Commander Robert Green and Kate Dewes interview

by Jonathan Milne / 15 October, 2011
He is the retired Royal Navy commander who was on standby to drop nuclear missiles on Russia. She is an internationally renowned peace campaigner. Together, this Christchurch couple claim to have found evidence his maiden aunt was murdered by secret services desperate to cover up Falklands War crimes. Truth or scare?


The crisp emailed response from media@nzsis.govt.nz carries no name: “As a matter of general policy, we do not comment on individuals’ relationships with the NZSIS,” the anonymous security official advises. “All dealings are in strict confidence. Kind regards.”

It seems, at first, a little absurd that the New Zealand intelligence agency charged with spying on people should be so anxious to protect confidences. But consider this: the confidences it is protecting relate to a Christchurch couple who are friends with former prime ministers and current Cabinet ministers, who have worked in senior positions with Royal Navy intelligence and the United Nations. And this couple – Commander Robert Green (retired) and Kate Dewes – allege they have been subjected to more than a decade of phone-tapping, burglary, harassment and intimidation by secret agents of unknown provenance.

Their concerns are taken sufficiently seriously, says Dewes, 60, that SIS director Warren Tucker has met them twice to assure them New Zealand intelligence agencies are not to blame for the break-ins and ransacked papers. ‘You wouldn’t know we had been there,’ he told her with a wry smile. ‘These guys wanted you to know.’

And Green and Dewes do know. It doesn’t matter whether anyone else believes them, but they know with a great deal of certainty they have upset the Establishment with their 27-year campaign to get to the bottom of one of the United Kingdom’s most celebrated conspiracy theories: the murder of Green’s maiden aunt Hilda Murrell.

Perhaps, then, 66-year-old Green’s guardedness when he phones that first morning should be less of a surprise. He has matters he wishes to speak about – but not over the phone. And not by email. Can he and Kate fly up to Auckland to talk in person? Just a few hours later, along with the commuter rush, they come through airport arrivals. He, straight-backed, wearing a brass-buttoned blazer and a navy-blue striped tie; she, tall and elegant, her brown hair falling over her left eye in a careful part.

It’s hard to know what to expect – but the open smiles are certainly a surprise. While other 18-year-olds were discovering peace and love and drugs in the 1960s, Green took up a place at Britannia’s Royal Navy College, Dartmouth. He found himself in the navy’s fast promotion stream, press-ganged into flying, and topping his class as a navigator, before being assigned to the Buccaneer long-range nuclear strike jets.

“In the navy you’re absolutely cloistered in a sort of boys’ club, with lots of lovely toys to play with,” he says. “I was good at it, and you couldn’t help but be excited, flying at very low level, extremely fast, through the Scottish Highlands and up over the Norwegian coast.” Should it have been deemed necessary, Green and his pilot were assigned to drop their warhead on Leningrad – and, he says, he accepted it unquestioningly.

But after his mother’s death, Green also became close to his aunt Hilda Murrell. The “formidable” older woman lived in the prosperous Shropshire county town of Shrewsbury, where she had been a renowned rose gardener. She moved in high society, friends with author Vita Sackville-West, Sir Harold Nicolson and various dukes and duchesses. In retirement, though, she took up the cudgels against government plans to build new nuclear power stations, which Murrell believed posed a threat to the very heart of the verdant English countryside.

“She was not a hippy,” Green says. “She was an Establishment activist.” When Green had leave from his base in Scotland, he would drive down to Shrewsbury in his blue Triumph TR5 convertible, pick up Murrell and take her for a spin. At her suggestion he delivered a paper warning of the problems that Britain would face as the world’s oil resources waned. And soon he came to share her concern about nuclear power generation, and then about nuclear-propelled submarines.

Just as he applied for voluntary redundancy, in April 1982, the Falklands War broke out. Assigned to the Northwood command bunker as intelligence staff officer to the Commander-in-Chief Fleet, he was in charge of a 40-strong team communicating round-the-clock intelligence to the fleet. Green had been personally responsible for communications with the HMS Endurance, a small ice patrol vessel that guarded Falklands waters, and he had formally expressed opposition to its planned decommissioning.

But it was on May 2 of that year, as he listened to the submarine HMS Conqueror trailing the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, that fate charted his course from naval commander to peace campaigner. Green had gone off shift when the order was given to torpedo the Argentine ship. What he knew then – but was not confirmed to the British public till two years later – was that the Belgrano had been outside the exclusion zone, heading away from the Falkland Islands and the Royal Navy Fleet for 11 hours, when it was torpedoed. It had, essentially, been shot in the back while leaving the fray.

“I had full access,” he says. “When I came back and discovered what had happened I thought, ‘Whoops, here we go. This is going to be tricky.’” The Sun tabloid shouted “GOTCHA” on its front page: 323 Argentines died. UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher won the war, and won the election – but only to face mounting accusations that she had cynically chosen torpedoes over peace talks, because voters loved to see Britannia again rule the waves.

