Loss of innocents

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 March, 2006, 12:00am

On the morning of March 13, 1996, in Dunblane, Scotland, 43-year-old Thomas Hamilton closed the door of his car for the last time. At 9.30am, armed with 743 rounds of ammunition and four handguns, he walked towards the gym of the local primary school.

The events that occurred next shocked the world and affected countless lives - and continue to do so, 10 years on. On that fateful morning, the small city nestled in the Perthshire Highlands was irrevocably thrust on to the world stage when Hamilton barged into Dunblane Primary School and shot 16 five- to six-year-old children and their teacher before killing himself.

'We heard these gunshots from the gym and looked round and thought he must be firing at a target or something; then he came out through a fire exit and started firing at [us] and we were all petrified,' one pupil said afterwards.

The British prime minister at the time, John Major, described the massacre as 'a horror of almost unimaginable proportions'. The leaders of Ireland and France, among other countries, expressed their outrage at the wanton act of brutality.

Author Rachael Bell in an article for the Crime Library recalled that Hamilton first shot at several of the teachers: 'Hamilton then turned his guns on the frightened children and shot at them as they tried to scramble to safety under chairs and inside closets. Screams echoed throughout the gymnasium as tiny bodies sunk to the floor in pools of blood.'

Hamilton fired the guns in quick succession then walked to a nearby corridor where he fired off more rounds before returning to the gym. There, he placed the barrel of a revolver in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

The killings triggered a national obsession in Britain, with demands for tighter gun laws and questions about Hamilton and his motives. In order to piece together the events that led to what was, at the time, the most deplorable crime committed in recent British history, Lord Cullen was drafted in to set up an inquiry to profile the killer. The probe revealed shocking facts about Hamilton's past.

Born in 1952 at a Glasgow hospital, Hamilton was the product of a broken home. With his mother struggling to make ends meet, he was adopted by his grandparents and raised as their son. The family moved to Stirling and then later settled in Dunblane.

As a teenager, Hamilton developed an interest in firearms and the Boys' Brigade. Guns and boys were a fixation throughout his life. Obtaining his first firearms certificate in his 20s, he began visiting gun clubs and firing ranges. As well as amassing a collection of firearms over the years, his interest in boys became apparent.

Hamilton became a Scout leader, but he was subsequently removed from the position. He later devoted his time to setting up boys' clubs in the area. However, the complaints against him had begun to trickle in.

It was reported on several occasions that he had a penchant for boys - he used to demand that they wear swimming trunks while he took pictures of them.

He developed a reputation for having a cruel streak. Journalist Jonathan Russell wrote in The Mirror newspaper in 1996 that Hamilton obtained gratification from punishing boys.

Russell reported that Hamilton 'expected them to obey his every command'. He also said that one of the boys' mothers complained that they were 'forced to rub suntan oil all over [Hamilton's] naked body as he writhed and groaned in ecstasy'.

Hamilton also kept a bizarre collection of boys' photographs. A Dunblane resident would later recall his disgust when Hamilton had told him that he had a videotape showing 'his boys' performing gymnastics in 'small black bathing trunks'.

Following an incident in June 1992, in which three boys ran away from a school camp Hamilton was in charge of, a reporter who worked with the region's Children's Panel - a volunteer group who watch over children who've been in trouble - said: 'I feel that the events of June 29, 1992, in Dunblane, in a sense serve as a warning. If the kind of circumstances as described are allowed to continue without some kind of intervention, I consider that other children may be placed at risk.'

Hamilton's indecent behaviour went largely unnoticed by the authorities, because it appeared that the various complaints made against him were dealt with in isolation - a mountain of tangible evidence was building against him, but no one seemed to make the connection.

Hamilton had an unsuccessful career as a small businessman. He set up a DIY hardware shop that went broke 13 years later. After it foundered, Hamilton lived on social welfare benefits. Some of his acquaintances declared during the inquiry that he'd started to become depressed leading up to the murders. He was in debt, had been refused a loan, and the attendance numbers at the boys' clubs had been dwindling. He was a shy man, a loner and an outcast. He was deeply embittered.

