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Michael Robert RYAN

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 


The Hungerford massacre
 
Classification: Spree killer
Characteristics: Motive unknown - A loner, a man without friends other than his mother and who lived in part in a world of fantasy that he weaved and his mother perpetuated
Number of victims: 16
Date of murder: August 19, 1987
Date of birth: May 18, 1960
Victims profile: 11 men and 5 women (including his mother)
Method of murder: Shooting (two semi-automatic rifles and a handgun)
Location: Hungerford, Berkshire, England, United Kingdom
Status: Committed suicide by shooting himself the same day
 
 

 
 

Hungerford

One man's massacre

By Jeremy Josephs

 

15 ‘If only we knew why’

The first anniversary of the tragedy at Hungerford was an -I opportunity for many in the media, notjust to reconstruct the minutiae of the massacre but also to examine afresh Michael Ryan’s motives. No answers had been provided in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy; perhaps they would be forthcoming some twelve months later. Many newspapers and television companies, both national and local, sent reporters and producers back to the town in the hope of achieving some new insight. In fact nothing new was uncovered.

Thus it was that, despite diligently carrying out his duties, a reporter on the Bolton Evening News was able only to echo the theme of enduring incomprehensibility. It was a theme which was to appear in a good many of those anniversary articles. ‘Twelve months of soul-searching have passed, but one question remains unanswered,’ the reporter affirmed. ‘Why, in God’s name, did it happen?’

‘It’s actually very frustrating to be asked that question,’ the Reverend Salt is now quick to retort. ‘The how, why and wherefore and so on. No one has ever explained why Michael Ryan did what he did. And that’s because, in my opinion, it is not something that, can be explained.’

But in an age where instant answers are available for all things, the vicar’s view has not been easy to accept. Surely, people continue to insist, there has to be a compelling explanation. For many, the first line of enquiry leads them to a person who exists only on celluloid. For were not the exploits of the character Rambo in the film First Blood so strikingly similar to what actually took place in Hungerford as to be uncanny? Indeed, the Sunday Telegraph was soon asking, was Michael Ryan not ‘the man who thought he was Rambo’ London’s Evening Standard saw things slightly differently, more in terms of his aspirations. No, Ryan was ‘the lonely wimp who wanted to be Rambo’.

The Rambo factor certainly made good copy. In fact there was a stage when tabloid editors were vigorously competing to print the most Ramboesque headline. For within twenty-four hours of the tragedy, the Sun referred no longer to Hungerford. but ‘the Rambo shootings’. The Daily Mirror followed suit by insisting that the sixteen deaths were the result of ‘the Rambo killings’. Both papers then proceeded to pepper their pages with sketches of semi-automatic weaponry, just in case any reader might have failed to make the Rambo connection. The Daily Star was less subtle still, covering its front page with just two things: a large picture of Michael. Ryan and the word RAMBO emblazoned beneath in bold type. The popular press, then, was in no doubt: Ryan and Rambo were synonymous. Michael Ryan was John Rambo.

The truth was a lot less colourful. For it is simply not known whether or not Ryan ever saw any of Sylvester Stallone’s films, including First Blood. Furthermore, academic research has yet to prove conclusively that there is a causal link between screen violence and real-life aggression. In their search for instant solutions to complex problems, many people, often with the encouragement of the media, were apparently too ready to jump to illconceived conclusions. It had been the same story in the previous decade, when the film A Clockwork Orange appeared. Then, researchers cited the murder of a tramp in what appeared to be a copycat crime. The incident was soon dubbed the ‘Clockwork Orange murder’ by the popular press, but the study omitted to point out one important fact: that the tramp’s killer had never seen the film supposed to have incited him to murder.

It came as no surprise, however, to find Sylvester Stallone leaping to the defence of his screen persona. He preferred to dwell on the concept of insanity rather than imitation. And in so doing he would not be alone. ‘I carry the can for every lunatic in the world who goes crazy with a gun; he complained. ‘But it wasn’t Rambo who sent Michael Ryan mad. In fact Rambo is the opposite of people like Ryan. He is always up against stronger opposition and never shoots first. Murderers are always saying, "God told me to kill" or "Jesus ordered me to kill" - so should the rest of us stop praying? There are always sick people out there who will hang their illness on to your hook.’

For those newspapers and magazines less willing to go down the Rambo road there remained little else to proffer by way of explanation. Their watchwords were invariably the same: Ryan’s rampage was ‘meaningless’, ‘random’ or ‘motiveless’. Then more reflective pieces began to appear, dwelling on the precise nature of the ‘loner’. For no one doubted that Ryan was that. ‘Beware the man who walks alone,’ warned one paper, while another referred to ‘the maniac next door’.

However, it was not just readers of the tabloids who sought an explanation of Ryan’s motives. Many people in Hungerford, survivors included, did so too. Alison Chapman, herself shot at as she set out from her home with her mother, comments: ‘If only he had lived long enough to tell us why. If only we knew why. But instead he took the secret of his madness to his grave.’

The Archbishop of Canterbury appeared to endorse this notion of Ryan’s insanity, in his sermon preached at the town’s service of memorial and rededication. ‘Sometimes violence can be understood,’ he admitted. ‘Oppressed peoples rising against their oppressors or the grossly deprived revolting against unheeding opulence - these things might be foreseen or forestalled. But no one could foresee this tragedy. The human mind is the most complex and delicately balanced of all created things. Wisdom cannot foresee all the consequences of its sickness.’

