Mass shootings always get our attention and whilst we are not subjected to the horror of this crime on a frequent basis in the UK many of us can relate to past events that have become indelible in our history. Hungerford 1987, Dunblane 1996 and Cumbria 2010. Some gun crimes of equal viciousness and deliberation have for some reason never reached the tipping point in our national and personal archives and thus have almost melted away. Not so for the scores of people who were involved and affected.
The big question that always crops up in these instances is mental illness. Science has no straightforward answers, two psychiatrists can and often do conclude a differing diagnosis. Interestingly the perpetrators of these crimes whether mentally ill or not often give some insight into their ultimate demise with their behaviour. They may be loners, or people that just have difficulty forming relationships. Sometimes there is evidence of a disjointed upbringing, abuse, failed relationships, social and workplace frustrations. Fantasising is often apparent. There are examples of perpetrators with seemingly none of above.
We have all at sometime suffered frustrations and feelings of anger but very few of us will unleash those burdens and resort to physical violence let alone killing. The link however in the cases I study is a little more straightforward. The perpetrators had access to guns.
One such person who drew a lot of attention to himself was a foundry worker, Barry Williams, 37. He was single and lived with his parents in West Bromwich in the West Midlands. On 26th October 1978 he embarked on a sudden murderous shooting spree. Described as a quiet boy by his parents he was never outwardly sociable. He had developed an interest in guns and shooting and had approached the police for advice. He was informed that he needed to join an approved shooting club and an establishment in Telford was recommended. He applied and secured membership based on the police involvement and not the recognised manner of being introduced by an existing member. He went through the initial range instruction phases and eventually applied for a Firearms Certificate. An FAC was issued to Barry Williams by the police. He purchased a 9mm Smith & Wesson semi-auto handgun for club target shooting.
Williams was not popular with a lot of other club members. They found his manner and appearance uncustomary and unsavoury; he had a liking for the TV cop drama’s that swamped our screens in those days and groomed himself as a Starsky and Hutch type character. Sporting bomber jackets, his Ford Capri served as the closest substitute to the TV duo’s Ford Grand Torino. But it was more than clothing and cars, it included the guns. The TV actors were just acting, not so Barry Williams. His behaviour on his club shooting range really irritated and concerned some members. Rather than accept the orthodox practises of deliberate and accurate shooting he preferred to fire volleys of shots at targets like a TV cop. Nicknamed “The Cowboy”, he negotiated with members to erect tailor’s dummies complete with wigs as targets and when it was his turn, he delighted in shooting them to pieces. He was also suspected of not using all the ammunition he was allocating to himself on shooting details and taking it home. On one occasion he was searched by accusing members. Some senior members objected to this and a rift developed within the club.
Just weeks before launching his shooting spree attack his increasingly erratic and unsavoury behaviour was causing so much concern to so many members he was banned from the Telford club. He hadn’t restricted his membership to just one shooting establishment however.
Interestingly the 1996 Dunblane shooter Thomas Hamilton, also a legal licence holder had concerned gun club members with his behaviour. Like Williams he would carry out “rapid shoots” with his semi-auto handgun in a manner that brought a lot of unwanted attention to himself. He would act as if he was engaging real live targets. Hamilton had started illegally carrying a handgun around with him during the day for “protection”. In contrast, Michael Ryan who perpetrated the Hungerford massacre would conduct himself with quiet conforming efficiency at his gun clubs but had also resorted to carrying guns in his car during the day and showing them off to work colleagues. At night he would go out in his car and discharge his guns into roadside structures. he admitted this to an employer. Thames Valley Police found some of these sites after his rampage.
Why didn’t these behaviour traits alert people to stop and investigate. It did, but not in sufficient numbers. Most folk don’t understand guns and the factors surrounding ownership, licensing and legal requirements. We are blind to it and we don’t “see” the subtle threats until it’s too late.
Eighteen years before the Dunblane Massacre and just nine years before The Hungerford Massacre Barry Williams walked outside his home and instigated a horrific mass shooting on the evening of Thursday October 26, 1978. In Andrew Road, West Bromwich, a quiet and tidy collection of semi-detached properties father and son George and Philip Burkitt were working on a sports car, a Triumph Spitfire on their driveway at number 16. From their front door and to the right were their neighbour’s in number 18, the Williams family. The driveway leading to garages to the rear of the properties separated them. Horace and Hilda Williams were sitting in the kitchen with their son Barry who was cleanings his guns. He was becoming increasingly irritated with the noise coming from next door. Williams had been arguing with his neighbours for some time about what he perceived to be excessive noise from TV’s, record players and car repairs. He just snapped.
