Dale Cregan: Brutal policewomen murders stunned the nation

Cocaine and alcohol fuelled anxieties about David Short - a feared and powerful figure in the Manchester underworld who Cregan claimed had threatened to rape his son and his sister

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The Independent Online

Video: Families of murdered police officers make statement

Dale Cregan was a local drug dealer with a hard-man reputation and fearsome appearance. Although he was regarded by friends as a “lunatic” and well known to police, few suspected he was capable of extreme violence on the scale that was to unfold last summer.

During a four-month rampage his murderous activities left four people dead and three injured in an orgy of killing, shootings and explosions that was to rock his home city of Manchester and spark one of the biggest man hunts ever mounted by a UK police force.

Among the victims were two unarmed female police officers – promising young constables PCs Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes - who lost their lives in the most brutal manner imaginable. Selected at random they were murdered in a gun and grenade attack carried out in broad daylight on a quiet cul-de-sac. Its ferocity and callousness stunned the nation.

His two other victims were father and son David and Mark Short. Mark Short, a 23-year-old father of one, was gunned down in flurry of bullets as he played in the Cotton Tree public house in Droylsden, Greater Manchester. His father, a feared and powerful figure in the Manchester underworld who had cradled his dying son, was later to fall victim to the same gunman, becoming the first person in Britain to be murdered by a grenade.

Cregan, who sported an onyx false eye – the result of bar room brawl with the Thai police involving a knuckle duster - had a string of convictions the most serious of which was for a road rage attack five years earlier. The former roofer, his partner and child, lived a relatively cash-rich lifestyle, funded by dealing up to £20,000’s worth of cocaine each week.

He enjoyed exotic holidays, drinking or fishing with his wide circle of friends and admirers in the pubs and bars of his native east Manchester. It was closely trusted associates among this group, whose fierce loyalties were forged growing up together, through family, school, football and later in the pubs and gyms, that was to provide the support with which he was to carry out a series of murders “with a clarity of mind and chilling premeditation”.

The jury rejected the prosecution’s claim that the shootings were the result of a bar room spat between the matriarch of Cregan’s close friend Leon Atkinson’s family and a member of  the rival Shorts. Instead it was the result of long-standing bad blood between Cregan and the Shorts. As a youngster Cregan used to clash with the extended Short family in territorial disputes. Later there had been threats and counter threats.

Cregan was widely suspected of involvement in an incident in which David Short was knocked off his motorbike and had his throat cut. In another he confronted him with a pistol and fired blanks at him in an attempt to scare him. Cregan was later to tell prison psychiatrists that for the past five years he had been paranoid and pathologically feared David Short who he claimed had threatened to rape his son and his sister. He wanted and planned to kill him.

Cocaine and alcohol fuelled Cregan’s anxieties and lack of sleep made him even more jumpy. A fixation with knifes, guns and later grenades – he was to happily pose for pictures brandishing  powerful automatic weapons - was to provide him with a terrifying arsenal to carry out his violent fantasies which included the decapitation of the Short patriarch.

Cregan recruited close friend Luke Livesey, 28, and later trusted associate Damian Gorman, 38, who was holidaying in Spain. Known as Damo, Dome Boy or Scarface, Gorman was also widely feared.

An habitual cocaine user, he dealt brutally with anyone who owed him money or considered informing the police of his criminal activities - threatening to kill their family. He had a string of convictions for burglary, class A drugs, handling stolen goods and threatening behaviour involving.

On one occasion he was found with a baseball bat and later accused of brandishing a gun at a landlord who had refused him entry to his pub. The publican initially told the police but then abruptly refused to give evidence against Gorman.  Ten years previously Gorman, whose brother was murdered, was shot three times in the chest after watching the Manchester derby. He later had his spleen removed.

The 25 May was hot and the gang spent the day drinking heavily in pubs around Stalybridge on the outskirts of the city. Cregan, Gorman and Livesey later travelled by taxi and then stolen car to carry out the murder at the Cotton Tree pub in Droylsden.

CCTV images captured the vehicle pulling up outside the premises at 11.49pm and Cregan stepping out. Inside, last orders had been called but the pub was still busy. Members of the Short family and their friends were gathered around the pool table.

