A roofer who murdered a transsexual prostitute to get her secret list of celebrity clients was jailed for at least 17 years.

James Hopkins, 42, escaped justice for almost 12 years until he was matched to a bloody palm print at the flat of 23 year-old Robyn Browne.

A motive has never been established for the stabbing but Hopkins told his partner he went to the flat to get the names of famous customers as part of a blackmail plot.

The names of the clients have never been revealed to avoid ’embarrassing’ them.

But one is a household name.

Hopkins was sentenced to life imprisonment and ordered to serve a minimum of 17 years after being unanimously convicted of murder at the Old Bailey.

Judge Martin Stephens QC told him: ‘You went there with a view to stealing the deceased’s property and remove pages from a filofax which probably contained confidential information.

‘You were doing that for money and you admitted receiving £500. You were also looking to steal drugs.

‘Before you could get what you wanted you had to deal with the occupant, Robyn Browne.

‘I am satisfied that you disposed of her with cruel brutality. You stabbed the vulnerable and unfortunate person nine times. There was on your part an intention to kill.

‘After your arrest you tried to manipulate your family in attempts to evade justice. The jury saw through the web of lies that you tried to create.

‘The sentence by law is one of life imprisonment. You will only ever be released on licence if and when the parole board considers it safe for you to be released.’

Hopkins left the court with a slight smirk. His partner Donna Abbott was not in court for the sentencing.

The Old Bailey heard Miss Browne, born James Errol Browne, was taking female hormones and awaiting her gender reassignment operation at the time of her death.

She advertised for clients in phone kiosks and newspapers and worked from a housing association flat at 6b Gosfield Street, Marylebone, west London.

Neighbours reported a steady stream of men going into the flat including well dressed ‘City gents.’

‘There is some evidence that the victim may well have had some well-known clients,’ said prosecutor Nicholas Hilliard.

‘We have not called them to court because there was no need to embarrass them.’

The secret list of clients contained the name of a well-known entertainer.

Miss Browne did not offer full sex because of her HIV-positive status but entertained clients wearing women’s underwear, make-up and a shoulder-length black wig.

Her flatmate Natasha Brentwood left her getting ready for work on the evening of February 28, 1997, and returned less than two hours later at 8pm.

When she could not get an answer at the door she climbed through the first floor window to find Miss Browne lying face down on her bed with nine stab wounds to her chest and neck.

The walls and bedclothes were covered in blood and the fatal wound through the neck had been inflicted as the victim lay face down on the bed.

One stab wound had gone straight through her body and another had penetrated her breast bone.

The flat had been ransacked and her Filofax was missing the pages A to N in the address section.

A bloody palm print was found on the bedroom door and hand marks were also traced on copies of the Sun newspaper and Loot left by the killer.

Police were unable to match the prints to any suspect and the trail went cold.

In 1997 police would have had to manually check the prints with every record to find a match.

It was only with the introduction of an automatic computer system that Hopkins was identified in a new search in July 2007.

His fingerprints were on file because of his previous convictions for taking a vehicle without consent in 1988 and theft in 1993.

Hopkins was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and moved to Leeds in 1982 after leaving school.

He married but separated in 1995 before travelling to London in January 1997 to find work as a roof slater.

At the time of the murder Hopkins was staying in a dormitory at the Queen Hotel in Brixton and smoking crack.

He later moved to New Farnley, Leeds, to start a new life with Donna Abbott, the mother of his young son.

Hopkins set up home with her in 2004 and worked as a roof slater with her ex-partner Paul Hammill.

When he was arrested Hopkins at first denied even knowing Miss Browne.

But Hopkins wrote a letter to his partner from prison saying: ‘Sorry for all the s*** this has caused you and your family, but it is something that happened ten years ago.’

He added: ‘If I see you or someone who knows me well I will tell them the whole story, the truth about 28th February, 2007.

‘It is a lot more straightforward than it looks and if the evidence is really bad against me then the truth will have to come out which might send me down for a long time.’

Hopkins also wrote to his young son Jack: ‘Sorry you have got involved in this mess. My past has come back to haunt me.

‘Did I do it? Well let’s just say I know a lot about it and how it happened. Whether people believe me depends on a few things.’

When his partner and Paul Hammill visited him at Wormwood Scrubs on July 6, 2007, he claimed the victim had been stabbed accidentally.

Miss Abbott said: ‘My first question was ”Did you do it?” James told me he did do it. He said he went in, it turned into a struggle and there was a fight.’

Hopkins later tried to change his story after Miss Abbott gave a statement to police, claiming the real killer was a Jamaican drug dealer called Appee.

He wrote in another letter smuggled out of jail: ‘You will have to say you were totally confused when you gave the statement… The main thing to say is I wasn’t alone.

‘The main thing to say is you were terrified of the police because they kept threatening you,’ he wrote.

He added: ‘Your statement could be worse for than me than the palm print.

‘Make sure no silly c*** sees this because this letter will send me down.’

Giving evidence at the Old Bailey, he even claimed that he tried to stop Appee stabbing Miss Browne.

Hopkins, of [40] Bawn Drive, Leeds, denied murder.