With 32 years’ experience as a journalist on local newspapers, mum of three Sally Murrer admits she is big fish in a small pond – and she likes it that way.
She has had some big ‘hits’in her time, such as revealing that Maxine Carr had dumped Soham murderer Ian Huntley by fax to Woodhill Prison (on Murrer’s patch). But her job mostly entails writing the crime and community stories that are the bread and butter of any local paper.
She juggles working 12 hours a week for the Milton Keynes Citizen with caring for two daughters aged 10 and 16, her 20-year-old autistic son, and renovating a dream cottage in the Dunstable Downs that she bought recently with her husband.
Just six days after moving into that house, a chain of events started that would, as Murrer put it, ‘put a bomb under the whole domestic world”.
For reasons that she still doesn’t fully understand, Murrer found herself at the centre of a huge police inquiry, learned that her car had been bugged and fitted with a tracking device, she was locked up for up to 30 hours at a time, strip searched, and told repeatedly by police that she would spend the rest of her life in jail.
She has lost her professional confidence, believed at times that she was going mad and, perhaps most appalling for a mother, has had to make preparations to put her eldest child into care.
The accusation against Murrer is that she corrupted a policeman to give her stories. Her contention is that she has done nothing that any local newspaper journalist covering crime does not do every day.
Her ordeal began on the morning of 8 May. Walking out of Laura Ashley loaded with wallpaper she had just bought, Murrer received a call from a colleague at the Citizen, who told her: ‘The police are here, they’re seizing your computer”.
Unbeknown to her, police officers were searching both the offices of the Citizen and those of rival free weekly the MK News. One of her colleagues described the scene: ‘They were taking Cup-a-Soups out of boxes, flicking through novels page by page. They were there for three of four hours searching her desk and bagging up evidence.”
A reporter at the MK News was questioned about her sources for a story about police losing the keys to a custody suite, but was not arrested.
Murrer was halfway down the A5 on her way home when she received a phone call from a detective inspector. As a reporter who covers crime, Murrer saw nothing unsual in this and breezily replied: ‘Hello, how are you?’
‘He missed a beat, then started talking in a very different voice,’recalled Murrer. ‘He said: ‘I want you to go straight home’.’She immediately asked if something was wrong with her children, to which the officer replied: ‘I think you ought to pull over, you’re under arrest”.
‘I’m the world’s worst driver, I nearly crashed,’she said.
Pulling up at her house, Murrer was greeted by a scene that ‘was like something out of the Sweeney”. Several police cars were parked outside and eight police officers were, as she puts it, ‘swarming all over me”. They produced a search warrant and began looking through the house. Four police officers alone looked through her car.
‘At the time I didn’t think there was anything strange in this,’she said. ‘In retrospect, of course, they were retrieving their surveillance equipment: the car had two bugs in and a tracking device.’
Murrer has since found the holes drilled in the headrests for the police bugs, and been confronted with tapes that indicate she had been under surveillance for months.
She said: ‘They kept on about this ‘wilful misconduct in a public place’, I thought they said. For the first hour I was in such shock that I thought it was something to with an old-fashioned charge I remember from magistrates’ courts 30 years ago, which was to do with having sex in a public place. And I was saying, ‘Honestly, I’m 48, I don’t do that sort of thing’.
‘I was banging on like a mad woman about that. I honestly didn’t have a clue.’
Murrer had in fact been arrested on suspicion of aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office.
‘They took my laptop computer, and the only thing on that was two novels I’ve written and my agent’s details,’she said. ‘The worst bit was they took the family address book and my mobile phone; those two alone plunged us into huge problems because we don’t have a landline phone here, and every contact I have is either in my address book or my mobile, so I had no child minder contacts or contacts for my son’s carers – he needs 24-hour-a-day care.”
Murrer said she made her one allotted phone call to her husband, to tell him that she had been arrested but that the police wouldn’t tell her where she was going. At around midday, Murrer was driven to Banbury Police Station, about an hour-and-a-half’s drive from her house.
‘At that stage they kept telling me I’d probably be back in time to pick up Katy from school, so I thought they would only want to talk to me for a couple of minutes.”
Murrer was eventually released from Banbury Police Station at 8pm the following evening. Police would not even start interviewing her until some 24 hours after she had been arrested. ‘I spent most of that time shut in the cell, not really knowing what was happening, not able to get a message to anyone as to where I was,’she said.
Murrer believes that complications with the rest of the investigation may explain why she was kept in custody for so long. In addition to Murrer, two police officers, a soldier and a 52-year-old man were arrested at the same time. At about 11.30pm on the day of her arrest, there was a ‘superintendent’s review’to decide whether or not she could be kept in jail for another 12 hours.
‘At that stage people were saying to me, frequently, ‘you’ve committed a very serious offence, you will probably be going to prison for life’. I was actually starting to believe it.”
Twelve hours later there was a second review. This time, she said, the superintendent ‘just glared at me and said ‘I hope you realise what you’re here for. It’s so serious it carries life imprisonment, and I have no intention of letting you out. I have authority to detain you for another 12 hours’. I have been told that about 20 times during my stays at police stations, which is why I believed it.”
Describing that first stay in Banbury Police Station, Murrer said: ‘You have nothing with you: they take your bag, they take every comfort item.
