‘It should never have happened’

Alison Turnbull with son Bobby
Alison Turnbull with son Bobby

BEREAVED Bobby Turnbull today revealed he is even more determined to make sure no other family suffers like his after a string of failings by police over the granting of killer cabbie Michael Atherton’s gun licences.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and Durham Coroner Andrew Tweddle both issued stinging attacks on Durham Police.

And the force had to admit its shortcomings in the licensing process for Atherton’s guns and firearms after a week-long inquest drew to a close yesterday.

Atherton, 42, gunned down his partner Susan McGoldrick, 47, her sister Alison Turnbull, 44, and Alison’s daughter Tanya Turnbull, 24, in a massacre at Atherton and Susan’s home in Greenside Avenue, in Horden, on New Year’s Day, last year, before turning the gun on himself.

Since then, it has been suggested that the tragedy could have been prevented if there had not been a series of missed opportunities to seize the six weapons belonging to Atherton, who had a history of domestic abuse and threats to self-harm.

The full scale was revealed yesterday when the IPCC identified a string of failings by the police and made a staggering 13 recommendations of changes that should be made in the force.

The IPCC’s shocking findings included how Atherton had received three warning letters from the firearms unit, the last being in November 2008.

The report also revealed that despite Atherton’s weapons being seized, his licence was not removed and there was a “total absence” of communication between the force’s domestic violence/public protection and licensing units.

There was “no substantial process to notify the licensing unit of any incidents involving licence holders” and no clear audit of the decision-making process in Atherton’s case.

Following the inquest at Crook Coroner’s Court, Durham Coroner Andrew Tweddle will write to the Home Office calling for “root and branch” overhaul to gun licensing.

He said it was fortunate that there had not been more incidents like the one in Horden.

The inquest heard there had not been any formal training for firearms licensing officers.

A note attached to Atherton’s first application for a firearms licence in 2006 said: “Four domestics, last one 24/4/04, was cautioned for assault. Still resides with partner and son and daughter.

“Would like to refuse, have we sufficient to refuse re public safety?”

But nevertheless, Atherton was granted a shotgun licence and then a firearms licence two years later.

Mr Tweddle reached a verdict that the women were unlawfully killed and that Atherton killed himself.

He said Durham Police had conducted a thorough review of its firearms licensing practices since the tragedy, but many other licences had been issued to “improper” people.

Durham Police Chief Constable Michael Barton offered an apology to the bereaved families.

Giving evidence at the hearing, he said prior to the shootings the licensing unit was too focused on administration and not enough on investigating whether applicants should be granted licences.

The unit had come under investigation in 2008 and 2009 when PC Damien Cobain and a colleague were found to be selling on shotguns that had been handed in by the public.

Mr Tweddle said an investigation into the crime could have also revealed the lack of organisational control in the way licences were granted by the unit.

Outside the hearing, Hartlepool Golf Club worker Bobby Turnbull, Alison’s son, slammed the force’s “lack of training, accountability, poor leadership and poor communication structure”.

Bobby, of East Street, Blackhall, who is continuing his campaign for better vetting of gun applicants, said: “The whole process was just a joke, there was total incompetence.

“This may never have happened if police had proper procedures in place.”

He said his family were happy with the coroner’s ruling and added: “Myself and all the family hope that now what’s in place can prevent anyone else going through what we have been through.”

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, who is backing Bobby’s campaign after they met last month, said: “Atherton should never have been given a gun.

“No-one should die in circumstances like this. To protect women’s safety, gun licence rules should be changed now.”

Easington MP Grahame Morris said “lessons should be learned” and applied nationally, not just locally.