By Craig Jackson, Professor of Occupational Health Psychology, School of Social Sciences

August 19 2017 marks the day, 30 years ago, when the Hungerford massacre occurred in the Berkshire market town, perpetrated by a 27-year-old loner and unemployed labourer who committed a killing spree which saw 16 people murdered, with another 15 wounded.

At the time, the Hungerford massacre was unprecedented in its scale and mindlessness. It was Britain’s deadliest mass-killing outside of terrorism or war, only to be exceeded in 1997, when another isolated loner decided to shoot pupils and teachers in Dunblane primary school, killing 15 school children as well as a teacher, before turning his gun on himself.

Professor Craig Jackson looks at what is known about the Hungerford shootings, and applies current understanding of spree killers to answer the question of what drove Ryan to kill so many people.

Some commentary, including the recent BBC Panorama programme ‘A Prescription for Murder’ (2017), has suggested that mental health problems, and possibly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) antidepressant medication used to manage such conditions, are responsible for some notorious spree killing incidents. Indeed, this proposed link between antidepressants and violence and/or suicide surfaces every few years, and is rarely supported by reliable epidemiological evidence.

Spree killers (those killing three or more people in a single incident) more often than not, have an absence of depression or other mental health problems, but most of them consistently harbour specific personal failings, such as excessive levels of narcissism, immaturity, neurotic instability, and an inability to take responsibility for their actions. These are not mental health issues, but they are symptoms of disordered and deficient personalities, seen time and time again in those who commit mass shootings. Coupled with acutely stressful and intolerable situations, they may crack and act out violent fantasies they have held for some time.

Nobody is entirely certain why 27-year-old Michael Ryan committed the mass shooting that he did, or why he killed his own mother, family dog, neighbours and several strangers. Unlike so many contemporary spree shooters, Ryan left no note, diary or manifesto outlining any grudges or excessive difficulties in his life. Ryan did not possess a home computer and therefore there was no evidence of any obvious perceived enemy that he had been blaming or obsessing about in his life. Occurring when it did, there was no internet search history or mobile phone records to provide evidence of any hostility towards his community or any personal difficulties as we often see with modern day spree killers.

What seems certain is that the reasons the media used at the time to explain Ryan’s crimes – such as the influence of Hollywood movies, severe mental illness, or even an ‘unnatural relationship’ between Ryan and his mother Dorothy – were not accurate. In the absence of obvious background factors that could give some clue to such a massacre, newspaper headlines and media coverage focused on the unhelpful and descriptive aspects of his crimes: ‘The Rambo Killer’; ‘Maniac in the making’; ‘Rambo’s Bloody Sunday’ and ‘Day of the Maniac’. Such headlines were superficial red herrings that did not lead to greater understanding of the background behind such killers.

Hungerford became synonymous with “that Rambo killer guy” and had to live with the legacy of the unfathomable chaos it witnessed.

If anything, Ryan’s life was without the usual ups and downs that most people experience routinely, and his existence was devoid of much positive interaction with others. He lived with his mother and dog, following the death of his elderly father a couple of years previously. He had no meaningful employment or education beyond secondary school and a brief stint undertaking a City & Guilds qualification. What little work he had acquired in the past was as a farm labourer, which was often brought about via his father’s help and influence. Ryan had occasional jobs as a handyman and labourer, but these often did not last for long.

Not only was Ryan a loner, but he was quite lonely. He would tell tall tales to anyone who would listen in the pub or at his local pistol range, of being in the SAS, of having an estranged girlfriend in a foreign country, of getting flying lessons, or of even being a rich antique dealer. Despite such impressive aspects to his (fake) personality, nobody wanted to know him, often attributed to his intense and broody nature.

Something about Ryan was not quite right: he was not a bad person – but he was not likeable either. In the absence of having an identity, self-worth and meaningful purpose derived from his job, like most people do, Ryan had tried to create fake interesting personalities, but this just left him more socially isolated and without a sense of self and worth.

On a positive note, there was no evidence of serious personality disorder or psychotic behaviour on the part of Ryan, and certainly no clues that he was planning to do what he eventually did. Ryan had no history of mental health problems, either psychoses or neuroses, and no unusual medical history. The autopsy of Ryan’s body eventually revealed no brain anomalies, and the only physical problem he had was (undiagnosed) fatty-liver syndrome – often developing in people after chronic moderate-to-heavy alcohol use.

Ryan was unremarkable in almost every way, and apart from being relatively small child, only growing to five feet six inches in adulthood (something which Ryan himself was unhappy about), his main attribute was being instantly forgettable and un-noteworthy. Such an absence of noticeable psychopathology in Ryan’s background has resulted in greater levels of confusion about his motives and his drive to kill, given the horrific nature of what he eventually did.

Ryan was a member of a local rifle and pistol club, and owned a combination of semi-automatic pistols, shotguns and semi-automatic rifles, possessing all of his firearms legally and acquiring them legitimately. Ryan’s firearms certificates, and updates he gave to the police regarding any changes in his circumstances were almost impeccable – as was his weapon storage and the security measures used.

