Saturday 19 August 2017

Flowers mark the route of a brutal killer's rampage

Neil Tweedie

THE drive from Whitehaven to Seascale was a beautiful one yesterday.

To the right, between gaps in the rolling fields, the Irish Sea shimmered in the afternoon sun. To the left, the fells of the Lake District soared in the distance, softened by the haze.

You wind your way south, down country roads populated by walkers and cyclists.

Derrick Bird took this route on Wednesday. The day was just as fine, but thoughts of beauty never entered his head.

Now and then, the 52-year-old taxi driver would pull over and attract the attention of a driver or pedestrian, then produce a gun and shoot them.

One after another they fell.

Bird's bloody progress through this quiet corner of west Cumbria is easy to follow. The flowers mark the way.

It started in the village of Lamplugh, at the home of his twin brother, David, with whom he had fallen out over the terms of a will.

Leaving David dead, Bird moved on to Frizington, and the home of his solicitor, Kevin Commons, who was executed in his driveway.

Then on to Duke Street in the centre of Whitehaven and the taxi rank where Bird, armed with a shotgun and .22 semi-automatic rifle, had worked for 20 years.

There was some kind of perverse score to settle there, too. Four drivers were shot.

One, Darren Rewcastle, with whom Bird had often joshed, was hit in the face and killed.

Family and friends of the dead man gathered at the scene to lay flowers yesterday. His mother was led away, inconsolable.

Whitehaven is not an idyllic corner of the Lake District. Once an industrial town, it has lost jobs with the closure of local factories.

But it is close-knit -- everyone seems to know someone caught up in Bird's deadly spree.

Irene Dillion was sitting in the sun outside Noble's Amusements.

"He shot my brother-in-law -- Les, Les Hunter. Twenty-nine pellets in his back, he had."

Where was that?

"Egremont. This Bird called over to him and said, 'I want yer', and then pulled out the gun. Les turned his face away just in time."

Nearby, Whitehaven's market was open for business, the streets relatively crowded. Away from the taxi rank and the television satellite vans, life was carrying on.

Mark Cooper was at the head of the rank. Could he follow the route of Bird's last journey?

"Aye, jump in."

Mr Cooper knew Bird -- Birdy -- pretty well. There were some 160 cab drivers in Whitehaven, he said, far too many for its size. People took to cabbing for lack of an alternative.

"Birdy was spot on, a good lad. He would go out and have a laugh and a joke. He wasn't violent. He never took anything serious."

He had been divorced for years and did not have a regular partner, but picked up women in the pubs.

"My mate phoned me to tell me when it started. 'Birdy's shot Darren,' he said. I said, 'shut up' -- I couldn't believe it, I thought it was a wind up."

He pulled up in Haggard End in Egremont. Another collection of flowers.

"Aunty Sue, always in our thoughts," said one card.

Susan Hughes was carrying her shopping when Bird pulled up and shot her in the stomach. She was found lying in the road, still clutching her bags.

Alan Roberts, her neighbour, talked of a quiet but friendly woman who had coped with divorce and the care of a severely disabled daughter.

Her death had "thrown a blanket over the skies".

In the taxi once more, Mr Cooper continued: "He (Bird) had this £60,000 (€ 72,000) in his bank and the tax man had found out. He was terrified he was going to go to prison.

"It had been going on for six months but he only told me a fortnight ago.

"I've been to prison and he asked what it was like. I said that he wouldn't go to prison, but it was worrying him.

" I had never seen him bothered about anything before. If he had made a pound or made a hundred pounds that day, he was the same."

Why had he shot his fellow drivers? "I don't know. There was banter on the taxi rank all the time. I thought he and Darren got on really well."

The journey continued to the bridge at Egremont ,where Kenneth Fishburn was shot. Someone had left an orange with the flowers. "Fond memories of Ken," said one note.

As the taxi carried on, the stacks marking the Sellafield reprocessing plant rose from behind the rolling fields. What was Bird thinking as he passed here?

"When I first heard about it I knew he would not be found alive," said Mr Cooper. "He would either get the police to shoot him or save the last bullet for himself.

"What I couldn't understand was: how did he even get out of Duke Street -- there's a bloody big police station near there.

"They had helicopters up. They knew he was in a taxi. You are talking 25 or 30 miles from where he started to where he finished."

In the pretty seaside town of Seascale, three bunches of flowers marked the spot where Jane Robinson was gunned down, yards from the home she shared with her twin sister. Unmarried and in her 70s, she was killed while delivering catalogues.

"Everyone in this area will know someone who has been shot," said Mr Cooper.

"Over the years people will stop talking about it, but it will never be forgotten. Whitehaven is like Hungerford and Dunblane now."

"Why, why, why?" asked a message attached to yet more flowers.

The answer to that question cannot be answered by worries about tax or rows over wills. It lay in the mind of Derrick Bird and, in all probability, has died with him.

Irish Independent

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