The first of three high profile modern day killing sprees began on Wednesday 19th August 1987, when 27-year-old Michael Robert Ryan inexplicably armed himself with two semi automatic rifles and a handgun, left his mother’s home and set out on an hour long orgy of violence that left sixteen people dead and further fifteen wounded, before Ryan turned his gun on himself. To this day, no-one has provided a definitive answer as to why Michael Ryan woke up on that particular morning and began killing his friends and neighbours for no apparent reason, before taking his own life, without leaving any sort of explanation for the actions that would forever mark him as one of Britain’s most indiscriminate and infamous killers.
Born on the 18th May 1960 at Savernake Hospital in Wiltshire, Michael Ryan was the only child of Alfred and Dorothy Ryan of Hungerford in Berkshire, who were thought to have doted on their new baby, even though Alfred was in his mid fifties by the time he arrived. Whether or not the young Michael enjoyed a close relationship with his father is unclear, but he was thought to be an old fashioned kind of man, who believed in hard work and expected his son to follow in his footsteps, something that he failed to see during his lifetime. While his father was said to have set boundaries and guidelines for his son, Dorothy Ryan was said to have been completely different, excusing her son’s laziness and lack of effort; whilst at the same time rewarding him with the latest toys, gadgets and clothes, turning him from a normal baby boy into a highly demanding, sullen child, who almost always got his own way.
At school, he was said to have performed rather badly, becoming one of those small number of students who not only deliberately tried to avoid the attention of the teaching staff but also the company of his classmates, many of whom remembered him being an isolated and uncommunicative child, someone who was alone most of the time. Because of his own self imposed isolation, almost inevitably the young Michael was said to have become a target for the school bullies, who would tease him remorselessly about his lack of friends and his small size, essentially making his school years an unhappy time for the youngster, who was thought to have left school with no friends, no qualifications and very little idea of what he wanted to do with his life.
Even after leaving school, Ryan was thought to have made few friends on the various training courses and work programmes that he participated in, almost always leaving his fellow workers with the impression that he was somehow a distant, or extremely odd young man, who found it extremely difficult to be around other people. Many of his former workmates would later recall that, although Ryan was quite happy to engage in friendly banter with the group, if he himself was talked about, criticized or made fun of, he would often get extremely upset, as if the friendly “ribbing” somehow reminded him of the incessant bullying that he had suffered at school. Despite the fact that he was a generally healthy young man, there was never a single reported instance of Michael Ryan actually getting into a physical confrontation with anyone, almost as if he chose to bury the insult deep inside himself, where he could continue to brood over it, long after the event itself had passed.
It was perhaps as a way of reinforcing his own fragile personality and self worth that Ryan eventually began to develop his interest in guns, which for most young men begins with air rifles and pistols that can be used at home. Unfortunately, where most teenagers are generally content to shoot at static targets, or the odd wild bird, Michael Ryan was said to have become something of a local nuisance, shooting at birds, cats, dogs and even local children, who he enjoyed targeting, just to see them squeal with terror, as he shot at them from his bedroom window. It was the sort of highly irresponsible behaviour that in other circumstances might well have brought him into contact with the law, which may have informed their later decision to grant him a full firearms licence, although it seems that these earlier shooting incidents were not reported and therefore were unknown to the police when he applied to hold firearms in his home. Although most young men eventually grow out of their interest in air rifles and other weapons, Michael Ryan did not, but instead was thought to have become increasingly involved in owning swords and knives, as well as reading many of the military and survivalist magazines that were being published at the time. It was undoubtedly from reading such material and his instinctive need to create a much stronger persona for himself that led to him to begin wearing military style uniforms, to buy many of the items necessary for a survivalist lifestyle and created the need for him to own a collection of weapons that would not only make him more powerful, but would also allow his to deal with any situation that might face him in the future. According to one unconfirmed report, Ryan had once told a relative that his guns made people respect him, which if true, indicates that the real reason for his gun ownership was largely to enhance his own personal status, rather than for any much mundane reasons, such as sport or socialising.
Issued with his first Shotgun Licence in 1978, when he was eighteen years of age, for the next few years Ryan was reported to have amended his certificate several times over the next nine years, as he bought and sold several weapons, including pistols and semi automatic rifles to make up his personal collection. On the 30th July 1987, just twenty days before his armed rampage, Ryan’s final amendment to his firearms licence was approved, which permitted him to hold both a Zabala and Browning Shotgun, a Beretta 9 mm Pistol, a CZ Orso Pistol, a Chinese copy of a Kalashnikov AK-47 Semi automatic rifle and an Underwood M1 Carbine. For all intents and purposes, Ryan was reported to have been a fairly responsible gun-holder, adhering to all the rules and regulations required of him, including having a lockable steel gun cabinet installed in his home, ensuring that the weapons were kept safe at all times and that their ammunition was kept in a separate section, so that the guns were always unloaded until such times as they were used. For those that knew him, including the police officers who called at his home to authorise his suitability to hold such weapons, not a single person was thought to have had a single concern about the numbers or types of guns being held by Michael Ryan, nor did there seem to be any indication that he would use them for anything but sporting purposes.
