More than 100 detectives were last night scrutinising every aspect of the personal and financial life of Derrick Bird in an attempt to piece together his motives for murdering family members, colleagues and strangers during his three-hour massacre.
But as they began the most complex inquiry the small rural force has ever undertaken, questions were being asked locally about whether the force had enough resources to deal with the incident, and whether the death toll would have been lower if officers had found the taxi driver more quickly.
Cumbria police has so far refused to reveal whether any officer came close to stopping the gunman and what exactly happened on Wednesday between the first 999 calls at around 10.30am and 1.40pm, when police finally found Bird – who had by then killed himself.
They have also declined to say whether he left a suicide note, or to detail precisely when and where each of his 12 victims was killed or say whether the force had any contact with Bird in the days leading up to the murders. At a press conference yesterday afternoon the force did say that they were looking into Bird's private life in a bid to determine his motive for the shootings.
There had been suggestions that Bird started his rampage because of an argument over his mother's will. There were also accounts that he had killed two taxi-driver colleagues because of an ongoing row over fares.
The fact that some of his victims are known to have worked at the Sellafield nuclear plant – Bird's workplace for 12 years until he left after being convicted of theft in 1990 – has prompted speculation of another long-held feud.
Last night, Detective Chief Superintendent Iain Goulding said: "We are aware that there is much speculation about the motive behind this crime. We have heard rumours of finance and domestic [issues]. We are aware of these things and they are proper lines of investigation."
But the officer conceded that the force may never find out the true motive. Det Ch Supt Goulding also revealed that the force believes that although many of his victims were known to Bird and targeted by him, some appear to have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"A key part of this is trying to establish if those targets killed were chosen because of a motive, a grudge or simply random killings. Our initial assessment is a combination of both," he said.
But the lack of an explanation as to why Bird was not caught earlier has provoked anger on the website of local paper The Whitehaven News. Bob Lunn wrote: "How was this guy not stopped sooner? I can understand the inevitable two or three people getting shot, but 12 dead?
"The police should have been all over it as soon as there was a reported shooting. [In any other] country ... this guy would have been taken out hours earlier. The police have a lot to answer for in my opinion."
Another reader, giving his name as Simon, wrote: "What I can't understand is why did it take so long for the police to find the gunman? There was an immediate report made to police of the incident and a description of the car and licence plate. But somehow the police could not find him and stop him.
"Fair enough, Cumbria is a big county, but when you've got two police helicopters in the air, and most of Cumbria police mobilised, you wonder why it took them so long."
A third message on the website said: "Why wasn't this madman stopped? Too many people were hurt or killed."
The police said Bird was convicted of theft in 1990, for which he was given a 12-month suspended sentence. It is believed that this led to his resignation from Sellafield in the same year.
Despite his conviction, he was able to acquire a gun licence, ostensibly to shoot vermin, because his sentence was less than than three years. Police confirmed he had legally owned "a number of" guns since 1995 and that the two used in the killings, a .22 telescopic rifle and a shotgun, were re-registered in 1997.
Chief Constable Craig Mackey of Cumbria police said that his force has more than 30 crime scenes across 25 miles of West Cumbrian coast and that he is confident that Bird has killed no more than 12 people. "We have now concluded a 225 square kilometre land and air search so are not expecting to find any further victims," he said, adding that the massacre was the worst thing he had experienced in 25 years of policing.
The tiny Cumbrian force has only 86 armed officers, the second fewest in the country, and it has no helicopter of its own. During the hunt for Bird, the police had to use the helicopter of neighbouring Lancashire police.
It also emerged that police officers in Northern Ireland were drafted in to field calls from relatives trying to find out if their loved ones were caught up in the shootings.Reuse content