A couple have been questioned by police and accused of handing poisoned drinks to workers on a tree felling scheme that has left a city up in arms.
Retired health and safety officer Dr John Unwin and his architect wife Sue said they were astounded to be visited by detectives last Saturday and spoken to voluntarily.
The couple, who have been fighting Sheffield council’s moves to fell the ‘beautiful’ limes outside their Victorian villa as part of a scheme to remove 6,000 trees in the city, even had their kitchen cupboards searched.
Neither has been arrested but Dr Unwin, who handed out the drinks, has been told he may have to attend a police station at a later date.
South Yorkshire Police said the accusations against them date from October when the Unwins served two cups of tea and an orange squash to three tree surgeons working near their home on Chatsworth Road in the upmarket suburb of Dore, where houses sell for up to £500,000.
All three men are said to have become violently ill, with one needing hospital treatment.
Dr Unwin, 60, and his 59-year-old wife, who have two grown-up sons, vehemently deny any wrongdoing and insist they served the drinks only as a ‘delaying tactic’ to frustrate the felling work.
So far, five of the lime trees on the street have been chopped down, with two more to follow. The city council is felling thousands of trees as part of a highways maintenance programme, including healthy species where it says their roots are causing an obstruction or damage.
Dr Unwin, whose front gates are decorated with the yellow ribbons which have become the symbol of tree protesters in the city, said: ‘Poisoning people’s tea sounds like a plot from an Agatha Christie novel or something involving a Russian dissident – but Sheffield’s a different place. We don’t do that kind of thing.
‘You couldn’t make it up. I’m just sorry the police are having to waste their time.’
Dr Unwin, who was involved in chemical safety when he worked for the Health and Safety Executive, added: ‘We were astounded to be visited by CID. There were two officers, a man and a woman.’
Mrs Unwin said: ‘Even though it allegedly happened so long ago, we never heard anything about it until last Saturday. It’s alleged we put something in the drinks which hospitalised one of them and the other two had to take time off work. I’m horrified that anyone could do something like that.’
She added that she and other residents have tried to negotiate with the council over the number of trees being felled. ‘We had a ballot on the street and 80 per cent said they shouldn’t be felled,’ Mrs Unwin said. ‘An independent panel advising the council said they were healthy and should be left but they are going ahead anyway. They said if they compromise for us they’ll have to do the same for everyone else.’
South Yorkshire Police confirmed details of the investigation. Officers have carried out forensic tests and taken witness statements, but no arrests have been made, a spokesman said.
The alleged poisoning comes as members of protest group Sheffield Tree Action Group (STAG) were accused of adopting intimidating tactics to disrupt contractors, including filming them and subjecting them to verbal abuse while wearing masks to prevent them being identified.
Action group treasurer Professor Chris Rust said last night the claims against Dr and Mrs Unwin were part of a ‘smear campaign’ to discredit the tree protesters.
He added: ‘The timing of the poisoning allegation being made public is interesting as it’s exactly when the city council and its contractors are facing allegations of using excessive force to remove protesters from work zones.’