Out of the Blue
It was market day in Hungerford, a balmy Wednesday, 19 August 1987. The popular weekly market attracted many people and was an event enjoyed by locals and visitors alike. People came to buy goods, eat in the restaurants and stay at the inns. This Wednesday was no different, with the schools on holiday, many people were taking advantage of the good weather. However, the jovial atmosphere was soon to be shattered and people’s lives changed forever.
Savernake Forest, a popular recreational area seven miles from Hungerford, was a favourite haunt of Ryan’s, where he would spend great deals of time pretending to be on army manoeuvres. He liked to think of himself as a soldier, skilled at surveillance without being seen himself. Wearing camouflage outfits, he enjoyed sneaking up on picnickers and watching them without their knowledge, before disappearing again.
Just after midday, on 19 August 1987, the 27-year-old unemployed Ryan entered a secluded area of Savernake Forest. Here he found Susan Godfrey, 33, an attractive, auburn-haired mother, with her children, Hannah, 4, and James, 2. He spied on them as they ate their picnic lunch, before playing a while. Preparing to leave for her grandmother’s 95th birthday, Godfrey was packing away the picnic when a grim looking Ryan approached, dressed all in black and pointing a 9mm Beretta pistol at her.
He ordered her to put her children in the car, which she did immediately, strapping them in and telling them to wait there for her, that she would be back soon. Ryan picked up the picnic groundsheet and ordered Susan to walk with him into the woods. Here he shot her 13 times, dropped the groundsheet and returned to parking area. Godfrey’s children watched as he climbed into his car, which was parked next to theirs, and drive away without a word to them. They had heard the sounds of the shots being fired and were terrified.
After some time, young Hannah unbuckled their seatbelts, so they could go in search of their mother. A fellow park visitor, Myra Rose, found the children wandering around and they told her their mother had been shot. The woman did not believe them at first but agreed to help them find her. Meanwhile, a police officer had noticed Godfrey’s empty car with open doors and had gone to investigate. In the neighbouring forest he found Godfrey’s body, about 250 feet from her car.
She was fully clothed but riddled with bullets. Near her body were two groups of German-made 9mm spent cartridges. It wasn’t long before investigators discovered, via ballistics analysis, that her death was connected to those that happened subsequently in Hungerford that afternoon. This had been Ryan’s first victim.
Ryan then went to Froxtield petrol station, where he was watched by Mrs Kakoub Dean, wife of the owner, as he filled up his metallic silver Vauxhall Astra GTE, as well as a five-litre can. She recognised him as a regular customer at the petrol station, but not a chatty or friendly one. Also, he had never before bought so much petrol at one time, making Dean suspicious, so she kept an eye on him.
Whilst Dean served another customer, Ian George, Ryan went to the boot of his car and brought out a semi-automatic rifle. By the time Dean looked back at him, he had assumed a shooting position, with the rifle aimed directly at her. She ducked below her counter just as a bullet pierced the safety glass above it and ricocheted through the small shop behind her. George sped off on his motorcycle.
Ryan stormed into the shop and again aimed his rifle at Dean. Terrified, crying and huddled against the wall, she begged him not to kill her. He took no heed of her pleas and pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. He tried pulling the trigger twice more, but both times the rifle failed to fire.
Dean reported later that when she looked Ryan in the face, it seemed as if he was not even aware of her and was looking right through her. Having failed to kill Dean, Ryan quickly returned to his car and drove off towards Hungerford. Dean called both her husband and the 999 emergency services. The police had already received a report, from George, of an armed robbery in progress at the petrol station and were en route to her.
At around 12:45pm, Ryan arrived at his next destination, 4 South View, a dead-end street in Hungerford, where he lived with his widowed mother. Watched by neighbours, he went into the house and muffled shots were heard. It later transpired that he had shot the family dog, a black Labrador.
Emerging from the house, dressed in a headband and sleeveless flak jacket, Ryan carried a bag filled with food and other supplies. He tried starting his car but to no avail. Angrily, Ryan climbed out of the car and shot five bullets into the boot. He then went back into the house, used the five-litre can of petrol to soak everything he could, and set the house on fire.