As part of his legitimate ownership of the weapons, Ryan was reported to have joined a shooting club in Abingdon; and later the Wiltshire Shooting Centre in Devizes, where he was able to use his legally approved collection of pistols and semi-automatic rifles. However, had the authorities dug a little bit deeper into Michael Ryan’s past they might have discovered the fact that he was not as reliable as at first thought; and had made a habit of targeting his neighbour’s children with the air rifles that he had once owned, causing them to run for cover whenever he aimed the weapon at them from his bedroom window. Such investigations might also have disclosed that the young gun enthusiast was also in the habit of visiting Savernake Forest, where he would carry out survival exercises, hiding himself amongst the undergrowth and trees, whilst stalking people who were picnicking in the area, taking pleasure in the fact that he could creep up on them without their knowledge, before disappearing from the area and choosing a new target for his game.
Unfortunately, it was only following Ryan’s murderous rampage, police investigators also discovered that the young gunman’s life had increasingly become governed by a series of fantasies, which were invented by Ryan and then perpetuated by his mother, who related these tall tales to her friends and neighbours, no doubt in the hope that they would be equally impressed in her wayward son’s achievements. According to a later police enquiry, one of these fantasies involved Michael being befriended by a retired army Colonel, who not only allowed Ryan to stay at his impressive home, but was also arranging flying lessons for Michael and intended to buy him a Ferrari sports car. Other fantasies included having been a member of the Parachute Regiment, owning an Antiques dealership, plans to marry an Irish girl, who nobody knew, or had seen and who was undoubtedly a figment of his overactive imagination. Sadly for Michael Ryan the truth was a little more mundane, in that the regularly out of work gunman almost completely relied on unemployment benefits and his mother to fund the purchase of his new cars, guns and ammunition, an act of motherly love that often left Dorothy Ryan regularly overdrawn on her own bank account.
It was possibly his fantasies that ultimately set him on the road to killing and wounding so many people on that late summer day in 1987, an event likely initiated by his own personal frustrations and no doubt fed by the misconceived grievances that he had accumulated over many years. The timetable of events that occurred on 19th August 1987 may in themselves offer an explanation into Ryan’s thinking on that terrible day, particularly when one considers the circumstances surrounding the killing of his first victim, 33-year-old mother of two, Mrs Susan Godfrey, who the gunman was said to have encountered in Savernake Forest, where she had taken her children for a family picnic; and who perhaps presented a relatively easy target for the 27-year-old loner, Michael Ryan. According to the best possible information, provided by Susan Godfrey’s surviving children, who were then aged just four and two and a half years old, the family had just finished their picnic when they were approached by a man dressed in black, who ordered their mother to place the children in back of their black Nissan Micra, before leading her away into the forest. As they sat in the car waiting for their mother to return, the eldest child, Hannah, managed to get out of the vehicle and taking her younger brother James with her, set off in search of their mother. Later reports suggest that the two children must have actually found Mrs Godfrey’s body some yards away, as they told the next person they encountered, pensioner Myra Rose; that a “man in black had shot their mummy”. When police officers later attended the scene, they found Susan Godfrey’s body lying approximately ten yards away from a blue groundsheet that had been spread on the forest floor, the same sheet that she and her children had used for their picnic some hours before. Officers speculated that Ryan had taken the sheet out of Susan Godfrey’s car with the intention of using it while he raped the mother of two and perhaps realising the fate that awaited her, had tried to run away from the gunman, who then shot her in the back thirteen times using his Beretta pistol. Although Mrs Godfrey had not been sexually assaulted and therefore the presence and possible use of the groundsheet was later regarded as being highly speculative, it may well be the case that Michael Ryan had indeed intended to rape Mrs Godfrey and that all of the subsequent killings resulted from his failure to successfully carry out the impromptu sex crime.
Having murdered Susan Godfrey, Ryan was then reported to have returned to his car and made his way back towards his home in Hungerford, along the A4, stopping at the Golden Arrow Service Station, where he was observed by the cashier, 29-year-old Mrs Kakoub Dean, filling up his car and petrol can with fuel, before firing one of his semi-automatic rifles in the direction of the woman, who was forced to take cover in the shop. Advancing towards the garage, Ryan was reported to have made another unsuccessful attempt to shoot Mrs Dean, but ran out of ammunition, before returning to his car and completing the final part of his journey to his hometown. Ensuring the gunman had left the scene, the shocked woman was said to have telephoned the police, who were said to have already received reports of the shooting from another motorist who had witnessed the attack from a distance.
