LONDON // A bitter family feud over his mother's will appears to have prompted "the nicest bloke you could meet" to go on a shooting spree across the English countryside that left 12 people dead. Taxi driver Derrick Bird wounded 11 other people, three of whom remained in serious condition in hospital last night, as he drove for three hours across the quiet Cumbrian countryside in north-west England before turning the gun on himself.
Most of those who died were shot at random but Bird's first three victims - his twin brother, David, the family solicitor and a fellow taxi driver - appear to have been deliberately targeted. Mild-mannered Bird, a divorced father of two sons ages 16 and 28, had been locked in a fierce dispute with his twin and the solicitor, Kevin Commons, over the will of his ailing 90-year-old mother. Armed with a hunting rifle and shotgun, which he had legally held for the past 20 years, Bird killed both men before driving to the taxi rank in Whitehaven from which he worked and shot three fellow drivers, killing one of them.
Police declined to confirm reports yesterday that Bird, 52, had lost his temper with fellow drivers the night before Wednesday's shooting during a row over "passenger stealing" on the rank. Driving out of Whitehaven, Bird embarked on his rampage across western Cumbria, shooting people at random including a woman buying a newspaper and then her husband when he went to help her; a young farmer in a field; a mother out shopping; and a 64-year-old man cycling down a country lane.
With police closing in, Bird finally abandoned his car in woodland outside the village of Boot and walked a short distance before shooting himself. Such massacres are rare in the UK and this week's was the worst since the 1996 "slaughter of the innocents" when Thomas Hamilton, 43, an unemployed shop worker, walked into his local primary school in Dunblane, Scotland, and killed 16 children and one teacher with four handguns he was carrying.
Previously, in 1987, 27-year-old Michael Ryan went on the rampage in and around the country town of Hungerford in southern England, killing 16 people and wounding 14 others with two semi-automatic rifles and a handgun. Like Bird, both Ryan and Hamilton killed themselves. No motives were ever established for the first two killing sprees but both led to further restrictions on Britain's already strict laws on gun ownership.
The government will now look at a further tightening although, with the private ownership of semi-automatic rifles banned after Hungerford, and of handguns after Dunblane - all with a negligible effect on the annual tally of about 200 people killed by guns in Britain each year - major changes in the law are not expected. The prime minister, David Cameron, and home secretary, Theresa May, will visit Cumbria today to meet Cumbria Chief Constable Craig Mackey to discuss the shootings.
Mrs May announced in the House of Commons yesterday that the government would provide additional funding for the police inquiry if necessary. Meanwhile, the scattered, tight-knit communities in Cumbria have been left to grieve as they struggle to understand the reasons for Bird's rampage. "He was mild mannered and down to earth. He was the nicest bloke you would wish to meet. All of his mates would tell you that," said Richard Kirkbride, one of Bird's friends.
Michelle Haigh, the landlady at The Hound pub close to the village of Rowrah where Bird lived, said: "He was just a normal bloke, a nice guy. "He would come into the pub, have a couple of pints of lager, have a chat with his friend and go home. This is not in character with the Derrick Bird we know. Everybody is shocked." But another friend said that, the night before the shootings, Bird had told him ominously: "You won't see me again."
Yesterday, growing numbers of people were questioning why Cumbria police - one of Britain's smallest forces - had failed to stop Bird sooner during almost three hours of drive-by shootings. Locals complained that the death toll could have been much lower had officers tracked down the rampaging taxi driver more quickly. Among many messages of condolence left on the website of the Whitehaven News, the local weekly newspaper, were angry condemnations of the police's actions.
One wrote: "The police should have been all over it as soon as there was a reported shooting. Any other country and this guy would have been taken out hours earlier. The police have a lot to answer for in my opinion." The queen has sent a message of sympathy to the families of the victims, saying she was "deeply shocked" by the shootings and that she shared the nation's "grief and horror". @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org