Were signs of a consensus beginning to emerge? If Ryan was not the Rambo figure the tabloids might have wished him to be, was he without doubt certifiably insane? Sylvester Stallone, although not an impartial witness, had dubbed him a lunatic; survivor Alison Chapman spoke of his madness; and then, most authoritative of A Dr Robert Runcie had described to an audience of several millions the apparent sickness of a human mind. What each person was saying, some more delicately than others, was that Michael Ryan was mad.

Dwelling on Ryan’s insanity, however, is almost as problematic as attempting to package him as the Rambo-like killer. For contrary to popular opinion, there is little evidence of insanity among the majority of mass killers. In a forty-two-case sample study by the American criminologists Levin and Fox, only around one in five killers attempted to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. And of those who did, less than half would manage to convince a jury.

In their authoritative report Professors Levin and Fox went on to present a ‘composite profile’ of the multiple-victim killer. They came to the conclusion that the great majority of such killers were not insane; that, in layman’s terms, they were bad rather than mad: ‘He is typically a white male in his late twenties or thirties. In the case of simultaneous mass murder, he kills people he knows with a handgun or rifle; in serial crimes, he murders strangers by beating or strangulation. The specific motivation depends on the circumstances leading up to the crime, but it generally deals directly with either money, expediency, jealousy, or lust ... Finally, though the mass killer often may appear cold and show no remorse, and even deny responsibility for his crime, serious mental illness or psychosis is rarely present.’

The two academics were also able to identify a number of factors which, they believe, are consistent with almost every case history of an indiscriminate killer. First of all, they argue, there has been a life filled with frustration. Secondly, there has been a precipitating event, such as unemployment or divorce. Then there is access to and training in the use of firearms. And finally there has been a breakdown of what is referred to as ‘social controls’, such as occurs when a person moves to a new town or an important relationship breaks up.

Ryan would certainly have fitted into this model. His had been a life of frustration, as he drifted from one unskilled job to the next. And Ryan not only had access to and training in firearms, but they were the theme, around which his entire life revolved, a passion which had endured for well over a decade. The problem with such a construction, however, is that large numbers of ordinary people can fall within these categories - people who do not go on to commit mass murder. While Professor Levin clearly did not have the opportunity to analyse or study Ryan’s personality, he nonetheless refuses to entertain the notion of Ryan’s insanity: ‘I don’t like the idea of insanity in these cases and it is used rarely in the US as a defence. Insanity removes the question of individual responsibility and these people are usually a lot more rational than people think.’

Certainly Sergeant Paul Brightwell would testify to that. And yet an equally impressive selection of authorities from the world of psychiatry came to precisely the opposite conclusion. The criminologists had got it the wrong way round, they would insist. Ryan was mad, not bad.

Dr John Hamilton, the medical director of Broadmoor, the Berkshire prison for the criminally insane, was of the opinion that Ryan was probably suffering from a form of schizophrenia and was certainly psychotic at the time he carried out the killings. He diagnosed Ryan’s disorder as paranoid schizophrenia, adding that he was in all likelihood suffering from paranoid delusions too. Dr Jim Higgins, a consultant forensic psychiatrist for Mersey Regional Health Authority, and one of the country’s leading authorities on mental illness, agreed with this diagnosis: ‘Matricide is the schizophrenic crime - that is an aphorism in forensic psychiatry. Ryan was most likely to be suffering from acute schizophrenia. He might have had a reason for doing what he did, but it was likely to be bizarre and peculiar to him. But the people who are murdered are generally part of the murderer’s family or social circle, so the murder of strangers is very unusual. Ryan was, in my opinion, also likely to have been suffering from ideas of persecution. People with acute schizophrenia may believe that they are being persecuted by certain people and are entitled to shoot them.’

Of course, ‘mentally ill Michael’ does not have the same ring about it as ‘Rambo Ryan’. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that little has been said or written about the gunman’s psyche. But then mental illness is always difficult to understand, and all the more daunting to contemplate in the aftermath of a massacre. Moreover, it is worth asking whether or not the psychiatrists’ opinions represent the definitive view. For the truth is that there are over a quarter of a million people in Britain suffering from schizophrenia, which, in reality, is widely used as a catch-all term for many different sorts of mental disorder. And if he was indeed schizophrenic, Ryan was certainly the first, in Britain at least, to have taken it upon himself to spray bullets at each and every unfortunate soul who happened to cross his path. Such diagnoses therefore remain a matter of speculation.

What is clearer, however, is the extent to which Ryan wove a fantasy world around himself. This emerged at the inquest with great clarity as one of the prime components in his psychological make-up. One person after another related the fantastic tales he had told. These fantasies created a lifestyle which Ryan knew very well he was never going to achieve. There was the rich colonel of Cold Ash, the nurse he had planned to marry, stories of Ferraris and Porsches which were due to come his way, trips to India and visits to tea plantations there, reports of property deals in London and a planned trip on the Orient Express. Many people had believed him, including his own mother. But every detail had been furnished by his imagination; his exploits were a tissue of, lies from start to finish.

The police view has long been that Ryan had planned to sexually assault Sue Godfrey, his first victim. When the young mother and nurse had realized his intentions, they think, she had tried to run away. But no one has ever succeeded in explaining why this first murder in the forest should have been a prelude to the massacre in Hungerford.