Having reached his mother’s house at Southview in Hungerford at around 12.45 pm, Ryan was thought to have gone inside and collected together a survival kit, before using the petrol taken from the garage to set the house on fire. Walking to his Vauxhall Astra, he was then said to have thrown his survival kit into the back of the car, got into the driving seat, only to find that the vehicle would not start, something that was said to have clearly enraged him. Taking his three firearms out of the car, there were reports that he then shot several rounds into the boot of the vehicle, before turning his guns on a number of his neighbours whose attention had been drawn to the commotion that was taking place in the street. Ryan would later indicate that he had originally intended to make his getaway in his car, presumably to hide out from the authorities, who he knew would be pursuing him for the murder of Mrs Godfrey in the Savernake Forest and the attempted murder of Mrs Dean at the petrol station. However, the failure of his car to start meant that he now had no means of escape and it was this particular situation that caused him to start shooting out of sheer frustration. Ironically perhaps, some commentators have suggested that it was Ryan’s own poor ownership of the car, which ultimately caused it to fail him at the vital moment, as he had not only failed to maintain it properly, but had essentially driven it into the ground.
The first neighbours to be shot by Michael Ryan were reported to be Mr Roland Mason and his wife Sheila who were reported to be in the garden of their house at no 6 Southview, Hungerford, when the young gunman used his Kalashnikov assault rifle to shoot the husband six times, killing him instantly, whilst his Beretta pistol shot the wife in the head, inflicting a fatal wound. With his second and third victims now dead and dying, Ryan was then said to have ran eastward towards a footpath, leading to a nearby Hungerford Common, noticing along the way Mrs Marjorie Jackson and Lisa Mildenhall, both of whom he shot and injured before moving further along the footpath. Mrs Jackson had witnessed her young neighbour returning home and had noticed that he appeared agitated and angry, as he slammed his front door closed. She had also seen Michael Ryan shoot at his car, as well as a neighbour’s dog, before realising with horror that he was preparing to fire in her direction, forcing her to dive for cover in her own home. Unfortunately, despite getting out of Ryan’s line of sight, at least one of the numerous rounds fired at her home was said to have struck her, although it did not prevent her from dragging her neighbour, 77-year-old Mrs Dorothy Smith, from the front of the house, where she was busily haranguing Michael Ryan for making too much noise, unaware that he was trying to shoot everyone in sight. Having rescued the bemused Dorothy Smith, Marjorie Jackson then rang her husband, Ivor, to tell him what was going on in Southview, a telephone call that would subsequently put her husband’s life in grave danger, as he rushed back to their Hungerford home to make sure his wife was safe and well.
Fourteen-year-old Lisa Mildenhall had been in the back garden of her home in Southview when she heard the shooting start and out of curiosity had ventured out to the front of the house to see what the commotion was, inadvertently becoming yet another target for her neighbour Michael Ryan, who was said to have smiled at her as he took aim. Struck four times in the legs and stomach, initially the teenager was unsure that she had been shot and it was only when she noticed blood on her legs that she turned to rush inside the house, telling her mother that been hit, before collapsing on the floor. Fortunately for Lisa, although her wounds were serious, they were not life threatening and the subsequent arrival of two other neighbours, one of whom was a St John’s Ambulance worker, who managed to stem the bleeding from her injuries undoubtedly helped to save her life.
Elsewhere in Southview however, other local people had not been so fortunate. As Michael Ryan disappeared into the pathway linking Southview to Hungerford Common the young gunman had then encountered Mr Kenneth Clements who had been out walking his dog and had heard warnings of someone shooting in the area. Reportedly a former soldier, Mr Clements was thought to have been sceptical about the reports and had decided to walk down the nonetheless, followed a few yards behind by his son, Robert, who was concerned about his father. As he made his way towards Southview, Ken Clements suddenly found himself confronted by Michael Ryan, who pointed the Kalashnikov at the surprised dog walker and opened fire, fatally wounding him. Ken Clements’ son, Robert, watched in horror as his father slumped to the floor, but still had the presence of mind to recognise that he was now in danger of being shot; and managed to climb over a high fence and shout a warning to his other relatives, who all managed to escape the scene without being injured. Leaving his stricken victim on the pathway, still clutching his dog lead, Ryan then turned around and made his way back into Southview, seemingly intent on finding even more people to kill and maim.
