Hungerford: the day one man took everything

After Michael Ryan, Britain changed. Ten years on from the shootings, Ros Wynne-Jones reports
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The Independent Online
In the newsagents on the High Street in Hungerford on Thursday, a woman clutched at the counter to steady herself. Before her were morning papers with the headlines "Boy of five shot dead saving dad"and "Gunman executes boy of five in the street". It was 10 years ago this month that this sleepy Berkshire town, once known for its excellent trout fishing and numerous antique shops, became synonymous with a man called Michael Ryan, who shot dead 16 people on market day.

Tony Hill remembers only too well visiting his local paper shop in Silverstone, Northants, the following morning, when every national newspaper carried the picture of a woman in her twenties lying dead in the road. "I walked into the shop, bought a paper, and then, as I was leaving the shop I suddenly turned to the newsagent and said: 'That's my daughter'."

The day before, on 19 August 1987, Michael Ryan, a 27-year-old Hungerford man, drove to nearby Savernake Forest and shot dead Susan Godfrey, who was picnicking with her two young children, leaving them to wander the forest alone. Ryan stopped at a nearby petrol station where he shot at the cashier, then drove to his home on South View, a terrace house on a little lane which leads to farmland.

There, around midday, he shot dead his elderly mother and the family dog. After setting fire to the house, Ryan roamed the streets of Hungerford, armed with guns including a Kalashnikov AK-47 semi-automatic assault rifle and a 9mm Beretta pistol. The rollcall of the dead is long: Marcus Barnard, Roger Brereton, Francis Butler, Kenneth Clements, Myrtle Gibbs, Victor Gibbs, Susan Godfrey, Sandra Hill, Abdul Khan, Sheila Mason, Roland Mason, Ian Playle, Dorothy Ryan, Eric Vardy, Douglas Wainwright, George White.

At 2.30pm the gunman strolled into the empty John O'Gaunt Primary School on Priory Road. Police negotiators who spoke with him said he sounded "reasonable" and had made no demands. At 7.45pm the siege ended, as Ryan shot himself. Something also died in Britain that day, as gun culture and mass killings, previously thought of as a North American phenomenon, abruptly arrived this side of the Atlantic.

Linda Lepetit was 21 that summer, a young wife with three small children who lived in the terrace house next door to Michael Ryan. There is a low-rise block of flats there now, because her house burnt to the ground with Ryan's. "We'd see him over the garden fence and chat to him on the drive sometimes," she says. "He was a bit quiet and he never really went out or had any friends, but we had neighbours we thought were odder than him."

Ten years ago this week, there was a knock at the Lepetits' door and Ryan asked her husband, Alan, if he could help him downstairs with a heavy box. It was Ryan's ammunition and weapons case. "The following week he shot Alan," says Mrs Lepetit, and she almost laughs with disbelief. Mr Lepetit recovered from the two bullet wounds, but has never spoken of that day.

Events frequently recall 19 August 1987 for the people of Hungerford. Kay Wainwright's father, Douglas, was shot and killed by Ryan at the wheel of his car, as he and his wife, Kath, drove into Hungerford to visit their son. Kath was shot twice. "I'm sure the local police think I'm a lunatic," says Kay Wainwright. "Last time I was staying with mum there was a firework display and I crawled into her bedroom, made her get on the floor and rang the police. I thought it was happening again."

But no incident has brought the pain of Hungerford back as pointedly as Dunblane. "What upset me was that it was as if no one had learnt anything from Hungerford," says Tony Hill, who now runs the Gun Control Network with his wife, Judith. "OK, so the Government banned automatic weapons after 1987, but Ryan killed more people with a handgun than with his Kalashnikov."

Mr Hill believes that with the new government there is an inside chance of winning a total handgun ban. Last week, however, at the gun shop on Hungerford High Street, Roxtons Sporting Ltd, where the word "SHOOTING" is still emblazoned defiantly on the window, it was business as usual.

Hungerford was also a watershed for the issue of media intrusion. Kay Wainwright's brother, Trevor, will never forget seeing his photograph plastered across the front of the Today newspaper, under the headline "Local policeman signs father's own death warrant". PC Wainwright had signed Michael Ryan's gun renewal licence along with hundreds of others. "That just snapped me in two, to be quite honest," he says, "because it meant not only did I sign my father's own death warrant but that of all those other people that were killed."

The press are still mistrusted in Hungerford, although the making of a documentary to be screened on the anniversary by the BBC's Community Programme Unit, which specialises in working co-operatively with communities, has gone some way to addressing local conceptions of the media. That film is scattered with the identical phrase, "I feel guilty because...", as the families of the Hungerford dead recall the events of 10 years ago. Trevor Wainwright wishes that he had never signed the gun licence and wonders whether he should have taken a gun and shot Ryan. Linda Lepetit thinks maybe she should have spoken to Ryan more over the garden fence, "because if he hadn't been such a loner, who knows...?". The local mayor at the time, Ron Tarry, feels guilty that the Hungerford tragedy "gave me some of the most important moments of my life: going to Buckingham Palace, meeting the Queen and Margaret Thatcher..." But more than that, the feeling of guilt that still pervades Hungerford is because Michael Ryan was one of their own.

"I bet it wasn't someone from Bolton who killed that little boy," says the woman in Hungerford's paper shop, who won't give her name because "people will be angry" if she talks to the press. She shudders. "Michael Ryan was ours."

t Hungerford: 10 Years On will be screened on BBC2 on Tuesday, 19 August at 9.30pm.

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