Colleagues challenge police over the strange death of an ad man

Matthew Brace on the mystery ending to the gilded life of Christopher Martin
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The Independent Online
THE BODY of a top advertising executive is found naked in a dank underground water chamber beneath his garden, his hands tied behind his back. He is lying face-down in less than three inches of rainwater, with no obvious signs of injury.

Neighbours in the genteel Hampshire village of Steep believed Christopher Martin was a normal, friendly man, who took the commuter train each day to London, where he was a highly respected advertising copywriter and a founder of Saatchi & Saatchi. How did he come to die in such bizarre circumstances? Is there a killer on the loose? Why are the police without a suspect?

It could be the blurb on a best-selling Ruth Rendell thriller, but it is not. The real life of Christopher Martin came to this terrible end on 26 July after his cries, heard three-quarters of a mile away, went unheeded.

The tragedy began to unfold on the following day, Thursday, when Mr Martin, ever the punctual professional, failed to appear at a number of business appointments. Concerned colleagues contacted his brother, who set off for Mr Martin's house.

Here, in a dungeon-like bunker under the garden (thought to have been built to hold an emergency water supply for a farm which used to stand on the site), he found the corpse around 8.30pm. His brother had drowned.

The police, to the amazement of Mr Martin's friends and neighbours, have ruled out foul play. "We are satisfied that no other person was involved in Mr Martin's death," Detective Superintendent Andy Longman, who is leading the inquiry, said last week.

This comment, coupled with his body being found naked with hands bound, has prompted speculation that Mr Martin was the victim of some solitary erotic fantasy game that went tragically wrong.

But 70 miles away in the heart of Soho, Mr Martin's good friend and former colleague John Hegarty, chairman and creative director of the advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, was talking of murder. He dismissed the suggestion of an auto-erotic scenario: this, he thought, could be the perfect crime.

"If I wanted to murder somebody, what a wonderful way to do it," he said. "It's very simple. I can tie someone up and the prevailing view is that he's been involved in some sex thing. It's absolutely brilliant."

Mr Martin's death was a sudden and terrible end to a career in one of the most glamorous companies in the one of the most glamorous professions. He began his career with Saatchi & Saatchi working on the Health Education Authority account - for whom the company created the famous pregnant man poster - and he later went on to create copy for Jaffa Oranges and a blushing cartoon baby advertising Johnson & Johnson baby lotion "for those important little places".

In the 1970s he stirred nostalgia by resurrecting the Ovalteenies and created a series of television adverts for Cadbury's Chocolate Buttons, where celebrities including Felicity Kendal read children's short stories.

More recently, he worked on accounts for Singapore Airlines and was co- ordinating a campaign for British Steel at the time of his death.

Hampshire detectives spent last week gathering evidence for an inquest; a date is expected early this week.

Although the investigation into Mr Martin's death properly began with his brother's discovery of his body, earlier that morning police officers and dogs had followed up neighbours' reports of muffled cries coming from an unknown source. But they failed to find Mr Martin. He could have lain in the water tank, dead or dying, for up to 24 hours.

Villagers in Steep, where Mr Martin was brought up and where he lived with his wife Jan and their three children, are concerned about the police investigation. Some accuse the Hampshire constabulary of merely scratching the surface and want them to launch a full murder inquiry.

Ellen McCutcheon, owner of the rustic 16th-century Harrow Inn, Mr Martin's local, knew him since he was a teenager when he used to drink in the pub. As she sipped from a cup of tea before opening for lunch last Thursday she said: "It's just not like him, this sex thing. I'm sorry but there's something very fishy about it. I've talked to lots of people round here and they think the same."

At Mr Martin's house last week all was quiet. A blue Bristol sat in the overgrown drive, baking in the heat. Windows were closed, no one answered the front door and the two acres of land were deserted. The copywriter had bought the house when it was a derelict barn and spent years fastidiously transforming it into a luxury home for himself and his family.

In the garden, close to a child's swing and climbing frame, are two manhole covers, one concealing the entrance to the dank underground chamber where Mr Martin's body was found.

A few hundred yards up the road, in the Cricketers' Inn, a handful of sunburnt drinkers preferred to slake their thirst in silence than pass judgement on the death which had happened on their doorsteps. Outside, few villagers were braving the midday heat. The Rev David Pine, the vicar of the 12th-century church of All Saints, was one of many who said they hardly knew him.

In the village shop, one man buying meat pies remembered meeting Mr Martin on the train going up to London occasionally. But he was a quiet man, he remembered, not one to volunteer conversation.

In nearby Petersfield, Mr Martin's mother, Joyce Martin, was still too distressed to talk about her son's death.

Back at Bartle Bogle Hegarty's HQ, Mr Hegarty remembered Mr Martin as "an absolutely wonderful guy, incredibly well-balanced" and passionate about sport, playing football and cricket for local teams. He was also a keen sailor. Just days before his death he was awarded pounds 100,000 from a legal case he brought after his beloved yacht was damaged.

"If you wanted a picture of a 1980s yuppie always on his mobile phone, Chris was the absolute antithesis of that," said Mr Hegarty. "He'd have some old suit on and odd socks. He was in a way an eccentric, but in a lovely sort of English way. And he was an outstanding copywriter."

Mr Hegarty had known Mr Martin since 1973 when he left Saatchi & Saatchi after three years to join the European agency, TBWA, where he stayed until the early 1980s.

From then on he worked for his own agency, Edwards, Martin and Thornton. But throughout his career, friends felt, Mr Martin never embraced the glitz of advertising society, preferring instead the life of a country gent.

The talented ad man, the rural idyll; today friends and colleagues can only guess at why two such contrasting images should now be joined by a third, of a seemingly stable and successful man meeting such a dreadful death.