Something inside Birdy

David Randall looks beyond the lurid speculation and bogus theorising for what really drove Derrick Bird, killer of 12 innocent people
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The Independent Online

He was a good bloke, was Derrick. I mean, quiet, he'd never set the world on fire, but he was all right. Liked a drink down the pub and a chat, but sort of quiet with it. Birdy, they called him. Lived with his mum, adored his boys, and, you know, kept himself to himself. Drinking a lot lately, but a good bloke. Definitely a good bloke. That's what they thought in his village, anyway.

It was a bit different down at the Whitehaven cab rank. I mean, they liked him, don't get me wrong, but he was an easy wind-up. Nothing too personal, of course – just, you know, why he couldn't pull a woman, or "That's another good fare you've missed, Birdy". Blokes' banter. Just having a laugh. He didn't seem to mind.

Well, not until last week, anyway. Tuesday it was. Quite a bust-up, by all accounts. He was upset 'cos the other cabbies were nicking "his" fares and taking the piss. So he let them have it. A right set-to, it was. And he said some funny things as he left. Someone said he'd see Birdy around, and Birdy said: "No, you won't be seeing me again." And he muttered something about a rampage. It wasn't like Birdy. Not at all.

But then, what was like Birdy? When people close that front door, you don't know what they're really like and what they're thinking, do you? I mean, some knew about his guns; but most didn't. A few knew about his money worries and some business about his twin brother, David, and their mother's will. But only Birdy knew what Birdy knew. How they'd fixed him and stitched him up. Only he knew that.

Now, Jane Robinson, she was different again. Lived up Seascale, retired, lived with her twin sister. Nice woman. Often seen out delivering her Betterware catalogues. She didn't know Derrick. Nor did Jamie Clark. Or Susan Hughes. Or some of the others. They'd never met him.

Wednesday, it was. "Breaking news", the telly said across the bottom of the screen. "Reports are coming in of a series of shootings in the Whitehaven area of Cumbria ..." That's when we knew about Birdy – and Jane, Darren, Garry, Jamie, Susan, Isaac, Kevin, David, Kenneth, Michael, James and Jennifer. Had no idea he could do such a thing. Who would have thought it?

***

No one, of course. In a story where very little is adequately explicable, this is one of the few certainties. No one could expect it, because, until last Wednesday, Derrick Bird was a harmless nobody. Aged 52, he worked as a minicab driver in Whitehaven, living with, and caring for, his terminally ill mother Mary in a terraced house in the village of Rowrah, just by the Lake District National Park. He'd set up home once, but not for very long, with Linda Mills. They had two sons, Graeme and Jamie, the birth of whom led to a major divide between the couple. Word was Derrick wanted her to have an abortion. They split up 16 years ago, but Derrick kept a good relationship with both boys. Last month, Graeme's wife had Derrick's first grandchild. He was mightily pleased, by all accounts.

He liked a bit of scuba-diving, and he travelled a lot. Thailand was a favourite, and he'd just returned from Russia. Blokes' places they were, really. Single blokes' places. Derrick was very single. He might not have wanted it that way, but he was. More than a bit overweight, too. You wonder, as his chubby face grins out of the holiday snaps that have peppered the media coverage, just how many times he swore he'd do something about himself. Get organised, do a bit more exercise, cut out those chocolate bars that kept him going on long shifts in his car. Get some new clothes, start going somewhere other than the pub. Cut down on the booze. Try to be a bit better at the chat. You know, sharpen up his act.

He was, indeed, an unassuming chap; perhaps too unassuming for his own good. It seems likely that, in his own eyes, he was a bit of a failure, too. The short-lived relationship, the inability to get another woman, his dismissal from a job at Sellafield in 1990 after he was caught thieving paint there, the contrast with his more outgoing and successful twin, and the way he was a bit of a pushover for the sparkier types at the cab rank.

