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Michael Robert RYAN






The Hungerford massacre
Classification: Spree killer
Characteristics: Motive unknown - A loner, a man without friends other than his mother and who lived in part in a world of fantasy that he weaved and his mother perpetuated
Number of victims: 16
Date of murder: August 19, 1987
Date of birth: May 18, 1960
Victims profile: 11 men and 5 women (including his mother)
Method of murder: Shooting (two semi-automatic rifles and a handgun)
Location: Hungerford, Berkshire, England, United Kingdom
Status: Committed suicide by shooting himself the same day


One man's massacre

By Jeremy Josephs


For Hannah and James


There is a delicate balance to be struck between the genuine desire to inform and the risk of intrusion or the needless reopening of old wounds. In writing this book I am well aware that I stand to be criticized both by those who might wish for a more sensational approach - in short, more gore - and those who feel that the whole subject of Hungerford is so horrendous that it ought not to be touched at all. Whether or not I have managed to strike the right balance is, of course, for the reader to decide.

A journalist writing in the Sunday Times recently informed readers: ‘these days, any mass murderer who manages to get into double figures can rest assured of the attentions of a biographer’. He was right, and I was all the more surprised to discover that no book had been written about Michael Ryan before. But Hungerford: One Man’s Massacre is only partly biographical in nature. I would like to emphasize that I am not laying claim to something ‘new’ on Ryan; far less to the definitive answer to why he took it upon himself to kill on a scale that devastated not just dozens of individuals but an entire community. All I have tried to do is to chart the history of the tragedy at Hungerford, concentrating on some half a dozen individual stories. I remain convinced this is a more satisfactory as well as more practical approach than attempting to recount the experiences of every single person involved.

Indeed these stories, conveyed to me in a series of detailed interviews, form the core of the book. For this reason I am particularly grateful to Ron Tarry, the former Mayor of Hungerford, the Reverend David Salt, the town’s vicar, many of the senior police officers who were involved in the operation and a number of survivors and relatives of Ryans victims alike. Without their cooperation this book would not exist.

The majority of people whose cooperation I sought helped me willingly. A minority did not - and if I offended anybody by even asking for their assistance I apologize unconditionally. Nonetheless there is a long list of people to whom I would like to express my gratitude; so long in fact that it is more appropriate here to simply list their names rather than specify the precise manner in which they helped me. So it is thank you very much to Victor Baneth, Robert Bluglass, Liz Brereton, Paul Brightwell, Sue Broughton, Fiona Burtt, Larry Collins, Richard Dawes, Ted Daniels, Ethel Fisher, Laurie Fray, Bill Hamilton, Guytha Hunt, Sylvia Laker, Glyn Lambert, Sue Lane, Jonathan Margolis, Audrey Marsh, Charles Pollard, John Reeve, David Salt, Robert Smith, Tony Stacey and Ron Tarry.

May the healing of Hungerford continue, long and painful as it is.



Chronology of the Hungerford killings

  • Sue Godfrey, shot while picnicking with her children in the Savernake Forest, west of Hungerford.

  • 1 and 2 Roland and Sheila Mason, shot at their home in South View

  • 3 Ken Clements, shot while walking along South View towards Hungerford Common

  • 4 PC Roger Brereton, shot in South View

  • 5 Abdul Rahman Khan, shot in his garden in Fairview Road

  • 6 George White, shot in South View while driving Ivor Jackson home from work

  • 7 Dorothy Ryan, shot not far from her home in South View as she pleaded with her son to stop the shooting

  • 8 Francis Butler, shot while walking his dog in the Memorial Gardens

  • 9 Marcus ‘Barney’ Barnard, shot in Bulpit Lane while driving home

  • 10 Douglas Wainwright, shot in Priory Avenue while driving with his wife to visit their son

  • 11 Erie Vardy, shot in Priory Avenue while driving his van

  • 12 Sandra Hill, shot while driving along Priory Road

  • 13 and 14 Jack and Myrtle Gibbs, shot in their home in Priory Road

  • 15 Ian Playle, shot in Priory Road while driving into Hungerford on a shopping trip with his wife and two children


1 Little Sue

If it came across as patronizing, it was not meant to; it was really a term of endearment. Only one thing was beyond dispute: its accuracy. Whatever the case, the nickname ‘Little Sue’ was one to which Sue Godfrey had long been accustomed. For the attractive, auburn-haired, thirty-five-year-old mother of two was destined to never quite reach five feet in height.

There were times when that elusive extra inch or two would have been very welcome. But although Little Sue eventually gave up on such dreams, Nellie Fisher could still remember some of the problems posed by her granddaughter’s diminutive size: ‘I’ll never forget how much trouble we had finding shoes small enough to fit her on her wedding day. Or how, even when she was grown up, she was still small enough to sit on her father’s knee and put her arms around his neck, to give him a hug.’

Sue Godfrey was always giving hugs. In fact, on the morning of Wednesday 19 August 1987 she had set out with her two children to give her grandmother an especially warm embrace. For Nellie was ninety-five that day, and gathered at her bungalow in the Wiltshire village of North Newnton to celebrate the occasion were Sue’s parents, Nellie’s granddaughter Joan, and Claire, her greatgranddaughter.

The weather forecast was good: the sun was going to shine for Nellie on this special day. A perfect opportunity, thought Sue, to treat her children, four-year-old Hannah and two-year-old James, to a picnic in the forest on the way. With the children safely strapped in the back of her black Nissan Micra, and picnic and presents packed, she set off to greet the sunshine.

Sue knew how to love. And she too was loved. ‘I was so very lucky to get married to her,’ explained her husband Brian ‘because I’m the quiet plodder, whereas she was the driving force, so vibrant and full of vitality.’

Brian Godfrey might well be a plodder, but it has not stopped him holding responsible positions as a computer technician for British Airways and later for the electronics group Racal. It was while working for British Airways that Brian was first introduced to Sue, during the summer of 1975, when she was a ward sister at Battle Hospital in Reading. The attraction was immediate and mutual. One year later, with shoes found for the bride, they were wed. It was a big white wedding, with each and every tradition faithfully honoured.

‘Sue was always so involved in what I was doing at work,’ recalls Brian. ‘Leaving for home, if something interesting had happened, I’d think, I must tell Sue that. That’s not to say that we didn’t have our ups and downs. We did. But everything seemed to be working out as planned. And I remember thinking how good life was.’

That Wednesday Brian Godfrey followed his familiar early morning routine. He left the family’s four-bedroomed bungalow in Clay Hill Road, Burghfield Common, a small village just outside Reading. He loved his home and he loved his family. An only child, Brian now basked in the warmth of fan-tily life, especially with his wife’s large extended family. In fact, old Nellie Fisher boasted well over two dozen great-grandchildren, of whom Hannah and James were but two.

‘That day I gave Sue a kiss and said, "See you this evening." The kids had come outside and said, "Drive carefully, Daddy" - which was always what Sue said.’

Little Sue had been tiny from the start. A premature baby weighing only 21b 4oz, she owed her life to the medical staff of Battle Hospital, which she later joined as a trainee nurse. She had worked there until,1984, when she left to have her second child. But in giving birth to her son she found herself engaged in a struggle for her very survival. Sue won the fight and little James Godfrey was her prize.

