Hungerford: 'Forget? We can't. It's never going away'
PUBLISHED August 28, 2012
Michael Ryan is forever associated with Hungerford, on which he visited mayhem one fine summer's day in August 1987. But the first and most calculated of his 16 murders occurred not in the west Berkshire market town but in woodland seven miles to the west. Savernake, a broad expanse of beech, birch and oak, is a haven of peace in north Wiltshire.
On Wednesday August 19, 1987, Sue Godfrey stopped there with her two young children, Hannah and James, for a picnic. Mrs Godfrey, 35, from the village of Burghfield Common, near Reading, was on her way to visit her grandmother, Nellie.
The picnic would provide Hannah, four, and James, two, with a break from the journey.
Mrs Godfrey probably did not pay much attention to the Vauxhall Astra that pulled up as she and her children picnicked. Ryan, 27, appears to have waited for a while before getting out of the car and ordering Mrs Godfrey to put her children in the back of her Nissan Micra. He then marched her into the forest and shot her 13 times in the back with a Beretta automatic pistol.
Hannah and James were found wandering in the woods by Myra Rose, a pensioner out for a walk. "Oh, we've been looking for you," said Hannah. "We were coming to find you. A man shot my mum. We've had our picnic and I'm going home to find Daddy."
This month is the 25th anniversary of the Hungerford massacre, when one inadequate took out that inadequacy on his home town. Sixteen people were killed and 15 wounded during Ryan's nihilistic wanderings down residential roads. On his way back to Hungerford from Savernake, he shot at a petrol station attendant. Then, reaching the house he shared with his widowed mother Dorothy in South View, a short walk from Hungerford's high street, he shot his dog. He doused his home with petrol and set it alight before shooting his neighbours. On it went for hour after surreal hour. Motorists, a policeman, a man walking his dog who had raised his arms in surrender - all executed with mechanical efficiency; even Mrs Ryan, who paid with her life when she tried to bring her son to his senses. Only when Ryan voluntarily ended his murderous tour of his childhood haunts - seeking shelter in John of Gaunt secondary school, his old school - were police able to contain him, before he committed suicide.
Like their Norwegian counterparts in July 2011, when Anders Breivik went on the rampage, the police were hampered by poor intelligence, lack of a serviceable helicopter and the low-readiness state of armed support. Ryan, a gun fanatic, came well equipped. The firearms laws of 1987 allowed him to assemble an arsenal of military-level weapons, including a semi-automatic, Chinese copy of the AK47 Kalashnikov and an American M1 carbine, both used that day.
Today, Hungerford is still trying to lay to rest the ghost of Michael Ryan. There was no memorial service, no official gathering at the modest monument that commemorates the dead. "There is a feeling that, while we will never forget, to make a special issue of the events of August 1987 at this time would only reaffirm the difficulties the town has had in living with them," says Martin Crane, the town's mayor. "We have moved on."
A relative newcomer to the town, he wants Hungerford to capitalise on its setting.
"It is like Dunblane or Lockerbie. The first thing that comes to mind when you mention Hungerford is tragedy. We are in the heart of the North Wessex Downs, an area of outstanding natural beauty, and we hope people may begin to think of the town in a slightly different light."
Many people in Hungerford agree with Mr Crane - but some don't.
"We held a little memorial service for the 20th anniversary and I said then that we would draw a line under this," says Peter Harries, whose son Carl, now an officer in the Australian army, shadowed Ryan as he shot his way through the town, treating the dying and the wounded as he best could. "To people who suffer similar experiences we can say, 'We got through it. We've laid it to rest.' "
Some, though, cannot move on. They carry reminders with them - bullets that cannot be removed, and memories. Alison Chapman was 16 when Ryan selected her for execution. She and her mother, Linda, were in the family Volvo when they came across him in South View.
"He pointed the gun at my side and fired," recalls Alison. "A burning sensation went through my leg. Then he started shooting at my mother. A bullet went through her shoulder. I've never seen anything so horrific."
