A COMMUNITY was today struggling to come to terms with the bloodbath which left four people dead and locals stunned.
Residents in the Greenside Avenue area of Horden who were expecting a quiet Bank Holiday Monday woke up to find the street the focus of a high-profile murder investigation that has shocked the whole country.
Scores of police cars and ambulances swooped on the street late on Sunday night after taxi driver Michael Atherton killed three women before turning a shotgun on himself.
Many neighbours told how they were alerted at around midnight by the huge police presence and they spoke of their shock and disbelief as details of the tragic events unfolded.
Residents who knew Mr Atherton said they cannot believe what has happened and said it is out of character.
People living in the area say Mr Atherton was a regular at the Horden Victory Club and was believed to have been at Horden Cricket Club earlier that night where he was in good spirits.
By the time daylight rose, the media had descended on the area including the national press and TV cameramen.
Neighbours in streets that overlooked the house watched as scenes of crimes officers arrived in their white suits and began their investigation thorough of the crime scene.
A white tent was put up outside the front of the house and, at lunchtime, a black undertaker’s van pulled into the street.
As the day wore on bunches of flowers from well-wishers shocked at the tragedy were left close to the scene as residents started to come to terms with the gravity of what had happened.
Kirsty Pearce, a close friend who went to college with Laura, said: “I didn’t realise it was laura until I got a phone call. People told me she had climbed out of the window. I couldn’t believe it – I thought she had been killed too.
“She never really spoke about Mike. She told me that him and her mam had previous arguments when they had gone out, but nothing like this.”
Robert Bailey, 72, a long-standing resident of Greenside Avenue, said: “There is shock. There is never any trouble here and we have been here for nearly 50 years.”
One unnamed Horden resident, who knew Mr Atherton for around 20 years, said: “He was a nice lad. I don’t know what’s made him do that.
“I am very surprised. When I saw him in the pub he was always having a laugh.”
A Shotton Road resident said: “You just can’t believe it. You hear about it happening in other places, but it just never happens here.
“There is a lot of old people in the area and it’s just so quiet.”
Another neighbour, who did not wish to be named, said: “I’ve been here for 40 years and nothing like this has ever happened. It’s terrible.”
Mr Atherton is said to have previously worked at NSK Bearings in Peterlee as a machine operator, before becoming a taxi driver.
He is understood to have lived in Greenside Avenue for around 10 years.
One neighbour, who lives in the street, said: “I was walking home from work at quarter past 12 last night and the first thing I saw was a guy running around covered in blood.
“He was shouting: ‘Someone’s been shot in the head’.
“I knew the family quite well. No-one can believe it’s happened.”
Another resident told how he heard a man screaming “let me see my mam” outside the house at around 1am and was led away by police.
He said: “I’ve never seen so much police activity. There was at least five police cars and three ambulances and the police helicopter. I didn’t hear any shots.”
A neighbour added: “We thought we heard fireworks, but when we woke up this morning we heard it was a shooting. It’s horrific.”
Neighbourhood police later spoke to residents to reassure them they were safe.
Inspector Dave Coxon, of Peterlee Neighbourhood Police Team, said: “We are here reassuring members of the public about what’s happened and talk about the fact that there is no threat as such to them.
“There has been an incident contained to one street and we are not looking for anyone else at this time.”