Locked doors and distress after three killings in a tranquil corner of Cornwall

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The Independent Online

With a nervous glance and a hint of a shudder, May Stacey bolted the front door and made her way to the warmth of her Aga-heated kitchen.

"I've lived in this house since it was built by my father when I was five months old," she said. "I've never had to worry about locking doors in more than 70 years. "What's been going on here has been truly shocking. I'll be locking all the doors from now on."

Mrs Stacey is one of hundreds of people in a once-peaceful corner of north Cornwall who are struggling to come to terms with a violent interruption to their rural way of life. In the past 10 days, three people have been murdered near the town of Wadebridge, bringing the tally of unsolved killings in the area in the past 18 months to four.

And in a twist worthy of an Agatha Christie mystery, police confirmed that in all the murders the victims may have known their killer.

The most recent was Joan Roddam, 74, a close friend and as near to a neighbour as is possible to Mrs Stacey's house in the hamlet of West Downs.

The coalman was the last person to see Mrs Roddam alive when he made his weekly delivery eight days ago. Two days later, she was found dead, having been suffocated and hidden in the pretty back garden of her remote bungalow overlooking the Atlantic. There were no signs of a forced entry.

Less than 15 miles away and 48 hours earlier, police were dealing with the discovery of the murder of Carol Fisher and her husband, Graham. They had been shot several times before being bludgeoned to death at their home in the remote hamlet of Whitecross.

In a further twist, a large house only five miles down the road in the picturesque village of Chapel Amble was the scene of the murder of a wealthy businessman, Les Bate, who was killed 18 months ago. It was the first recorded violent crime in the village since 1373.

The incidents mark one of the lowest points in the history of north Cornwall, traditionally a corner of England known for its welcoming reception and unfeasibly low crime rate.

While police have not linked the murders, residents remain as stunned as they are wary given that the victims - and therefore they themselves - may have known the killer.

Police are examining the remote area surrounding the bungalow in which Mrs Roddam had lived alone since the death of her husband six years ago. They had moved to the area in 1982.

Mrs Stacey peered out of the window across the windswept fields that cover the 500-metre gap between the two properties and reiterated her disbelief that her friend had been murdered.

"Oh my dear soul, everyone is absolutely stunned," the 73-year-old said. "Things like that just don't happen around here. There have never been any acts of violence here before, only the odd burglary. She was such a lovely lady, always friendly, bubbly and bright."

Another neighbour, Marjory Rutland, 67, added: "I moved down here from Buckinghamshire a few years ago because it seemed like such a lovely safe area. It's hard to believe such an act of violence could happen."

In the nearby town of Delabole, the young as well as the elderly found themselves expressing fears for their safety for the first time in their lives.

Jo Moore, 26, who styled Mrs Roddam's hair every Wednesday during the "highlight" of her week, said: "It's really frightening. I live with another girl and we've started locking the door as soon as we get in. I'm born and bred here and this is a first for me."

At the same time, villagers in the sparsely populated area around Whitecross were finding it equally difficult to comprehend the implications of the attack on Mr and Mrs Fisher.

The couple, who ran a petrol station together only metres from their bungalow, were attacked as they prepared supper on Bonfire Night.

The noise from fireworks displays is thought to have drowned out the gunshots of their assailants. Mrs Fisher, 53, was shot three times as she tried to escape, finally falling in the garden of her home where she was later discovered by the driver of a school bus. Her 60-year-old husband, who was shot twice, was found inside the bungalow. Money from their safe, which was found open, had not been touched, the police said.

The Rev Julia Wilkinson, the vicar of nearby St Issey, described how the close-knit community had been deeply affected by the incident. "It's true that everyone knows everyone," she said. "It still hasn't really sunk in yet for many people."

For many of those in north Cornwall, the killings have reawakened unpleasant memories of the unsolved murder of 71-year-old Mr Bate.

The tranquillity of the hamlet of Chapel Amble was disrupted in April last year by the discovery of the wealthy farmer's battered body in his ivy-clad farmhouse.

His son, Martin Bate, described yesterday how this month's three killings were prompting speculation on whether the crimes are linked.

"Many people I know are frightened," said Mr Bate, 42, who lives in Wadebridge with his wife and two children. "It's very unsettling to have so many murders in this part of the world."

In a bizarre twist - or maybe just an indication of how small is the community at the centre of the killings - Mr Bate also revealed that he had become involved in the murder investigation of the Fishers. "I was tidying up in the house where my father used to live last Wednesday, the day of the murder," he said. "I looked out of the window and saw a man walk past. I later realised he matched descriptions of the hitchhiker the police were looking for. I reported it."

As nearly a hundred officers continued to work on the investigation into this month's murders, Peter Meredith, the mayor of Wadebridge, urged concerned townsfolk to remain calm.

"It is very, very unfortunate that there have been these incidents and it's not the sort of thing you would expect to happen here," he said. "Some residents may find this traumatic but it is important to remember that north Cornwall has been a very pleasant place to live for many years."