The gunman’s next victim was Newbury based traffic policeman, Constable Roger Brereton, who had been despatched to the area in answer to reports of a disturbance in the Southview area. Although normally part of a two man crew, on that particular day Brereton was said to have been operating alone, when he and other local police units began to receive reports of an incident in Hungerford. Unsure of whether this was related to the earlier events in and around the Savernake Forest, Brereton and his colleagues in the other traffic units were reported to have formulated a plan to isolate the Southview area, by placing themselves at either end of the main thoroughfare, Brereton at the west end of the road and his colleagues at the Hungerford Common end. Unfortunately, without realising it Brereton was driving straight into a meeting with the heavily armed Michael Ryan, who saw the car enter Southview and immediately opened fire on it, raking the traffic unit with an estimated twenty odd rounds, one of which struck PC Brereton in the neck, fatally wounding him. Even though in normal circumstances police vehicle might have afforded its occupants some degree of protection, it later transpired that Ryan was using military issue ammunition that was essentially armour piercing, which cut through the bodywork of the traffic vehicle, like a knife through butter; and offering the policeman little if any protection. As Brereton’s car crashed into a telephone pole, despite the four bullet wounds had received, the courageous officer was said to have remained conscious just long enough to make one final radio message to his colleagues, informing them that he had been shot.
Having shot PC Brereton, Ryan then turned his weapons on Mrs Linda Chapman and her daughter Alison who had just driven into the street to check on the welfare of some horses that they had left grazing in the area, wounding both women. Despite injuries to her shoulder however, Linda Chapman was still able to turn around her Volvo and escape the scene, steering her car towards a local doctor’s surgery, where she eventually crashed the vehicle into a nearby tree. It was subsequently discovered that Linda had been shot in the shoulder, whilst Alison had been hit in the thigh, a bullet lodging in her back where it had to remain such was its proximity to her spinal column.
Meanwhile back in Southview, as he continued walking along the street, Ryan was said to have shot and killed 84-year-old Mr Abdur Khan, a retired restaurateur, who was working in the rear garden of his home at No. 24 Southview, when he was spotted and fatally wounded by the gunman. He then targeted Mr Alan Lepetit, who despite being warned about the presence of a gunman in the area, was said to be concerned about the fate of relatives in the street, had still decided to walk down the street nonetheless. Hit twice in the arm and once in the back, as he retreated down the street, Lepetit was thought to have been well known to Michael Ryan, as he was the person who had gone out of his way to help the young gunman install his gun cabinet in his house, as part of the regulations relating to Ryan’s growing weapons collection. Clearly, on that particular day Michael Ryan was not playing favourites, although fortunately for him Alan Lepetit did manage to escape with his life, albeit with bullet wounds that would last forever.
As the attacks continued, alerted by the growing numbers of 999 emergency calls, regarding the dead and wounded people in Southview, an ambulance, which had been sent to the scene then became a target for Ryan, the gunman reportedly firing several rounds at the vehicle, one of which shattered the windscreen, as a result of which the medical technician, Linda Bright was slightly injured by flying glass and the driver, Hazel Haslett was forced to retreat from the scene at speed. Fortunately for the two medical workers, Haslett had reversed into Southview, rather than driving in forwards, a decision that would undoubtedly help to save their lives, given that they were out of the gunman’s line of sight and able to drive away quickly. However, rather than just escape the scene entirely, the two ambulance attendants were reported to have driven to a nearby old people’s home, where they were able to inform their headquarters about the dangerous situation, as well as warn other emergency workers who were still racing to Southview to render aid to the victims, who were still lying dead and wounded in the street. Even after other ambulance crews had arrived on the scene, the clearly shocked and somewhat bloody Linda Bright and Hazel Haslett were said to have remained in the area, offering what help and comfort they could, until eventually they were ordered stand down and have their own wounds treated.
As the ambulance had exited Southview, a Toyota car, driven by George White, a Quantity Surveyor drove in carrying Ivor Jackson, the husband of Mrs Marjorie Jackson, who had previously telephoned her husband to tell him what was going on. Stepping out into the road, Ryan unleashed a volley of shots into the car, killing George White and causing his vehicle to crash into the back of PC Brereton’s traffic car, whilst at the same time seriously wounding Ivor Jackson, who subsequently pretended to be dead, in the hope of surviving any further attention by the gunman. Although unaware of it at the time, Ivor Jackson had been hit four times, three times in the chest and once in the head and despite having been hit by a volley of gunfire still recalled the pitiful sight of PC Brereton sitting slumped in the driver’s seat of his police car. It was also around this point in time that Dorothy Ryan drove back into the street, having been shopping and unexpectedly forced to park her car immediately behind George White’s crashed Toyota; and then got out of her vehicle to see what was going on. Perhaps unable to comprehend the sight that greeted her, bloody bullet riddled cars with their dead and dying occupants still inside, her home and adjoining houses burning out of control, she was said to have walked to the passenger side of George White’s car and gazed in at the seriously injured Ivor Jackson, hardly able to believe the carnage that was all around her. As she made to walk further up the street, neighbours tried frantically to stop her, but she was thought to have simply shrugged them off, seemingly determined to find out for herself who was responsible for the outrage; and whether or not it was her one and only son who had committed these heinous crimes. As she approached Michael, witnesses would later recall how she had approached him with a rather scolding manner, but as he turned and levelled his gun at her, she suddenly realised that there was absolutely no possibility of reasoning with him and began to plead for her own life. Apparently indifferent to the cries of his mother, Ryan was said to have shot her twice with the Kalashnikov, once in the stomach and once in the leg, then stepped forward to shoot her twice more in the back as she lay helpless on the ground.
