A hitman strangled a frail ME sufferer in her own home so her estranged husband could claim her £475,000 legacy, a court heard heard on Wednesday.

Paul Cryne, 62, formerly of Teignmouth, left 52-year-old Sharon Birchwood on her bed, bound and gagged with electrical cord and packing tape, it is claimed.

Failed businessman Graham Birchwood pretended to discover her dead body at the bungalow in Ashtead, Surrey, three days later.

He had plotted the murder so he could sell her £400,000 home and claim her £75,000 life insurance and start a new life abroad.

The plan was only foiled by 'painstaking forensic work' which recovered traces of Cryne's DNA from Mrs Birchwood's right hand, it is claimed.

Cryne had been one of Birchwood's business associates in Thailand and had flown to the UK a week before the killing.

Jurors have heard Birchwood, now 56, has already been convicted of murder and jailed for life. Cryne, who lived in Bitton Avenue, is now on trial for the murder at the Old Bailey.

The court heard Graham Birchwood dialled 999 at 1.30pm on December 7, 2007, to say he had found the dead body of his estranged wife.

Sharon Birchwood's body was found lying fully clothed on her bed 'cruelly trussed up,' said prosecutor Mark Dennis QC.

Parcel tape was wrapped around her ankles and wrists and had been used as a tight gag over her mouth and face.

Electrical cord had been wound around her head and the small handle of a magnifying glass had been used to tighten it like a tourniquet.

Mr Dennis said: 'It soon became clear that the violent assault upon Sharon Birchwood had not been the result of a chance encounter with an unknown intruder.

'There were no signs of forced entry, no sign of any property having been stolen and no sign any drawers or cupboards had been opened. There was no sign of a struggle.

'The victim had suddenly been taken completely by surprise in her own home and incapacitated almost immediately.

'These were the actions of someone who had come to the premises to kill Sharon Birchwood.'

Mrs Birchwood was so quickly overpowered that she was still clutching a postage stamp in her right hand.

'Who would have had the motive to kill Sharon Birchwood?' asked the prosecutor.

'Sharon Birchwood had no enemies, she was a quiet, harmless, ordinary person who muddled along in life burdened by ill health and lacking in social life without two pennies to rub together.'

Although she had no money, the bungalow where she had lived for nearly 27 years was worth £400,000, the court heard.

She had also made her ex-husband the sole beneficiary of her will, which included the house and the life insurance policy.

Mrs Birchwood had remained devoted to her husband even after their divorce, the court heard.

'He on the other hand was not so devoted. He on occasions used her to his own advantage and did right up to the end,' said Mr Dennis.

Graham Birchwood also suffered from ill health, was threatened with bankruptcy and lived a 'depressing existence with no prospects for the future', the court heard.

'His only hope for a change in circumstances was if he found a pot of gold, enough money to clear his debts and start all over again,' said Mr Dennis.

'He would be free to leave the country and settle with his various business friends and associates in Thailand.'

Jurors heard Birchwood decided to recruit a former business associate in Thailand, Paul Cryne, who was also short of money.

'What he could not afford to do was run the risk of carrying out the killing of Sharon himself,' said the prosecutor.

'It was important the killing was planned, getting someone who would be prepared to carry out the deed for payment and disappear afterwards without ever attracting the attention of police.'

Cryne flew in to Heathrow Airport from Bangkok on November 26, 2007, and travelled to Birchwood's mother's home in Banstead, Surrey.

On December 2 Cryne left the address, claiming he was going to stay with friends in the West Country.

Two days later he carried out the murder before returning to Thailand, it is claimed.

Cryne, of no fixed address but originally from Torquay, denies murder.

The trial continues.

l Cryne, a nurse and lifeguard, lived in Bitton Avenue, Teignmouth, for many years and had entries in the Guinness Book of Records for underwater swimming achievements. He also received commendations for life saving.