It was precisely because the truth was no longer available that the door was left open for cranks of all kinds. The Sun paid several thousand pounds to one Andrew Preston for what the newspaper considered to be a first-class story. Under the headline ‘Maniac Rambo was my Gay Lover - Ryan’s kinky secret revealed’, there appeared a graphic account of homosexual activity in the Savernake Forest. This ‘exclusive’ was later revealed as an elaborate hoax, the result of a dare Preston had risen to while in a state of inebriation.

Despite the apparent credulity of all those to whom he told his stories, Ryan craved yet more fantasy. Imagine his delight, then, when he discovered that this was available via mail order. As if designed to cater specifically for his needs, Ryan is said to have paid £5 to become a subscriber to a bizarre postal game called ‘Further into Fantasy’. It was a cruder version of the better-known ‘Dungeons and Dragons’, the most popular of such fantasy war games. Power is earned through the murder of enemies and monsters, with players growing in power and status as they execute various grisly assignments allocated to them.

Opting to be a high priest of an evil serpent god, and paying £1.50 for each turn, Ryan adopted the code-name Phodius Tei. In July 1987 he received a final challenge from Set, the game’s serpent god, who lived on the planet Dorm: ‘You have been one of my greatest Terran priests and as such are worthy of the power I offer. But Phodius, you have one last point to prove ... can you kill your fellow Terrans? I offer you one last challenge. Will you accept, Phodius, to go back to Terra and slay them, to devour their souls in the name of Set the immortal god?’

TWO weeks later Ryan received what was to be his final message:’When at last you awake you are standing in a forest, there is a throbbing in your head, a madness that is the exhilaration of the serpent god, you know what you must do, know what power is to be gained from this.’

Ryan had indeed stood in a forest. Sue Godfrey had discovered that. It is reasonable to assume too that there had also been a throbbing in Ryan’s head, for he had taken two paracetamols on the morning of the massacre. In fact many of those who encountered Ryan that day would later refer to the blank expression on his face. ‘Brain-dead’ had been the most popular phrase of the day. And Ryan would himself tell Sergeant Brightwell that the entire day had been ‘like a bad dream’. Had he not therefore been acting out, in his own way, these coded commands received through the post, unable or unwilling to distinguish between fantasy and reality?

Of course it is one possibility, but by no means the only one. And in any case no evidence was ever produced to prove conclusively that Ryan had participated in these bizarre fantasy games, despite an investigation carried out by the Thames Valley Police. It is, therefore, simply impossible to say with any certainty precisely why Ryan carried out the Hungerford massacre. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that much more will ever be learned that will reveal his true state of mind. Because, as the Sunday Times so aptly put it: ‘his last shot blew the truth away’.

As the Reverend Salt went through the hundreds of letters which were arriving each day at St Lawrence’s, he found among the cash and cheques destined for the fund another poem, sent in anonymously by a member of the public. It bore no title, and was instead simply prefaced: ‘Written following the sad events which occurred at Hungerford, Berkshire on August 19th 1987.’The poem reads as follows:

That peaceful summer afternoon

Old England faced a cruel reality –

When in a forest’s leafy glade

One instant doubly robbed two babes

Of innocence and a mother’s love.

But that was just the start ...

Before the sun set that day Many a Hungerford home

Suffered a dreadful loss,

And none knew why.

The Nation’s heart missed a beat In disbelief...

In flooded indignation, anger;

Followed by bewilderment and shock

Soon replaced by compassion, - love

For those so cruelty bereaved, -

Robbed of a loved one-

None knew why.

 

16 ‘A basic failure of the police’

Some people have said the police didn’t do a good job; Ron Tarry recalls indignantly. ‘I don’t agree with that at all. I thought that they did and I said so at the time to the Home Secretary. It’s just all too easy to blame the police. It’s true that there was quite a long delay in getting armed police into Hungerford. But people have to remember that the arms they were able to call upon locally were no match for a Kalashnikov semi-automatic rifle. And on top of that the Thames Valley hit squad happened to be situated quite some distance away.’

But this is not to imply, Ron Tarry is equally quick to point out, that nothing could have been improved in terms of policing and that mistakes were not made. Such an approach was itself mistaken and far too complacent. Of course there were lessons to be learned. ‘But in the end you can only blame Michael Ryan, ‘the former Mayor concludes. ‘Because he had the weapons, the ammunition and the will to use them.’

It was a typically balanced appraisal from Ron Tarry. Nonetheless, there were a number of people who indeed sought to blame not Michael Ryan but the officers of the Thames Valley Police. If they could not have prevented the incident happening, it was argued, then they should at the very least have brought the shootings to a much more speedy conclusion.

In fact it was not just those people who might have had a vested interest in attacking the police who became most vociferous in their criticism of the armed response to Hungerford. Colin Greenwood, a former Superintendent and firearms instructor in the West Yorkshire Police, repeatedly made a number of scathing remarks. Nor was he prepared to quietly document his criticisms in the form of a confidential memorandum to Charles Pollard, the Assistant Chief Constable of the Thames Valley Police. For the retired policeman, who had gone on to become the editor of the magazine Guns Review, decided instead to go public, voicing his opinions to millions of television viewers. Appearing on a special Thames Television programme, broadcast some six months after the massacre and entitled Hungerford - the lessons, he was presented as the key and most authoritative witness prepared to articulate the case against the inadequacy of the police response.