Devoting the greater part of her energy to looking after Hannah and James, Sue was nonetheless able to pursue her chosen profession by working weekends at Reading’s BUPA-owned Dunedin Hospital. Mother, wife and health-care professional - was there time for anything else? Most certainly. Sister Sue, as some people called her, was both extremely active and popular in her village. In fact in August 1987 she was busy taking over the running of the Toddlers’ Club, held three days a week in the village hall, and was a force within the local branch of the National Women’s Register. She had gone to school locally, and her parents, Ethel and Harold Fisher, still lived in the neighbouring village of Burghfield. Sue was very much a local girl, with Berkshire in her bones. An item in the village newsletter encapsulated her approach to life. Advertising the National Womens’ Register, it read: ‘If you are new to Burghfield, get in touch and make friends. Ring Sue.’

Understandably, Sue had no shortage of friends. That was why she could be sure that the Tupperware party being advertised that week at the local Post Office, and which was due to be held in her home, would be well attended. On Wednesday 19 August, however, there was just one item on the agenda. Her calendar, packed with summer activities and proudly displayed on her kitchen wall, said it all: ‘Keep free. Granny 95. Down Granny’s.’

Sue took pride in her personal appearance. For Granny’s birthday she was wearing a pretty blue floral dress that seemed to capture the spirit of summer. The children were likewise impeccably turned out, as always, and all the more so on this important day. James sported a Thomas the Tank Engine top, while Hannah wore a pink hairband. Hannah was particularly mature for four, and her mother was in no doubt that her development had been helped enormously by her attendance three days a week at a nursery school.

Not long after setting out, Sue stopped for petrol at an isolated filling station, the Golden Arrow at Froxfield. Mrs Kakoub Dean, the owner’s wife, vividly remembers Sue’s visit. Not that their exchange was any different from the sort of chat she might have had with a good many other customers. ‘But I do remember her saying, 1sn’t it a lovely day", and that she also gave me a nice smile,’ Mrs Dean explains.

For the picnic, Sue could hardly have chosen a more picturesque spot than the Savernake Forest. Situated near the Wiltshire town of Marlborough, it covers some 6000 acres, with trees stretching as far as the eye can see, many of them towering birches. Once kings of England hunted there, but nowadays it is better known as the haunt of survival-training enthusiasts. For all that, the forest has hardly changed, remaining beautiful, cool and silent.

. After parking in Grand Avenue, the main road running through the forest, Sue spread out a blue groundsheet and the children’s treat began. As young Hannah would later recall, it was while they were picnicking that another car pulled up not far away. It was a D-registration silver-grey Vauxhall Astra GTE.

Just before middday, the picnic over, Sue set about packing up with her usual energy and enthusiasm. It would be unforgivable to arrive late at Granny’s. Just as she was clearing away the picnic debris, the man who had been sitting in the driver’s seat of the Vauxhall got out of his car. It looked like he was making his way towards little Sue.


2 An English Heaven

‘I’ve lived in Hungerford for almost half a century,’ Ron Tarry says with pride. The chubby, grey-haired grandfather has twice been the town’s mayor. ‘My parents moved here shortly after the war. I was a parachute instructor in the RAF at the time, in India - just about at the time of partition - teaching Indians how to jump. I’ve always been very much involved in the town, the community and its organizations.’

Ron’s passion has always been football, so it is hardly surprising that he gravitated towards the local club. It was through his interest m the sport that he first came to be involved in public life. Owned by the Charity Commissioners, the Hungerford football club’s ground was leased to it by the town council.

‘We felt then that we weren’t getting a particularly good deal, at least compared to other organizations. So in the late 1960s I got myself elected to the War Memorial Recreation Ground Committee - the people who ran it. The idea was to have our say. Which we did. Then someone suggested that I might run for election to the town council. That was back in May 1972, and I’ve served on the town council ever since.’

The town council of Hungerford enjoys only parish status, with many of its members being non-party-political. Fiercely independent, Run Tarry fits into this category: ‘While I do enjoy the cut and thrust of debate, my sole criterion is always quite simple: is this or that measure going to be good for Hungerford?’

Ron explains how he became mayor: ‘I was persuaded to stand as deputy mayor, knowing that I would almost automatically become the next mayor, which, in those days, you could have been for several years. But the then mayor died of a heart attack during his term of office, so I had the office thrust upon me, so to speak. But Joe Brady’s widow approached me and said that the next meeting, due to be held a few days after his death, should go ahead. She said that would have been what Joe wanted. So it did go ahead. That was something of a difficult occasion for me. I was elected mayor in 1975, and then for a second year, until 1977, the year of the Silver Jubilee celebrations. I was therefore mayor for two and a half years, with no thoughts of ever being mayor again. But ten years later, in 1987, I was asked to stand again. Against my better judgement, I was talked into it. My wife, Beryl, was not at all keen. So I said to her that 1977 had been a very hectic year because of the Jubilee. I said that 1987 was bound to be something of a routine year. It wasn’t a full-time job anyway. All we had, then, by way of administrative back-up, was a part-time clerk, Mrs Fowler - and even she had to come in from Newbury. Anyway, Beryl gave in and I became mayor once again.’

Ron Tarry has something of a reputation in the town for his frenetic energy. When he was not seeing to the affairs of the football club, he would be chairing the town’s planning committee, opening a ffite or presenting an award. Not surprisingly, this enthusiasm and zest for life, together with his overriding concern for others, combined to make him a well-known figure in Hungerford. Popular and respected, lie is devoid of the slightest trace of pomposity or self-importance. The town contains only a few individuals prepared to dart from one meeting to the next, like Ron. For the vast majority, life proceeds at a more leisurely pace.

Hungerford is a picture-postcard market town. Indeed the High Street is coyly, almost self-consciously English and genteel, with its abundant, well-kept deciduous trees, elegant eighteenth-century houses and numerous antique shops.

People walk their dogs on the Common; elderly ladies clip their hedges and chat to passers-by., mothers from the choir swap details of how much money they made from last week’s coffee morning. On a sunny summer’s day the High Street sits wide and sleepy amid the Berkshire Downs. With cars parked nose to the kerb, the market town goes about its business quietly, the only noise coming from a group of ducks squabbling on the banks of the nearby River Kennet.

For some the tranquillity of Hungerford is oppressive, and they move away. But the majority of the town’s just over 5000 residents seem happy to remain, considering themselves more than a little fortunate to have found such an agreeable spot. For many, the trout and grayling fishing on the Kennet proves an irresistible bonus. Here one can well believe, like John O’Gaunt, in a ‘Sceptered isle, this other Eden, demi-Paradlise. This blessed plot, this earth, this England . . .’

John O’Gaunt has long been the town’s most famous resident. It was he, the fourth son of Edward III, who, as Duke of Lancaster back in the fourteenth century, had granted commoners’ and fishing rights to the people of Hungerford. Since that time the name of Hungerford has been proudly associated with that of John O’Gaunt. There is the John O’Gaunt School, the John O’Gaunt Inn -in fact just about the John O’Gaunt everything. And if the Charter granted by this much-feted man was lost or misplaced, then the traditions would still be handed down and thus preserved.

To visit Hungerford is to step into history. The ancient borough and manor of Hungerford is governed by the ‘Hocktide Jury’, consisting of twenty to twenty-four persons selected by lot from among the commoners. Its chief official is the Constable. Since 1458, when John Tuckhill was appointed to that post, the position has been held by nearly 300 people. Other officials are the Portreeve - responsible for collecting the quit rents, the Bailiff, three Water Bailiffs, three Overseers of the Port Down, the Aletesters, the Tithing men, the Town Crier and the Bellman.

