Three guilty of planning 'revenge' murder of couple

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The Independent Online

Joan and John Stirland were, in the words of their family, a "loving, caring couple" who led a normal life enjoying gardening and watching football and cricket, until Mrs Stirland's son by a previous marriage, Michael O'Brien, shot a man dead after a quarrel in Nottingham on 30 August 2003.

O'Brien was jailed for life for killing Marvyn Bradshaw but remained unrepentant. Then, a year after the murder, an 18-year-old who was O'Brien's intended target that August night also died - from pneumonia, developed after turning to drugs following the murder.

Mr Bradshaw's associates - John Russell, Michael McNee and a 39-year-old, who cannot be named for legal reasons - wanted revenge and the Stirlands were the only available targets.

The Stirlands had fled to the quiet Lincolnshire village of Trusthorpe in December 2003 after gunmen on motorcycles avenging the the Bradshaw murder hit their Nottingham home. But acting on information from the Stirlands' unsuspecting friends, the three men, from Nottingham, tracked them to their hideaway.

The defendants planned the double killing from a caravan park at Ingoldmells, near the couple's home, the Birmingham Crown Court jury was told. Their plan was carried out on 8 August 2004, within a week of the 18-year-old's death.

The Stirlands were murdered by two men who burst into their seaside chalet armed with Beretta pistols.

"Their vengeance was swift and devastating," Timothy Spencer QC, for the prosecution, told the court. Mr Stirland, 55, was shot six times, his 51-year-old wife four times. The prosecution was unable to establish who pulled the trigger and admitted that not all the gang members had been traced.

The Stirlands had maintained constant contact with detectives from Nottinghamshire Police, who were monitoring their safety following the earlier attack.

But, despite the obvious threat, when a neighbour told Mrs Stirland she had seen a prowler jumping over her back fence late at night on Saturday, 7 August, 2004, she insisted on a normal response from police. Less than 30 minutes later she and her husband were dead.

The couple, who refused to enter a formal witness protection programme, were desperate to settle down to a quiet, anonymous life, without the stigma that having a convicted murderer for a son would bring.

Their desperation to escape the past was their downfall as the "normal" response from Lincolnshire Police meant nobody called to check on them until 9.30pm. Their bloodstained bodies lay undetected for seven hours before officers arrived.

An investigation was launched by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) into the failure by Nottinghamshire Police to share information about the Stirlands with their Lincolnshire colleagues. They have not yet reported back.

Mr Spencer said that had police reacted more swiftly the couple would still be alive. "But they didn't. It's as simple as that," he said. Lincolnshire Police said that while the IPCC investigation was continuing it would be "inappropriate" to comment.

Shane Bird, Kevin Holm, Andrew McKinnon, Lanelle Douglas and a 40-year-old who cannot be named were cleared of the same charge after more than 26 hours of deliberation by the jury. The three guilty men will be sentenced today.