Greenwood did not mince his words: ‘The basic fact is that Ryan went on killing people as long as he wanted, and the police didn’t stop him. At no time did the police do anything to stop Ryan shooting people. That’s a basic failure of the police. At no stage did the armed police confront Ryan. We know that the Tactical Unit [Firearms Team] was kept as a unit because it is said they operate as a team, which is really quite nonsensical. We know that the local police were assembled on the Common and at no time did any of them confront Ryan. He stopped because he got fed up with it. What you have to ask is whether this situation was dealt with properly. And if sixteen people were killed it wasn’t.’

At the heart of such criticisms lies the precise timetable of events on Wednesday 19 August 1987. What is accepted by all parties is that the first 999 call was made at 12A0pm after a motorcyclist had witnessed the attempted murder of Kakoub Dean at the Golden Arrow Service Station at Froxfield on the A4. Nonetheless, Ryan had managed to remain on the loose for more than an hour, killing his last victim at 1.50pm. But it was not until half an hour after that, at 2.20pm, that the Tactical Firearms Team was assembled and ready to go into action. The main reason for this delay was that the only available officers from the Team that day were some forty miles away, engaged in training exercises at the Otmoor army firing range. The consequence of this was that there was in effect no tactical firearms cover in the south of the Thames Valley police area, where Hungerford is situated. In other words, by the time the Tactical Firearms Team had arrived in the market town, Ryan’s last shot, apart from the bullet destined to penetrate his own skull, had been fired. The armed response, according to the critics, had quite simply been too late.

That is not to suggest, however, that there was no armed presence before the arrival of the Tactical Firearms Team. Because for almost one hour before the appearance in Hungerford of the specialist squad, officers from the Diplomatic Protection group, who happened to be training nearby, had already made their way to the market town. Though no match for Ryan’s armoury, they too were in possession of weapons. But lacking reliable information as to the gunman’s precise whereabouts, they managed only to contain the area where he had last been seen. In fact Ryan had long since moved on, and was instead stalking the streets of Hungerford, picking off passers-by as he went.

There were others who also perceived the role of these particular officers to be both weak and ineffectual. Even Major John Hathway, himself a former Mayor of Hungerford, felt compelled to speak out in the television programme in which Colin Greenwood appeared:

‘It was very unlike a military operation. The police seemed to me to be too keen on finding out where Ryan was before they ,deployed their troop. Under military conditions I suspect that we would have gone forward to try and come in contact with the enemy. After all, it was known that it was only one man. There was a small party, admittedly, who moved forward across the Common and deployed. But they only went about 150 yards before taking up a position of cover. From there they just looked on in the general direction of where they thought he was.’

Chief Inspector Glyn Lambert, who headed the Tactical Firearms Team that day, is quick to repudiate the notion that members of his unit should have been despatched to Hungerford any earlier. For although some fifteen of his men had been ready to go into action, he had decided to wait a few minutes longer until the whole team had assembled.

‘They arrived as an organized package and were armed and deployed, rather than arriving piecemeal, ill-equipped and disorganized, Chief Inspector Lambert explained to lawyers representing a number of victims’ families at the inquest. ‘That is the system that Thames Valley Police operates. And the system on this occasion worked properly. As for those officers from the [Diplomatic] Protection group, they didn’t move from their position at Hungerford Common because they quite simply had nowhere to go. People have asked why they didn’t move across the Common - to which I say, move where?’

Charles Pollard, the Assistant Chief Constable of the Thames Valley Police, was not at all happy when he viewed the hour-long This Week Special. His force had cooperated with the television programme’s makers, even allowing them to have exclusive access to police tapes recorded as the incident was unfolding, on the grounds that the public had a right to know.

‘It’s not that we in the police force can’t take criticism. We can,’ he explains. And it is of course right that the role of the police should be closely scrutinized - not just in relation to Hungerford, but in all areas of our work. But that programme was a piece of biased reporting. In fact many people phoned in afterwards to say that they thought it was absolutely disgraceful. I happened to know, for example, that the programme makers were speaking to people from overseas who had experience in this type of incident, and when they refused to be critical of Thames Valley Police, they were edited out of the programme. Because that would have spoiled their line.’

Certainly the coroner at the inquest largely exonerated the Thames Valley Police. Summing up before the jury retired to consider their verdict, Charles Hoile reminded the six women and five men considering the case of the extremely delicate balance which had to be struck. There was an inherent conflict, he explained; between the desire to retain an unarmed police force on the one hand and the easy and early availability of arms on the other.

‘So far as the police response is concerned,’ the coroner told the jury, ‘leaving aside the armed branch of the Force or that part of the Force which can become armed, the response of the Police obviously was pretty prompt because quite clearly one of the first people to be killed was PC Brereton answering the call. And he was not alone - he was with another officer in another vehicle and two other officers who were local policemen called to the emergency. Looking at it from that view their response would be difficult to fault. There is then a gap - because the whole character of the occurrence changes from being that of a domestic quarrel to something which is absolutely unprecedented, a man going berserk and killing.’

The jury did not take long to return verdicts of unlawful killing. Nor did they seek to criticize the police. On the contrary, they went out of their way to commend a number of officers, including Constables Brereton, Wood and Maggs and Sergeant Jeremy Ryan. They made only one recommendation to the coroner, which he accepted unconditionally. Speaking at the end of the fourday inquest, Anthony Bridge, the jury foreman, issued a short statement: ‘The Jury do feel that semi-automatic weapons should not generally be available and that an individual should not be allowed to own an unlimited quantity of arms and ammunition. However, knowing that this subject is under review by the Government, the Jury makes no detailed recommendations.’

