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A desperate man who made one mistake too many

Jonathan Brown recounts the clues that led officers to their man

The focus of the police hunt for Raoul Moat remained resolutely centred for four days and three nights on the countryside around Rothbury.

Doubters may have insisted the fugitive gunman had fled the area – even that the tent and makeshift encampment found on secluded farmland near the picturesque market town was a decoy by a highly organised and rational fugitive. But detectives had grown increasingly confident that a steady stream of arrests since Tuesday had cut the former doorman adrift and left him vulnerable to eventual recapture.

The discovery of three mobile phones had also generated growing levels of optimism at Gold Command at Northumbria Police headquarters in Ponteland but, in the end, it was the force's ultimate nightmare – Moat armed with a gun walking into the town centre – that was to bring the vast and complex search to a sudden and dramatic denouement last night.

Reassurances that the police were "closing the net" had begun to sound increasingly hollow since they were first made by the man leading the hunt, Detective Chief Superintendent Neil Adamson. It was a phrase he no doubt came to regret in the following days as he was quizzed relentlessly live on television by a voracious media whose coverage of Moat's flight had reached saturation levels.

Mr Adamson's frustration with journalists' sniping at the seeming slow progress of his investigation was mirrored by his refusal, for fear of compromising the inquiry, to reveal many of the leads informing his efforts. It was a contradiction which became increasingly apparent and controversial after he was forced to extend the threat assessment to include the "wider general public" on Thursday after days of insisting that it was police themselves who were the main focus of Moat's rage.

Although police insisted throughout that it was only a matter of time before the fugitive was caught, it was apparent from the start that there had been missed opportunities – not least the revelation due to be investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission that prison officers had warned police prior to Moat's release from Durham Prison a few days before the triple Tyneside shootings that he posed a serious threat to his former girlfriend.

To Mr Adamson, however, what was clear was that communications by the former doorman, which included two long handwritten letters, revealed Moat's mental state was deteriorating. Throughout the seven-day manhunt, which began as a suspected domestic shooting at a house in Gateshead before spiralling into the search for Britain's most wanted man with a £10,000 reward on his head, the police's first priority was always to prevent any further loss of life. Every step of the investigation was informed by preventing bloodshed, taking Moat alive and bringing him to trial.

But because Moat had issued what he described as a "declaration of war" against Northumbria Police, the hunt could proceed only with maximum caution. By Friday it seemed that not only was Moat living close to Rothbury he may well have been able to enter the town at will despite the presence of hundreds of officers from 15 police forces, dog teams and even a Tornado jet. It was only three hours after Northumbria's Acting Chief Constable Sue Sim sought to reassure the people of the town that Moat could not penetrate the so-called ring of steel thrown up around them that two reliable witnesses spotted someone closely resembling the former nightclub bouncer doing just that.

At around 10.45pm on Thursday – just three hours after hundreds of locals filed out of a public meeting with police in the town centre – the tall figure of a well-built man wearing a hoodie and a baseball cap was seen wandering westwards down the high street. By the time police arrived he was gone, though helicopters with searchlights hovered overhead for much of the night.

Although villagers remained publicly supportive and grateful to the high-visibility policing operation, the fear that Moat could be moving at will through the Northumberland countryside had grown, especially when it emerged that a mother with young children had returned home on Tuesday to find her house on the outskirts of the town had been broken into. Food had been stolen, cupboards tampered with and a microwave disturbed – even the bed had been slept in. When the unnamed woman went next door to summon help, a light in the house went off. Once again the suspect was gone by the time police went inside.

The following day the father of the family returned to discover fresh evidence of a break-in and the imprint of a man's body shape in a bed and the mark where a head had been on a pillow. Moat was clearly close. What no one knew was just how near he really was.