A taxi driver who murdered his partner, her sister and her sister’s daughter before shooting himself in a New Year’s killing spree at the family home, held licences for six weapons and was known to police three years earlier after threatening to harm himself.
His 19-year-old stepdaughter leapt to safety from an upstairs window after the man, named as Michael Atherton, opened fire in the crowded semi-detached house shortly before midnight local time.
Police confirmed they had been in touch with the 42-year-old gun enthusiast in 2008 after being contacted by a relative concerned over his welfare.
It is understood that he had talked of shooting himself, but the permits which allowed him to hold shotguns as well as three other more powerful “category one” weapons were not revoked. Police could not say whether the person who had been in touch with them was among the victims of the rampage which lasted a few seconds before Atherton turned the gun on himself.
Neighbours in Greenside Avenue, a quiet cul-de-sac in the former mining community of Horden near Peterlee, County Durham, described how survivors ran from the house screaming.
A witness said one man emerged covered in blood shouting: “He has shot her in the head. My girlfriend is dead. Save her, save her.”
The dead women were named locally as Atherton’s partner of many years, Susan McGoldrick, 45, who worked at a local supermarket; her 44-year-old sister and her sister’s daughter, who was said to be in her 20s.
Laura McGoldrick, his step-daughter, was treated in hospital for what appeared to be minor shotgun wounds. She was later questioned by detectives investigating the murders.
A man who was at the scene was arrested but later released. The bodies of the victims were found “in close proximity” to each other on the ground floor of the small house.
Police said some of the victims had been out drinking earlier in the evening and had returned home shortly before the shooting began. Atherton had been out at the Horden Victory Club. He was described as acting “completely normally”.
One friend said he might have been depressed after undergoing a heart procedure last year.
His employer, Michael Lloyd, said colleagues at Phillips Taxis where he had worked for several years were completely stunned. “He was a really nice guy,” he said. A colleague described Atherton as a “quiet man” who “must have flipped”.
He was a well-known gun enthusiast who shot rabbits on farms in North Yorkshire and gave them to friends.
Assistant Chief Constable Michael Banks confirmed police had “minor contact” with the family in 2008.
“We are busy reviewing the exact circumstances around that. There was a report of a male at that address self-harming. That was some years ago,” said Banks. “Nothing came from that.”
Gun owners are required to undergo background checks from firearms officers to ensure they pose no threat to public safety. Police said it was not unusual for enthusiasts to hold six licences at once.
Applicants must provide a reference and a letter from their GP saying they are not suffering from mental illness, and declare any criminal convictions, or any previous treatment for such illnesses.
Firearms licensing: the system
* Britain has one of the world’s most stringent gun-licensing systems – with owners of shotguns and rifles required to undergo background checks which are supposed to demonstrate they pose no threat to public safety.
* Applicants must declare criminal convictions, medical conditions or treatment for depression or mental illness. Licences are reviewed every five years and certificates, issued by Chief Constables, may be revoked if holders are deemed to be a danger to public safety or of unsound mind.