The jury foreman was right. The subject of the country’s gun laws had indeed moved high on to the political agenda within a few hours of the massacre. Before long Douglas Hurd’s Firearms (Amendment) Bill was making rapid progress through its various parliamentary stages, its proposals largely welcomed across the political divide. It came as no surprise that possession of the Kalashnikov assault rifle was to be outlawed forthwith. But the fact was that Ryan killed as many people with his Beretta semi-automatic pistol, and there were no plans to ban that. For, as the Home Secretary explained to the House of Commons at the time, there was only. so much the law could do: ‘It cannot guarantee against criminal behaviour. Nor can it protect us against the individual who, having complied with all the requirements, loses control in a fit of madness. All we can seek to do is to reduce the risk.’

Would arming the police, or making firearms more easily available to them, further reduce the risk? Despite the experience of Hungerford, the police view remains firmly in favour of retaining an unarmed police force. Even PC Trevor Wainright, the local policeman whose father was murdered by Ryan, remains convinced that the British bobby should not be seen to be brandishing weapons: ‘God forbid that anything like this should ever happen again in any town in England. But if it did, I don’t think things would change at all. It would still take some time to get armed units to the scene of any shooting. It’s perhaps the price that we have to pay for the policing we expect. Nobody wants to see armed policemen walking down the streets of our towns.’

When it comes to the use of firearms, then, it is almost impossible for the police to please all parties. When a gunman had been on the loose in a quiet country town, they were criticized in some quarters for not having cornered and killed him quickly enough. And yet the previous year, each time the police had responded more speedily, shooting and killing a number of gunmen, there had been an immediate furore. Surely, a number of people had pointed out, such an approach was wholly alien to the long traditions of policing the British Isles. In any case, Mr Charles McLachlan, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary, was soon able to confirm in his official report that arming the police could not be relied on to prevent any such similar shootings in the future.

It is a view with which Chief Constable Charles Pollard, as he now is, heartily concurs. In fact, he goes on to argue that making weaponry more easily available to more local officers - in effect a policy of guns in cars - would be entirely counterproductive: ‘The more you have policemen being armed, the more you’ll get mistakes. This is precisely what happened in Italy about fifteen years ago. They changed the law to make it easier for the police to have access to arms, and since then they have had about 150 innocent deaths, and 235 people injured. I think that shows very clearly the side of the equation which we need to take into account. It’s not that it’s just a quaint tradition of ours to be unarmed - it actually means much more effective policing as a whole.’

In his report on the massacre, the Chief Constable was at pains to highlight a number of factors which hampered the police operation. A combination of obsolete and inadequate communications equipment and limited manpower had severely hindered police efforts to contain Ryan. ‘However,’ he insisted, ‘no force, even with the most up-to-date equipment, would have been able to handle the vast flood of varied information coming in during the early stages, particularly up to the last murder being committed.’

Marlyne Vardy and Elizabeth Playle, both of whom lost their husbands in the shootings, were not at all satisfied with the outcome of the various-investigations into the police’s handling of the massacre. Why, for example, had there not been a public enquiry? Their nub of their contention was hardly complex: instead of being diverted away from the massacre, as manifestly ought to have been the case, the police had inadvertently sent the women’s husbands directly towards the killing zone and thus to their deaths. Did this not constitute an appalling example of gross incompetence on the part of the police? Their formal complaints were duly investigated by an outside force, but a police force nonetheless - the Hampshire Constabulary - under the supervision of the Police Complaints Authority. But no action was taken against those officers who had allowed Eric Vardy and Ian Playle to proceed into Hungerford. For the two widows, it served only to add a legacy of anger and bitterness to their feelings of total loss and grief. ‘All I ever wanted,’ Elizabeth Playle would later lament, ‘was an apology. Just for someone from the police to say sorry. But I didn’t even get that.’

Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary made no specific criticisms of the Thames Valley Police in relation to their handling of the massacre. But neither did he seek to praise their operation. He confined himself instead to making recommendations, his report containing sixty-one suggestions for reform, covering a wide variety of issues of policing. Many of his recommendations have since been implemented. And many have been summarily ignored.

‘In our debriefs we have been through it countless times,’ Chief Inspector Lambert explains. ‘Could we have saved more lives? Could we have got there quicker? Could we have been more professional and deployed more quickly? Well, with the benefit of hindsight, of course, we would have done certain things differently. But if I am asked, would we have acted any differently in terms of our overall approach, I think that the answer is no. We did locate Ryan; we did contain the school. I don’t think that more lives could have been saved. Containing a deranged gunman is a very difficult thing to do. Just imagine someone appearing right now, wherever you are, and that person starting to go mad with a powerful weapon - how long would it be before armed police could successfully contain him? It’s not easy.’

The car in which Kathleen Wainwright was travelling might also have proceeded in a different direction had the roadblocks established in Hungerford been operating more effectively that day. But they were not. And her husband, Douglas, was killed as a consequence of that. Nonetheless, Kathleen Wainwright has steadfastly refused to condemn the police: ‘There’s only one person I blame for what happened to my husband. And that’s Michael Ryan. We can all say things after the event, what they should have done and so on. But who would have dreamed a thing like this was ever going to happen in a lovely little town like Hungerford? Nobody was prepared for it. We weren’t prepared for it. The police weren’t prepared for it. They did their best.’

