'Shipman first struck while he was addict'

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Detailed evidence that the GP Harold Shipman may have murdered his west Yorkshire patients while struggling with a drug addiction in the 1970s was heard in public for the first time yesterday.

Senior counsel to the Shipman inquiry Chris Melton said the serial killer was suffering from an acute pethidine addiction at the time of the death of Edith Roberts, one of the 31 cases being examined at Manchester Town Hall.

The death of Mrs Roberts, a sociable woman whose active pensioner lifestyle stretched to dance sessions in the local Todmorden Town Hall, had seemed beyond suspicion until her relatives read her cremation certificate, filled in by Shipman 26 years ago.

The certificate, passed to the family by the public inquiry's solicitors just a few weeks ago, exposed his assertion that a cardiac arrest reflected "her poor state of heart" and that "knowing her death was expected ... her two nieces kept an eye on her."

The first assertion was surprising and the second "completely untrue" one of the nieces, Hilda Mycock, told the inquiry. Mrs Mycock had found her 67-year-old aunt's body and had always been moved by the way she appeared to have died on the night of 20 March: peacefully, while sitting up in bed, dressed in a night dress and bed jacket, her book still clasped in her hands. "She looked as if she was still reading. I thought how peaceful and wonderful it was, though it was a shock," said Mrs Mycock.

But Shipman's statement, allied to her new understanding that someone suffering a cardiac arrest would die violently, now made her think that Mrs Roberts' death may have been "too peaceful".

She told the inquiry: "You would have thought that the book would have fallen from her hands and that she would have clasped her chest."

Shipman had been "kind" after arriving at the house to deal with her aunt's death, telling Mrs Mycock: "You go downstairs dear and I will see to everything." He had insisted the police need not be called and a post-mortem would not take place as Mrs Roberts had recently been visited by a doctor (later revealed to be him, though he did not admit as much to her).

Mrs Roberts' daughter Evelyn Ross said that she had, oddly, not mentioned a previous visit by Shipman nor any recent heart problems and her death was totally unexpected.

Mr Melton said at the time of his encounter with Mrs Roberts' family, Shipman was so acutely addicted to the painkiller pethidine that he was suffering regular fits.

Withdrawal symptoms had caused Shipman – an otherwise "enthusiastic, industrious" young doctor who had impressed with his "even-temper" – to collapse in the car park at Todmorden's Abraham Ormerod medical centre and at least twice in his own bathroom.

One of several partners at the practice, called out to his home by Mrs Shipman, had found the young GP nursing a blow to the head – allegedly caused when he fell backwards after sitting on the edge of the bath – and he was diagnosed with epilepsy when finally referred to hospital. Shipman, who took control of reorganising the drugs cabinet on arriving at the practice in 1974, was finally exposed as an addict. He then told his partners he did not believe in giving patients drugs he had not tried. He had subsequently become addicted.

The extent of Shipman's crimes has never been established, but the inquiry is examining22 deaths which he certified and a further nine he referred to the the local coroner. The former GP was convicted on 15 counts of murder in January last year and refused a request to leave his prison cell in Frankland Jail, County Durham, to attend the inquiry, which continues today.