place this afternoon and forensic examinations are ongoing.

He added: "The farm is extensive and a methodical forensic examination will take some days. I anticipate a protracted investigation, which will be intelligence-led.

"We are investigating the discovery of a couple of cars - Land Rover and Jeep - that we found abandoned a few miles from the site yesterday, but any possible connection to this incident is still being assessed.

"Part of our investigation will be to establish what may have been stolen from the premises.

"This is a tragic incident and my thoughts are with Julian's family. We do not know who is responsible."

Mr Gardner's former cleaner said the community is in shock.

The woman, based at a neighbouring farm, said: "He was a friend to all of us who lived locally.

"We do not have many break-ins here but they are a concern. It's devastating news and a huge shock for everyone who knew him. We are told it was a hit-and-run, they just left him there."

Mr Gardner was well-known locally as an expert on repairing Land Rovers.

He ran an agricultural and car repair business at Bush Barn Farm, where his 90-year-old widowed mother lives.

Chief Inspector Heather Keating added: "The death of Julian has devastated his family and wider community. He was a hard-working local man who was respected in the community.

"This is a tragic incident to have happened in such a low crime area, and especially at a time when the police have been working with local residents to keep Rother safe.

"Only on Saturday the police, crime prevention officers, locksmiths and alarm companies were on hand to offer advice and information. The event was popular last year so we wanted to hold it again."

A local National Farmers Union (NFU) spokeswoman said members had been warned to be "extra vigilant".

She said: "He was not an NFU member but he was well-known locally. Rural crime is a concern in the South East and our members will be extra vigilant. We send our sympathies to Mr Gardner's family and the community."

The bachelor was found on the driveway by a work colleague as he arrived at the farm.

Police were alerted by South East Coast Ambulance Service after the emergency call and went to the isolated farm off the A21.

The incident has prompted memories of farmer Tony Martin, who was found guilty of murder in 1999 after shooting burglar Fred Barras, 16, at his remote farm in Norfolk.

His sentence was later reduced to five years for manslaughter and he was released from prison in July 2003.

:: Anyone with information on Mr Gardner's death should call Sussex Police on 0845 6070999 quoting Operation Bradford, or the independent charity Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555111.