Michael Ryan was born in Savernake Hospital, in Marlborough, Wiltshire on 18 May 1960, and grew up in Hungerford, a quiet market town just over the Berkshire border, where in 1987 he shot dead 16 people and wounded many more. His father, Alfred, who was 55 at the time of his birth, was a Council employee, his mother, Dorothy, worked at the local primary school. Dorothy, who was 20 years younger than her husband, doted on her son, and as Alfred was nearing retirement he left most of the job of raising the boy to her. Although Alfred was known as a martinet and a perfectionist at work, he didn’t seem to apply these principles at home, allowing Dorothy to indulge Michael, providing him with everything he asked for, according to neighbours.
Surprisingly, this didn’t seem to result in the usual behavioural problems associated with spoilt children; he wasn’t attention-seeking or openly aggressive - quite the contrary. Those who remember Ryan describe him as sullen, uncommunicative and ‘a loner’, but many people who knew him struggle to remember him at all. He was not academically bright, didn’t achieve in sport and was shy, seeking to fade into the background both at his primary school, and later at the John O’ Gaunt secondary school. He was also undersized, which led to him being bullied throughout his school life. He’s never recorded as having fought back, he simply took his punishment. The one friend he seems to have made described him as, “certainly no Rambo - more of a Bambi really”.
There was another side to the repressed boy, however. His favourite toy as a child was Action Man, and he may have seen himself as something of a commando himself. At around 13, his mother bought him his first gun, an air rifle, which a neighbour, Wynn Pask, said he used to terrorize local kids. “He were a right nutter, were Michael Ryan. I can remember running around the garden when I was about six years old, some twenty years ago, because he used to use us as moving targets for his air rifle.” It seems that he was never reported, because the children were too afraid of him.
As time went on, Ryan began to play truant, and left school soon after his 16th birthday, without taking any examinations, to take a City and Guilds course in building, but he did no better at technical college than school, and soon left to become a caretaker at a girls school.
Although his working career was as undistinguished as his educational one, Ryan lacked for nothing: Dorothy always provided – cars, petrol, room and board: whatever he needed – which left him free to spend his cash on first shotguns, and later rifles and pistols.
He obtained the weapons quite legitimately, applying through legal channels for a firearms licence, which the police had no reason to refuse, since his infractions with the air rifle had never been reported, he had no criminal record of any kind, no history of instability and he complied with all the legal security requirements to hold guns. Target shooting was a major sport in the UK at the time and whilst many people held large collections of guns to shoot in competition or out of historical interest, gun crime (apart from suicide) was pretty much exclusively the province of those who obtained their weapons illegally – there was no indication that there was anything sinister in Ryan’s interest in guns. He adopted an Action Man style of clothing too, camouflage and khaki, but that wasn’t particularly unusual either, whether amongst shooters, or young men in general.
There is anecdotal evidence that Ryan saw guns as a source of the power he otherwise lacked, and that he often indulged in fantasies that made him out to be more powerful and effective than he was – that he’d served in the armed forces, that he owned a gun shop, that he was getting married. If people didn’t believe him, he reportedly became angry, but he was never involved in any kind of physical violence, and the only visible effect of his boasting was to keep him unpopular. The nondescript boy became a nondescript man, short, plump, bearded, losing his hair – pretty much unregarded by men and women alike, apart from his parents.
In 1985, his father, who he was very close to, died. There are conflicting reports about how Ryan reacted to his grief – some say he became more reclusive, going off alone to shoot, others that he became more outgoing, seemingly more involved in social situations, though many of these were apparently more fantasies. Whichever is true, it seems clear that the absence of the restraining, albeit only mildly, disciplinary figure in his life was a factor in his later instability.
Not that this instability was evident when he wanted to hide it. He had no difficulty presenting himself as sober, responsible and respectable enough to become a probationary member of the Tunnel Shooting Club in Devizes, which had at least thirty members who were policemen. Nothing he did or said rang alarm bells with them, nor with the local police who let him upgrade his firearms licence to allow him to purchase high-powered semi-automatic rifles; he had, after all held and used guns responsibly for years, to the best of their knowledge. After the event there were reports from colleagues and locals that Ryan carried guns with him everywhere, illegally, and that he was known to have gone out at night, taking potshots at road signs and trees, but none of that was ever reported.
It’s not clear what finally triggered Ryan’s shooting spree – there had been no rows with anyone that were reported, no change in situation. There was a massacre in Australia ten days earlier, which may have contributed. One of many theories is that it was, to all intents and purposes, an accident, resulting from a bungled rape attempt.
