'He was a nice guy, he must have snapped'
Published 03/06/2010 | 05:00
UNTIL yesterday, rural Cumbria was a place associated with the beauty and tranquility that attracted tourists
But after five hours of unimaginable horror, the towns and villages where Derrick Bird randomly turned his guns on dozens of innocent bystanders have now joined Hungerford and Dunblane as words that are shorthand for massacre. By the time police found Bird's body in a wood in Eskdale at 1.40pm, 12 victims were dead, at least 25 others were injured and Cumbria had become the scene of one of the worst mass shootings in British history.
Over a 30-mile trail of bloodshed, Bird had calmly stopped in at least 30 locations to pick off victims who had just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And as detectives tried to find out what triggered the 52-year-old taxi driver's killing spree, it appeared that the answer might lie in either a row over his mother's will or a disagreement with other drivers on the local cab rank.
Bird had been waiting for fares in Duke Street, Whitehaven, on Tuesday night when an argument broke out between him and three other men, according to one witness.
Cabbie Darren Pears said other drivers had been "getting at" Bird, who felt he was being "picked on".
Another driver claimed Bird then shook the hands of the men he had been arguing with and told them: "There's going to be a rampage tomorrow."
Bird, a father of two who lived alone in the hamlet of Rowrah, near Frizington on the edge of the Lake District National Park, returned home to his pebbledashed terrace house and armed himself with a shotgun and a .22 sniper rifle.
Peter Leder, a friend of "Birdy", as he was known, said he spoke to him that night and Bird told him: "You won't see me again."
But before he had a chance to take his revenge, Bird was stopped by a friend's daughter, who took the guns off him. Bird then reportedly went to the West Cumberland Hospital in Whitehaven, where he sought help for his disturbed condition but was turned away.
Mr Pears said: "There has been something brewing between the drivers for weeks. He went to the hospital to check himself in.If they had had kept him in, then maybe all this would not have happened."
At around 8.30am yesterday, Bird began his orgy of violence, at first targeting people against whom he had grudges, then firing at anyone in his way.
The first victim was his twin brother David, who died a short distance from his home in Frizington. A local solicitor, Kevin Commons, was also reported to have been killed there.
Muriel Gilpin, who works in Frizington, said she had been told that Bird killed Mr Commons because he was "being told something he did not want to hear". One unconfirmed report suggested that Bird had been in dispute with a local solicitor who had drawn up a will for his mother, Mary.
At 10.30am, Bird returned to the scene of the previous night's argument and took revenge on those whom he had accused of goading him.
Bird pulled into Duke Street, aimed one of his guns through the windscreen and opened fire on three taxi drivers, killing two of them.
Brian Edwards, a 67-year-old joiner, said: "There were four shots and I looked round to see the taxi driver lying on the pavement. He was just blasted in the head at point-blank range.
"A man carrying a rifle with a telescopic sight on it ran past just feet away and fired again. A second driver was shot. The gunman didn't say anything."
Teenager Ashley Gastor was walking from the shop when Bird pulled up alongside him.
"I thought he was just going to ask me for directions," said Mr Gastor. "He said something to me and ... when I turned round to look at him he was holding a gun at me out of the car window. I held my ears and ducked down to protect myself."
He said he felt the bullet whisk past his ponytail but he was unhurt.
One of the dead taxi drivers was Darren Rewcastle, a 43-year-old driver who was described as "a friend" of Bird.
By 10.35am, police had received the first reports of a shooting and had issued an urgent warning to people in the area to stay indoors. But Bird was already heading south on the A595 towards Egremont.
Billy Boakes (23) said a woman in her 60s was shot dead outside his home at around 11am. He heard two gunshots.
He said: "I thought it was just a trailer banging but then I went outside and saw the body of the woman lying outside my house. She was just on the pavement with a couple of shopping bags in her hand."
Mr Boakes said witnesses told him what had happened.
"He stopped his car, got out the car, got his gun out, went up to her and just shot her in the stomach.
