Manhunt for post office killers

Tragedy strikes community more used to the sound of birdsong than gunfire as armed robbery ends in death of 29-year-old man
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A manhunt involving more than 100 police officers is under way today for three "dangerous" masked men who shot dead the son of a village postmaster during a robbery.

Craig Hodson-Walker, 29, died after being shot in the chest during the raid in the village of Fairfield, in Worcestershire, at 8.20am yesterday. His father, Ken, 56, who owns the post office with his wife, Judy, was taken to hospital after being shot in the leg. It was the second time the two men had fought off robbers since the family bought the post office around five years ago.

Three men wearing balaclavas and armed with a handgun and a sledgehammer were seen fleeing the crime scene in a silver Volkswagen Golf, which police later discovered had been stolen on New Year's Eve and was bearing false number plates. Officers found the vehicle abandoned a short distance from Fairfield Post Office and Stores, a family-run business which villagers regarded as the focal point of the community.

In 2004, shortly after moving to the village, the Hodson-Walkers successfully foiled an attempted robbery, and had since concentrated on turning the business around.

Richard Lynton, 27, assistant manager at the nearby Swan Inn, said: "The whole community is absolutely devastated. They are a lovely family. I gather they may have been trying to protect themselves and their business when they were shot. A few years ago, they managed to force a robber out of the shop and called the police. They could have been trying to do the same again."

Mrs Hodson-Walker fled in panic to a nearby house in the moments after the shooting. The family, who were originally from south Wales, lived in a flat above the premises.

One local resident, BBC Five Live sports reporter Pat Murphy, said: "It's completely unprecedented – you're used to hearing the sound of bird song around here, and people choose to live here because it's such a peaceful, harmonious area.

"The family who run the post office have been there for about five years and are fantastic. If there was anything you wanted, they could get it for you. The family were at the heart of the community and everyone will be devastated. I'm completely flabbergasted – they were lovely people."

A West Mercia Police spokeswoman said: "Police can confirm a man has died after being shot during an armed robbery near Bromsgrove in north Worcestershire. Two men are believed to have been shot. One man was shot in the chest and died at about 9am.

"The other was shot in the leg and his condition is not known. Initial information is that there were three offenders wearing balaclavas and armed with a handgun and a sledgehammer."

Children had been dropped off by their parents at a primary school opposite the post office when the shootings took place. The school was forced to close as police launched a manhunt involving more than 100 officers.

Police said that the post office was open during the raid and that they had already interviewed a number of witnesses. Residents of the village, which is close to the M5 and M42 motorways, spoke of their disbelief at the shootings.

Alice Raybould, 29, a close friend of Craig who lives near the post office, described him as "the nicest and kindest person" she'd ever known, and said that he would have put up a fight to protect his family.

Doreen Davies, 69, said: "It's a shock that it's happened in Fairfield. We are a sleepy place. If you didn't know we were here you'd just drive through. It brings you down to earth and makes you realise we are all vulnerable."

Yesterday's incident is the third time in recent months that small stores in the area have been targeted by thieves, perhaps because the nearby motorways provide a swift getaway route.

Residents said that another post office in the nearby village of Romsley had been targeted by robbers several months ago, while a convenience store in nearby Lickey End was held up for cigarettes and cash by an armed gang in November.