A MURDER inquiry was under way today into the death of a timeshare salesman who was killed after spending the evening at a Hampshire country club.

Police today confirmed a murder investigation had been launched following the mystery disappearance of Kevin John Palmer four and a half years ago.

The 27-year-old had been with at least four people at the Abshot Hotel and Country Club, near Titchfield Common, before he vanished in March 1999.

Detectives believe the married father-of-one caught a taxi with two other men and a woman, which headed towards Bishop's Waltham.

But an argument broke out en route near the Horse and Jockey pub and Botley Social Club, in Botley Road, where all three men got out and a fight started.

Only two of the men got back into the cab.

Police said there was evidence Mr Palmer, who was known as John by his friends and family, was later moved to an address in Hoe Road, Bishop's Waltham, where police have been carry out an investigation for the past week.

He was last seen in the Bishop's Waltham area on March 13, 1999.

It is not clear why Mr Palmer had come to England on March 12 1999 after living in Spain for ten years with his wife and young daughter. They are said to be ''devastated'' by the new developments.

Today Hampshire police confirmed they suspected something sinister had happened to him.

Mr Palmer, who was nicknamed Jon Bon Jovi, was reported missing to Northumbria Police in 1999.

As a result of a review carried out last year the missing person's inquiry was passed on to Hampshire Police.

Detectives said he had been living in Spain until the time of his disappearance, where he sold timeshare apartments..

Police believe he returned to the UK on Friday, March 12 1999 and at some stage travelled to Hampshire.

He is known to have visited the Sir Joseph Paxton pub in Hunts Pond Road, Locks Heath, before going on to the Abshot Hotel and Country Club on the night of his disappearance.

A 51-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of murder but has now been released, pending further inquiries.

The launch of the historic murder hunt, codenamed Operation Arkholme, follows more than a week of speculation about police activity at a house in Hoe Road.

Over the last week, neighbours living in the small cul-de-sac have seen officers dig up sections of the garden and remove items from inside the house.

Items taken away from the house including carpets and interior doors are undergoing forensic examinations.

The house is the home of John Howett, who is currently serving a 12-year jail sentence in Parkhurst Prison, Isle of Wight, for his part in a gang which smuggled £16m of cannabis into the UK.

Today Det Insp Alison Scott, leading the murder inquiry, appealed for the public's help at a packed press conference held at Fareham police station.

"We believe he was taken to Hoe Road, whether dead or alive we don't know. We are looking for any evidence of John Palmer being at that address.

"In particular we are looking for a suitcase, a driving licence and a gold necklace made up of giant gold golfballs,'' she said.

DI Scott revealed Mr Palmer's disappearance had been reported to police in the north-east, where he originally came from.

It was during the course of a review by the police in the north-east last year that the file was referred to Hampshire.

Det Insp Scott said: "We now believe that something more sinister had befallen him and have launched a murder inquiry. We have not located a body, but do firmly believe he has been the victim of foul play.

"We urgently need the public's help in filling in the missing gaps in what we believe were the last few hours of John Palmer's life."

Police said he was 5ft 10in, with a stocky build, blue eyes and short-cropped fair hair

He spoke with a Geordie accent and was last seen wearing dark trousers, a dark colour leather jacket and cowboy boots, along with a large gold heavy necklace. Police said he had scars on both legs, and two large tattoos - a leaping panther on his left arm and a panther's head on his right arm. When he arrived in the country, he had been carrying a hard-backed plastic Delsay suitcase, which has never been traced.

Det Insp Scott told the press conference: "We have several specific appeals and ask the public to cast their minds back to March 1999 to see if they can remember details which may help us. Firstly, we need to trace the taxi driver who is a vital witness. Do you remember picking this group up from the Abshot Hotel and Country Club and the subsequent journey to Hoe Road?

"Please call us if you think you were that driver."

"Secondly, did you know Kevin John Palmer or remember a man matching his description in the Sir Joseph Paxton pub or later in the Abshot Hotel and Country Club?"

"Did you see him anywhere else in the area on the afternoon of March 12, 1999? We need help identifying exactly where he had been that day and how he got to Hampshire.

"Do you remember seeing a group of men having a disagreement or a fight in Botley Road sometime around 1am in the morning of March 13? I'm sure it would have stuck in the mind of anyone who did.

"Finally, we want to hear from anyone who has any information about Kevin John Palmer or what happened to him four years ago."

DI Scott added: "Mr Palmer was a family man who lived in Spain for ten years. His family have thought long and hard about what could have happened to him as they have not seen him for four years," said DI Scott.

"They fear that something could have befallen him and while they are devastated they are happier now that his death is being investigated and a full murder inquiry has been launched."

Information to the major incident room at Hulse Road on 0845 045 4545, or the free and anonymous Crimestoppers line on 0800 555 111.