And unlike his two brothers, he'd never been very good with money. A few years back, he'd got obsessed with this young bargirl in Thailand. Only 22, she was. He gave her a lot of money – thousands, they said. Never got it back, of course. And he didn't like paying tax, either, naughty lad. Self employed, cash-in-hand, see? HM Revenue & Customs was investigating him. Mark Cooper, who had known Bird for 15 years, recalled: "He said: 'They've caught me, the tax people. I'll go to jail.'" Some folk said he had tens of thousands stashed away, under the floorboards and everything. Mind you, others said he was skint. And there were reports that his twin had tipped off the authorities, but that sounds unlike the outgoing, popular, successful and contented David Bird. It's normally the resentful and jealous who tip off the taxman.

And then there was this matter of the will. Or rather, by some accounts, two wills. First, there was that of his father, Joe, who died 12 years ago and had quite a bit put by. Word about the place was that Derrick felt short-changed, thought his twin had done better than him, and he was still disputing what happened to their father's cash. On Friday came confirmation that David had received £25,000 from his father before he died, while Derrick and their other brother, Brian, got nothing. Money and families, eh? The trouble they cause.

The bulk of Joe Bird's estate went to his widow, and so her will became an issue. She was 90, had cancer, and had been living at Derrick's place since last December. He looked after her, cooked for her, and had a bit of a natter when he came off shift. She had her own house and, what with Derrick being the one who looked after her, it wouldn't be a wild guess to think that, even though she reportedly regularly gave him small four-figure sums, he had expectations, as they used to say.

I mean, he wasn't wishing her dead, but when she did go (and it couldn't be all that long now), then surely it was only right that he got a bit of benefit. Surely he was entitled to it? But there was David, a mechanic and digger driver, who lived at Lamplugh, just a few miles away. After all, he'd made tons of money in property deals. He'd got that £25,000 from dad. He didn't need mum's money, did he? And he was mates with Mrs Bird's solicitor, Kevin Commons. Big mates. The talk went that Derrick was worked up about his father's money. Didn't think he was getting his fair cut. Some even said he wanted the lawyer to tell porkies to the tax people. So he made an appointment with Kevin. He'd go and see him, sort things out. Wednesday, it was. In the morning. Maybe he'd go and see David first. Tell him what's what.

Well, actually, do more than tell him. Show him. Make him realise Derrick Bird was not a pushover. And do the same to those bastards down at the cab rank. I mean it was only fair – you waited in line and top of the rank should take the job, then the next one would move up, and so on. But they thought it smart to nick jobs, take no notice of the queue. It was all a bloody joke to them, but it wasn't, was it? It wasn't fair. And, as for that business at Sellafield, God, it made his blood boil.

But he was Birdy. Good old Birdy. How was he going to show them all? He didn't have the gab to win an argument. They wouldn't see reason, anyway. But one day he'd make them pay attention, take notice of what was fair. But how? How? God, it made his blood boil.

The solution was at hand. There they were, on their hooks in the gun cupboard or under the bed or wherever else he kept them, just waiting – crying out, if you like – to be used. A shotgun and a .22 rifle. His dad left the guns to him, and Derrick had held a firearms licence for 20 years. He had a criminal conviction for the Sellafield theft, but that didn't warrant a sufficiently serious sentence – a minimum of three years, says the law – for him to forfeit his licence. So there they were. His guns. Very usable. Show people the sharp end of one of those and they'd have to listen. All of them. Folk could argue with Birdy, but not with those. Not for long, anyway. They'd be his Dutch courage. With these in his hands, he would be transformed from an inadequate butt of others' greed and forcefulness, into someone who could at last control the situation. A man who could settle a few scores, and show everyone he couldn't be messed with.

***

At what point getting even turned from being Birdy's angry fantasy into something he could actually make happen is not, and probably never will be, known. But three incidents suggest this insane plan was already taking shape on Tuesday evening.

One report that day has Bird chirpily saying goodbye to an acquaintance and telling her he was off to Tesco to pick up some chicken for his supper. But others paint a more unsettling picture. There was that "You won't see me again" comment, that "rampage" remark. And then there's the story that a "friend" to whom he had blurted out his intention to shoot his "enemies" had dissuaded and disarmed him. This may have been a neighbour, his son, or even his ex-wife, Linda, to whom, unusually, he had opened his heart on Monday evening. Or it may have been just talk. Derrick always thought people were talking about him, even when they weren't. And now they are.