Just a week before the tragedy he had issued a chilling warning to Philip Burkitt after hammering on the Burkitt’s door to complain about a noise incident. When Philip asked Williams what he was going to do about it, he replied: “I’m going to exterminate you.”
Now it was becoming a near obsession and he believed his neighbours were intentionally annoying him. At 19.10 pm Barry Williams launched a deadly unprovoked attack on his neighbours. He loaded the legally licenced 9mm Smith & Wesson semi-auto handgun and walked out of his house to confront the 2 men outside on their driveway; there was no verbal exchange he just closed on them and began shooting. He hit self-employed builder George Burkitt, 47, just above the left eye and then in the chest; he died on the driveway. Philip Burkitt turned and ran towards the front door of his house, but Williams chased him and shot him 5 times in the upper body sending him crashing into the glass window next to the front door. Philip Burkitt fell dead. Williams then walked into the Burkitt’s house and shot to death wife and mother, Iris Burkitt. He then turned on her terrified 17 year old daughter Jill, and shot her 6 times in the leg, torso and arm. Miraculously she survived, she was found slumped next to the dead bodies of her mother and brother.
Judy Chambers, another neighbour and Iris Burkitt’s cousin, opened her front door to see what was happening and was shot twice – but also survived.
Williams then collected an illegally held .22 handgun and ammunition for both weapons and climbed into his Green Ford Capri. Strangely he sped off left a short distance to the end of Andrew Road which was a 90 degree bend and became Stanhurst Way. This trapped him momentarily in the shape of the estate. Here he shot at 2 young boys playing football and a woman pedestrian, he missed all 3 of them. He had to continue along Stanhurst Way within this rectangular pattern part of the estate and back into Andrew Road and close to the murder site to find the only route out of the estate. This was Bustleholme Lane which crossed the railway line over a bridge.
Initially he headed west towards Wednesbury where he fired through the windows of a barber’s shop and two houses. In one of these, a nine-year-old girl was hurt by flying glass. He then headed north and stopped for petrol in Walsall and drove off without paying. He changed direction again and was now heading east. At around 8:10pm Williams stopped on the forecourt of the Arbury Road Service Station, at Stockingford, near Nuneaton in Warwickshire, (now the site of a car dealer). He was now 20 miles from his home in Andrew Road. He entered the station kiosk building and without any hesitation he shot the proprietors, Michel and Lisa Di Maria, a married couple. Lisa Di Maria was killed immediately, her husband Michel died later in hospital.
Williams had now killed 5 people and seriously wounded 3. A further 4 people were known to have narrowly escaped from his shooting rampage. Williams now headed north and slept rough in some woodland in Derbyshire. There was now a nationwide police alert and he was eventually spotted in daylight the following day. A 30-mile, high speed car chase across the Derbyshire Moors ended in Buxton after his car was involved in a collision. Brandishing one of his guns he attempted to hijack one of the police cars which had been following him. The unarmed police officers overpowered him in front of children queuing outside a cinema.
He was subsequently charged with five counts of murder. In March 1979 at Stafford Crown Court he pleaded not guilty to murder but instead pleaded guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. The plea was accepted by the prosecution, after psychiatrists gave evidence that he had an active paranoid psychosis. His indefinite detention was ordered by the trial judge, Mr Justice Stephen Brown.
Williams was released 15 years later in 1994. Doctors and a mental health tribunal decided that he was no longer a risk to the public. This was on condition that he could be detained again if his behaviour warranted it. Incredibly he was permitted to live in a hostel just six miles from his parents’ home and the scene of the initial killings. Public uproar and the intervention of an MP led to him being moved to North Wales. He then changed his name to Harry Street and got married in 1996. His wife gave birth to a daughter. He and his family moved to Hall Green in Birmingham in 2005.
In October 2013, West Midlands Police answered calls from his neighbour who made allegations of a campaign of harassment. Williams’s home was searched as part of their investigation and he was found to be in possession of an improvised explosive device, three handguns and 50 rounds of homemade ammunition. Initially the police were unaware that Harry Street was Barry Williams. The efforts of a local police officer secured his identity. Barry Williams pleaded guilty at Birmingham Crown Court in October 2014 to three charges of possessing prohibited firearms, to putting a neighbour in fear of violence, and to making explosive devices. He was again ordered to be detained indefinitely.
He died inside the high-security Ashworth Hospital on Merseyside in December 2014, aged 70.