Psychiatrists were enlisted to give the inquiry an account of Hamilton's personality. The findings concluded that he didn't suffer from mental illness, and had been staking out the school for years.

'It was possible he had selected a school because of his association with schools or because, unlike with adults, he would have been much less likely to experience opposition ... and his victims were the most vulnerable and the most defenceless he could have selected,' they said.

Amid the chaos that ensued, mistakes were made in the handling of the tragedy. It was reported that parents weren't told which children had died until about 2.30pm. Police reports stated 1.30pm as the time that parents were being notified.

But the Cullen inquiry ignited an angry response from some parents and friends of the bereaved, who said a cover-up was taking place. Over the decade since the killings, calls have continued from the parents to investigate the areas of the inquiry which they say are still ambiguous.

Several key witnesses were said to have been left out of the investigations, and, despite it being a 'public' inquiry, certain information was not released publicly. Neighbours remember seeing police cars parked outside Hamilton's home, which led to the belief that Hamilton had friends in the police force.

It's also alleged that documents and reports relating to Hamilton's behaviour around boys and guns were not made known to the public during the inquiry.

'The Cullen inquiry was a piece of theatre,' said former university lecturer Dr Mick North, father of Dunblane victim Sophie, according to the Dunblane Abandoned website, which accused the inquiry of being a 'whitewash'.

Despite Hamilton's alleged connections with the secretive Freemasonry, this wasn't mentioned in the inquiry. Some parents called for Lord Cullen's resignation after allegations were made that he, too, was a member of the Freemasons.

In a letter addressed to Lord Cullen in April 1996, William Burns, webmaster of Dunblane Abandoned, wrote: 'It is in the public interest that Lord Cullen be asked if he is a Freemason, given the widely held view by the public that Thomas Hamilton's Masonic affiliation was probably the reason that the Ombudsman overturned an earlier decision by Central Regional Council in 1983 to prevent Hamilton from running youth clubs, and that his Masonic affiliation probably facilitated his application for a gun licence.'

A 100-year ban was applied on letters such as this and on information relating to Hamilton.

Eventually, last October, after an extensive fight, the majority of the documents were released and are available to the public, it was reported in The Scotsman newspaper.

Behind the tragedy and the intrigue surrounding the inquiry, some survivors are only now able to speak about the event. 'He walked straight towards me. He did not pause or speak; he just continued walking straight towards me, looking at me. He pointed his gun at me and shot me,' said Eileen Harrild, a PE teacher who survived the four bullets that struck her.

Despite the brutality of the shooting, some victims' families are still fighting for Britain to implement a gun registry. There was some tightening of the rules when the Snowdrop campaign - a petition that called for a total ban on the private ownership and use of handguns in Britain - brought about a change in the law in 1997 making it illegal to buy or possess handguns.

'The seeming inability of the Association of Chief Police Officers and Home Office officials to get the national registration system in place is a betrayal of those parents whose children were savagely taken from them at Dunblane,' said one British MP in the House of Lords.

Despite the ongoing wrangle over gun controls, the quiet city of Dunblane is striving to overcome its stigma. In a memorial garden there, a fountain is engraved with the names of the children and their teacher, Gwen Mayor, who tried to shield the children from the bullets.

Speaking at the garden's opening ceremony eight years ago, The Scotsman reported Dr North as saying 'the cheerfulness and brightness of a Primary One classroom is evoked by each one of the pebbles in the pools, you can almost hear the chatter of children in the sound of the fountain'.

Dunblane Primary School's most famous export, tennis player Andrew Murray - who survived the shootings - is rising through the ranks as a young sporting star, and the gym was demolished long ago. A sports centre dedicated to the victims and survivors was built using donation money that flooded in following the tragedy.

There are struggles that the bereaved face every day, but as Dr North said, 'It is time to put the matter to rest.'