So in his mind, if not on paper, Bird had a little list: his brother, that solicitor, the other drivers, the Sellafield lot. Very early in the morning, perhaps without having slept and possibly having taken drink, Derrick Bird set out from his home. The timings of his initial movements are not fully known. Police said on Friday that the first murder was that of Derrick's twin, David, a father of three young women and divorced from his wife, who lived in a farmhouse at Lamplugh, just over three miles from Rowrah. Bird presumably let himself in, for his brother was shot dead in his bed, probably as he slept. He was not found until later that morning.

The one positive sighting in the dawn hours is at 5.30am, when he was seen pulling up in his car outside the farmhouse home of the 60-year-old Bird family solicitor, Kevin Commons. This was in Frizington, a five and a half mile drive from Lamplugh. A woman who knew him called out, but Bird either did not hear her or did not want to. She described him as being transfixed. Some time later, reportedly at around 10am, Mr Commons was shot dead in the driveway of his home. Bird was next seen as he burst on to the scene at the Whitehaven taxi rank at 10.30am. What had Bird done in these missing hours? Sat fuming in his car? Drinking booze he had brought with him? Or wrestling with what remained of his conscience? Or maybe even been inside the family lawyer's home, talking, arguing with him about his affairs? At present we have no idea.

He next drove to his place of work, in Duke Street, Whitehaven, where the drivers waited for fares. He arrived just before 10.30am. In a doorway, having a between-jobs cigarette, was Darren Rewcastle, 43, the sharp-featured, Jack-the-lad, charity-supporting driver known as "the Chancer", who was, in Birdy's eyes, one of the chief culprits of the cab rank queue-jumping. Bird pulled alongside the doorway, called Darren's name, leaned out of the car window and fired the shotgun straight at his face.

Bird then levelled his gun at two other drivers in quick succession – Don Reed and Paul Wilson. He fired. Both were lucky. Mr Reed was hit in the back, but not seriously; Mr Wilson was grazed on the cheek. A fourth driver yelled out: "Derrick, what the fuck are you doing?" as Bird drove round the corner into Scotch Street. There he shot at, and narrowly missed, 15-year-old Ashley Gastor. A few streets away, in Coach Road, he spied another cab driver, Terry Kennedy. He hit him in the hand, and drove on, out of Whitehaven.

That was the immediate and most obvious of Bird's targets dealt with. If he'd had an ounce of rationality left, he'd have stopped then. But he wasn't good old Birdy any more. He was "a middle-aged man, driving a silver Citroë*Picasso, registration number ND55 ZFC, armed with a shotgun and a rifle". He'd run out of any rational feelings, but not out of ammunition. Or petrol. Plenty more places he could get to. There were more scores to settle, and people to randomly blast at along the way. People such as Susan Hughes.

She was 57, and had a part-time job so she could also care each day for her disabled daughter, who lived nearby in sheltered accommodation. Mrs Hughes was walking up Hagget End in Egremont with her morning's shopping. Bird stopped, got out, approached her, shot her in the stomach, and got back into his car. She died beside her shopping bags a few hundred yards from her home. Then, a short distance away, he saw Ken Fishburn, a 71-year-old bachelor, who kept both house and garden in apple-pie order. He was retired now, but he'd once been a security officer at Sellafield, reportedly at the same time as Bird was done for theft. Bird shot him in the face – one of five victims dispatched in that way – and he fell dead. Much clichéd nonsense has been made of the pastoral west Cumbrian setting for Wednesday's mayhem, but this was now something which would have been a nightmare in any landscape. As Bird drove out of Egremont, he saw someone else who had worked at Sellafield. He was Isaac "Spike" Dixon, divorced with two sons, and vice-chairman of the Egremont Conservative Club. He'd been out that morning catching moles. He, too, was shot dead.

***

A full-scale civil emergency was now on. It was already apparent that here, on a sparkling June morning, was a series of shootings to compare with Thomas Hamilton's slaughter of 16 children and one adult at a school in Dunblane, Stirling, in 1996, and Michael Ryan's killing of 16 on the streets of Hungerford, Berkshire, in 1987. Warnings had to be issued to residents of parts of west Cumbria to stay indoors, and every available police officer was deployed, as were two helicopters borrowed from the Lancashire force. And the 24-hour news channels were mobilising their special brand of information and mawkishness. "How are people reacting up there? ... You don't expect this sort of thing in such a beautiful part of the world, do you? ... Did you know Derrick Bird? ... How do you feel? ... Are you surprised by what's happened?" Yes, indeed. Who would have thought it? He seemed such a nice bloke.