Ryan, impassive, fired 11 rounds into their car before pausing to reload. Mrs Chapman seized the chance to escape, somehow reversing down the narrow cul-de-sac. Though seriously wounded, mother and daughter survived. One of the bullets remains lodged in Alison's lower back.
Alison calls her bullet Billy - "my little friend, my little foe". Sometimes, she is immobilised by pain. There are nightmares, too. "In my most violent ones, I am being buried alive, chased through a wood, being stabbed or drowned or shut in a burning building. Sometimes, I see Michael Ryan's face."
Ivor Jackson was shot while sitting in a car, the driver, George White, dying at the wheel. Mr Jackson has had enough of the media but for a moment he relents.
"My X-rays come out white, you know."
"Because of the shrapnel. They can't put me in an MRI scanner, either."
He points to his chest.
And then to his head.
The bullet that entered through his ear is still there.
"It's all right for people to say 'Forget', but a lot of those people are new to Hungerford." His wife, Marjorie, also injured, says: "You can never stop remembering while people who suffered are alive. The young ones will be around a long time. Even if it's a service every 10 years or so, there should be something."
If one quality defined Michael Ryan, it was solitariness. "I haven't met anybody who knew him particularly well," says Ron Tarry, mayor at the time of the massacre. "He was always alone. I don't remember him ever showing any emotion."
Ryan was an only child. His father, a clerk of works, could sometimes be a bully, but his mother doted on him. He never made friends easily and tried to bolster his appeal by playing the gun-toting hard man. He would carry his weapons with him in a manner unthinkable today. Ryan was remembered as a "trier" at school. Labouring was his destiny. His inwardness increased after his father's death in 1984, but no one knew what was going on in his mind.
And all the time there were guns, lots of them, properly licensed and ever more lethal, the result of his membership of a gun club. Only as the dead of Hungerford were being buried did Douglas Hurd, then Home Secretary, ban the possession of semi-automatic assault rifles. (It would take the massacre of schoolchildren in Dunblane in 1996 to do the same for handguns.)
"Spree killing is like murder-suicide, when the perpetrator kills others before himself or herself, because people often have no escape plan," says Keith Ashcroft, investigative psychologist at the Centre for Forensic Neuroscience in Manchester. "Spree killers have a very tenuous concept of themselves, defining themselves by others, and cannot be oblivious as to what people think of them. The world collapses when the community of which they are so much a part rejects
them. They collect injustices along the way, fuelling a simmering anger that builds into an incredible rage.
"If you look at Hungerford, Dunblane, and the Derrick Bird shootings in Cumbria, you find that the killers have been subject to gossip and sometimes quite serious victimisation. Their rage at perceived injustice is way beyond that of a normal person, but they have not lost touch with reality. They are not psychotic. Isolation, emptiness, is solved by taking control. And the ultimate control is that exercised over life and death. Finally, they externalise their rage, targeting family and society. Spree killing is extremely well planned. Those who carry out such crimes are the opposite of impulsive."
Can they be spotted beforehand?
"It's quite rare to find these people being diagnosed with mental illness. Their fantasy life is too horrific to share."
Doctors, he says, should be more willing to explore the dark side of patients. "People should be more open to being asked, in a clinical setting, if they have homicidal feelings. In America, asking such questions is almost routine. Even at a GP level, it is quite legitimate for a doctor [there] to ask someone who is depressed if they have homicidal intent. But we wouldn't do that here. It's a cultural issue."
The memorial in Hungerford is tucked away in a quiet corner. You have to look for it to find it.
"That's what people wanted. We didn't want to make a fuss," says Mr Tarry. "A lot of people came to Hungerford to see how it had happened. They came in coaches, and we didn't like it."
During the final minutes of his life, as police tried to get him to surrender, Ryan, expressionless under that camouflage hat, regained a momentary grip on reality.
"Hungerford must be a bit of a mess," he said. "I wish I had stayed in bed."
"People say, 'Let's forget about it,' " says Mr Tarry. "But you can't forget because you then forget about the people. It's part of our history. It's not going to go away."