Man jailed for plotting ex-wife's murder

A businessman has been sentenced to life for hiring a business associate to murder his ex-wife.

Debt-ridden Graham Birchwood was jailed for a minimum of 32 years for his plot to strangle and suffocate Sharon Birchwood, 52, in December 2007.

Mrs Birchwood's body was found in her bed on 7 December 2007, bound and gagged with parcel tape and electrical cord.

Croydon Crown Court heard how the defendant, who was unemployed and faced financial difficulties after ventures in Thailand failed, arranged for her to be killed to secure Mrs Birchwood's "pot of gold".

Prosecutor Mark Dennis QC said Mrs Birchwood was devoted to her ex-husband despite their divorce in 1989 and he was the sole beneficiary of her will.

Mr Dennis said he had loans and debts totalling more than £150,000 and relied on state benefits.

He said: "To her dying day, she would have done anything for the defendant.

"He, on the other hand, was not so devoted and he used her to his own advantage up to the end."

In the event of his ex-wife's death, he stood to gain £400,000 from Mrs Birchwood's property plus her £75,000 life insurance policy.

Mr Dennis said Birchwood had planned for her to be murdered and to take the money and settle in Thailand.

"What the defendant could not afford to do, and no doubt would not have wanted to do, was run the risk of carrying out the murder of Sharon himself," he added.

"It was important therefore that the killing was planned with care, getting someone who would be prepared to do such a deed, no doubt for payment, and who could do so without being noticed and who could disappear after the event without ever attracting the attention of the police.

"Equally, the defendant had to ensure that, at the time of the murder, he had an alibi."

On 4 December 2007, the day of the murder, Birchwood was seen on CCTV in the Ashley Shopping Centre in Epsom.

The prosecution alleged a business associate of Birchwood's from Thailand committed the murder.

The associate's DNA was found under Mrs Birchwood's fingernails and a roll of tape used to bind her. He is currently in custody in Thailand awaiting extradition to the UK.

Mrs Birchwood's body was found at her home in Harriotts Lane, Ashtead, Surrey, by an ambulance crew called by the defendant who claimed he was visiting Mrs Birchwood in her bungalow where she lived alone.

Mr Dennis said the defendant wanted to "buy time" before raising the alarm about his former wife's death so his associate could "make good his escape from the country".

A post-mortem examination concluded that Mrs Birchwood died from asphyxia caused by the combined effects of ligature compression to the neck and gagging and pressure to the mouth.

At the start of the trial in April, 55-year-old Birchwood of Stevens Close, Epsom, Surrey, denied murdering his ex-wife but was yesterday found guilty by a majority verdict.

After the case Detective Chief Inspector Maria Woodall, of Surrey Police, said: "Sharon Birchwood had no known enemies.

"She lived a quiet, harmless, ordinary life style, burdened by ill health and living in rather poor conditions with little social life.

"She was totally betrayed by the greed of the man she had married and been devoted to for 30 years.

"Birchwood made the callous decision that his ex-wife must die and then set about a ruthless plot which he hoped would distance himself from this evil crime."

In a statement Mrs Birchwood's family said: "Sharon was a kind, caring member of the family who kept herself to herself and would never cause any harm or upset to anybody. This made what had happened to her even harder to comprehend.

"In the 18 months since her death we have been living through a nightmare as more and more facts about the case have been released.

"This has affected the whole family, especially her 82-year-old mother who has suffered serious health problems as a consequence.

"Now that Graham has been convicted we feel that justice has been done for Sharon and hope to be able to rebuild our lives and move on."