ONE of the starting points of any murder investigation is to first eliminate the person who discovers the body. On a bleak February afternoon in 1986, 19-year-old sociology student Stuart Hopkins obviously didn’t know that. If he had, he wouldn’t have hung around a Redditch shopping centre car park trying to comfort a young mother he had just attacked in a stabbing frenzy.

Carol Martin had been knifed around 50 times in the face and body, so badly that a senior police officer who lived near the Martins in the village of Inkberrow and happened on the scene by chance, didn’t recognise her.

As Carol’s life ebbed away in the ever growing pools of blood on the concrete floor, Hopkins knelt by her side, holding her hand and offering comforting words. He told detectives he thought she had been hit by a car. In first reports of the case he was hailed a hero for being so compassionate.

However to Det Supt Deryck Knight there was something strange about this young man and when he agreed to appear at a police press conference, his doting mother by his side, Stuart Hopkins’ façade began to crumble. Not through anything he said, but through his mere presence in front of the cameras. Because Hopkins was immediately recognised by two sisters, now in their early 20s, he had flashed at several times four years before. One of them was to say: “It wasn’t just flashing either, it was the whole works.”

The teenager faced juvenile court over the offence, but after his mother gave him an alibi, it was dismissed and never appeared on his police record. Nevertheless the revelation encouraged detectives they were on the right track and added to the case they were already building.

Referring to the incident in his book The Detective and the Doctor, which he co-authored with forensic pathologist Dr Peter Acland, Det Ch Supt David Cole, head of West Mercia CID at the time, said: “The basic tenet of homicide investigation, drummed into all embryo detectives at training establishments, is to be satisfied with the innocence of the person who discovers the body before looking further. Hopkins had satisfied the original inquisitors, but now seeds of doubt began to materialise, although there was no evidence (yet) to contradict his story.”

Monday, February 3, 1986, had begun as just another busy day in the life of bubbly mother of two Carol Martin. Very popular in her home village, the 38-years-old made friends easily, but had certain standards of behaviour that applied just as much to acquaintances as her family. No-one behaved improperly in her presence.

In the afternoon, she decided she had just enough time to call at the Kingfisher Shopping Centre in Redditch before collecting her two children, aged nine and 12, from their private schools. It was a decision that was to cost Carol her life.

When she returned to her car on level eight of car park two she crossed paths with Stuart Hopkins. Considering the busy location and time of day, it was remarkable no-one witnessed what happened next. The first indication of the tragedy was when a couple driving towards the car park exit found their way blocked by what they thought was a pile of clothes on the floor. As they stopped, Hopkins stepped out of the shadows.

It was soon obvious the pile of clothes was in fact a very seriously injured woman and the alarm was raised. The immediate assumption was she had been hit by a car which had not stopped. A security guard and policeman were rapidly on the scene but although still alive, though fading fast, Carol could not talk. One of the knife wounds had severed her larynx. Within minutes an ambulance arrived, but she was already dead from massive loss of blood.

Police sealed off the scene and a painstaking search of the area began, intensified by the realisation that Carol Martin’s injuries were not the type to be caused by an impact with a car. A broken blood stained knife blade was found in a gutter on a lower level of the car park and then its matching handle turned up on the flat roof of an adjacent building.

In the immediate aftermath of murder, shy Stuart Hopkins with the thick rimmed glasses and American college boy looks became flavour of the month. The always tidily dressed youth, who had no interest in girls and no close friends apart from his parents, was the centre of attention, praised for his compassion and bravery in comforting the horrifically injured Carol Martin.

He told fellow students a photograph of her released by her family was a good likeness of the lady he had helped. But how would he know? By then she was so badly disfigured even a police officer neighbour didn’t recognise her. Unless, of course, he had seen her before the injuries occurred.

Then a thumb print on the knife blade turned out to be his. He claimed he had knelt on the weapon as he comforted Carol, but became frightened and threw it away. Why would an innocent man try to dispose of a vital piece of evidence?

Hopkins was charged with murder and appeared before Mr Justice Hopkins in the ancient oak-panelled Hereford Crown Court in November 1986. He was found guilty following a nine day trial, attended every day by his parents after praying in Hereford Cathedral. He showed no emotion as the judge passed a life sentence. His mother, clutching a bible, collapsed in uncontrollable tears.

No-one will ever know why Stuart Hopkins attacked Carol Martin so viciously, but the words of one of the girls he had been accused of flashing at years before might give a clue: “When I saw him, I just ran. But perhaps she was the sort of woman who would have a go.”