Farmer cleared of shooting intruder outside his home

A farmer who shot and wounded an intruder on his farm in Lincolnshire was cleared of grievous bodily harm yesterday after a jury heard he had intended to fire his gun as a warning.

Fred Hemstock shot Gary Smith in the stomach after he found him in the grounds of his farm in North Witham in the early hours in July last year.

The accusations against Mr Hemstock had echoes of the case against the Norfolk farmer Tony Martin, who argued that he had acted in self-defence when he fired the shot that killed 16-year-old Fred Barras, who had broken into his home.

Martin was jailed for life for murder in April 2000, but had his conviction reduced to five years for manslaughter in October last year. His supporters have appealed for the Queen to grant him a pardon.

A jury at Lincoln Crown Court accepted Mr Hemstock's defence that he had been trying to fire a warning shot when the gun went off early.

The recorder, Allan Mainds, said the shooting could have been avoided if Lincolnshire Police had not been under-staffed and had been able to get to the scene.

Police later admitted they should have sent officers to Mr Hemstock's home after his wife raised the alarm, and said they were reviewing their procedures to ensure a similar mistake did not happen again.

Mr Hemstock, 55, was woken by the sound of a four-wheel-drive car near his farmhouse in the early hours of 9 July 2001. He grabbed a shotgun, went outside and fired at the vehicle. The gun was loaded with shot normally used for killing foxes or geese. Mr Smith needed an eight-hour operation to remove pellets from his stomach.

Mr Hemstock, who admitted having an unregistered shotgun, had told Lincoln Crown Court he intended to fire a shot into the air.

He said he found the intruder's empty vehicle and then waited a short distance away for its occupants to return. When they started up the engine and drove off, he said he waved his torch to let them know he was going to fire a warning shot.

But as he raised the weapon it struck the hand rail of the footbridge he was on and went off. The shot ripped through the side of the vehicle and hit Mr Smith, 42, of Grantham, Lincolnshire, the court was told.

The jury also heard that while Mr Hemstock was outside his home, his wife had called the police. But she was told that unless someone had broken into the house officers would not be able to attend.

Mr Mainds said: "It was very sad that this case reveals that on that night the police were so under-staffed, presumably because they were under-funded, that they could not or would not investigate reports of a burglary in the night.

"Instead the victim himself carried out an investigation to discover if anything had been taken."

Inspector Dick Holmes, of Lincolnshire Police, said yesterday: "We have a clear attendance criteria especially for rural areas that were not adhered to on the night of the incident and this we regret.

"We are reviewing our procedures in the light of this incident to ensure the potential for non-attendance in similar circumstances is not repeated."

It is understood that the civilian support worker who took the call from Mrs Hemstock resigned from the force in September last year, although the worker was not facing any disciplinary action in relation to the incident.

Mr Hemstock, speaking after the four-day trial, said: "I am just very relieved and delighted that it is all over."