On the Wantage Road, just outside Hungerford in Berkshire, two small iron crosses stand as reminders of an event, which caused such public concern, that special evening editions of the Newbury Weekly News were published to report on it.
That event, recorded in the history of the town as the ‘Hungerford Murders’, was one where two local policemen, an inspector and a constable, were battered and shot to death at close range by four poachers, who were hanged for the crime at Reading Gaol.
The hanging of the four poachers, was the first time an execution in the UK had taken place behind closed doors, and not the public spectacle it had been up to that point.
Things slowly returned to normal and remained relatively peaceful, until one hundred and eleven years later, when the unassuming English market town in Berkshire witnessed another event, and Hungerford – once again became the focus of media attention.
This time however, the news that was emerging from the town, and subsequently what was being reported in the British media that day, would ensure that this time, the town of Hungerford would be forever remembered, as being the scene of the worst firearms atrocity in British history – up to that point.
On the 19th of August 1987, Michael Robert Ryan, an unemployed part-time antique dealer and handyman, shot and killed sixteen people, including his own mother, before turning his weapon on himself and committing suicide.
But was what was being reported in the media at the time, an accurate portrayal of the events that occurred that day?
The mainstream media version was lurid and suitably graphic as expected, but was also riddled with rumour and inconsistencies, many of which bear little resemblance to the actual testimony of eyewitnesses, nor of those who knew Ryan personally, some of whom have written articles which contradict the official narrative.
The popularist image of Michael Robert Ryan is that of a surly, brooding and weird loner, who spent his entire adult life dressed in combat fatigues, collected weapons, subscribed to Soldier of Fortune Magazine and was obsessed by the movie ‘Rambo, First Blood’ – and who suddenly and inexplicably, ‘snapped’, and embarked on an apparently motiveless rampage through his home town, effectively ending the lives of sixteen, and wounding fifteen people in the process.
An image which seems at odds with the man who, only the day before, had visited his local gun club, at Devizes, about twenty-five miles west of Hungerford, paid his range fee of £1.50, calmly shot at two targets and left quietly after an hour.
Andrew White, a staff member at the Tunnel Shooting club, where Ryan had been a member for just five weeks, said in a BBC interview following the massacre: “He phoned in the morning and asked could he come and shoot at two o’clock that afternoon. Ryan was a very polite man, very articulate, and was smartly dressed in his usual casual clothes. He gave us no concerns at all.”
White continued: “Ryan called out cheerfully as he left the range, ‘see you about, cheerio 3/8.” he also described Ryan as “an average shot, and was very safety conscious each time he used the range.”
Almost immediately following the shootings, a carefully ‘constructed’ image was being formed by the mainstream media, based in part on one of the only two images of Michael Ryan that are known to exist, and even the photo that was used, did not even portray how he usually looked, which was as described above by Andrew White, as “smartly dressed in his USUAL casual clothes”.
The tabloid headlines claimed that Ryan was “Obsessed by guns, Soldier of Fortune Magazine and the ‘Rambo -First Blood’ movie”, but according to the statements of a number of local people, who’s media interviews were never broadcast by the mainstream, the Ryan’s did not own a video player at that time, although it was true he had a shotgun licence, which had been countersigned by the police officer who lived next door, and which had been taken off him at one point, which affected Ryan so badly, his mother had to persuade the same neighbour to assist with him getting it returned.
He was known to be a ‘gun collector’, but how he managed to afford the types of weapons that he was alleged to have used in his murderous rampage was never fully explored or explained, and as Ryan at that time, worked as a part-time labourer on farms in and around the area, and occasionally sold antiques, and his mother was a part-time waitress at the Elcot Park Hotel – how could Ryan have afforded the type of weapons that the police displayed to the media following the massacre?
One of the weapons allegedly used by Ryan, shown on the right in the above image, was a Chinese Type-56 Rifle, which was an exact copy of the infamous Kalashnikov AK-47, which in 1987 was only available from one source in the UK, which was a Michael ‘Mick’ Ranger, an established international arms dealer – who, incidentally was jailed for three and a half years in 2012, for illegally trafficking surface to air missiles from North Korea to Aazerbijan.