‘I was cold, I was shaking from head to foot, I think I was in shock, so I begged for a blanket. The second thing was there was no loo roll; I couldn’t wash my hands as there was no soap. I eventually got toilet tissue after about 10 hours.”
Filthy after coming straight from a house which was at that stage still a building site, Murrer said that in the middle of the night she asked to have a shower. With a ‘tiny sliver of soap’that she she said had pleaded for, she was allowed to shower – in a cubicle that was open from the top half up and ‘in full view of the custody desk”.
Later, at 3am, she dropped the soap down the sink in her cell while washing her hands: ‘At that stage I burst into tears for the first time and cried for about two hours.”
At about 6am, Murrer said she was given something to read for the first time – a copy of a Hello magazine. ‘I can’t stand Hello, but I read it from cover to cover,’she said. ‘It was such precious currency. That’s how you survive, by going from one minor victory to another. A victory is an inch square of soap, or Hello magazine or a blanket. Your whole meaning of life totally changes within hours.”
Murrer was finally interviewed the following afternoon, for about six or seven hours, and found that she was accused of paying police officers for information that she had sold on to national newspapers. She said: ‘I breathed a sigh of relief: that’s fine, I’ve never paid for a story in my life – apart from village correspondents.”
Although advised by her lawyer not to say anything, Murrer said: ‘I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. I was so convinced they were wrong and I wanted to tell them how wrong they were.
‘They just kept on and on trying to get me to admit that the Citizen pays for stories, that I pay police officers for stories and I sell them to national newspapers.
‘I couldn’t say that I have never had a story from a police officer and written about it, because over the past 32 years I have probably had a couple of hundred tip-offs and requests for help from local officers that haven’t gone through the press office.”
Murrer admits that she is good friends with one of the policemen arrested as part of the enquiry. ‘He’s helped me out on the odd job; silly little things – ‘Oh Sally, can you do a witness appeal on this, the press office has put out sweet FA’ – that sort of thing. But the stuff that I’ve been given is so ordinary,’she said.
Five weeks after her arrest, Murrer returned to Banbury Police Station for her second interview. It was after this experience that she says she started going ‘quietly mad”.
She said: ‘They treated me like absolute shit. The first thing they did was strip search me.’The reason for the strip search was apparently because she had some migraine pills in her pocket.
‘They took me into a side room and put the rubber gloves on. I thought what the hell is going on here? Then I just lost it, I started shaking. They put me in a cell again. I just lost my ability to think coherently. My brain went to cotton wool.
‘They put me in a cell again briefly, then took me in to interview. The woman who was going to interview me was the one who strip searched me; I just remembered her twanging the rubber globes. I had another six hours of hell.’
Murrer says that she was then played surveillance tapes of her conversations with her policeman friend, after which she said she was even more convinced that there was no case. She said she told the police: ‘You have tapes of me listening to information – of course I talk about things with *****, we tell each other everything. Of all the stories you’ve brought up, the disclosures you’ve made, none of those came from *****. You’ve no proof I’ve printed anything.’
At this stage Murrer says she was told something that, if true, could have profound implications for every journalist in the UK.
She said was told: ‘To stand up this charge, it is enough that you have listened to information deemed to be sensitive. We don’t have to prove that it has been published – we already have enough to send you to prison for life.”
Murrer said: ‘That just finished me off. I said that, as a journalist, any nutter can ring us up and tell us stuff. That opens up such massive implications.’After this second interview, Murrer sais she was convinced that she was facing life in prison. ‘I knew these people hated me so badly for some reason that they wanted me put away; I knew they would probably do it,’ she said.
‘Now, rationally, I don’t think that; but at the time I firmly believed it. I viewed the worst-case scenario, that I wouldn’t be here. I figured it would take nine months to get it to Crown Court and I figured I couldn’t take a chance if I relied on a judge and jury. If guilty rang out and I’m led away in handcuffs I haven’t got any time to organise anything for my kids.
‘I quietly made lists and made plans so that if I was to disappear in nine months’ time my kids would cope. I put money left over from the sale of the last house into trust for my daughters’ school fees. I battled with social services for a care home for my son.
‘I had their school uniforms and everything they would need for the next two years bagged up and waiting for them. As soon as I’d done that, it was like somebody flicked a switch in my brain: ‘Right, now I’ll fight’.”
She said: ‘Since 8 May I’ve felt as though I’ve stumbled on to the set of a badly written horror movie and in a minute the director’s just going to say ‘cut’ and I’m going to breathe a sigh of relief. I’m a mother of three; I work 12 hours a week, I don’t know why they are treating me like some sort of spy.”
On 3 September Murrer has to again report on bail at Banbury Police Station, and there is a chance that the investigation may go no further. But Murrer is not optimistic about her prospects, even though she now knows that the idea of her going to prison for life is nonsense.
She said: ‘Most of the time I’m OK, but at the back of my mind I’m still convinced that I won’t be here in a year’s time. I don’t have the trust in the system and the police anymore that innocent people walk free.
‘I’ve lost a lot of confidence professionally. Work has been fantastic: they are sticking me on Women’s Institute reports and village fetes.
‘For 32 years I’ve said ‘this is Sally Murrer from the local paper’, with a bit of pride to be a journalist. Now I mumble it because the reaction from members of the public who talk to me is that I’m the criminal who’s been arrested.”