Chief Inspector Laurie Fray, who was at the time in charge of the police press office, is satisfied that the tightening of the firearms law and licensing procedures which has taken place as a result of Hungerford has succeeded in striking a satisfactory balance: ‘I think that it’s probably about right now. But at the end of the day you can’t legislate against nutters. It would be just as possible for someone to kill sixteen people by putting a concrete slab on a railway line. And you can’t then outlaw concrete slabs.’

Chief Constable Charles Pollard puts the vexed question of the police response to Hungerford rather differently: ‘Many of my officers showed extreme bravery at Hungerford. It was precisely because of good policing that a quite impossible situation was successfully resolved. It was damn good policing. I know it took a long time. But I don’t think people appreciate how it might have been. Let’s look at it another way. Had we not shown the caution we did, it is entirely within the bounds of possibility that four or five members of the Tactical Firearms Team could have been picked off by Ryan on the loose with his Kalashnikov. If not even more. Then people would have been pointing the finger at me - and quite rightly so. They would have said: "You allowed your men to go in like that? You must have been stark raving mad.---

On 25 August 1987, just six days after the massacre, Ron Tarry was asked to travel to London to participate in Nick Ross’s BBC Radio 4 phone-in. He was particularly anxious to appeal to listeners to stay away from Hungerford. ‘We want to cleanse ourselves of this. It is time for the people of Hungerford to comfort and help each other,’ he said.

Ron Tarry had barely finished broadcasting his heartfelt appeal when a middle-aged man, prepared to identify himself only as ‘John from Hertfordshire’, called in to warn that he considered himself to be a potential Michael Ryan. His weapon was not a Kalashnikov but a crossbow. He had been influenced not by the film Rambo but a book by Colin Wilson entitled ‘The Outsider. ‘There is more than one Michael Ryan about,’ said the caller. ‘I am also a loner and a perpetual outsider. Nothing can be done to help me. Only recently I bought a crossbow. I keep it locked away, and I don’t think I will harm anyone with it. But I have been in and out of institutions. It just amazes me that someone like myself could buy a crossbow with a pull of 1251b, without a licence, for just £ 135. The thing is, I can act irrationally. My medical history shows that I have done so in the past.’

As Hertfordshire police set about trying to contact the man, Ron Tarry returned to Hungerford. For the first time since the shootings, the man who had justifiably won acclaim as the ‘voice of Hungerford’ found himself too shocked to comment. Driving home along the M4, he wondered how many more potential Ryans there are in our midst.

 

17 ‘Our Saviour will receive him fittingly’

Several years have elapsed since the Hungerford massacre. But seldom in the Berkshire market town is the name of Michael Ryan heard. For the people of Hungerford prefer to allude to the slaughter rather than to speak about it directly. So there is instead often a reference to ‘the tragedy’, ‘the events of 19 August’ or ‘that dreadful day’. A booklet entitled Hungerford Remembered’, the entire proceeds of which were donated to the Tragedy Fund, barely mentioned Ryan’s victims, let alone the gunman himself. Even five years after the massacre, when a small memorial garden was opened in the town, there was that same lingering reluctance to mention the unmentionable: the name of Michael Ryan. Yet his shadow had hovered over that inauguration ceremony, just as it had done at every one of the funerals of his sixteen victims.

Nonetheless, as early as the first anniversary of the massacre the press felt able to report on a community whose wounds were healing rather rapidly. The Scotsman ran the headline Hungerford learns to smile again’, while the Daily Express confidently asserted that ‘Life starts again in the vale of tears’. This might well have been true for some. But for others it was not. Liz Brereton explains: ‘I’m still missing Roger very much. In fact I still love him very much indeed. Someone once told me that I didn’t - that I loved only his memory. That’s just not true - it’s Roger I still love. That doesn’t stop me having a go at him, mind you, from time to time. I still talk to his photograph - I keep a rather smiley one of him by the bed. One day I was having a rather hard time and I was sure that his grin was wider than it usually is. I suddenly found myself getting angry at the photograph, shouting out: "And what are you grinning at?" -whereupon I slammed it down. Then I thought, poor old thing, I’m still shouting at him even though he’s gone.’

Jenny Barnard, by contrast, had been able to speak about seeing light at the end of the tunnel when she had participated in the BBC’s Everyman programme, broadcast on the eve of the first anniversary of the massacre. That progress had continued apace, and within fifteen months of the death of her husband, Barney, she married Sam Sanchez, the man who had helped her so much during the earlier stages of her grief. Fists had flown shortly after their wedding ceremony when the bride, dressed in an off-the-shoulder pink dress, lashed out at a local freelance photographer, landing a punch on his cheek. Permanently hounded by the press, Jenny Sanchez longed for the right of privacy to become enshrined in English law.

The memory of Sue Godfrey, the first of the massacre victims, is perpetuated in a rather different way. For shortly after her death, staff at Reading’s Battle Hospital - where Sue had worked as a ward sister until the birth of James - raised well over £3000. This money was put into a special account known as the Susan Godfrey Memorial Fund, and it now provides for the distribution of annual bursaries to Berkshire student or trained nurses to undertake further education or research in a specific field of medicine. Brian Godfrey attended the first ceremony, held at Battle Hospital, in January 1989. It was there that Sister Anne MeDonald, one of three recipients of an award, recalled her former care sister’s sense of fun and infectious laughter which used regularly to fill the wards.

