HAROLD Shipman was a popular local doctor in the small town of Hyde in the northwest of England for whom nothing ever seemed too much trouble. Elderly patients would receive visits at home without even having to call his surgery and he set up a scheme providing regular health checks for pensioners. But following one of Europe's biggest murder inquiries, the people of Hyde are now coming to terms with the fact that Dr Shipman could be Britain's most prolific serial killer this century. Police believe his position in the community led him to become infatuated with his ability to administer death instead of healing his patients. The 53-year-old medic appeared in court last week charged with 15 counts of murder allegedly committed between March 1995 and June 1998, following a police investigation into more than 100 patients who had died under his care. 'People here are in a state of shock really,' said Marjorie Plesants, a retired probation officer. 'He was so well liked, you know, but now we are hearing all this evidence, everyone is wondering about their relatives who died and whether or not they were murdered. 'This is a very close community and everyone is wondering what we are going to hear next and who might have been involved.' Hyde is a post-industrial town on the fringes of Manchester not far from the famous Old Trafford football ground. Shipman arrived in the town in 1979 and began working with nine other doctors in a local medical centre before setting up a small surgery of his own 14 years ago in a single-storey office in a run-down shopping centre. Married with four children, he won respect from the local community with his easy-going manner and efforts to improve health care in the largely working-class area. According to the British General Medical Council, there had never been any serious complaints about his conduct throughout an almost 30-year career. But in the summer last year following the death of an 81-year-old patient, gruesome details began to surface which would hardly have been credited if they had appeared in one of the detective novels that Shipman enjoyed reading. Kathleen Grundy, a wealthy widow and former mayor of the town, was one of his regular patients who had been helping to raise money to buy new equipment for his surgery. Despite her 81 years, she maintained an active life and was in good health, spending her retirement involved in voluntary work and walking on the nearby moors. But when she failed to turn up at a luncheon club to serve pensioners their meals on June 24 last year, worried friends went to her home and found her dead. Shipman was called and signed a death certificate before giving her friends the phone number of a lawyer they should contact to sort out her effects. There seemed nothing suspicious about the incident until her daughter, Angela Woodruff, 52, a solicitor, discovered the whole family had been cut out of her mother's will. Instead, most of the widow's assets, valued at GBP400,000 (about HK$5.1 million) and including a beautiful cottage dating back to 1682, had been left to Shipman - the last person to have seen her alive, having called at her house earlier in the day. Mrs Woodruff appealed to the police, who began an investigation that was to last more than a year and involving dozens of officers. Just days after she had been buried, Grundy's body was exhumed from the local cemetery and a forensic toxicologist concluded she had either taken or been administered a substantial dose of morphine in the hours before her death. Shipman was arrested and placed in custody, charged with murder after police found he had stockpiled the drug in his surgery. At first the local population was enraged at the suggestion their trusted doctor could have done anything wrong and held a protest in his support in the town centre. Posters were stuck in shop windows proclaiming his innocence while a campaign was organised to help with his defence. But during the next few weeks, police inquiries began to raise questions about the doctor's other patients, mostly women, whose death certificates he had signed. The bodies of another eight women were dug from their graves in the presence of local clergy and found to have traces of morphine. Similar tests on six other alleged victims were not possible because they had been cremated, but by the end of last year Shipman faced 15 counts of murder. The doctor is alleged to have administered lethal doses of morphine while pretending to carry out blood tests or other basic medical treatments. As the evidence began to mount, local confidence began to wane. But given the age of the victims, many believed that if the doctor had been responsible then perhaps he had acted out of misplaced compassion. But when the case opened last week, prosecutor Richard Henriques, QC, claimed in court that the deaths had nothing to do with euthanasia or so-called 'mercy killing' but came because Shipman had found he enjoyed killing. 'The defendant killed those 15 patients because he enjoyed doing so. He was exercising the ultimate power of controlling life and death and repeated it so often he must have found the drama of taking life to his taste,' Mr Henriques said. Shipman has denied all the charges and the trial is likely to last for more than three months. In the meantime, the people of Hyde are left with a terrible uncertainty. Having come to terms with the loss of their relatives and neighbours they have now been forced to begin grieving again as they wait to discover the true reason behind the deaths. 'I'm very conscious since this trial began that there are a lot of people who are feeling a great deal of despair and worry,' said Father Denis Maher of Hyde's St Paul's Catholic Church. 'A lot of people had put a lot of trust in Dr Shipman and suddenly they are being presented with evidence which makes them question what he was doing in their midst. 'Among his patients and certainly as a doctor he was someone who people looked up to and if there had ever been a popularity vote he would have won hands down.' But the pain and uncertainty reached beyond the relatives and friends of the 15 patients who Shipman is charged with murdering. 'It is very frightening and many people are worried that this number may be just the tip of the iceberg and are asking questions about others who died over the past few years. Many people have lived here all their lives and are connected to others in Hyde so that for everyone who has died there are at least 10 families affected,' Father Maher said. One of the worst aspects of the uncertainty has been that many people have lost confidence in the medical profession and are refusing to see a doctor on their own. Families are arranging chaperones so that every time a patient visits a surgery they are accompanied by a friend or relative. But this has affected the ability of other doctors in Hyde to treat patients who are sometimes less forthcoming in explaining their problems when others are present. Father Maher believes the town's pain will not ease even when the trial is over. 'When the verdict is given that will not be the end of it. A lot of people will still be left feeling betrayed and wondering whom they can trust. I am trying to help people look beyond that but it is going to be difficult. 'Everyone is hoping this is just a bad dream, but I think this case has revealed a lot of loopholes in the medical system and people will not be satisfied until they can find some way of trusting their doctors again.'