Into his car, Ryan had packed military clothing, a large amount of ammunition and a first aid kit. He also had several different firearms: a Beretta 9 mm semi-automatic pistol; an M1 carbine semi-automatic assault rifle; and a Kalashnikov AK-47 rifle loaded with armour-piercing bullets. He took the firearms, packed the pockets of his flak jacket with ammunition and marched off down the road.
Seeing two of his neighbours, Roland and Sheila Mason, in their back garden, he shot Roland six times and Sheila once, in the head. Both died instantly. Ryan spotted another shocked neighbour, Marjorie Jackson, peering through the window at the dead bodies and shot her as well. She was wounded but managed to call her husband, Ivor Jackson, who worked close by. Whilst she waited for help to arrive, she watched Ryan jog up and down the road, shooting at anything that moved. Another witness reported that Ryan warned several children to get off the street and go inside. It seemed that whilst he was in the midst of a murderous rampage, he still felt the need to protect children.
An elderly neighbour, Dorothy Smith, 77 years old and deaf in one ear, had come out into the street to see what all the noise was about. She shouted at him, saying, “Is that you making that noise? You are frightening everybody to death. Stop it, you stupid bugger!”. Ryan looked at her with extremely vacant eyes and a strange grin, before moving off eastwards along a footpath leading to Hungerford Common. She was inordinately lucky not to have been shot by him.
The Manhunt Begins
Lisa Mildenhall, 14, was shot and wounded by Ryan, who had smiled at her whilst she crouched on the ground at her front door, and then shot her four times in the legs and stomach. She scrambled into her house, where she collapsed and her mother immediately called an ambulance. Mildenhall survived the shooting.
Kenneth Clements was walking along the footpath with his family, towards South View, when Ryan appeared and shot him once, killing him instantly. Robert, his frightened son, escaped by jumping over a fence into the neighbouring school, whilst the rest of the family literally ran for their lives.
The Hungerford police were already undertaking a manhunt for the killer and a police helicopter spotted Ryan. They warned ground units to set up a roadblock around South View, to stop any drivers entering the area, although they had no idea what Ryan would do next. In an unfortunate turn of events, the police at the roadblock actually sent some drivers directly towards Ryan.
Police Constable Roger Brereton rushed to the danger area of South View and Ryan shot at his patrol car 23 times. Brereton was hit by four of the bullets and died in his car. The smiling Ryan shot 11 rounds from his semi-automatic at another car that drove into the street. Its occupants, Linda Chapman and her daughter, Alison Chapman, whilst wounded, both survived. Linda was hit in the shoulder and Alison in the right thigh. Unfortunately, the bullet travelled up into Alison’s lower back, leaving her permanently disabled.
Moving up Fairview Road, Ryan found neighbour, Abdul Khan, 84, a retired restaurateur, mowing the lawn in his back garden. Ryan approached, looked at him and shot him three times. Kahn died later of his wounds. Ryan immediately turned to Alan Lepetit, a coalman who had helped install the Chubb steel cabinet for Ryan’s firearm collection. Lepetit had heard about shooting in his neighbourhood and was hurrying home to check on his family. Ryan shot Lepetit twice in the arm and once in the back as he fled. He survived the attack.
Ryan then shot at an ambulance, shattering its windscreen, as it was trying to reach some of the victims in a narrow lane. Ambulance-woman Hazel Haslett was injured in the arm and the leg by broken glass. Driver, Linda Bright, immediately put the ambulance into reverse and retreated. Access was blocked for the fire engine called to deal with the fire Ryan had started in his own home and which had already spread to three neighbouring properties. Residents of the area were becoming increasingly worried as they continued to call for emergency help and none arrived. The fact was that they were prevented from entering the danger zone, for fear of being shot themselves. Meanwhile, police were busy getting some people to safety and preventing others from going where they thought Ryan might move to next.