Was there a connection between these two men, prior to Ryan ‘legally’ purchasing this weapon from a multi-millionaire arms dealer that is?
There were stories at the time, that alleged Ryan had obtained his cache of weapons from an unnamed ‘benefactor’ who had taken Ryan under his wing, taught him military and survival skills, and had promised him among other things, a new Ferrari in return for something that was never disclosed.
The mainstream media were told about this, but had dismissed it immediately, preferring to spin a completely fictitious story that Ryan had gone berserk following a ‘Gay Love Tryst’ that had ended badly.
It was also mentioned at the time, that immediately prior to the massacre, Ryan had allegedly received a telephone call from a ‘therapist’, which he had been seeing since the death of his father from Cancer in 1985, which had affected him badly and had made him become increasingly withdrawn, and allegedly also contributed to him losing his previous job, which was a school caretaker.
It was common knowledge among those that knew the Ryan family, that his ‘mental instability’ had become increasingly apparent at this time.
Whether or not his witnessed ‘mental instability’ was still an issue two years later, was not reported on, although it’s safe to assume that if it was, it would have been also inordinately difficult for him to obtain a firearms licence, or keep deadly weapons at his house, nor would he have been permitted to become a member of, or use live rounds at the Tunnel Shooting club, which he clearly did on the day prior to the massacre.
THE PERFECT STORM
If Michael Robert Ryan had intentionally set out to inflict as much carnage as was witnessed that day in Hungerford, could he have also been made aware of a separate series of events that were unfolding in the area that day?
A series of events, that if they were entirely random occurrences, a more fortuitous set of coincidences would be difficult to imagine.
From the first shooting, which occurred seven miles to the west of the town, at Savernake Forest at 12:30pm, until he took his last breath that same evening, Michael Ryan had only been effectively challenged by the police after barricading himself in the John O’Gaunt Technical College, where he had previously been a pupil.
Up until that time, the police response had been markedly lacklustre, the 999 service had effectively ‘collapsed’ due to the volume of emergency calls, the local police station had only two working phone lines as it was being renovated, and there were simply not enough available facilities to cope with an event on that scale, or any scale other than anything entirely routine.
The police helicopter was undergoing a routine service, taking more than an hour to respond to calls, and the nearest armed police response unit were on a unspecified training exercise, more than forty miles away.
A perfect storm for what had occurred that day.
Which could have been entirely coincidental of course.
The media reported that Michael Ryan committed suicide at 18:52, by shooting himself in the right side of his head with the Baretta pistol, which was unusual in itself, as the pistol was not only found in his left hand, as he was known to be left-handed, but was also missing it’s magazine, which according to the testimony of an independent firearms expert, could not have fired without a magazine being present.
Following the massacre, a number of eye-witnesses had stated that Ryan, had ‘exhibited a Vacant Stare’ throughout that day, and had moved in what was described as a stiff, ‘Zombie-Like’ fashion, and one that bore remarkable similarities to the gunmen who opened fire on a team of Americans, killing Congressman Leo Ryan and several journalists who were sent to investigate the JONESTOWN cult in Guyana in 1978.
So was Michael Robert Ryan in full possession of his faculties that day, or did he suffer from a sudden, and genuine mental ‘break‘ that led to the events in Hungerford on that August Afternoon in 1987?
Or was he somehow ‘triggered’, which had caused him to act in a similar manner that has been witnessed in any number of similar ‘spree‘ killings that have occurred in this country, the United States and elsewhere in the world?
It is a distinct possibility, especially when you also consider, that immediately before he allegedly blew his own brains out, he was heard to ask about his mothers welfare, and appeared to be totally unaware that he had in fact killed her only a few hours earlier.
Had he regained some clarity by then, or had a ‘trance’ somehow been broken, and it was deemed necessary to kill him to prevent any difficulties arising should he have Been apprehended alive?
*The events at Hungerford that day, following a report commissioned by the Home Secretary Douglas Hurd, from the Thames Valley Police, led to the Firearms Amendment Act 1988, which effectively banned the ownership of semi-automatic centre-fire rifles, and restricted the use of shotguns with a capacity of more than three cartridges.*