Having now killed seven people and wounded seven more in Southview alone, Ryan was then reported to have travelled eastward, along a footpath to the local sports field, where he was said to have encountered 70-year-old Betty Tolladay, who happened to be in the back garden of her home at Clark Gardens. Unlike Dorothy Smith who had earlier shouted at Ryan for making so much noise, only to be largely ignored by the gunman, when Mrs Tolladay called across to complain about the commotion, Ryan simply raised his weapon and shot her, the bullet entering her groin and smashing the top of her hip. As she collapsed on the ground, Mrs Tolladay quickly began to push herself back towards her back door, finally managing to reach the telephone and calling the emergency services. Reassured by the operator that help was on the way, such was the scale of the crisis caused by Michael Ryan’s armed rampage that it was only some five hours later that medical staff were finally able to reach her, although she did manage to survive her encounter, despite being confined to a wheelchair in the aftermath of the attack.
Having rushed across Hungerford Common, Ryan then arrived at the nearby Memorial Gardens, where he came across Mr Francis Butler, a 26-year-old accounts clerk who just happened to be out walking his dog when Ryan shot him three times with the Kalashnikov. As the gunman left the scene, leaving behind his Underwood M1 Carbine, which was thought to have run out of ammunition, a manager at the local old people’s home, Leslie Bean was said to have rushed out to help Mr Butler. The badly injured man was reported to be losing a great deal of blood from an exit wound in his back, which Leslie Bean tried desperately to stem with whatever he had at hand. Unfortunately, as he tried to render first aid, a local shouted to him that Ryan was coming back, causing Leslie Bean to abandon his lifesaving efforts, rather than risk becoming a casualty himself. By the time that Michael Ryan had finally left the area, having shot and killed other people, it was too late for Francis Butler who had sadly bled to death in Memorial Gardens and it was only some hours later that the emergency services were safely able to recover his body.
As he left the Memorial Gardens, leaving Mr Butler behind him, Ryan then came across taxi driver, Marcus Barnard, who happened to be approaching Bulpit Lane in Hungerford, when he was thought to have noticed the gunman and automatically slowed down, possibly to take a closer look at the apparently armed man who was brazenly walking around the streets of his hometown. Although clearly not expecting to encounter a gun wielding mad man in his community, Barnard’s seemingly inexplicable decision to slow his vehicle was thought to have cost him his life as Michael Ryan fired a single shot from his Kalashnikov, which shattered the Peugeot’s windscreen and struck the taxi driver in the head, causing catastrophic damage that no-one could have survived. It was at this point that Ryan was said to have exhibited his only signs of remorse, as he looked at the body of Marcus Barnard, sitting lifelessly in his car, the gunman was said to have thrown his rifle to the ground and shook his head in disbelief, as if unable to deal with the result of his own deliberate actions. However, within a minute or so, Ryan had recovered his weapon and was once again moving off to find some more unwitting victims, as he began to move back in the direction of his home in Southview.
Walking further along the lane, which could lead him into the centre of Hungerford, Ryan then shot and injured Mrs Ann Honeybone, who just happened to be passing the area in her car and was fortunate enough not to suffer any serious long term injury. However, as he travelled back towards Southview via an alternative route, Ryan then came across a visiting washing machine engineer John Storms, who just happened to be sitting in his stationary Renault car at the junction of Hillside Road, trying to get directions, when the gunman shot and injured him. Hit in the jaw by the bullet, as Storms fell across the passenger seat of the van, he was horrified to see that the gunman was preparing to fire again and then felt his vehicle shake as two further rounds hit the front of the van. Luckily for the seriously wounded engineer, a local builder, Bob Barclay, was said to have witnessed the attack and ignoring his own safety was thought to have rushed out, pulled the injured man out of his cab and then led him to the safety of a nearby garden, where they remained out of sight of the gunman, who eventually walked away from the scene. Helping to stem Storms’ wounds, Mr Barclay then contacted the police to inform them of the incident, becoming one of hundreds of people whose telephone calls were said to have swamped the local exchange with sightings of the gunman, reports that were later blamed for the failure of the police to find and engage Michael Ryan during that August afternoon.