Hungerford is rich in tradition. Indeed, many of its traditions are entirely incomprehensible to people from outside the town. This is never more true than on Tutti Day, always held on the Tuesday of the second week after Easter. OnRitti Day the whole of Hungerford goes to town.

‘Some people say Tutti Day is all a lot of nonsense,’ declares Ron Tarry. ‘That it’s just an excuse for a big booze-up. But these are an important part of Hungerford’s traditions. Because if it wasn’t for the work that people had put in in the past to keep their commoners’ rights, they simply wouldn’t be there now. The Common is now there for everyone to use. And the fishing rights on the Kennet are reserved for commoners or anyone who rents them from the Town and Manor. Tutti Day is the day when the commoners elect all these obscure officials, like our two Ale-testers, whose job is to ensure that the ales are a goodly brew. I enjoy all of these traditions. They are unusual, and very much part of our history. They make Hungerford all the more special.’.

Ron Tarry is right. Tutti Day is certainly unusual. For nowhere else in England are you likely to find two Tithing men, or ‘Tutti men’, resplendent in morning dress, with beautiful long staves, their Tutti poles topped by an ingenious arrangement of spring flowers and streamers of blue ribbon, being sent on their way by the Constable. And the Constable’s orders to his two smart Tutti men? To visit all the commoners’ houses to demand a penny and a kiss from all the ladies, even if that means climbing ladders to windows when normal ingress is denied. Maidens are kissed; pennies and oranges thrown to the children.

And so the proceedings continue throughout the day, as they have done throughout the centuries. The Tithing men duly dispatched, the Constable takes the chair at the Manorial Court and the day’s activities begin. These include the Hocktide Lunch, which is followed by another Hungerford speciality, ‘shoeing the Colts’.

‘I haven’t really been all that much involved in Tutti Day and the Hocktide Lunch,’ Ron explains, ‘because these have always been organized by the Town and Manor of Hungerford, whereas my involvement has been more by way of the town council. But I have been invited to the Hocktide Lunch. It’s a marvellous occasion. The people attending this lunch for the first time are known as Colts. These people are caught and shoed by the blacksmith, whose solemn duty it is to drive a nail into the sole of the shoe of that person until a cry of "Punch" is heard. When they do this, they then have to pay for a bowl of punch. It really is a lot of fun.’

The term ‘Tutti’ is derived from the West Country name for a nosegay or a flower - a tutty. With its obscure and ancient rituals, Tutti Day comes but once a year. For the remaining 364 days Hungerford is as it has been since time immemorial. A former resident of the town recalls his childhood thus: ‘Of all the quiet, uneventful places in my 1950s childhood, Hungerford was the quietest. I remember those utterly motionless summer afternoons in the High Street. My grandmother and I would get off the coach from London at the Bear Hotel and carry our cases, stopping frequently for rests, up the broad main street, with its red-brick clocktower. Invariably, the town clock would be tolling its slow, flat note, assuring us that, whatever might be happening elsewhere in the world, nothing ever happened in Hungerford.’

In fact something did once happen in Hungerford. For on one of the back roads leading out of the town towards Lambourn there is a monument that few notice. Half-buried in the hedgerow, it commemorates two policemen murdered there by a gang of robbers. But that was back in the 1870s, ironically just a few years after the opening of the town’s small but proud police station. The former resident was right, though, for ever since that time nothing extraordinary had happened in Hungerford.

For Ron Tarry, Wednesday 19 August 1987 was a typical working day. He was out and about in his maroon Ford Escort estate, working for his employer, an agricultural cooperative. Ron’s task was the same as ever: to sell stock feed, seed, fertilizer and other agricultural products to the farmers of Berkshire.

‘I remember that day well,’says Ron.’ The sun was shining. The windows were down. I was driving around the Lambourn Downs, listening to the radio. I was just north of Lambourn at a place called Seven Barrows, and preparing for my next call. Then I heard the early-afternoon news.’


3 ‘That shows the power a gun gives you’

Michael Robert Ryan was born at Savernake Hospital on 18 May 1960. His father could hardly get to the registration office quickly enough, and Michael’s birth was duly registered in less than twenty-four hours. The reasons for this haste were twofold. First, as a white-collar council employee, he knew all about the inner workings of a small local bureaucracy. Secondly, and more importantly, in his mid-fifties Alfred Henry Ryan was delighted to have finally fathered a child. The prompt issue of a birth certificate provided confirmation that Michael Ryan had made his belated entry into the world.

‘I remember the day when Dorothy returned from the hospital with Michael as a baby,’ recalls the Ryans’ neighbour Guytha Hunt. ‘I was thrilled to bits. I saw him grow up from the very beginning. She doted on him - that’s the word. I sometimes used to say, jokily so as not to offend, that I wouldn’t get him this or that. That I wouldn’t jump to it when he c ‘ licked his fingers. But she loved him as a son and that was it. There was nothing you could do. It just wasn’t up to neighbours like me to interfere. So we didn’t.’

Alfred doted on his son too. He was the Clerk of Works for Hungerford Rural District Council, and had a rather unflattering reputation in the area as a perfectionist who enforced strict standards of behaviour. But since he was already approaching retirement when his son was born, he was happy for his wife to take charge of the boy’s upbringing. Dorothy, over twenty years younger than her husband, loved her son very much indeed. ‘I just don’t know what I would do if anything ever happened to Michael,’ she would often muse. And the hallmark of Dorothy Ryan’s brand of loving was indulgence. Not surprisingly, it did not take young Michael too long to realize that his wishes were usually likely to be fulfilled. Soon the formula had been set: what Michael wanted, Dorothy provided. He became the boy who was given everything: toys and train sets, records and clothes, bikes and, later, cars.

Unlike both her husband and son, however, Dorothy was a well-known figure in Hungerford, and highly respected too. The general manager of the Elcot Park Hotel, where she worked as a part-time waitress for twelve years, remembers his former employee as extremely popular, conscientious and hard-working -,a real salt-of-the-earth figure’. So popular was Dorothy that when, shortly before the summer of 1987, she finally passed her driving test at the twelfth attempt, at the age of sixty-one, the hotel’s management presented her with a bottle of champagne, a gesture of admiration for her gritty determination. However, the most constant beneficiary of any additional income generated by Dorothy’s dedicated efforts was not herself but her son.

As a young child Michael Ryan developed a particular attachment to Action Man, the commando-style plastic doll beloved of so many boys at that time. True to form, Dorothy saw to it that Michael’s Action Man was exceptionally well kitted out, with several different uniforms and virtually every accessory on the market. For this was what Michael had wanted.

‘He was moody and self-centred,’ his uncle, Stephen Fairbrass, would later recall, ‘but that did not mean that it was impossible to like him.’ It might not have been impossible, but few did. And when it came to his schooling, Ryan was himself certainly no junior Action Man. Quite the contrary, in fact. He attended the local primary school, just opposite his home in South View, before moving to the John O’Gaunt School. He was a C-stream pupil of below-average ability, as a former classmate recalls: ‘He was in a remedial class or in one of the lower sets at secondary school. We used to try to get him to join in games, but he appeared to be moody and sulky, so eventually the other children would just leave him alone. The only person I ever remember seeing him with was his mother, who adopted a very protective attitude towards him.’