"There were two more people just further down the road and nothing happened to them. It was obviously the case of him just shooting random people."
Gary Toomey (38) found one of the victims bleeding on the doorstep of his home in Cringlethwaite, Egremont.
He said: "I saw a car screeching off and a man saying, 'Help me'. He was bleeding heavily from the side of his face.
"He said he dived out of the way of the shot and the man in the car, pointed the gun down and shot him again in the back from about six feet away as he lay on the floor."
Barrie Moss, who was cycling home from Egremont, said: "As I went around the corner, there was a taxi that was parked up but with the driver's door open. There was a guy, a short dumpy guy looking up the hill ... he turned around and stared at me and he just had this absolutely huge sniper rifle.
"It was almost touching the floor, it had a massive scope and everything.
"I looked at him and just did a double take. He scurried into the car and drove off. That was when I saw behind the car there was a woman lying behind the car with her shopping and her handbag next to her.
"There was a younger woman pushing a pram up the hill and she stopped about 10 feet away and just screamed.
"I shouted, 'Are you okay?' and she said, 'She has been shot'. Five minutes later she just stopped breathing and that was it. It looked like he shot her point blank in the back of the head."
By noon, police had issued a description of shaven-headed Bird, and his car registration. At 12.35pm, they named the suspect and issued a photograph.
But he was managing to stay one step ahead of the police, who had mobilised every armed officer in the area to track him down.
From Egremont, Bird turned east off the A595 along a country lane to the village of Haile, where two more victims were killed.
Then he headed south towards Gosforth, a village on the A595, where he stopped to shoot dead farmer's son and local rugby player Garry Purdham at point-blank range at 11.30am.
Mr Purdham's father, Jack (60) said: "I went down to the bottom of the field and as soon as I pulled up I saw Garry lying there, he had been shot in the head and he was blue.
"I thought, 'Oh no.' It's just a blur after that. Somebody was following the chap and said he had stopped his car and got out and shot Garry twice. I heard the shots, but I didn't think much of it. That sort of thing doesn't happen here."
Perhaps anticipating roadblocks on the main road, Bird then headed west, towards the coast, on a minor road to Seascale, near the Sellafield nuclear power plant which was under a security lockdown.
A 64-year-old woman delivering shopping catalogues was beckoned over by Bird before he shot her dead at close range. Harry Berger, landlord of the Woolpack in Seascale, was in his Range Rover when Bird's car collided with it under a railway bridge.
The Range Rover backed up and as the killer's car drew level he fired two shots through the driver's window. Mr Berger was hit in the side but is also thought to have lost the fingers of one hand.
At around 12.30, Bird was heading inland again towards Drigg. On the way out of Seascale, he shot a cyclist through the neck, killing him instantly, but spared the lives of a mother, her nine-year-old son, four-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old boy.
One of the nine-year-olds in the group heading to a park said: "He looked at me and he looked at my mum, then he shot the man on the bike."
The cyclist was named locally as Michael Pike, in his 40s.
Police snipers were placed on road bridges around the county, including on a bridge at the Ravenglass and Eskdale steam railway station, one of the major tourist attractions in the area.
After passing through Drigg and Holmrook Bird drove towards the village of Boot, where he abandoned his car after crashing it at around 12.50pm.
The vicar of Eskdale, Anne Baker, said two people had approached Bird after the collision to see if they could help, but they were not shot.
Police found his Citroen at 1.12pm, and used a helicopter to search the surrounding countryside for him.
Sean King (39), landlord of The Boot Inn, said that after hearing the warning on TV: "We brought all the customers inside, into the pub and got stragglers down from the fells.
"I was still trying to get people off the fells and was outside the pub when I heard this shot just south of here. Almost immediately the air ambulance arrived in the field opposite."
At 1.40pm, the bloodshed was finally over. Officers discovered Bird's body next to a footpath in woodland a mile from Boot, together with his two guns.
One friend said of the killer: "Something must have clicked in his head...he must have just snapped."