Around the same time that Ryan was shooting John Storms, another vehicle being driven by Douglas Wainwright, who was accompanied by his wife Kathleen, happened to pass close to where Ryan was walking, who promptly shot at the vehicle, shattering the front windscreen and causing Mr Wainwright to brake instinctively. Stepping closer to the car, Ryan was then said to have fired a further half a dozen rounds into the vehicle, killing Mr Wainwright and seriously wounding his wife. As the gunman reloaded his weapon, Kathleen Wainwright looked at the lifeless body of her husband, quickly undid her seatbelt and opened the passenger door; and ignoring her own injuries, caused by bullets to her hand and chest, ran as fast as she could before the gunman started to fire again. As it later transpired, the lives of the couple, whose son Trevor was an officer at Hungerford Police Station had been inexorably altered by what turned out to be the bitterest twist of fate, as it later emerged that Trevor Wainwright was one of the local officers who had initially approved Michael Ryan’s suitability to hold the weapons that would eventually be used to kill and injure his parents.
Having shot John Storms, Douglas Wainwright and his wife Kathleen, Ryan was then thought to have walked towards an area known as Tarrants Hill, where he shot and injured another motorist, Kevin Rance, who was unlucky enough to be driving his Transit Van in the area at the time. The gunman’s next victim was Eric Vardy, a carpenter who was driving a Leyland Minibus close to Priory Avenue, carrying a passenger, Steven Ball, who was fortunate enough to survive Ryan’s armed assault on the two men, although Vardy did not. In the aftermath of the massacre, it was revealed that Eric Vardy had formerly been employed as a manager in a coach building company, but had resigned that post in order to spend more time with his wife, Marlyne, who was suffering from cancer. On that August afternoon, Vardy had been driving through Hungerford with Mr Bell when they both noticed a large number of policemen in the town, although they each simply assumed that there had been a fight in a local pub and thought little more about it. It was only as they passed along the town’s high street, to its junction with Priory Avenue that they were spotted by Michael Ryan who immediately fired at the minibus, hitting Eric Vardy twice, once in the side and once under the chin. Steve Bell later recalled Mr Vardy’s body jerking violently and his losing control of the vehicle, which then swerved across the road and crashed into a telephone pole. Although he did not die instantly, the subsequent loss of blood from his two injuries would lead to Eric Vardy becoming the 12th fatality of Michael Ryan’s murderous rampage that day, but certainly not his last.
Moving into Priory Road, Ryan then shot and killed 22-year-old Sandra Hill, who just happened to be driving her red Renault 5 in the area as she made her way to visit some old school friends in the town. It was said to have been a single shot from Michael Ryan that fatally wounded the young woman, despite the best efforts of Lance Corporal Carl Harries, an off-duty soldier who had witnessed the attack and tried to offer her some medical assistance. Even though Ms Hill was later taken to a local doctor’s surgery for treatment, such were the extent of her injuries that she was said to have been declared dead on arrival.
In what became one of his most shocking murders, having shot Sandra Hill, Ryan was then reported to have deliberately broken into the home of Victor and Myrtle Gibbs, where he shot and killed the husband and seriously wounded his disabled wife, who subsequently died from her injuries in hospital. A devoted couple who were said to have been together since they were youngsters, Victor Gibbs was thought to have been a highly cautious man, who had gone to great lengths to make sure that his home was secure, adding extra locks to the front door, which were intended to keep him and his wife safe. However, for some inexplicable reason, Ryan was reported to have used his Kalashnikov to shoot away the locks and then entered the property, where he found Victor and Myrtle Gibbs sheltering in their kitchen. Perhaps anticipating the gunman’s intentions, Victor was thought to have placed himself in front of his wheelchair bound wife, just as Ryan opened fire with his Beretta pistol, hitting the valiant husband several times in the chest and killing him almost instantly. Although Myrtle Gibbs initially survived being shot by Ryan, her previously weakened condition, the loss of her lifelong partner and the wounds she received that day, were all thought to have contributed to her subsequent death in the Princess Margaret Hospital, where she had been put on a ventilator some time after the attack.
Further victims in the area were reported to be Michael Jennings and Myra Geater, both separate residents of Priory Road, who the gunman was thought to have targeted through the windows of their houses using his Beretta pistol. However, around the same time that Ryan was firing at the Jennings and Geater properties, a Ford Sierra driven by 34-year-old Ian Playle, Clerk to the Justices of Newbury, who was accompanied by his wife, Elizabeth; and their two young children, Richard and Sarah, came around a right hand bend in Priory Rod, causing the gunman to fire at their vehicle. Several rounds struck the car, one of which was said to have struck Ian Playle in the neck, fatally wounding the father of two and causing the vehicle to crash into another parked car. As Elizabeth Playle pleaded with her husband to stay awake and their two children cried hysterically, Carl Harries, the off duty soldier suddenly appeared on the scene to offer what aid he could. Having tried to render first aid to Sandra Hill, Harries had then made his way into the Gibbs’ house, where he found Victor dead and Myrtle seriously injured, but alive nonetheless. Having made sure that she was safe, he had then heard more gunshots and the sound of the Playle’s car crashing into the other car further down the street. Making sure that the gunman was no longer around, Harries had then run down Priory Road to reach the family’s car, where he found Ian Playle who had obviously received a very serious neck injury. The lack of bleeding from the wound indicated to Harries that the victims heart had stopped, so he very quickly performed rudimentary CPR and managed to get Playle’s hear beating again, although sadly the young family man would subsequently die in hospital, such were the extent of his injuries. Even though it would have been little consolation to the families of those people who had already died at Michael Ryan’s hands, as it turned out, Ian Playle would prove to be the last fatality of the young gunman’s bloody rampage on that August afternoon, although the killer had still not reached his final destination, or indeed finished shooting at entirely innocent people.
