Police criticised over couple's murder

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Two police forces could have better protected a couple murdered in a revenge attack, an independent watchdog found today.

There were missed opportunities by Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire forces to protect John and Joan Stirland, who were found shot dead at their bungalow in the Lincolnshire village of Trusthorpe in August 2004, the Independent Police Complaints Commission found.

The watchdog said: "The report has concluded that the protection provided to Mr and Mrs Stirland by Nottinghamshire Police was below an acceptable level.

"They did not receive any professional advice on witness protection and their care was left to untrained officers."

Colin Gunn, 40, was found guilty of conspiring to murder the Stirlands in revenge for the murder in 2003 of Marvyn Bradshaw, who was shot dead by Mrs Stirland's son Michael O'Brien.

Gunn's 19-year-old nephew Jamie was in the same car as Bradshaw when he was shot.

The report said: "It is accepted that the protection afforded to them on the night of the shooting at their home was good and the advice to move house was also sound.

"However, it was ill-conceived to allow them to leave Nottingham when their destination was unknown.

"There is evidence that Joan Stirland was confused at the time and didn't know what to do.

"The police should have closely managed their movements at that vulnerable time by taking some form of structured action to reflect their vulnerability and provided a degree of immediate support and protection, eg by accompanying them to a hotel or place of refuge."

Following an attack at their home in a quiet suburb of Nottingham in September 2003, the Stirlands fled to Goole in East Yorkshire. Later, they travelled to Trusthorpe in Lincolnshire, where they were murdered in August 2004.

The report adds: "It is unacceptable that Nottinghamshire Police did not inform Humberside Police when the Stirlands moved into the area (East Yorkshire), yet they did inform the housing department. Likewise, their failure to advise Lincolnshire Police they had moved to Trusthorpe in December 2003 was unacceptable.

"There is no evidence of a proper risk assessment being carried out at the Trusthorpe address at any stage. A risk assessment would have included a visit to the premises and advice on suitability and security."

The murder of the Stirlands came less than a week after the death of Jamie Gunn - the nephew of Nottingham crime boss Colin Gunn.

Mr Gunn, 19, died of pneumonia, having turned to drink and drugs following the death of his friend Marvyn Bradshaw, who was shot by Mrs Stirland's son Michael O'Brien.

Jamie Gunn was in the same car as his friend at the time he was shot.

Despite Mrs Stirland telling police where they could find her son, she and her husband John had to flee their Nottingham home after it was shot at by a gunman on a motorbike.

Mrs Stirland, a 51-year-old nurse, and her 55-year-old husband, stayed in a bedsit in Goole, East Yorkshire, before later travelling to Trusthorpe.

But Colin Gunn and his henchmen tracked them down. He was jailed for 35 years in June 2006 for conspiracy to murder the Stirlands after a jury heard that they were shot at close range by men dressed in boiler suits.

The couple had made desperate phone calls to police before they died, complaining about a prowler in their garden.

After the trial, the Independent Police Complaints Commission launched an investigation into how Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire Police shared their intelligence.

At one stage their file was passed to the Crown Prosecution Service but they found no criminal proceedings should be brought against police officers.

At a later trial it emerged Colin Gunn had used corrupt police officers to find out how the investigation into the Stirlands' murder was going.

Gunn, 40, of Rise Park, Nottingham, is serving a minimum jail term of 35 years.

John Russell, 29, of Northcote Way, Nottingham, was jailed for a minimum 30 years, and Michael McNee, 22, of no fixed address, was jailed for at least 25 years after being found guilty of conspiring to murder the Stirlands.

To secure the convictions, police had to track 11 "murder phones" over hundreds of miles for 10 days, analysing more than 7,000 phone calls in the process.

O'Brien, 23, was convicted of murdering Marvyn Bradshaw on July 12 2004, and was jailed for a minimum of 24 years at Nottingham Crown Court.