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Detectives seek clues to explain cabdriver’s killing spree

Was worst mass shooting in Britain since ’96

Floral tributes were left near where Derrick Bird reportedly killed Garry Purdham as he trimmed hedges in Gosforth, England. Floral tributes were left near where Derrick Bird reportedly killed Garry Purdham as he trimmed hedges in Gosforth, England. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
By Ben McConville and Jennifer Quinn
Associated Press / June 4, 2010

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WHITEHAVEN, England — Derrick Bird killed his twin brother and the family lawyer, then traveled the roads he had worked as a taxi driver, shooting people — apparently aiming for their faces — killing 12 in all and wounding nearly a dozen before committing suicide.

Detectives yesterday were trying to figure out what drove the 52-year-old cabdriver to commit the worst mass shooting in Britain since 1996.

“There are 23 families out there who want to know why these events happened,’’ Detective Chief Superintendent Iain Goulding said. “Our communities want to know why this has happened. My officers and I are absolutely determined to get to the bottom of why this happened. However, it may not be possible to establish all the answers, because we cannot speak to Derrick Bird.’’

Goulding said detectives would investigate rumors that Bird had financial problems or domestic troubles. He refused to speculate on what caused Bird to shoot people he knew, like his brother David and lawyer Kevin Commons, as well as others he apparently did not.

In the traumatized town of Whitehaven, people described Bird as quiet and friendly. Known to some as “Birdy,’’ he was a divorced father who had reportedly just become a grandfather for the first time. He held licenses for both of the weapons — a shotgun and a .22-caliber rifle with a telescopic sight — that were recovered beside his body.

Goulding said Bird had minor convictions for theft stretching back to 1990, but he had never been to prison — people who have been imprisoned are prevented from holding firearms licenses. Bird had no known mental health problems and was not on medication.

Retired teacher Nan Wilson, 75, who taught the brothers during their high school years, said they were in the same class before dropping out at age 16.

“The twins were like chalk and cheese, as Derrick was more of an introvert,’’ Wilson said. “There was no animosity between them. They just had a normal childhood.’’

At West Cumberland Hospital in Whitehaven, Charles Brett, the clinical director of emergency care, said five of the patients treated there had been shot in the face.

“There’s a predominance of facial injuries in what we have seen. More than 50 percent of those that survived had some portion of facial injuries,’’ Brett said, calling it “an unusual injury in any emergency department in the country.’’

Prime Minister David Cameron plans to visit the area today.

Rules on gun ownership were tightened after two massacres in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1987, Michael Ryan killed 16 people in the English town of Hungerford. In 1996, Thomas Hamilton killed 16 children and a teacher at a primary school in Scotland.

In recent years, there have been fewer than 100 gun homicides annually across Britain.

Cameron ruled out any quick review of Britain’s stringent gun laws as a result of the killings. “You can’t legislate to stop a switch flicking in someone’s head and this kind of dreadful event taking place,’’ he told reporters.

While mass killings are extremely rare in Britain, the phenomenon is more common in the United States and has been the subject of extensive study. Jack Levin, a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University who has published books about multiple killings, said Bird’s case was unusual even within that category because Bird seems to have chosen some of his victims randomly.

In most mass killings, the attacker usually works his way through a peer group or colleagues, whoever committed the perceived slight, Levin said.

But Dr. Park Dietz, president of Threat Assessment Group Inc., a Newport Beach, Calif.-based violence prevention firm, said the killings appeared to be an example of a workplace shooting.

“His workplace is driving around,’’ Dietz said. “In those instances there may be a few [victims] that are specifically targeted, but usually they end up shooting people at random.’’

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