As an eleven-year-old, Ryan was photographed along with all the other schoolchildren. Despite the best efforts of the local photographer, even on that occasion he was unable to manage a smile for the camera; indeed it is not difficult to detect a fearful expression on his face. From the very earliest of days, Michael Ryan was a child apart.

Guytha, Hunt recalls that throughout Ryan’s primary-school days she saw little evidence of children coming to and going from his house at South View: ‘In fact I never once saw any friend come to play with him throughout those early years. Actually I had a lot of time for Michael, but no one seemed to have a lot of time for him - apart from his parents, that is.’

He might not have been seen by Guytha Hunt, but there was eventually one boy, Brian Melkle, who did come to play. He and Ryan were best friends at school, although they eventually grew apart when Brian married in 1980. But during their school years, they were two of a kind, enjoying motorbike scrambling, and both well aware that neither of them was destined to scale the heights of academia. Brian explains: ‘Neither of us was very good at school. In the fifth year, when Michael was in a remedial class for one subject, he used to play truant a lot. The other lads used to pick on him -because he was small - but he didn’t get himself into fights because he just wouldn’t have been able to stick up for himself. He was certainly no Rambo - more of a Bambi really.’

Brian Meikle was right. His friend was frequently a victim of bullying at school. Other children detected his sense of isolation and preyed on it without mercy. And throughout his long, lonely persecution, Ryan would say nothing, preferring to simply take the punishment, always remaining silent and still. His former friend and classmate remembers it well: ‘It was quite sad really, because he would always sit on his own. He never did anything to harm anybody. He wasn’t popular either with the boys or girls though. He took a lot of stick - and it just made him even more withdrawn. He retreated into his guns, and they became his only real friends.’

Nor did Ryan shine in sport. His former physical education teacher, Vic Lardner, remembers only a sullen and shy boy: ‘He was quiet, withdrawn you might even say. He certainly wasn’t too keen on sports, because it was difficult to get him to take part at all.’

Not surprisingly, Michael Ryan wanted out. The troubled teenager’s conclusion could hardly have been more clear: the sooner he was free of the confines of the John O’Gaunt School, the better his world would be. His father, however, was not so eager for him to leave school so soon after his sixteenth birthday, and without a single examination pass under his belt. In the Ryan household a conflict developed as to when and what Michael’s next move should be. But when his son promised to enrol at the Newbury College of Further Education, Alfred Ryan relented. Perhaps there, he thought, Michael would receive a more appropriate and vocational type of training.

Having taken his place on the year-long City and Guilds Foundation Course, Ryan seemed at first to have found a home for himself. It was a new and challenging environment. But within a few months a familiar pattern had begun to emerge. For during his time at Newbury College Ryan remained uncommunicative, always attempting to make himself as inconspicuous as possible by sitting near the back of the class. Like many others with whom Ryan came into contact, course tutor Robin Tubb can recall only a shy., repressed personality: ‘He was an exceedingly quiet student. He needed a lot of encouragement. He did pay attention though - he was a real trier. It was just that he wasn’t very good. I got the feeling that he was frustrated with his inadequacy. He wanted to do well, but he was very timid. If you showed him how to use a chisel, you would have to say: "Now hit it."

A timid and withdrawn loner, however, was far from the image Michael Ryan was eager to project to the world. For his pattern of behaviour made it clear that his aim was to be taken as something of an Action Man himself. But a new persona had first to be concocted. He invested in a military camouflage jacket, which, to his mind, lent authority to his idle boast that he was once a member of the 2nd Parachute Regiment. And whether in Hungerford or elsewhere, he would always do his best to walk upright like a soldier, chin up and chest out. Neighbour Victor Noon remembers his antics well: ‘Michael was into buying and selling old military swords and he once owned a tommy gun. He was a bit of a military freak and always wore combat gear. He would tend to his guns the way most people would tend to their plants.’

Ryan’s shed might have housed a considerable arsenal. He might well have strained to walk upright like a soldier. His patter to the world might have sounded completely. plausible. But such boasting and behaviour belonged only to the private world of his imagination. In fact, for Ryan, reality and fantasy were almost equal and exact opposites, as another Hungerfordian, Denis Morley, explains: ‘1 worked with Ryan together on a project at Littlecote. He was employed as a general labourer there. I thought he was a wimp. He was very much a mummy’s boy. She bought him the best motorbike when he was old enough to have a licence. And then he started going round in a posh Ford Escort XR3i. His latest acquisition was a flashy new Vauxhall Astra GTE. He would always have the latest registration plate too. But he certainly wasn’t the sort to get involved in a punch-up. In fact he wouldn’t even go up a ladder at Littlecote.’

For Ryan, ladders clearly represented an unacceptable risk. And yet he was deeply fascinated by the worlds of survivalism and combat, where the stakes are considerably higher. As a result he was a regular visitor to the Savernake Forest, where several survival huts can be found. Most of these are made from branches broken and woven around a tree in order to blend with the background of the forest. The forest is entrancing, with tangles of pine, beech and oak criss-crossing a network of unmarked lanes, and in season, red puffs of poppies amid the fields of brown, ripening corn which break up the woodland. But Ryan’s repeated visits to Savernake were entirely unrelated to the natural beauty of the environment, as Charles Armor, with whom Ryan worked briefly, recalls: ‘He used to spend quite a lot of time in Savernake pretending to be on manoeuvres. He used to tell us, when we worked together at Littlecote, that he would camouflage himself and creep up on picnickers without them knowing. He would watch them for a while - and then disappear.’

‘He were a right nutter, were Michael Ryan. I can remember running around the garden when I was about six years old, some twenty years ago, because he used to use us as moving targets for his air rifle.’

Wynn Pask was right. Ryan had terrorized his younger neighbour for some time. And a good many of Wynn’s friends too.

‘He never hit us but it was always Very frightening; Wynn recalls. ‘Even when he was just thirteen years old, he would lean out of his bedroom window, which looked on to our garden, and take shots at us with his air rifle. It was the same thing when we were playing - he would come out with his air rifle. We did complain about it, but not all that much really because we were too scared of him at the time. I often saw him going out into nearby fields and on to the Common with a shotgun when he was just a kid. He even used to take aim at his father’s cows, which were kept behind his house. He would shoot at anything, would Ryan. A right bloody lunatic.’

Fourteen years later, Michael Ryan remained gun mad. If anything, his devotion to the world of arms had increased with the years. It was his mother who had initiated him by presenting him with his first gun, an air pistol. Dorothy Ryan was constantly lavishing gifts on Michael, her only child, and the air pistol was followed by a moped, then a scrambler motorbike and, later, a string of smart new cars.

There is nothing to suggest that these later offerings were not appreciated. Yet Michael Ryan savoured nothing so much as the acquisition of a new gun. Whereas supporting the local football club was something of an interest, collecting guns soon became a passion. And wherever Ryan went, his gun went too - even if it was just to the local pub for a pint.

Throughout his teenage years and later, Ryan spent long hours tucked away in his garden shed, which soon housed a small arsenal. Every now and then he would emerge to fire at a tin can on the garden fence or take a shot at a bird. The sound of Ryan firing off rounds both behind his parents’ house, 4 South View, and in the general vicinity of Hungerford, became quite common.

And then it was back to the garden shed to grease, oil, polish or strip his formidable array of weaponry. Sometimes Ryan’s visits to the shed would have no precise purpose, the hours being whiled away simply admiring his treasured collection. Given the opportunity, he could hold forth on every aspect of his hobby for hours, while secreted in his bedroom was a comprehensive range of literature on guns, with books, reviews and survival magazines packing every inch of available space.