It is also worth noting at this point that Mr Playle and his family had only driven into Priory Road because a more direct route had been blocked by the police, who believed that the gunman was still in Southview area and were completely unaware that he had moved on to another part of the town. Unfortunately, because of the lack of up-to-date information on the killer’s exact whereabouts, the Playle family had been allowed to find an alternative route into the area, not knowing that their more circuitous route would accidentally lead them into a fateful meeting with the still heavily armed Michael Ryan. The fact that the family had not been given sufficient information about the ongoing emergency, so that they could then make an informed choice about avoiding the area entirely, which would have almost certainly saved Ian Playle’s life, later formed the basis of an official complaint laid against the police in the aftermath of the massacre.
Walking away from the scene of his last fatal shooting, Ryan was then thought to have made his way towards the John of Gaunt School, the site of some of his worst childhood memories, which stood nearby, although not before he shot and injured his final victim, George Noon, who happened to be in the rear porch of his house in Priory Road when the killer passed by. Wounded in the shoulder and the eye, by the time the 67-year-old pensioner became Michael Ryan’s final victim, the first armed police units were slowly beginning to converge on the area of the John of Gaunt school, although they still did not know for sure that the young gunman was there. It was perhaps as a result of such uncertainty and a lack of knowledge about Michael Ryan himself that when George Noon’s son and daughter rushed to his aid, they found themselves held at gunpoint by the armed police units, despite their obvious protestations of innocence, which were eventually listened to and accepted by the officers.
Last reported at around 1.45 pm on the 19th August 1987, for the next few hours Ryan’s movements were thought to be unknown to the authorities, although by around 5.30 pm police believed that they had the gunmen cornered in the nearby school building; where they immediately began to impose an increasingly tight security cordon around the site. However, once it had been confirmed that Ryan was indeed contained in the school, police and other emergency services were then able to move into the various areas of Hungerford where the numerous casualties were, as well as to deal with the house fires that were still burning in Southview. Along with the police, ambulance and fire crews that now flooded into the area, police forensic teams also began to collect and secure any evidence that might be relevant to any subsequent enquiry, including the Underwood Carbine that Ryan had previously disposed of in the Memorial Garden area.
Back at the John of Gaunt school building, shortly after the first units arrived to contain the area, they were said to have heard the sound of gunfire coming from the school, which was later thought to be the young gunman taking pot-shots at the circling police helicopter that was monitoring the area. Ryan was then reported to have thrown his Kalashnikov rifle out of a third floor window, presumably because it was empty and therefore of no further use to him. With large numbers of armed police officers now in attendance, a Sergeant Paul Brightwell from the police’s local support group began to try and engage the gunman in conversation, in the hope that they might persuade him to surrender peacefully and bring the day’s events to a close. Greeting the police with “Hungerford must be a bit of a mess” Ryan stated that he still had a fragmentation grenade and a handgun in his possession, Ryan was said to have been calm and lucid in his conversations with Brightwell, although his claim to have a fragmentation grenade at his disposal, was largely regarded as a bluff on the young gunman’s part, possibly in order to deter the police from launching any sort of armed assault against him. As it turned out however, police negotiators had already been instructed to simply contain Ryan, rather than storm the building; and those trained police marksmen who were surrounding the school were ordered not to open fire, unless Ryan was seen to present a danger to themselves or their colleagues, which at that time he did not. At least one police marksman was said to have had a clear shot at Ryan, but as the young gunman seemed to present no clear or immediate danger to himself or other officers, he had regarded taking the shot as being little more than authorised murder, so made the decision not to fire at the suspect.
It was subsequently claimed that Ryan had expressed some remorse over the killing of his mother and his pet dog, “Blackie”, those that were closest to him; and at one point even tried to blame the killings in Southview on PC Brereton’s arrival on the scene, even though he had already killed three people in the neighbourhood before the traffic policeman actually turned up, making this highly unlikely. Throughout the ninety minute conversation, the trapped gunman consistently asked about the condition of his mother, even though he must have known that she was dead, but then claiming that he had shot her by accident, which was equally hard to believe, given that he had shot her four times in total. He was also keen that the police should recover the body of his pet Labrador and that the dog should be disposed of humanely, whilst also reminding Brightwell that they should recover his M1 Carbine that had previously been left in Memorial Gardens, just in case any child should find it and hurt themselves. Referring to the sixteen people he had killed that day, Ryan was reported to have told the negotiator “It’s funny. I’ve killed all those people, but I haven’t got the guts to blow my own brains out”.