Cregan, wearing a black balaclava, walked in and unleashed seven shots in 24 seconds. Three struck Mark Short from just three feet away, including one which severed his carotid artery. Another hit Short associate John Collins in the back. Two other men, Ryan Priding and Michael Belcher suffered leg wounds. David Short, the intended prime target, had only seconds earlier gone into the toilet. On his return to the bar the scene that greeted him was one of pandemonium with drinkers fleeing and screaming in terror and his son dying on the floor.

Three weeks later Cregan and Livesey were arrested at Manchester Airport as they returned from an impromptu holiday in Thailand aboard a business class flight. The same day Gorman was also held. The men were questioned – all answering no comment during their interviews – and were later released whilst police awaited the results of forensic analysis on items of clothing discovered at an old address of Gorman’s as well as detailed telephone records that would later demonstrate they had been in close contact with each right up to and directly after the Cotton Tree killing. But by the time police were in a position to re-arrest them Cregan was on the run.

David Short had been destroyed by the death of his amateur boxer son. The hard man spent his days sobbing like a baby in front of his family, his wife was later to recall. Mark Short had only recently been released from prison on appeal after being jailed indefinitely in 2009 for breaking a shopkeepers jaw whilst on bail for stealing a car. He was also a close friend of Johnny Joyce, who was jailed for biting off part of the ear of Celebrity Big Brother winner Paddy Doherty in a bare knuckle fight outside PC World in Manchester a few months earlier.

In an emotional plea David Short praised his son who he said had a “heart of gold” and branded his killers “cowards”. Publicly, Short told his family to leave the police to do their job whilst he mourned his son, visiting his grave each day to lay flowers. But police believed he planned revenge.

Cregan’s paranoia had grown worse since losing his eye and he feared the Short family’s retribution. Short had already warned him that should anything happen to him his family would murder Cregan. He later told a psychiatrist that Short had threatened to rape his son and set him on fire. By now he was fantasising about “stabbing him repeatedly, smashing his head with a hammer and cutting his head off”.

Preparations for murdering David Short began on the day of the failed arrest attempt on Cregan, who was by now hiding with his family in Wales. It had become, according to one of the associates recruited to carry out the second murder, Anthony Wilkinson, a case of “kill or be killed”.

Wilkinson, 34, also had a long criminal history – and owed David Short who he had served time with in prison, £20,000. He boasted that he was “scared of no one” and had convictions for violence including a raid on a pub. Jermaine Ward, 24, who was due to go to court on the day of the planned hit on David Short accused of producing 18kg of amphetamine for which he was later jailed for 32 months, was also brought in to act as the getaway driver.

The plan was to follow David Short on his daily pilgrimage to his son’s grave at Droylsden cemetery. On the morning on 10 August – the day that Livesey and Gorman were also due in court charged with the murder of Mark Short - the three men hid in the back of a hire van surveying the graveyard. But Short never turned up.

Instead he was preparing for a barbecue party to be held in the back garden of his home in Folkestone Road, Clayton later that day. The 46-year-old was no stranger to threats on his life. In the past he had been issued with three intelligence warnings by police that contracts had been taken out on him and was said to wear a bullet proof vest. But nothing could prepare him for the attack that was about to ensue. As Short ferried chairs from the back of his Jeep he was confronted by Cregan and Wilkinson each brandishing a gun.

They chased him into the house, through the lounge, kitchen, conservatory and outside into a side alley. He was shot three times in the head and neck as he lay on the ground and a further six times during the chase. A military fragmentation grenade was thrown onto him destroying the entire upper left hand side of his body and damaging surrounding pipes and walls.

Cregan later claimed that after David Short’s murder he enjoyed the best night’s sleep of his life. Meanwhile, the Greater Manchester Police operation to find him now went into overdrive. The reward was raised to £50,000 and hundreds of officers were working on the case. At the first day of the football season at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium giant images of Cregan and Wilkinson were beamed on to the screens. But police continued to be thwarted in their efforts to find the ringleader. 