Ryan’s passion for weaponry singularly failed to impress the next-door neighbours. Just as the Pask family had suffered, so too had the Hunts, who for over twenty years had lived immediately next door to the Ryans at 5, South View. Mrs Hunt remembers Ryan’s antics well: ‘My husband often used to see Michael coming out the house with his guns, place them in the boot of his car and then cover them with blankets. My husband would say, I wonder where he is off to with those guns!’ My husband used to keep geese and chickens. And of course Michael was always around and about with his airgun - and I remember my husband saying, "Michael, if you kill one of my birds, woe betide you!’ He would also go to his bedroom window and shoot the birds in the trees with his guns, and this also upset my husband.’

By the summer of 1987 Ryan’s collection of weapons consisted of two rifles and three handguns. They were his pride and joy, something about which he could boast to relatives and acquaintances alike. Nor was there anything illegal in this arsenal kept in the Ryans’ brick-built, end-of-terrace council house. On the contrary, Ryan had held a shotgun licence since 1978. As his collection had expanded to include other firearms, so his licence had been amended accordingly, as required by law. The Thames Valley Police had, in the twelve months before August 1987, vetted the young gun enthusiast on at least three occasions, once in November 1986 and twice in early 1987. As the storage facilities were found to be in order, there was no good reason for the relevant authorization to be withheld, and it was not.

Under the terms of his firearms certificate Ryan was entitled to own five guns. It was his constant chopping and changing of his weaponry which had prompted the police visits. Constable Ronald Hoyes, the Hungerford community beat officer, was one such official visitor to the Ryan household. He explains: ‘Having worked in Hungerford for thirteen years, I had had no previous dealings with Ryan at all and I knew that he had never been in any trouble with the police, apart from one single speeding offence. He appeared to me to be a fit and responsible person to hold a firearms certificate.’

PC Hoyes’s visit was required because Ryan had again applied for a variation to his certificate in order to include a Smith and Wesson, a .38 pistol, for target shooting. The amendment came through without undue delay. Everything was in accordance with the law.

Another police constable, Trevor Wainwright, also a member of the Hungerford constabulary, took the same view as his colleague on his visits to 4 South View. In fact he lived just around the corner in Macklin Close. These judgements were supported by Ryan’s own doctor, Dr Huigh Pihiens, whose name had been associated with Ryan’s original application. Again, both PC and GP found Ryan to be sane and safe. Additional legal requirements were duly fulfilled by the purchase and installation of a Chubb steel cabinet,

which was then bolted to Ryan’s bedroom wall. But in reality the licensee kept the guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition in the garden shed, a flimsy structure which had long been the nerve centre of Ryan’s quasi-military operations, as many neighbours knew.

‘Michael was always fascinated by guns,’ his aunt, Constance Ryan, confirms. ‘It seemed to me as if he felt more important and powerful because of them - perhaps because he wasn’t all that big himself, I don’t really know. But I do remember Michael telling me that once he had met a person while out rabbit shooting and this person had started getting saucy. Michael pulled a revolver out of his pocket and pointed it at the man, and then watched with satisfaction as he ran off. I remember the lesson he drew from this incident very clearly. "That," he said, "shows the power a gun gives you, Auntie."’

Michael Ryan’s fixation with weaponry might have made him something of an exception in Hungerford. But he was by no means unusual in terms of the country as a whole. For in the summer of 1987 Britain’s gun culture was very widespread indeed. Ryan was just one among 160,000 licensed holders of firearms and 840,000 licensed holders of shotguns. However, the number of shotguns in legitimate circulation at that time was estimated at around three times that number, because several could be held on a single licence. And according to an estimate published in the Police Review there were then possibly as many as four million illegally held guns in the country. Gun shops and gun centres were also widespread, with more than two thousand legitimate dealers trading in arms, many extremely successfully, and some eight thousand gun clubs where the enthusiast could hone his skills.

In his love for guns, then, Michael Ryan was not alone. So when he applied to join the Dunmore Shooting Centre at Abingdon in Oxfordshire in September 1986, there was nothing particularly remarkable in his application. For Ryan membership of the Dunmore club was particularly attractive because it incorporated what it claimed was one of the biggest gun shops in the country. Ryan proved to be a good customer, spending £391.50 on a Beretta pistol shortly before Christmas 1986, and then buying a Smith and Wesson for £325, a Browning shotgun, a Bernadelli pistol and two other shotguns during the following year. Ryan borrowed the money to finance these transactions, a Reading finance company handling his repeated applications for funds.

There was more besides to attract the young gun enthusiast, for the Dumnore Centre’s shooting gallery had a 25-metre, fullboard, seven-lane range with television-monitored targets. The Centre, situated not far from Ryan’s home, also had a turning-target system, enabling him to practice rapid fire and combat exercises, an area of gun expertise known as practical shooting. Here, accuracy is tested not on Bisley-style targets where closeness to the bull’s-eye gains the most marks, but under simulated combat conditions, firing at representational figures, usually life-sized depictions of terrorists. The aim here is to kill or maim the ‘enemy’. In the summer of 1987 there were no fewer than forty ‘survival schools’ scattered around Britain, and magazines like Desert Eagle, Combat and Survival, Soldier of Fortune and Survival Weaponry were then enjoying a rapidly rising circulation. Michael Ryan was simply one of the gun-loving crowd.

Or was he? Certainly there was something which did not quite ring true. For Ryan’s extensive range of macho trappings should surely have made him the envy of the neighbourhood. One night have expected a string of callers at 4 South View: youngsters anxious to sit in his high-performance car or interested in his impressive armoury. Yet not only was there no waiting list of prospective visitors awdous to inspect Ryan's collection; there was nobody in Hungerford remotely interested in Ryan or his weapons. For the reality was that Michael Ryan’s personality simply did not match his image. One of his former workmates, John Mitchell, explains: In no way was he ordinary. He had a quiet intensity about him, which nobody really liked. Sometimes he was very pally, but you could tell that the rest of the blokes were not having any of it. He used to talk about how fast he used to drive here, there and everywhere. He was someone you just wanted to stay away from.’

And people did just that. Ryan would therefore occasionally be seen in local pubs standing alone, drinking a pint or two of beer before leaving. Peter Bullock, the landlord of the Red House at Marsh Benham, between Hungerford and Newbury, recalls his surly, solitary presence in his pub: ‘I can remember Ryan standing at the bar or sitting at a table. One thing never changed: he was always alone. I don’t think that he was a loner by choice, mind you -just that he seemed inadequate.’

Ryan certainly considered his own height of five foot six inadequate. Nor was he very impressed with his head of hair, for he worried a great deal about its premature loss. In fact Ryan was something of a worrier all round, and his doctor was in no doubt that the recurrent lump in his throat which troubled him so was caused simply by nervous stress. His other features were nothing unusual: a beer gut, short light brown hair and a light beard to match.

As a youth Ryan was so reserved and awkward that his headmaster, David Lee, struggles to remember his former pupil: ‘He was unremarkable, an anonymous sort of lad really, who failed to distinguish himself either academically or in sports.’ Years later a contrived anonymity would continue, with Ryan sporting sunglasses in all weathers, an absence of sunshine not deterring him one iota. Being tough, or being seen to be tough, was certainly important to him. And it was no doubt the feeling of power over youngsters which prompted him once to take a job as a bouncer at local rock concerts. Ryan’s new role, with his gun tucked out of sight, neatly matched the image he had developed.

