Tony Martin, the harmless eccentric whose obsession made him a killer

When farmer Tony Martin took a pump-action shotgun and fired a fatal blast into the back of a 16-year-old suspected burglar he was initially fêted as a hero of middle England.

Farmers and landowners rallied to his side with words of encouragement and money to help fund the services of one of the best-known barristers in the country, Anthony Scrivener QC. Widows wrote, expressing outrage at his arrest and offering tokens from their pensions.

Supporters portrayed him as a a kind, generous man, driven to drastic measures by a system which benefited criminals more than victims. Martin, a 55-year-old bachelor who had never managed to sustain a relationship, suddenly became the target of adoring fans. Almost daily one middle-aged woman made a six-hour round trip to Norwich Crown Court to attend his trial.

Martin grew up in a family considered Norfolk gentry, a world where black-tie cocktail parties were common. He was described by his widowed mother as a "delightful little boy" who loved animals and had a passion for soft toys, especially teddy bears. He was sent to boarding school at Glebe House, Hunstanton and then to a Copethorpe Park private school, Oxfordshire, where he excelled at sport.

After school he travelled to Australia, New Zealand and Asia before returning to Britain to take up a job on a Scottish oil rig but it was not until the death of his grandfather that he decided to return to Norfolk and take up pig farming. He was in his late 30s when he inherited Bleak House and its 350-acre farm from his uncle and aunt.

It was once an attractive property with neat gardens and tennis courts. But, despite grand plans, Martin let the house become dilapidated. It was enveloped in moss and ivy and hogweed sprang up around the building. The yard was littered with junk.

A self-confessed eccentric, Martin would often desert his farm during the day to visit antique shops or ancestral homes and return to continue his harvesting in the early hours of the morning. The antiques he cherished were kept upstairs in locked rooms, while the downstairs was filled with rubbish.

Having suffered three break-ins - one 20 years earlier and two last year - and numerous thefts from outbuildings, he had become obsessed with the criminals who plagued him.

During the trial the prosecution maintained that steps missing from the top and bottom of his stairs were not the result of wear and tear, as Martin claimed, but a booby trap for burglars. Ladders placed in trees were, they insisted, look- out posts. He argued they had been innocently left there.

The jury were told that in addition to fixing bars across windows and doors, Martin also slept fully-clothed, with his boots on and a gun under his pillow in anticipation of a break- in. It was an obsession which, the court heard, made the shooting of Fred Barras on 20 August last year a "tragic inevitability".

It was not the first time Martin had fired a shot in anger. In 1976 he fired a World War One revolver at a friend's house and, almost 10 years later, used a shotgun to smash the windows of his family home during an argument with his brother.

In 1994 he shot at a man caught stealing apples from his orchard, which resulted in his shotgun certificate for four legal guns - a 12-bore side-by- side shotgun, a .410 single-barrel shotgun, a .22 rifle and a small-calibre shotgun being withdrawn.

But the security-obsessed farmer was still able to arm himself and the Winchester pump-action and sawn-off shotgun he held on the night Fred Barras and his friend Brendon Fearon broke into his house were illegal.

An outspoken man, Martin never made any secret of his hatred for criminals and had often said he would happily "blow the heads off" anybody who tried to steal from him.

Few people visited the isolated farmhouse, which he kept in almost complete darkness, and lived in alone save for three rottweilers and a peacock. His caring attitude to his dogs as well as other wildlife was undisputed. However Martin, a nephew of Andrew Fountaine, the founder of the National Front, did not show the same regard for travellers or Gypsies, who, he had said, he would like to round up and machine-gun to death.

The case was marked from the outset by wild emotions and bitter hatred on both sides. Barras's extended family made a daily - and at times aggressive-looking - appearance during the trial. His mother cried as her son's last moments were replayed time and time again.

Dozens of police officers were brought in to guard the court. Jury members were assigned numbers to prevent giving their names, while certain witnesses were granted the same privilege.

Martin, the court heard, had received death threats and police intelligence sources claimed a £60,0000 price had been put on his head.

For the supporters of Tony Martin, such threats were proof that he was a wronged man and a justification for his actions. When Martin shot Fred Barras and Brendon Fearon, he encapsulated the rage and frustration of a section of society that once respected the police but which is now intoxicated by the idea of taking the law into its own hands.

In one fell swoop - or, to be more precise, three to four shots from an illegal weapon - he had captured the imagination of a hard-working section of society, bitter at an increasingly liberal attitude to criminals. However, few of those supporters knew who Tony Martin really was and yesterday a jury decided that the reality was considerably less romantic than the image.

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