At a few minutes before 7 o’clock in the evening, the police officers outside the school heard a single muffled shot come from inside the school building and subsequent calls to contact Ryan met with no response. Unsure of whether the gunman was still alive or not, police commanders quickly formulated a plan for entering the building in the quickest and safest way possible. Consequently, an hour after the single shot had been heard, a police dog was sent into the building and armed officers began to undertake a full sweep of the school classrooms, eventually finding the lifeless body of Michael Ryan in a third floor schoolroom, where he had evidently shot himself in the head with the final round from his Beretta. By the time the young gunman had plucked up enough courage to end his own life, he had already catastrophically wrecked the lives of sixteen other innocent people, whose families would not only struggle to come to terms with his actions on that day, but who would all ask themselves the same simple question, why?.
With the gunman and his mother dead; and with no obvious clues emerging from his burnt out home, these surviving families, including Michael Ryan’s own relatives, struggled to understand what had driven him to carry out such heinous crimes on that particular August day. Mental health experts had a plethora of possible explanations, as to why Ryan had suddenly snapped, whilst the sensationalist British press had their own more basic explanation, illustrated by the lurid headlines that inextricably linked the Hungerford gunman with the fictional character John Rambo, created by the Hollywood actor Sylvester Stallone in the move “First Blood”, which told the story of a misunderstood Vietnam veteran who is victimised by a small town sheriff and then takes his revenge on the town as a result. However, for those who have seen the film and actually understand it, any similarities between the two scenarios, the real and the imaginary are marginal at best, given that the Rambo character was almost entirely reactive, unlike Michael Ryan, who was entirely proactive in his actions. Whilst the newspapers claimed that the imaginary Rambo character had killed a number of the police deputies that were pursuing him in the film, in fact only one policeman was killed and then purely as the result of an accident, rather than any sort of intent by the lead character. For his part, Michael Ryan killed indiscriminately, young and old, men and women, healthy and unhealthy, in fact anyone that he happened to encounter during his armed rampage. Clearly an absurd comparison to draw in the first place, the fact that many British newspapers carried headlines linking the two characters simply served to prove the age old maxim regarding the British press, of never letting the truth get in the way of a good story.
Although there was no record of Michael Ryan having any psychological problems, in the wake of the massacre at least two distinguished mental health experts were reported to have expressed their view that the young gunman was likely to have been an undiagnosed schizophrenic, despite never having met or talked to him. In fact the only medical person Ryan was thought to have encountered during his life was his family’s GP, who later reported that he had never got the impression that there was any underlying illness, which might have explained his patient’s action, as if he had, then he would have been duty bound to inform the firearm licensing authority. There are several possible explanations for Michael Ryan’s sudden and unforeseen violent outburst on that August day, but without the gunman’s personal insight into what exactly what happened and why, then most of them can only ever be regarded as speculative at best. Clearly there was very little planning before his killing spree and even his decision to run away and hide after killing Susan Godfrey and attempting to murder Kakoub Dean, seems to have been made on the spur of the moment, whilst all of the subsequent deaths seem to have resulted after his car refused to start, essentially leaving him with nowhere else to go. Trauma and stress are possible causes of a condition that is commonly known as a Brief Psychotic Disorder, or a Psychotic Break, which can lead to people with no previous history of mental illness, to suddenly behave in the most irrational way. According to the post mortem conducted on Michael Ryan after his body was taken to the local morgue, there were no obvious physical reasons for his sudden and violent outburst, such as drugs or illness, suggesting that his drive to kill and wound so many people, including his mother, was almost certainly caused by some sort of temporary mental aberration, although the exact trigger for it, remains unknown to this day.
Ironically, even though the Hungerford Massacre was such an unusually shocking event in its own right; and that politicians of all persuasions were determined that such an outrage should never again be repeated, in reality it simply proved that a society can never completely guard itself against a sufficiently determined or crazed individual, who decides to kill large numbers of people and has access to the weaponry necessary to do the job. In the aftermath of Hungerford, the British Parliament passed the Firearms Amendment Act of 1988, which forbade the private ownership of semi automatic weapons of the kind used by Michael Ryan, as well limiting the ownership of shotguns capable of holding more than two rounds. However, since the Hungerford Massacre in August 1987, Britain has subsequently witnessed two more such atrocities, one at Dunblane in 1996 and a second in Cumbria in 2010, both of which are dealt with in the following few pages.