Green says he was one of about 30 people who had full access to the raw signals data from the attack on the Belgrano. And when he left the navy immediately after the war – at much the same time that some of those top-secret documents went missing – he was always, wrongly, going to be an object of suspicion.

It was nearly two years later that the Government realised precise details of the Belgrano’s course and position had been leaked, when campaigning Labour MP Tam Dalyell hand-delivered a letter to Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine. The date was March 19, 1984, and Heseltine launched an immediate investigation into the nine allegations detailed in the letter.

Wednesday, March 21, 1984: a police constable investigates a call about a dented white Renault 5, abandoned on the side of a country road outside Shrewsbury. He and his partner inspect it at dusk and discover it is owned by 78-year-old Hilda Murrell. A duty officer at the police station calls Murrell’s home, but there is no answer. No further action is taken that night.

It would be three more days before Murrell’s half-clad body was found under the trees of nearby Moat Copse. Three days that would allow one of the most intriguing real-life thrillers of modern-day Britain to bloom into life. Police were convinced Murrell had returned home and disturbed a burglar, who had sexually assaulted her, abducted her in her own car, beaten and stabbed her and left her to die in the trees.

But Green, as her next of kin, began to suspect otherwise. Small details bothered him: the farmer had inspected Moat Copse the day after Murrell was alleged to have been dumped there and had seen nothing. Slowly, one detail built upon another. And when, cleaning out her home, he was unable to find three documents she had been working on as part of her opposition to the proposed Sizewell B nuclear power plant, he became convinced. His aunt had been the victim of something far more sinister than an interrupted burglary.

And then, early one morning in the House of Commons, Dalyell got to his feet with a new theory: he said Murrell had been kidnapped by the “men of British Intelligence” in a misguided hunt for the stolen Belgrano data. According to his unnamed sources, they believed Green had stashed the documents in her house – and they had tried to force her to reveal their whereabouts.

In 1993, Murrell’s family friend Trina Guthrie swore an affidavit detailing a conversation she had with a prison inmate who told of four security intelligence contractors who had kidnapped Murrell in a Range Rover and taken her to a safe house in “Little America” – a former airbase where US personnel had been stationed during World War II – and tortured and sexually assaulted her for two or three days before dumping her, close to death, in the woodlands. One of the team had since died, one disappeared, one was confined to a psychiatric hospital and one was serving a 15-year sentence for armed robbery. But police called a press conference and announced the prison and hospital inmates were not standing by their fantastic story of being contract hitmen for MI5. It was at this point, perhaps, that the conspiracy theories started to lose their bloom.

Guardian investigative journalist Nick Davies (renowned this year for exposing News of the World phone hacking) had earlier revealed how the nuclear industry was spying on Sizewell B opponents. Now, he ridiculed Robert Green’s desperate search for an explanation for his aunt’s death – in which Green had even investigated the involvement of the Freemasons and witches.

“No intelligence agency would burgle a house without checking that it was empty and ensuring that they had lookouts to warn them if the householder returned,” Davies wrote. “So, if these people had confronted his aunt, it had to be because they wanted to. Hence, the theory of abduction and interrogation. That meant that the killing had to have been premeditated. But why do it in such a macabre and vicious way? There was no explanation unless you assumed that there were very dark forces involved. But if that was the case, why was there no evidence of them? A massive, masonic-satanic cover-up was the only answer.”

Green, meanwhile, had found a new distraction. Her name was Kate Dewes. He had met the New Zealander in Geneva, while supporting her World Court Project to get nuclear weapons declared illegal. It seemed even he was willing to let the murder investigation rest, as he married Dewes and moved to Christchurch. Together, they threw themselves into their campaign against the nuclear weapons that he had once been so prepared to use.

Back in Shrewsbury, relieved of the demands of rebutting conspiracy theories, the West Mercia police resumed their search for a burglar – and eventually, they found one. In a cold case review, they retested samples of blood and semen from Murrell’s clothes and the crime scene – and the improved DNA testing gave them a match.

In June 2003, Andrew George was charged with kidnapping and murdering Hilda Murrell. When she was killed, he had been a short, skinny little 16-year-old who had been arrested the same week for another burglary and questioned over Murrell’s death – then allowed to walk away. He was smaller than the man described by witnesses driving Murrell’s car, his fingerprints didn’t match and his footprints didn’t match. But 20 years on, the discovery of his semen on Murrell’s clothes trumped all other evidential failings.