People were frantic to get to their families to see if they were safe and unharmed. Ivor Jackson’s wife, Marjorie, had called him whilst Ryan was aiming a gun at her. Now, as his colleague, quantity surveyor George White, drove him home to check on his wife, they came across Ryan. He sprayed their car with 11 bullets, Ivor Jackson was shot three times in the chest and once in the head and White was shot too, dying as their car smashed into the police car Ryan had shot at earlier. Jackson played dead and survived the shooting.
He heard what happened next, as Dorothy Ryan, returning home from some shopping, arrived at the scene in her car. She parked behind White’s car and opening the door and looking in, said, “Oh Ivor…” and then hurried up the road. What she found was houses on fire, people lying dead in their gardens and smashed cars lining the street. Dorothy then saw her son with a gun in his hand and called to him, saying, “Stop Michael. Why are you doing this?”. Without replying, Ryan shot his mother twice in the stomach and once in the leg. He walked up to where she lay in the road and, with the gun only four inches from her, shot her twice in the back, killing her.
Despite the police helicopter hovering above him and telling him to lay down his weapons, Ryan merely walked away. The police officers at the scene did not apprehend him at this point, as they were unarmed. At 1.30 pm specially trained officers from the Tactical Firearms Unit were brought in and local police officers assembled closer to town. After killing his mother, Ryan walked across the school playing field, firing randomly.
Betty Tolladay, 71, had heard loud bangs, and thinking it was children playing with firecrackers, had come out into her back garden to shout at them to keep the noise down. Instead she found Ryan, who shot her once. The bullet entered her groin, smashed the top of her hip, part of her pelvis and the sciatic nerve, before exiting via her back. She managed to drag herself into her house and survived.
Ryan’s next victim was Francis Butler, a 26-year-old accounts clerk, out walking his dog in the Hungerford Memorial Gardens. He was shot three times in the groin and the leg with the AK-47 rifle and died where he fell. Ryan walked past a young boy, Dean Lavisher, without seeming to notice him, but fired at another boy riding past on his bicycle, Dean Cadle, thankfully missing him. Ryan then abandoned his M1 carbine in the Memorial Gardens.
Popular cab driver, Marcus Bernard, 30, was en route to visit his wife and newborn son in the local hospital. When he slowed down to see what was happening, Ryan shot him in the head with the AK-47 and he died instantly. Bernard was the tenth fatality on that bloody Wednesday. Witnesses report that at this point, Ryan seemed disgusted with the rifle and threw it onto the ground. Changing his mind, he retrieved it and carried on walking, away from town.
Along the way, Ryan shot and wounded a man, who was pulled to safety as Ryan moved closer in order to shoot him again. A car drove towards Ryan and he shot both occupants. The man, Douglas Wainwright, hit twice in the chest and once in the head, died instantly but his wounded wife, Kathleen Wainwright survived. It transpired that they were the parents of the police officer who had run all the checks on Ryan when he had applied for a modified licence, to own more powerful firearms.
Yet another vehicle drove into the area and once again, Ryan shot at it, hitting the driver, shattering his jaw, bursting his tongue and missing his spinal cord by two millimetres. He was John Storms, 49, a washing machine engineer who had been called out to Hungerford Park Farm on business. Bob Barclay, a local builder and nearby resident, risking his own life, bravely ran out and dragged Storms from his car, managing to half crouch and half run with Storms into the safety of his garden. Storms survived the shooting.
By this stage, the press had heard of the killing spree and arrived in the area, taking photographs of the dead and wounded, and unethically gaining access to some of the victims’ houses, by saying they were crime scene personnel. Their pictures were a grim account of the trail of destruction and death that Ryan had left in his wake. It was calculated that during the most intense period of Ryan’s rampage, he had killed an average of one person per minute. The Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who was on holiday in Cornwall at the time, was notified of the events and kept informed via a special phone line from Downing Street. The press helicopters were in the way of police trying to track Ryan and this allowed him to get away again.
Paying no attention to the police or the press, Ryan seemed oblivious to anything other than his hell-bent mission to kill everyone in his path. Eric Vardy, a carpenter and van driver for Norland Nursery College, was on his way with passenger, Steven Ball, to a builders’ supplier. As they drove up Tarrants Hill, their windscreen was shattered by a spray of bullets and Vardy was hit twice, under the chin and in the torso. He later died of shock and haemorrhage from the bullet wound to his neck.