Not surprisingly, Ryan was not much of a hit with women. ‘In all the time I knew him,’Gary DevIin recalls, ‘I never once saw him with a girlfriend. He was into his guns and kept himself occupied with that.’ This is not to ‘imply that Ryan’s sexual preference inclined towards men or boys, for it did not. It was just that he was entirely lacking in the social skills which might have led to a sexual relationship. In fact in June 1987 Ryan made such a nuisance of himself at a party by persistently asking a local waitress to go out with him, and refusing to take no for an answer, that he had to be warned off by her friends. And Michael Ryan did not like to be warned off. Not one bit.

By contrast, there was no risk of his being rejected by Blackie, his labrador, whom he loved deeply and looked after very well. Ryan would often be seen out walking Blackie. If anyone crossed his path, or his crossed theirs, then providing that person was not one of the neighbours with whom he had fallen out because of his shooting activities, then invariably his greeting was both courteous and friendly. ‘Hello, all right?’ he would always ask. Sometimes he would stop and talk knowledgeably to the local children about the latest television film he had seen or video he had hired.

If Michael Ryan was nondescript, so too was his home. The living-room was decorated with a heavy, old-fashioned wallpaper of a golden hue. Past the kitchen was a glass lean-to, which his father had built and his mother used as a utility room. Beyond that was the garden, some 200 feet long and complete with a garage and a greenhouse. Michael’s room was at the front of the house on the first floor, overlooking the street, which was really a lane, with houses on one side and Hungerford Primary School on the other. This house was the constant backcloth to Michael Ryan’s rather dreary and joyless life. It was here that he had been brought, as the only child of his parents, when he was just a few days old.

Dorothy Ryan was a grafter. And invariably she was grafting for her son. She paid for everything: the fast cars, the best clothes and the latest records. She always had, and what is more she was happy to have done so. This suited Michael down to the ground, for while his mother was happy to give, he was happy to take. Her money, however, was hard-earned, as she worked as a dinner lady at Hungerford Primary School. The timing of her job enabled Dorothy to have a couple of hours off before starting work again as a silver-service waitress at the stylish Elcot Park Hotel at Kintbury, on the outskirts of Hungerford. Here she had felt privileged to serve members of the Royal family on more than one occasion. If guns made Michael happy, therein lay Dorothy’s satisfaction too. That explained why she was more than happy to pop across the road every week to pick up her son’s pile of survival and gun magazines.

Relatives and friends could see all too clearly that Dorothy Ryan, who, unlike her son, was extremely popular in the neighbourhood, was pampering Michael to a degree which defied description. Michael could be a polite and well-mannered young man, but he was at times a sullen, brooding character, and prone to extreme mood swings. He was often rude and abusive towards his mother. The analysis was hardly complicated: he had been thoroughly spoiled. Aunt Constance Ryan, however, is a little more charitable. in her assessment: ‘Actually we got on rather well. We shared similar tastes in music and it seemed as if there was not that much of an age difference between us. He was a very, very nice person. But he was also a rather sad and lonely boy. It didn’t seem as if he had many friends.’

In 1984, aged eighty-one, Ryan’s father, Alfred, had died. It was the end of a long battle against cancer. At first Ryan took the death of his father badly, sinking into a depression, and he turned to his doctor for advice and support. According to Leslie Ryan, his uncle, it was a terrible blow for the young man: ‘His father, who he called Buck, was his life. When he went, something in Michael seemed to go too.’

This might have been true in the first stages of Ryan’s grief, but it was certainly not for long, according to his cousin, David Fairbrass: ‘Michael was quite articulate, but a man of few words. I had known him all of my life and you wouldn’t think there was anything strange about him. I only met him with the family, not socially, and he used to drop my auntie down to visit. I never saw his guns, but at his father’s funeral he showed me his collection of antique swords. After his father died, Michael became more outgoing if anything. Alfred was quite a disciplinarian, but Michael used to look up to him. Before Alfred’s death, Michael was shy, introverted and insecure. But the change that came over him after his father had died Was incredible. We could see him coming out of himself. We were all quite pleased for him at the time. And when we heard about Michael’s forthcoming marriage we were all very excited indeed. But we never did meet her or hear any name mentioned.’

There was a single compelling reason why David Fairbrass was never to meet this fiancee: she was but a figment of his cousin’s imagination. Ryan might well have made some progress since the death of his father in terms of the development of his own personality. Yet the fact remained that he was an outsider, a loner, a nobody whose life was so full of rejection and failure that he chose what appeared to him to be a rather satisfactory solution. This was to concoct an altogether more fanciful, successful and dynamic existence which he knew he would never be able to achieve in reality. While his everyday life might have been humdrum, Ryan’s fantasy life could hardly have been more colourful.

Witness Ryan’s bizarre invention of a relationship with a ninety-five-year-old retired colonel. Mrs Eileen North, Dorothy Ryan’s closest friend, recounts the story of this elaborate fiction: ‘I worked as a school-dinner lady with Dorothy and my own mother lived next door to the Ryan family. I suppose you could say that, relatives apart, I knew the family better than anyone else. Mrs Ryan was devoted to her son and it was she who told people how Michael had become friendly with this colonel who employed a nurse and housekeeper. Michael claimed he was going to fly to India because he had been invited to his tea-plantation there, but that the flight had had to be cancelled due to a bad storm. He was also supposed to be paying for flying lessons for Michael . He was supposed to be the owner of a hotel in Eastbourne, although he himself lived in Cold Ash. Not only was he intent on leaving Michael his fortune, he was also due to inherit a five-bedroomed house. Michael also told people that he was engaged to the colonel’s nurse, but that the wedding was postponed after she had fallen from a horse. Then the wedding was called off when she refused to buy Mrs Ryan a birthday present. Oh yes, and this colonel person was also meant to be buying Michael a Porsche, Ferrari or Range Rover.’

The story Ryan spun to Edred Gwilliam, a dealer in antique firearms, concerned not an ageing colonel but a young Irish girl. Others were to hear this tale too. Ryan claimed that he had been married to an Irish girl who had borne his child, but that the marriage had run into difficulties after he had caught his wife in bed with an elderly uncle for whom he had once worked. His estranged wife, he told Gwilliam and workmates alike, had returned to Ireland with the child. In any event, Ryan explained, the relationship between the Irish girl and her mother-in-law had always been a troubled one. Ryan’s hard-luck story had not ended there, for after the death of his father he had been left a lot of money and he and a partner were in business together, renovating properties in London. At one stage, Ryan insisted they had ten or twelve men working for them, but his partner had run away to Australia and left him bankrupt.

Dorothy Ryan had certainly believed her son when he had spoken of the colonel from Cold Ash. It was she, after an, who had picked up the telephone to the Fairbrass family in Calne, twentyfive miles from Hungerford, proudly inviting her relatives to Michael’s wedding. Edred Gwilliam had likewise believed his customer, who had, after all, bought a pair of Queen Anne pistols, a holster pistol and an antique naval sword from him over the years and had given him no reason to disbelieve what he said. Nor was there any shortage of additional fantasy. Other tall stories retailed by Ryan included his claims that he had once run a gun shop or antique store in MarIborough; that he had held a private pilot’s licence; that he had served with the 2nd Parachute Regiment; and that in 1987 he had taken a trip to Venice on the Orient Express. Every story was devoid of the slightest trace of truth. But wherever Michael Ryan went two things now accompanied him: firearms and fantasies.