Following the murder of David Short, Cregan, Ward and Wilkinson had been taken across the Pennines to West Yorkshire by another associate, Mohammed Ali, 32, known as Irish Immy, a convicted heroin dealer who also sold steroids and illicit Viagra. The men spent 12 days in a flat in Leeds during which time they watched the news reports of their crimes – laughing and revelling in their notoriety.

Ward later handed himself in at Huddersfield police station after falling out with the other two. He has since been jailed for 32 months on drugs charges and is being kept on a segregation wing of Frankland prison in Durham because of threats after it emerged he was to give evidence against Cregan. Wilkinson was arrested on 2 September in an armed police swoop at a children’s playground during which he “joked” with officers that he had two grenades. Investigators said he later smirked continually during questioning on the David Short murder.

Cregan meanwhile, had gone to ground although rumours swirled he had been routinely seen drinking in local pubs. He did not resurface until late in the evening of 17 September at the home of a passing acquaintance Alan Whitwell his partner and her daughter. Mr Whitwell’s only connection with Cregan was that he had cut his hair.

The family were terrified. Cregan was armed with the Glock handgun which had been used to murder David Short. He also had a grenade which he placed above the fireplace at the house in Abbey Gardens, Mottram.

Another man was summoned and Mr Whitwell was sent out to buy beer, cigarettes and cigars as Cregan tried to get cocaine delivered. Mother and daughter cowered upstairs as the macabre party continued into the night. In the morning the acquaintance was ordered to go to work as usual but became anxious about his partner who had stayed behind and returned early. He was told to cut Cregan’s hair and beard before the fugitive took a bath and changed into clean clothes. At 10.14am he telephoned the police to report a burglary. At Tameside police headquarters the call was treated as non-urgent and Cregan – who sounded calm and controlled - was told an officer would be sent within an hour. “I’ll be waiting,” he said.

PCs Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes left Hyde police station within 30 minutes of the call being received. Fiona Bone had joined Greater Manchester Police three years after leaving university, working as a volunteer special constable before becoming a full time officer in 2007.

Small and quietly spoken, she was well regarded by fellow officers having helped secure convictions for burglary and robbery. Satisfied with her job and home life - Ms Bone, 32, had earlier that day been discussing plans for her forthcoming civil partnership to Clare, with whom she was raising a five-year-old daughter, Jessie. She left the station in good spirits with colleague Nicola Hughes.

PC Hughes, 23, had joined Greater Manchester Police in 2009 having grown up within the force area in Oldham. Chatty, lively and brave, she too was a popular officer with her whole life ahead of her. The two women left together wearing their uniforms and standard issue body armour. Cregan was watching as their VW Transporter pulled up in the quiet cul-de-sac. As they made their way up the path to the house, he opened fire shooting both officers in the chest. They were saved by their body armour and withdrew but Cregan continued shooting. PC Hughes was paralysed and shot three more times as she fell. PC Bone was shot at 24 times – and struck on eight occasions. She unleashed her Taser weapon but it hit the ground harmlessly in front of her although by now it was too late.  Cregan opened fire again on the body of her younger colleague, shooting her a further eight times, including three times in the head.

The gunman fled in his hostage’s VW Golf but not before he left his “calling card” once more – a fragmentation grenade thrown in the direction of the officers’ bodies. Thirty three bullets had been fired in just over 30 seconds. Cregan, by now driving at colossal speed through the residential streets telephoned his girlfriend Georgia Merriman as he had done after each previous killing.  Arriving at Hyde police station he told the counter clerk: “I’m wanted by the police and I’ve just done two coppers”.  

If the Short murders were explainable within the context of a long-standing gangland feud, the escalation of violence to include two unarmed female police officers stunned investigators and the nation. The murders prompted immediate calls for further arming of the police and the return of the death penalty. The Queen led the condolences and thousands of officers – who had been relieved by colleagues volunteering for duty across Britain - and mourners lined the streets of Manchester for their memorial services at the city cathedral.

On his arrest Cregan said: “You were hounding my family so I took it out on yous.” He appeared to imply remorse at the fact that two women had died telling investigators “I wish it was men.” But still it was not until the opening week of his trial that he admitted the killings.