A LEAKED report by the police watchdog has branded officers' handling of killer Michael Atherton as "inexcusable" and "unacceptable".
The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has criticised the decision to hand back guns to the taxi driver, who massacred three women in a New Year’s Day killing spree, despite earlier threats to shoot himself.
Atherton, 42, opened fire on his 47-year-old partner Susan McGoldrick, her sister Alison Turnbull, 44, and her niece Tanya Turnbull, 24, before taking his own life on January 1 this year.
The killings horrified residents of Horden, near Peterlee in County Durham, who learned of the murders when Susan’s wounded daughter Laura fled into the village after escaping through a window.
In a damning report, the IPCC criticises the force’s handling of Atherton’s firearms certificate. The report reveals how officers seized six guns from Atherton in 2008 when he had threatened “shoot his own head off” during a drunken incident at the family home.
Yet his deadly arsenal was returned to him just six weeks later with a warning they would be confiscated if he behaved “irresponsibly”. Among the guns was the weapon he used to gun down his partner’s family.
A note stuck to Atherton’s police file when he applied for his licence back also read: “4 domestics – last one 24/4/04 . . . . would like to refuse – have we sufficient info – refuse re public safety.”
While the watchdog has not recommended criminal or disciplinary action they found there was no “meaningful review” of Atherton’s licences for three rifles and three shotguns by police after the 2008 incident and no record of why the decision was made.
Student Laura, who had been studying musical theatre at Newcastle College, was injured in the spray of bullets as Atherton gunned down her mother.
Wounded, she escaped with her boyfriend Myren Grant, then 19, through her bedroom window.
After learning of the IPCC findings, she said: “I know I’m not Einstein or anything (but) if a man tried to commit suicide, or pretended to, why would you give a man a gun back like that with a family in the house?”
Durham’s Deputy Chief Constable Michael Banks said he was aware the bereaved families had been updated by the police watchdog.
He confirmed the commission had recommended that there were no criminal or misconduct cases to answer for any member of Durham Constabulary.