Ryan had left school in 1976, just after his sixteenth birthday, without a single qualification. For almost a decade he had drifted aimlessly from one unskilled job to another, with intermittent periods on the dole. He was a great disappointment to his father, who had hoped for better things.

When Ryan did work, however, his style was at least memorable. He once found a job as a handyman at Downe House Girls School in Cold Ash, near Newbury, the town where the fictitious colonel was supposed to have lived. But Fred Haynes, the school’s gardener, remembers Ryan’s four months’ labour there for one reason only: ‘He once shot a green woodpecker, which the rest of us found very offensive.’

Between November 1985 and Easter 1986 the gun enthusiast worked as a labourer at nearby Littlecote, the home of the multimillionaire businessman Peter de Savary. Although the great hall at Littlecote was decorated with well over a hundred guns dating from the Civil War, Ryan apparently failed to show any interest in the collection. Littlecote’s project director, John Taylor, whose task it was to oversee the £6-million conversion of stately home into historic theme park, remembers Ryan only for being ‘terribly over-mothered’. Eddy Pett, also involved in the project, summed up Ryan’s personality neatly: ‘Michael Ryan seemed a very nice chap to me. He was pleasant enough, but he appeared to be someone who wasn’t getting to grips with life.’

Pett was right: nothing seemed to be working out for Ryan. But then things had never really gone his way. The job at Littlecote lasted for only six months, after which Ryan resumed a path that had long been familiar: back to the dole office. Then, in April 1987, after a year out of work, Ryan thought that he might have fallen on his feet. The Manpower Services Commission was advertising for people to work on an environmental improvement project. Sponsoring this programme was Newbury District Council, which appointed John Gregory as the scheme’s manager. One requirement was that applicants had to have been out of work for over a year, a criterion which Ryan was able to fulfil. Ryan knew that the job was poorly paid, at £64 per week, but after a prolonged spell of unemployment he was happy to be back in work. A week after his interview he was working again, this time clearing footpaths and mending fences. At first all seemed to go well and Gregory had no cause to complain: ‘Michael Ryan was a good worker, a conscientious worker - and he certainly pulled his weight. Although he was very quiet, he was also well-spoken and well-behaved. I got the impression that he enjoyed working outdoors.’

But Charles Armor got to know Ryan rather better, for he was directly responsible for supervising his work on the project, along with some forty-five other men: ‘He was sullen and a bit moody really, but he joined in the conversations with the lads. He would take the mickey out of the chaps, but he did not like it if they took the mickey out of him.’

As ever, Ryan boasted about this or that. And with every statement he forged the inevitable link with the one area in which he seemed to be better equipped and better informed than everyone around hiiin: firearms. Ryan had learned long ago that it was only in the world of guns that he could ever hope to distinguish himself. Not by excelling at shooting - for he was just an average shot - but through the awesome nature of his chosen field.

When Ryan went to work for Newbury District Council his pattern of behaviour did not change, for his gun still accompanied him every day. He would turn up for work with his small Beretta pistol tucked between the waistband of his trousers and the small of his back. He also carried a flick-knife, and kept another firearm in the glove compartment of his car. It was all for his personal protection, he explained to Charles Armor, and all the relevant paperwork was available for inspection should it be required. But pistols and ammunition had precious little to do with fixing footpaths and fences, as Armor emphasized to Ryan: ‘I told him to his face that he had no right to carry guns. I said that a licence didn’t mean that he could carry loaded guns. So I felt it was my duty to report him to Mr Gregory.’

Once, while working on a project in Calcot, Ryan embarked on a familiar refrain, boasting to his workmates that he could get them any gun they wanted. In fact, he said, he could get hold of almost any type of military equipment they might have cared to choose. And for sale on the spot, no questions asked, he had a box full of flick-knives, which he was offering for the very reasonable price of just £5 each. Next to these knives, in the boot of his car, would be an assortment of shotguns and rifles. He even brought his homemade bombs - Ryan Specials he used to call them - and rockets to work, and one day decided to demonstrate one of the latter while working by the Thames at Reading.

‘It nearly gave me a heart attack,’ Charles Armor recalls. ‘It went up in the air, came down and took off again straight towards some houses. I shut my eyes. It scared the living daylights out of me, but then it dropped down to the ground.

Were Ryan’s activities just harmless fun? The antics of an overenthusiastic amateur? Not according to Armor. Because once, after Ryan had suffered a particularly harsh ribbing from two fellow-workers, he lost his temper in a rather spectacular way. ‘He said he would shoot them if they didn’t leave hirn alone,’ Armor explains. ‘He was serious about it. He was gritting his teeth in temper. I could see what was coming and I told them to leave hirn alone.’

Ryan also boasted of clandestine nocturnal expeditions during which he would use road signs for target practice. At first Armor refused to believe Ryan. But after his recent rocket display Ryan’s supervisor was not too sure what to believe. It was only when he went to inspect a signpost on the Shefford Road to which Ryan had directed him, that he realized that he had been serious after all. For there he witnessed a road sign peppered with four bullet holes. Armor knew that he now had to act, for the time had come for Ryan to go.

Ryan pre-empted Armor’s disciplinary measures, however, by walking out of his job on 9 July 1987. His departure was true to form, for he left claiming that he had found a better job with better pay. In reality he went straight back on the dole, where he could claim £54 a week, just £10 less than his weekly wage. Unemployment conferred on Ryan one major advantage: he could now devote himself entirely to shooting. He had hardly visited the Dunmore Centre in recent months; but now that situation could be redressed. Ryan might not have been getting to grips with life, but he certainly knew how to handle a gun. Here was where his heart had always been, with firearms, not fences. He now had some serious shooting to do.

Within four days Ryan had joined another gun club. This time it was the small, privately owned Tunnel Rifle and Pistol Club, based in a disused railway tunnel in Devizes, Wiltshire. The club had over 600 members, at least thirty of them policemen, and was extremely well run. Probationary membership number R62287 was issued in return for Ryan’s £50 joining fee, which he paid for with his Barclaycard. Once again, for those whose job it was to vet prospective applicants, Ryan cut a very credible and even respectable figure. Andrew Barnard, a partner in the Tunnel Club, certainly harboured no doubts about his eager new recruit: ‘He was a very unremarkable sort of person. He was polite, very safe on the range, and never did anything to give us the slightest worry. He seemed to me to be a typical country person. He came over as perfectly bright and gave the impression of being well educated. The only military gear which he ever wore was a pair of Dutch paratrooper’s boots, which were always well polished. Otherwise he was always smartly dressed. He would have looked quite good with the green-welly brigade.’

A few weeks earlier, while he had been traumatizing Charles Armor on the Manpower Services Commission project, Ryan had applied to the Thames Valley Police for yet another alteration to his firearms certificate. Apparently there had been a qualitative change in the type of weapon he craved, for now he sought permission to own two 7.62mm self-loading rifles. Ryan’s pistols and self-loading rifles were known as Section I weapons under the 1968 Firearms Act, as opposed to Section II weapons, which are shotguns. And in order to obtain a certificate for Section I guns, an applicant must first satisfy his local police authority that he is a fit person with a legitimate reason for their possession. Once again, Ryan was able to satisfy the Thames Valley Police, although he was not yet a full. member of a club that had proper facilities for these weapons. He enjoyed only probationary status at the Devizes centre, whereas his Abingdon club, where he did now have full membership, did not at that time have approved facilities for such weapons.