What actually happened was:
On 19 August, 1987, Ryan, dressed in normal, non-military clothing drove to a local beauty spot, Savernake forest, where he encountered Sue Godfrey, a good-looking woman of 35, picnicking with her two children. At gunpoint, he forced her to strap her children into her car, and then led her deep into the woods, carrying a groundsheet. The elder of the children heard shots and saw Ryan run to his car and drive off. She unstrapped herself and her brother, and went looking for her mother – instead she found a seventy-five year old woman, Myrna Rose, who raised the alarm. When police found Mrs Godfrey, she had been shot 13 times in the back. The presence of the groundsheet, and the position of the wounds suggest that rape had been intended, and Mrs Godfrey ran.
Ryan then drove to his usual petrol station and filled his car, but instead of paying, he took a gun from the boot of his car and fired at Kakoub Dean, the owner’s wife, who served him. He missed, and moved in to fire again, but the gun was empty. Ryan drove away at high speed, heading home.
He reached his house at 12.40pm, changed into paramilitary clothing and collected three guns from his impressive arsenal. He put those, plus an extensive survival kit into his car, doused the house in petrol and set it alight. It seems likely he was planning to try to escape, but his car failed to start – a second ‘accident’ leading to further killings.
Infuriated, Ryan shot five bullets into the car, then turned the gun, a semi-automatic rifle, on neighbours Roland and Sheila Mason, who were in their garden next door, shooting them both dead. He began running up and down the lane he lived in, South View, firing indiscriminately. He wounded several neighbours – Marjory Jackson in her home, as she phoned her husband for help, and fourteen-year-old Lisa Mildenhall and Fiona Pask, the mother of one of the kids he used to fire air pellets at, as he turned toward Hungerford Common, before killing Ken Clements, who was walking down the street.
Traffic policeman PC Roger Brereton was the next victim, killed as he responded to a call on his radio. Dozens of bullets were fired into the police car, as it turned into South View. Brereton managed to get out a distress call, however, mobilizing the Armed Offenders Squad. Brereton dead, Ryan fired into another car, wounding occupants Angela and Linda Chapman, shot Abdul Khan and Alan Lepetit on the street, wounding Lepetit and killing Khan, and fired into the vehicle that brought Majory Jackson’s husband home in response to her phone call, killing the driver, George White, and injuring Ivor Jackson, who feigned death, hoping Ryan wouldn’t investigate and finish him off.
At this point, Dorothy Ryan returned home, and walked into South View, trying to persuade her son to stop. He shot her twice, killing her. Finally, he left South View, slipping unnoticed into a playing field, unnoticed as people tried to deal with the carnage in the street – seven dead, and five wounded, not to mention a house in flames.
After this, while the Armed Offender Squad got themselves prepared and tried to locate and isolate him, Ryan seemed to just stroll through Hungerford, leaving a trail of dead and wounded in his wake: Betty Tolladay, wounded in the leg as she came into her garden to complain, thinking the noise was children letting off fireworks, Francis Butler, shot three times and killed as he walked his dog in a park, Marcus Barnard, killed as he drove his taxi to pick up a fare, wounding salesman John Storms, then killing Ken Wainwright, Erie Vardy and Sandra Hill, each as they drove along Priory Avenue. He then broke into the home of Jack and Myrtle Gibbs, shooting them both. Jack died instantly, Myrtle, from her wounds, the following day. From the house, he fired several times, injuring two people in their homes, and fatally wounding Ian Playle, as he drove past. It’s a tragic irony that Ken Wainwright, one of the victims, was the father of the policeman who permitted the last alteration to Ryan’s firearms certificate, which allowed him to buy the gun he used.
Finally, he made his way to the John O’ Gaunt School, barricaded himself into one of the rooms there where he had been taught, and carried on a terse conversation with police as he worked up the courage to kill himself, asking frequently about his mother. He seemed to be sane, lucid and aware of what he’d done. At 6.52 pm, he shot himself.
Many theories were suggested about what caused the tragedy – tabloid newspapers drew parallels between the actions of Ryan and John Rambo in the film “First Blood”, but there was no evidence that Ryan had ever seen the movie; it certainly wasn’t something he talked about to colleagues. Fantasy role playing games have also been suggested as material in influencing him.
The truth is that though Michael Ryan fit the model of the kind of person who does ‘snap’ – he was isolated, lacking in self-confidence, bullied in childhood, leading to residual feelings of powerlessness that he used guns to compensate for and frustrated in his work and social life – there is no indication of any defining event which might have precipitated his actions.
Unlike the only other crime of its kind in Britain, the Dunblane massacre, ten years later, the Hungerford shootings remain incomprehensible, and as such impossible to forgive, let alone forget.