Several years later, the ramifications of Hungerford continue to manifest themselves, and in a number of different ways. Anne Eggleton, the senior nursing sister in charge of the Accident and Emergency department at the Princess Margaret Hospital in Swindon on the day of the massacre, and whose calm professionalism was praised by doctors and administrators alike, took her own life shortly after the turn of the new year in 1990. Her husband Stephen Eggleton, an ambulanceman who had himself braved Ryan’s bullets, found her body in the fume-filled garage of their Swindon home.

Christopher Larkin, a young policeman and one of the first officers on the scene, was honoured as a hero for his courage that August afternoon. He was to lose not his life but his liberty. For he was jailed in 1991 for six years after a trial at Reading Crown Court for having robbed a building society. He had left the police force shortly after the tragedy, turning first to alcohol and then to crime. His sentence was reduced on appeal by Mr Justice Leonard to four years, the Court of Appeal accepting that the police officer had been deeply affected by the massacre.

‘My lingering impression,’ remembers Ron Tarry, ‘even all these years on, is, did it really happen here? I myself launched the appeal. I was involved in the whole aftermath of the tragedy and still I ask, can it really have happened here in Hungerford? Did all those people lose their lives - and all for no reason? Even some of those who saw Ryan in the process of gunning people down, thought that it must be a film or something -because it all seemed to be unreal. My main reflection, though, is on the terrific response of everyone. I was so gratified and uplifted by the help that was forthcoming. Of course people knew that they couldn’t bring back people who had died - it was just an attempt to minimize the suffering. And that was very rewarding.’

The other. key player in the aftermath of the massacre was undoubtedly the Reverend Salt. Working closely with the Mayor, he had been a tower of strength, his deep faith shining through. Some social workers expressed amazement that the vicar was not offered counselling by the Church. The truth was that God had carried him through this difficult time. Nonetheless, a year after the massacre, after the vicar had addressed first Oxford’s Victim Support Group and then a group of clergy on the events of 19 August 1987, the traumas of the previous months suddenly appeared to catch up with him. For no apparent reason he suddenly developed shingles, although he had not the slightest doubt that the origins of his illness were entirely psychosomatic: ‘It was like unburdening myself, I suppose. That once that first year had passed, it was as if I had permission to relax. And that was precisely the moment when it all caught up with me and I was sick for some time. I am sure that it was in reality all about the tragedy.’

It did not take the Reverend Salt long to recover. But Liz Brereton still finds it difficult to relax. Like Jenny Sanchez and Brian Godfrey, she has gone on to form a new relationship. But, unlike Jenny and Brian, she continues to feel entirely shackled by the past: ‘I am seeing someone at the moment - but I do find it very difficult. Because I am still in love with my husband Roger. And therefore this is stopping me from loving that other person. I’ve tried to explain this, but he finds it very difficult to understand. I compare something awful - which I know I shouldn’t do. I also used to feel guilty, because obviously there has been a financial side to it all - a policeman killed on duty and so on - whereas there might be a widow down the road, suffering like me, but who lost her husband through him having, say, a heart attack. So then I’ve had guilt piled on top of the grief. Fortunately, though, I still do feel that Roger is in the house with me and the boys. He still talks to me. If I am having a bit of an off day, for example if it’s Roger’s birthday, I’ll hear him say: "Come on girl, pull yourself out of it - have a drink." And then sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, I think I can see something, and therefore that he is here. And then he says: "Get on with your life girl - I am here waiting for you."’

‘I can well appreciate if it’s not possible for people like Liz Brereton,’Ron Tarry concludes,’who are so closely involved in the tragedy, if they do not feel able to forgive Michael Ryan. But I can forgive him. We should always forgive. Not to forget, but to forgive, just as we should forgive other wrong-doings from the past. I know it is difficult, but I do think that it has to be done. I would be the first to admit, though, how hard this process can be when the killings were so random and senseless. All in all, looking back, I can’t say that I feel privileged to have been involved. But it was an incredible experience nonetheless. I wish it could have been for a positive or happy. reason, but that was not to be. I do feel very honoured indeed, despite that fact, to have played some small part.’

What of Ryan himself? After his suicide at the John O’Gaunt School, tests of all kinds were carried out on his corpse. It was part of a wide-ranging enquiry designed to provide the elusive explanation as to his motives. Perhaps, some people whispered, he had the AIDS virus or hepatitis, or signs of drug abuse or homosexual activity would be found. In fact the only change to his body other than the gunshot wound itself was some fatty change in his liver consistent with mild alcohol abuse. Dr Richard Shepherd, the Home Office pathologist who examined Ryan’s body, even went out of his way to see if he might be able to detect some signs, however slight, of disturbance in Ryan’s brain. But as with every test carried out, nothing abnormal was found. To everyone’s regret, the very best of modern medical science proved wholly unable to provide even the hint of an explanation as to why Ryan had run amok with his lethal armoury. But the completion of these tests had at least meant that arrangements for his funeral could be allowed to proceed.

As Ryan’s relatives made contact with a crematorium in Reading, feelings in Hungerford were running rather high as to who should attend his funeral, who should not and indeed where and when it should be held. Someone even wrote to the mayor asking him to ensure that Ryan be buried at sea and without a single witness, as if Ron Tarry had some say in the matter. In fact it was the Reverend Salt who was to be the main target for attack.

