Unanswered questions about the ‘barbecue killings’

Neighbours want to know why two women were left to bleed to death while police with machine guns carried out a 'risk assessment' from four miles away.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

‘These armed response guys have machine guns, pistols, body armour, helmets; I had a lump of wood. What were they doing four miles down the road?’ Pensioner Roy Gibson is recalling the tragic events of 6 June, when three neighbours of his were shot, two fatally, and the police and emergency services took over an hour to intervene.

The case of the ‘barbecue killings’, as it came to be known, seemed to come to a grisly logical conclusion on 24 June, when suspected killer Stuart Horgan committed suicide in his cell at Woodhill Prison in Buckinghamshire.

Horgan stood accused of shooting his estranged wife Vicky Horgan, her sister Emma Walton and their mother Jacqueline Bailey at a family barbecue in the village of Highmoor Cross in Oxfordshire. The killings shocked Britain. The women were reportedly shot in front of Vicky’s two young children. Vicky and Emma died from their wounds; Jacqueline is still seriously ill in hospital. Horgan left no suicide note after slitting his throat with a blade from a disposable razor in his Woodhill cell.

For 70-year-old Gibson, who lives next door to where Vicky and Emma were murdered, the case is far from over. His voice brims with anger as he tells me the sisters ‘might have had a bit of a chance’ if the police had acted sooner. According to reports, the Thames Valley Police refused to allow their own officers or paramedics anywhere near the crime scene for over an hour, while they carried out a ‘risk assessment’ of the area in order to ‘safeguard any members of the public who could be at risk, as well as officers and other emergency service personnel at the scene’ (1).

Gibson and his wife Georgina, alerted by the gunshots, were first to arrive at Vicky’s flat on the afternoon of 6 June. They found a terrible scene. The killer had used a shotgun. Vicky had been shot in the head; her sister Emma and mother Jacqueline had been shot in the upper body. Vicky’s children were standing close to the three victims. ‘We were just horrified’, says Gibson. His wife, who is a first aider, tried to comfort the grievously injured women while Gibson called the police at around 4.40pm. He could never have imagined that it would be nearly six o’clock before they arrived. ‘If you’d told me that me and my wife would be in that flat with the dying women for nearly an hour and a half, I’d have said you were barmy.’

Gibson called the police six times in total, ‘begging’ them to come and help. ‘I told them it was deadly serious. I told them these women were dying.’ But Thames Valley Police says that its policy on firearm incidents is to risk-assess whether the vicinity is safe before entering, or before allowing paramedics to enter. The police despatched a helicopter within 10 minutes of receiving Gibson’s first call to try to ascertain whether the gunman was still present and whether he still posed a threat. Ambulancemen arrived at the police rendezvous within three minutes of being called, but were prevented from proceeding to the flat by police awaiting the results of the risk assessment. The assessment took over an hour.

Following the killings, a spokesperson for Thames Valley Police said that the force’s first priority in such incidents is to ensure that no further harm can come to members of the public or the emergency services. A spokesman for Royal Berkshire Ambulance Service said: ‘In a situation such as this, it is vital that the scene is confirmed as being safe to enter. Reports indicated that the attacker was still on the scene and that the situation remained very dangerous.’ Yet Gibson says he told the police ‘time after time after time that the guy had gone. I saw him go. He wasn’t there. He was probably halfway to Peterborough by the time the police arrived’. (Horgan was arrested in Peterborough the day after the murders took place.)

Gibson says that even if the gunman had still been lurking around, the police ought to have acted. ‘That’s their job, isn’t it?’ In the event, it was left to Gibson’s wife to try to comfort the victims while Gibson stood guard outside. ‘My wife’s inside the house; I’m outside the house with a lump of wood in my hand just in case he did come back. But it didn’t matter to me if he had come back. We weren’t scared. We did what human beings are supposed to do. There’s three people lying in that house bleeding to death. These are neighbours, friends; you’re supposed to help.’

Does Gibson think the sisters might have survived if the emergency services had arrived sooner? In the immediate aftermath of the killings he told reporters that they might have if they had been treated straight away. Now he sounds less sure. ‘We don’t think Vicky would have survived. She didn’t survive; she died while we were there. I don’t know about Emma. I think she virtually bled to death. Whether she could have been helped or not, I don’t know. But it seems a bit stupid to leave it nearly an hour and a half before you find out.’ He says he has never had a bad word to say about the police, and he isn’t having a go at them now. ‘All I’m trying to say is that the system can’t be right, if it leaves three people like that who have been shot.’

The cautious response to the barbecue killings may seem shocking, but it is not a one-off – and Thames Valley Police is not the only force in the country that has adopted a precautionary approach to firearm incidents. News reports have asked whether the police made tactical errors in Highmoor Cross on 6 June. Perhaps they did. But their response to the killings also fits a broader pattern of risk-averse policing, where forces around the country increasingly tend to take a step back from heated incidents in order to assess the dangers before acting.

This is especially true of firearm incidents. In 1995, Lorraine Whiting was shot by her husband before he shot and killed himself. She spent almost an hour on the phone asking to be taken to hospital while the police stood outside assessing whether the gunman was still present. According to reports, Whiting told the police 25 times that the gunman (her husband) was dead, but the police said that he might be pressuring her to say that and refused to storm the house (2). Whiting bled to death.

In November 2003, Alan Pemberton shot his wife Julia and their 17-year-old son William at their home in Berkshire, before turning the gun on himself. Reportedly, at 7.10pm on the evening of the killings, a woman called police in great distress saying that her husband had a gun. At 7.45pm, neighbours reported hearing gunshots. It wasn’t until 1.45am that the police entered the house and discovered the three bodies, six-and-a-half hours after the woman’s distress call. In January 2003 there was the fiasco of the east London siege, when police spent 15 days and £1million outside a flat occupied by a gunman. Halfway through the siege a man being held hostage by the gunman had to escape by his own devices, by jumping out of a window. That stand-off eventually ended when the gunman started burning furniture; he was later found dead in the flat.

The one time you would want the police around is when there is a gunman on the loose, shooting people, or threatening to shoot people, or holding someone hostage – yet it seems that this is the time when police hold back. They have adopted a safety-first approach – that is, putting their own safety, and apparently the safety of the public, before the welfare of those who are in potentially terrible danger.

After his recent experience, Roy Gibson says his faith in the police has been shaken. ‘I mean, if you’re in a really bad way, if there’s someone with a gun, would it be worth calling the police?’

(1) Police accused of waiting too long over barbecue shootings, Daily Telegraph, 8 June 2004

(2) See Killings like these happen in America, not in Henley, Boris Johnson, Daily Telegraph, 8 June 2004

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Topics Politics


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