Bird headed south, to the village of Wilton. Jennifer Jackson, 68, the secretary of the local parish church of St Mary and St Michael, was on her way to the shops to buy a paper and maybe meet her husband who had been out walking. Bird stopped his car, peeped his horn, beckoned her over and killed her. Her husband of 46 years, Jim, was not far away. He heard the shot, came rushing up, and Bird killed him. Jim Jackson had spent all his working life in the ambulance service. He and Jennifer had two children.

It was now approaching 11.30am. Bird, heading in what appeared to be entirely haphazard directions, reached Gosforth. Garry Purdham was helping his father trim hedges on his farm. Bird pulled up, stepped out of his car and shot Garry dead. Bird then turned and made for Seascale on the coast. As he drove into the town, Jamie Clark, a 23-year-old estate agent, was driving his Smart Car on the same road. Bird, his windscreen now a gaping hole through which he could shoot, fired as the two cars came close. Jamie was found moments later in the wreckage of his car. He left a fiancée and parents who had won £2.3m on the lottery nine years ago.

Bird's shootings were now even more indiscriminate and frequent. Still in Seascale, he collided with a 4x4 driven by Harry Berger, landlord of the Woolpack pub in Boot, and shot him. Moments later, he hit a teenage boy. Both survived, Mr Berger with serious injuries. As Bird drove out of town, he shot and killed Michael Pike, 64, a former trade union organiser at Sellafield who was cycling by. Then, also on Drigg Road, Seascale, it was 66-year-old Jane Robinson, who lived in the town with her twin sister, Barrie. A great animal lover, she owned a bird sanctuary. She was shot and died just yards from home.

Then, in rapid succession as he headed inland, he fired at two women, both of whom survived, one of them with serious injuries. More shots were heard near Hollins Farm campsite near Boot, before, finally, around 1pm, Bird abandoned his car at Hardknott Pass, headed up a woodland track and shot himself. Police, finally catching up with him, found his body at 1.40pm.

***

Despite the best efforts of psychologists, both professional and amateur (and there have been no shortage of these popping out of the woodwork), the events of Wednesday are unexplainable in any meaningful sense. No festering resentment, however justified, no slights, however cruel, and no misfortunes, however sad, can be weighed against the enormity of what Derrick Bird did and be found remotely adequate. At any one time, there will be tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of people who burn with a rage, a feeling of powerlessness, or a sense of victimhood every bit as bad as Bird's. But they will not go out and shoot 24 people, killing 12, most of whom are perfect strangers.

Two things made this situation different. First, Bird's possession of guns. All he had to do was take them off the hook, load and fire – no weeks of paperwork for a licence. He already had one. Second was something inside Bird himself, some unknown blockage of any sense of perspective. It is a measure of his irrationality that he could not see that his actions ensured he would be remembered not, as presumably he wanted, for the wrongs done to him, but for the hideous scale of the wrongs he did to others.

The shrinks can explain why Bird was angry; they can even tell us about the feeling of invincibility he would have had as he toured west Cumbria shooting anyone he wanted, just because he could. But they cannot explain what it was that made feelings which many endure without taking revenge erupt into a homicidal trip not sated until a dozen victims had been shot dead.

There will be many this weekend who will, in the way of the aftermath of such events, want a change in the law, or the enforcement of it, so that – in their sanctimonious words – "such a thing never happens again". But it will. In 12, nine, 14 or eight years' time, it will happen again. The circuitry inside the mind of a Ryan or Hamilton or Bird will go haywire, and we will see once again the words: "Breaking news: Reports are coming in of a series of shootings in ..." And, once again, everyone will ask "Why?". And find no adequate answer. It was just something inside Birdy.

Who would have thought it? He's down the pub one day and, 48 hours later, there are 12 murders, 30 crime scenes, and more than 100 detectives on the case. And he seemed such a nice bloke.