‘Some people had a go at me for assisting at Michael Ryan’s funeral,’ the vicar recalls. ‘But to be honest it simply did not cross my mind not to go. In the Church of England, you bury anyone who is within the confines of your parish. You look upon that person as a parishioner whether or not he actually came to your church. I knew very well how angry people were with Michael Ryan. Don’t think that I wasn’t angry too. I was. But he was a fellow human being made in the image of God. We are all vulnerable as human beings, and whatever our vicissitudes, not to give respect to our human frame - even in terms of burial - denies our humanity. So of course I was there at the end.’

That end was rather bleak and in stark contrast to the crowded funerals of Eyan’s victims. For in the middle of the morning of 3 September 1987, fifteen days after the massacre, a lone hearse bearing Ryan’s body pulled out of the mortuary of the Royal Berkshire Hospital. Slowly, in a thin drizzle of rain, it made its way through traffic to the West Chapel at Reading Crematorium. There, outside and braving the elements, a large press corps had assembled. There was the usual jockeying for position as photographers vied with one another for the best photographs of Ryan’s coffin. As the four pall-bearers prepared to carry their load, Fred Stannard, a distant relative, stepped forward to place a bouquet of pink and orange gladioli, carnations, tiger lilies and chrysanthemums on top of the coffin. It was one of just two floral tributes.

There were to be no hymns and few words of comfort. Only seven people were to attend the service, due to last a little more than a quarter of an hour. Then, suddenly, security was heightened. An illuminated sign came on, requesting ‘Silence Please, Service in Progress’. The funeral of Michael Ryan had begun. Canon John Reynolds conducted the service with the Reverend Salt, but it was the vicar of Hungerford who was to be the more eloquent that day.

‘The Prayer Book collect for this week says that we pray to a God who shows Almighty Power "most chiefly in showing mercy and pity". Thank God for that - for all of us need God’s mercy and forgiveness. We come now to commit the body and soul of Michael to God’s mercy. How sad it all is - we grieve for all those who have suffered and been bereaved in this tragedy. You will feel for them all, and especially the personal loss of Dorothy. Sadder still when we think of Michael - a lost soul who caused the loss of so many loved ones. But God is judge, and we must not take that power into our hands. Only love can overcome, and only love can bring true forgiveness and reconciliation, which we all need. For me, the true depth and concern we should have for one another, and which reflects the compassion of Christ, was written on a scrap of paper and found by the body of a dead child in Ravensbruck concentration camp, where over 92,000 women and children died:

"Oh Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not only remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us, remember the fruits we brought, thanks to this suffering, our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this, and when they come to judgement, let all the fruits that we have borne, be their forgiveness!’

‘Jesus will judge rightly, because He understands - He is the son of Man.’

The pine coffin containing the body of Michael Ryan then disappeared behind the crematorium’s curtains, its moulded plastic handles buckling first in the intense heat and flames. All of the expenses were borne by Ryan’s uncle, Stephen Fairbrass.

The following day the tabloid press reported Ryan’s funeral in predictable style. Little was heard of the vicar’s sermon, which he had written out verbatim, for, with the press hovering, he wanted to be sure of exactly what he said. For the Daily Mirror it was ‘Gone Forever - Beast Ryan’s last exit’, while the Daily Express insisted that there was ‘No Resting place for Rambo’. The Daily Star headlined just three words: ‘Fry in HeIr. The Guardian spoke not of evil beasts or maniac monsters, but of the meagre cremation service itself. It was, the paper said, ‘the hygienic modern counterpart of the burial of a Victorian murderer in a quick-lime grave’.

The greatest press interest, however, was reserved for what was dubbed the riddle of the red roses. In fact there were not just red roses, but ten white ones too, in addition to ten red carnations and a dozen white chrysanthemums, all gathered together with a large and attractive white bow. They had been handed to one of the pall-bearers, Raymond Coates, by an unidentified blonde woman in her twenties, shortly before the funeral had begun. Her only comment had been: ‘This is for Michael Ryan’, whereupon she had disappeared. It would later emerge that the woman had spent a little under fifteen pounds on the bouquet at a florist’s in Chippenham, although no name or message was attached to her bouquet. Since she ensured that she left no clues from which her particulars might later be ascertained, her motives in sending the flowers and indeed her identity remain a mystery.

Shortly after the Hungerford massacre Ryan’s burnt-out house was bulldozed. His extensive range of weaponry and arsenal was eventually destroyed by the police, and his prized Vauxhall Astra GTE met a similar fate. After the cremation, his ashes were taken away by relatives and scattered at a secret location. Few traces remain, therefore, to suggest that Britain’s worst mass killer had ever existed at all. Other than sixteen gravestones of his victims.

Ron Tarry was not at that funeral. There had never been any question of his attending. But it was not long before the press were knocking on his door asking for a couple of lines. He issued a short statement on behalf of the people of Hungerford ‘The feeling,’ he said, ‘is one of relief. That the man who has caused so much anguish can now be forgotten. We have our lives to get on with in this town. So it really is the end of a chapter.’

After the cremation, Ryan’s relatives emerged with their heads bowed. Hurrying past journalists and television crews, they too wanted to get on with their lives. But they were not to leave without any comment whatsoever. For the one wreath which did bear a message seemed to speak for them all: ‘Our Saviour will receive him fittingly.’

 

 

 
 
 
 
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