Ryan then walked into Priory Road, where he found Sandra Hill, 22, driving her red Renault 5, with the window down and the music blaring. He took aim and killed her with a single bullet to the chest. Crossing the street, shooting as he went, Ryan strode towards 60 Priory Road, the home of Victor and Myrtle Gibbs and blasted open the front door with his semi-automatic rifle. The wheelchair-bound Myrtle was totally vulnerable and Victor threw himself across her to protect her from the crazed gunman. Ryan fired at them and Victor died instantly, whilst Myrtle died later in hospital. Having created a ‘fort’ for himself in the Gibbs’ home, Ryan fired at neighbouring houses, injuring a man at number 62 and a woman at number 67 Priory Road.
Ian Playle, a 34-year-old clerk to the Justices at Newbury Magistrates Court, had brought his wife, Elizabeth, and their two young children, Richard and Sarah, to Hungerford on a shopping trip. As they drove down Priory Road, Ryan shot at their car and Playle died from a single bullet wound to the neck from the Beretta. His wife and children were unhurt. George Noon, 67, was standing in the garden of his son’s house, 109 Priory Road, when Ryan shot him in the shoulder and the eye, but he survived.
Going Back to School
Shortly before 2pm, Bert Whatley, a Priory Road resident, watched as Ryan, walking slowly, with his head down, entered the John O’Gaunt Secondary School, which was closed for the summer holidays. It was the same school he had attended more than a decade before.
Chief Inspector Lambert had sent Sergeant Paul Brightwell and his team of eight officers from the Tactical Firearms Unit to investigate the school, unaware that this was indeed the exact location of the killer. They were armed with .38 Smith and Wessons, which were no match for Ryan’s arsenal.
Four and three quarter hours after the police had first been informed of Ryan, he was finally spotted at one of the school’s third floor classroom windows at 5.26 pm. He threw his Kalashnikov out of the window, leaving him with only his 9mm Beretta and ammunition. Brightwell immediately informed his superior and Hungerford was declared safe for the waiting ambulances and fire engines to move in to the former danger zone. Police surrounded the school building and Brightwell worked to establish communication with Ryan and ultimately to persuade him to surrender.
During the next 90 minutes, Brightwell and Ryan held a long and detailed conversation, during which Ryan seemed quite lucid, calm and easy to talk to. At one point, he claimed to have an Israeli fragmentation type hand grenade, which seriously worried the police. He continually asked about his mother and how she was. Brightwell answered that he did not know at the time but was attempting to find out, and continued to persuade him to drop his weapons and come outside. Ryan said he would not exit the building until he had news of his mother’s condition.
Some of the things Ryan shouted out the window to Brightwell were, “Hungerford must be a bit of a mess”; “If only the police car hadn’t turned up. If only my car had started”. He also wanted to know if his dog had been found and if they had located his M1 carbine and its magazine, as he didn’t want the children to find it and hurt themselves. At another point, close to the end, he said, “I wish I had stayed in bed”.
End of the destruction
At 6.45 pm he said, “It’s funny, I killed all those people but I haven’t got the guts to blow my own brains out”. He then asked the time and was silent for a while. At 6.52 pm, Brightwell heard a single muffled shot from the classroom. The police were not certain if Ryan had shot himself or just fired off a round. They flew the police helicopter past the window, but could not see in to the classroom. One of the Tactical Firearms Unit climbed onto the school roof and with a mirror on a long pole, managed to see into the classroom at last. Ryan was lying slumped in the corner, near a window, apparently dead.
The rest of the unit entered the room and checked that he was not wired with explosives as a booby trap. In his right hand, tied to his wrist with a bootlace, was his Beretta pistol. It was confirmed that Michael Robert Ryan had fatally shot himself at 6.52 pm on Wednesday, 19 August 1987, with a single gunshot to the head. The bullet had passed through his skull and shattered his brain. The horrific Hungerford Massacre was finally over. Ryan had killed 16 people, including his mother, and wounded 15 others.