With his newly varied certificate, Ryan knew that he was legitimately entitled to buy weapons of an altogether greater menace, which was precisely why he had applied for the change. Having obtained it, he could not get to the gun shops quickly enough. Their staff now had no reason to deny him his prize.

On 15 July 1987 Ryan travelled to the pretty Wiltshire market town of Westbury, where he made for Westbury Guns, situated at 12 Edward Street. The shop’s presentation was typically ‘county’, with stuffed vermin and books such as Shooting Made Easy in its olde-worlde windows. Nigel Shirnwell. greeted Ryan. It was not the’ first time they had met. Before long a £310 transaction had been agreed. Ryan produced his credit card once again, and paid a £50 deposit, and then pulled out his firearms certificate and driving licence. This was sufficient documentation to persuade the gun dealer to allow Ryan to pay off the balance, with interest, over a period of months.

The upshot of the deal was that Ryan returned to his car with a Chinese ‘Norinco’ version of the famous Russian semi-automatic Kalashnikov AK47 assault rifle tucked under his arm. This weapon, known as the ‘widowmaker’ by the IRA, and favoured by terrorists all over the world, is extremely powerful, and capable of firing thirty times faster than a finger can pull the trigger, with each magazine holding thirty rounds.

Despite the terrifying nature of the rifle’s firepower, during the summer of 1987 thousands of AK47s were available over the counter and by mail order in Britain at’bargain basementprices. In fact, had Ryan shopped around, he could have obtained the identical weapon for £50 less. It was on sale to anyone with a firearms certificate for a standard 7.62min target, and more often than not, credit was readily available too. The certificate itself cost just £12.

When Shimwell sold Ryan his new weapon, however, he did so without trepidation. Because in the world of gun enthusiasts there was nothing unusual about the direction in which Ryan’s hobby had taken him. Indeed, hundreds, if not thousands, of Kalashnikovs were then in private hands in Britain. Ryan could hardly wait to try out his new semi-automatic. On 23 July, and again on M July, he used it on the club’s ranges, aligning the sight. He was now practising virtually every other day: it was as if he was in training for a particular event.

Unlike Ryan, many of the members of the Minnel. Club were pillars of the establishment. One such member was Gerald Sidney, a Somerset and Avon magistrate. He remembers his meeting with Ryan well: ‘He was sitting in a chair at the top end of the rifle gallery. He had just finished firing off a magazine from his Kalashnikov. I had never seen him before. I said hello and he replied that he had just been zeroing-in his new rifle. The gun seemed in very good nick. The trouble was, when we looked at his targets his shooting was all over the place. It looked to me as if he wasn’t that good a shot.’

All the more reason, then, for Ryan to improve his technique. On 2,4 and 6August he was back at the club, sparing no expense for the 7.62mm cartridges which his new weapon was consuming so greedily. In fact he was so thrilled with his new acquisition that he decided the time was ripe to invest in another rifle. So it was that on 8 August he paid £150 for a US Second World War M1 carbine, and spent an additional £17 on fifty rounds of ammunition. The weapon was purchased at the Devizes club itself, from Andrew White, the co-owner, Ryan again proferring his Barclaycard. To Andrew White there appeared to be little cause for concern. Nor was he the first to have taken this view.

‘Michael Ryan was unusually safety conscious,’ White explains. ‘I should know because I sold him the M1.30 carbine and taught him how to use it. I could tell by the Way he talked that he knew all about their history. He visited the club about a dozen times altogether and he was always rather polite. In fact he would usually have a chat and a few laughs when he came into our shop. I found him to be a very good shot for someone of his experience. He hit an 18 in x 14 in target consistently at 100 metres. I had no doubts whatsoever about selling him the carbine. It’s a very popular rifle and very compact.’

Two days later Ryan was again back at the club working on his shot, and again two days after that, when he invested in an additional box of .30 cartridges for the carbine. Ryan’s licence now entitled him to legitimately hold the following weapons: a 9min Beretta pistol, a .22 Bernadelli pistol, a .32 CZ pistol, a .30 Underwood carbine and a 7.62min Kalashnikov rifle. Under the terms of his licence he was also permitted to hold as many shotguns as he required. Although Ryan’s collection had by now acquired a distinctly military character, his neighbours were nonetheless unable to detect any change in his behaviour. He appeared to be his old self, a solitary figure always out walking his dog, yet invariably willing to pass the time of day with passing neighbours.

On 18 August Ryan paid a final visit to the Tunnel Club. Andrew White explains: ‘He phoned in the morning and said could he come and shoot at two in the afternoon. He shot for one hour, paid his range fee of £1.70 and used two targets. There were no problems whatsoever and he just left the range saying cheerfully, "See you about, cheerio." But I did notice a bit of a change in his personality on that Tuesday. He was rubbing two pound coins together in his hand, fidgeting with them between his fingers. There was none of the usual chatting or joking about.’

If Andrew White thought that on 18 August Ryan appeared a little edgy, Colonel George Styles was also on edge. This nervousness was entirely attributable to his meeting with Ryan the day before. Colonel Styles, also a member of the Devizes club, was formerly the army’s chief firearms expert in Northern Ireland. He also found Ryan to be a wel.11-presented young man in full possession of his faculties. And yet the former soldier came away from his meeting with Ryan with alarm bells ringing in his ears,: ‘When I met Ryan on that Monday he was speaking to Andrew White, one of the directors of the club, and holding his AK47 rifle. I started, to think that this fellow must be a very, very important person to have got permission for a Kalashnikov. Perhaps he was a member of the Special Forces, or the police. Or in the England shooting team. I wasn’t really sure. But he wouldn’t have got permission for it if he was just an ordinary young man. We talked about the cleaning, stripping and maintaining of the Kalashnikov for about ten minutes, during which I whipped the top cover off the gun. But when I gave him the cover he couldn’t even get that back on. I thought, how on earth was he allowed to buy this gun when he doesn’t even know how to use it and he can’t even get the cover back on?’

Colonel Styles n-tight well have been one of the country’s leading firearms experts, but his assumptions about Ryan’s shooting credentials were wildly inaccurate. Ryan was not a member of the Special Forces. Or if he was, it was only in his fantasies. He was not a member of the police, though he would no doubt have found their Tactical Firearms Team of particular interest. And he was certainly not in the England shooting team. Still, the acid test remained whether or not these potentially lethal weapons were likely to be abused. The Thames Valley Police had long ago made up their minds. Their main concern had not changed over the years: that such a weapon should not end up in the wrong hands.

Whatever his other peculiarities, Ryan had always been responsible about his firearms. Nor was his interest merely a fad. Indeed, one could not help but admire him when it came to his attitude towards his dying father. For then his sense of correctness about his weaponry had surely shone out. Two years earlier Alfred Ryan had been losing his battle against lung cancer. Crippled with illness and riddled with pain, he was eventually confined to a wheelchair. Aware that his days were numbered, Ryan senior asked his son for some assistance in bringing about his end, in giving nature a helping hand. His request was simple and direct: would Michael please leave one of his guns at his bedside, loaded with a single bullet?

‘No,’ Ryan replied sternly. ‘No. Certainly not. Guns aren’t meant for killing.’



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