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Page last updated at 14:34 GMT, Thursday, 8 October 2009 15:34 UK
Handless corpse case uncovered
The recovery of the body
Martin Johnstone's body had been weighed down by bricks

When two amateur divers plunged into a water filled quarry near Chorley on a Sunday morning they were unaware of what they were about to uncover - or the consequences of the gruesome find.

Jeff Ashcroft and Ian Reading found the mutilated body of a man weighed down by bricks on 14 October 1979.

The murder investigation lead police to an amazing journey as far afield as Australia.

It helped them smash an international drugs syndicate and a trail of murders.

Initially, the police didn't know who the victim was so a "death mask" picture was made public and shown around local pubs and clubs.

A hundred detectives were working on the case - which became known as the 'Handless Corpse' - when the big breakthrough came.

Mr Big

The body had been mutilated and dumped off a cliff at the quarry off Halfpenny Lane, Eccleston
The body was dumped at the quarry off Halfpenny Lane, Eccleston

Former beauty queen Julie Hue and her friend Barbara Pilkington walked into Leyland police station in the early hours of one morning and told police who the dead man was.

It was her boyfriend, 27 year old Martin Johnstone from New Zealand, who had got involved in a ruthless international drugs gang. She also informed the police that the man who carried out the shooting was Andrew Maher from Preston.

Johnstone had become a millionaire dealing in drugs around South East Asia hence his nickname Mr Asia. He had been killed on the orders of a fellow syndicate member Terry Sinclair, known as 'Mr Big'.

Hue was safely out of the way on a holiday to Spain with Pilkington when Johnstone was murdered. She was told he was on business in New York and couldn't be contacted.

However, when he failed to call her on her 22nd birthday she became suspicious. It was at that point when Pilkington, who was Maher's common law wife and knew of Johnstone's fate, confessed what had happened.

The Handless Corpse case
Tests showed the body had been disposed only days before the divers discovered it
Johnstone's body was naked except for a medallion with the Chinese inscription for long life
Thinking they had got away with it, three members of the gang were celebrating in Preston's Piper nightclub shortly after the murder. Buying champagne with £20 notes, they soon drew attention. They were shocked when a waitress unwittingly asked them: "You haven't done that murder in Chorley, have you and are spending the pay off?"
When Andrew Maher finally pleaded guilty to shooting Johnstone he said he had been instructed "kill or be killed"
The recovered hand was exhibited for a time at an exhibition at the police headquarters in Hutton

Andrew Maher shot dead his boss and best friend Johnstone on a lay-by north of Lancaster. The exact location where the shooting took place was never established but the police had built up a strong case against those involved.

Maher and another man Jimmy Smith took the body back to a garage in Leyland where it was mutilated with an axe, hammer and spade. They chopped off his hands and extracted his teeth in the hope he would never be identified. The body was then dumped in Eccleston Delph quarry.

Having told the police so much, the women they were then placed in police protection and the police set about bringing the culprits to justice.

The following five men were convicted for their part in Johnstone's murder at Lancaster Castle in 1980.

  • Andrew Maher was arrested when he arrived back at Heathrow airport and eventually pleaded guilty to murder.
  • Terry Sinclair, who it emerged was already wanted for five murders in Australia, was arrested during an early morning raid at his exclusive flat in Kensington. He was in bed with barrister Karen Soich and they were both high on drugs when armed officers burst in.
  • Charlie Russell who supplied the gun. It was brought to London in a shoe box by a 16 year old girl called Karen Pidgeon, whose father was Sinclair's chauffeur.
  • Keith Billy Kirby, who went to school in Preston with Maher, who bought the rope and weights to hold the body down.
  • Jimmy Smith who confessed to his part in the killing and told police the hands of Johnstone had been thrown in a river near Livingston in Scotland close to where he used to live.

At the time it was the most expensive trial in British legal history because of the security. All were given life sentences.

Terry Sinclair attempted to bribe the police offices who interviewed him, offering them £1m if they could give him a getaway car.

Four others were found guilty of drug dealing but Karen Soich, Sinclair's girlfriend, was cleared.

Amazingly, police divers found one of the hands when one of the team stepped on it while wading in the water. His left hand was never found.

Spill the beans

Garage
The garage where the body of Marty Johnson was taken after he was shot

As a result of the case, a major drug operation around south east Asian involving some 90 people, was uncovered. This was major news Down Under, so much so a Royal Commission was held in Australia to investigate what had happened.

There had been five murders carried out by contract killers and questions were raised about whether the police and legal system had been corrupted.

Terry Sinclair died at Parkhurst prison in 1983 raising suspicions he had been murdered on the orders of other gang members to make sure he kept quiet. The official cause of death was said to be a heart attack but at the time Sinclair was about to spill the beans to the Australian police about what he knew.

Two detectives who worked on the case - Ernie Pemberton and Jeff Meadows - have called into question whether anything untoward had gone on. While there's no way of proving anything it did mean an intriguing end to what was a remarkable case.




SEE ALSO
Mr Big offered police a 1m bribe
13 Oct 09 |  History
Face to face with Mr Big
08 Oct 09 |  History
Handless case 'detective's dream'
08 Oct 09 |  History
In pictures: Delph Scuba Centre
12 Oct 09 |  People & Places
Maher shot Marty on Sinclair's orders
13 Oct 09 |  History

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