In May 2005, George was convicted of murder despite his attempts to blame his older brother. A year later, the Appeal Court in London upheld George’s conviction – to the relief of the police. Inquiry head Detective Chief Superintendent David Cole, retired by this point, told the Daily Telegraph he had been sure from day one that it was a burglary gone wrong – but police had made mistakes, starting with the failure of the constable who first inspected the abandoned car to search the area. If he had, Cole believed, Hilda Murrell might have been found, cold and injured but still alive. “The fact was the original failings were a gross dereliction of duty,” he said. “Had we come clean right at the beginning, the story would never have taken off like it did. But it grew and grew, and we were prevented from concentrating on the murder inquiry. For years we were answering silly questions.”

Little did he know that Robert Green and Kate Dewes had never stopped asking those “silly questions”. Within a few years Dewes had embraced Green’s passion for the case and become the lead researcher, his cold case reviewer. In suburban Riccarton, they had a garage full of paperwork, as they quietly sifted through the evidence and witness statements.

This month, they publish A Thorn in their Side, a book they believe proves beyond a doubt that Andrew George did not murder Hilda Murrell. So who did? On that, they remain cautious.

“My concern here is not to try to come up with a solution. My role is to demolish the accepted solution,” says Green. “The most important thing is to reopen the case – the guy’s got to come out of jail – and then he might feel safe enough to tell us a little more about what actually happened.” So yes, the book contains more questions (303 question marks!) than answers.

Is this, perhaps, a grieving nephew’s attempt to impose some meaning on his aunt’s random and inexplicably brutal murder? Or is he really driven by the facts? “It’s not for the money,” Green says. “I need to get the monkey off my back. I need to get it out of my system and I’ve given it my best shot.”

Green and Dewes now believe the murder was, indeed, motivated by a search for secret documents about the Belgrano and Sizewell B. And they are certain new evidence of a second, unrelated man’s DNA under Murrell’s fingernails – evidence mentioned only in passing in Andrew George’s appeal – proves he could not have acted alone. The convicted murderer’s story has changed repeatedly – but the version they believe is one he told fellow inmates while remanded in custody.

In that account, the opportunistic teenager had seized the opportunity of an open side door to burgle Murrell’s house – only to find himself interrupting a secret service abduction. In writing the book, Green sought and received permission to interview Andrew George in Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight. The small man was calm and respectful throughout.

Green asked: “Is it true you told police that when you went into Hilda’s house, two men held guns to your head, warned you not to talk about what you saw and promised you £60,000 if you kept your mouth shut?” George nodded. Yes.

For all their married life, Rob Green and Kate Dewes have lived in some degree of fear. They produce mail that has been neatly slit open and read before being delivered. They tell of shadowy figures behind curtains, car tyres being slashed, unmarked vans parked outside their houses, clicks and voices in the back of their phone conversations.

“I wish it was just paranoia,” says Dewes. “There are cameras or bugs of some sort in our house, which I hope have been really shaken up by the earthquakes. It’s very important you are raising the conspiracy theory issue, because this will be levelled at us and we are both aware of that. I have a reputation I want to keep here, being a government adviser and now an adviser on disarmament to the UN Secretary-General. We don’t do this lightly.”

The couple are certain their phone calls are tapped, certain the use of key terms like “Hilda Murrell” in conversations will trigger Echelon and Waihopai spy base and the Government Communications Security Bureau into action. When they want to talk candidly, they go for an evening stroll in Riccarton Bush.

“I’m longing for the day when I can speak in my own home without having to go into the laundry and turn the heater on,” Dewes says, becoming emotional. “My own children have been in the house when the break-ins have happened … My daughter was just about to have a baby. You put yourself on the line with the work you do, and I feel I’ve put my career on the line. But it’s your friends and family, too …”

Green refuses to carry a cellphone, lest “they” use it to track his whereabouts. Dewes has a mobile phone – but she keeps the phone, battery and SIM card separate until times when she needs it. Times like now, sitting around a table in an Auckland house, when she needs someone to testify to their credibility – so she plugs in the SIM card and gets former prime minister Helen Clark’s New York phone number out of her electronic address book. Because they know how easy it would be for most of us to dismiss their claims out of hand – and that is why they need some heavy duty referees.

So Clark emails me from her office at the UN Development Programme: “I have known Kate Dewes since the 1980s, and Rob since he moved to New Zealand. Both are totally dedicated to the cause of a nuclear-free world and have my admiration for their work to that end.” But does she believe they have been subjected to phone taps or other harassment by unknown parties? “I really do not know,” she responds carefully.

National Government Cabinet minister Kate Wilkinson is another friend. Does she believe the couple’s claims to have been bugged and harassed? “I have no reason to disbelieve it,” she says. “I have no reason to disbelieve the involvement of overseas governmental agencies.” Green produces a photo of him with Warren Tucker, which he says was taken two years ago when the SIS director visited him to assure him that the SIS was not responsible for the spying, and to assure him he would do everything possible to stop it.

There is a quip, “Just because I’m paranoid …” Green interjects to complete the sentence:

“… Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me.”

A THORN IN THEIR SIDE: THE HILDA MURRELL MURDER (Rata Books, $40).

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