There was some evidence that Ryan occasionally rowed with his neighbours over petty issues such as children playing on the lawn of his house, or about their dogs fouling the pavement. Some recall he would often take “pot shots” at the feet of neighbourhood children with his air rifle, although these stories never resulted in any comeback for Ryan. He would often fire at road signs, tin cans and, occasionally, local birds – but such use of his firearms never had measurable repercussions for Ryan, and perhaps this was an important factor in why he eventually felt the power to escalate his targets from objects, to people. Testing the waters perhaps.

Although a fan of weaponry and shooting at the local gun club, Ryan had demonstrated no evidence or excessive stockpiling of weaponry or ammunition before his murders, and no evidence of bearing any serious grudge against the local community. The police found him to be of generally good character, and he only had one speeding fine in his background. Ryan was known to often frequent the Savernake Forest, a formal regal medieval hunting ground, where he would stalk and follow people around the forest, preferably without them knowing he was following them. He would often go on such stalking trips with at least one of his firearms with him, though there is little evidence that he did anything untoward on such trips, beyond shooting at wildlife or road signs. It is entirely possible that Ryan, a man with no known girlfriend or sexual partner, may have found sexual arousal in the act of stalking and following people around the forest.

Those with expertise in the case suspect his fatal rampage may have been a panicked response to a failed sexual assault on Mrs Susan Godfrey in Savernake forest, a couple of hours before he began shooting his neighbours and residents in his town. Mrs Godfrey was clearing away the remains of a picnic she had with her two small children in the forest when Ryan, who had arrived after they had and parked his car alongside theirs, got out of his vehicle and approached Mrs Godfrey. The two Godfrey children were eventually found by a passer-by, having been strapped into their seats in the back of their family car. Mrs Godfrey had been shot in the back thirteen times, and was found about 10 yards away from the groundsheet she used for the picnic. There was no evidence of any sexual assault upon Mrs Godfrey and her children did not witness the circumstances of her killing, other than knowing he left the scene immediately after the shooting occurred.

It remains perplexing why Mrs Godfrey’s body was found as if she had been heading away from the car with her children in it, instead of towards it. This remains one of the key aspects of the Ryan case, and understanding what happened with Mrs Godfrey is crucial in understanding why the killing spree continued back at Hungerford, seven miles away from the forest. Ryan may not have intended to kill Mrs Godfrey initially, and perhaps he shot her in panic – possibly he was worried she would report him to police, and that he was certain to face shame and embarrassment.

After killing Mrs Godfrey, Ryan left her children alone, and drove back towards home, stopping half way there at the Golden Arrow service station to fill the tank of his car and a five-litre petrol can. Ryan, having waited for another customer to drive away, produced a rifle from the boot of his car and fired a single shot from his Kalashnikov-style semi-automatic across the forecourt at the cashier’s window. Having narrowly missed the cashier, Mrs Kakoub Dean, he went into the petrol station shop to shoot at her again. As the magazine had fallen out of his semi-automatic rifle as he walked across the forecourt (unbeknown to Ryan), when he pressed the trigger several times, the gun did not fire, and he fled the scene in his car. After driving back home to his house in Southview in Hungerford, Ryan parked his car on the driveway and put some of his weapons that he stored in the shed into the boot of his car, and then started the blaze in the family house. Perhaps this suggests that Ryan was attempting to escape in his car, and possibly trying to fake his death and escape the murder of Mrs Godfrey and attempted murder of Mrs Dean at the petrol station.

When his car would not start, he shot at it three times while it was still on the driveway and then equipped himself with some of his weapons from his car and began shooting at the passers-by he encountered, and some neighbours who came to investigate the noise. This could be the turning point in the incident, when Ryan, unable to flee from what he had done, decided to stand and fight. When Ryan’s mother arrived back home shortly after the shooting started, he shot her dead on the driveway to her own house.

After six hours of moving around the local area back and forth, shooting at vehicles, passers-by, emergency services personal, shooting into the homes of some of his victims, and causing dozens of casualties and fatalities, Ryan committed suicide while hiding in his former secondary school, surrounded by police marksmen outside. Before his death, Ryan asked if his mother and dogs were ok – although he knew he had clearly killed them himself – and this can be seen as a typically child-like and immature way of trying to immune oneself from blame and responsibility. Ryan also told police that he wished he had stayed in bed that day, and that the rampage would not have happened if his car would have started – clearly suggesting he was intending to escape, and not to stand his ground and kill other people. This was a last resort for a panicked and scared Ryan.

Despite some experts suggesting that perhaps Ryan had been suffering from some undiagnosed form of paranoid schizophrenia, little evidence supports the link between mental health problems and spree shooters – and the roles of disordered personality and instability seem much more useful in explaining spree shooting tragedies. In such a highly stressful situation, and being of an instable nature, Ryan panicked, and thinking there was no future open to him if he could not escape Hungerford, he began focussing on what he should do next. In making this decision, he was clearly influenced by something he had no doubt seen on his TB just over a week beforehand.

Only 10 days before the Hungerford shootings, in Melbourne, a discharged soldier, 19-year-old Julian Knight, had fatally gunned down seven people in a rampage known as the Hoddle Street massacre. Knight had equipped himself with a combination of semi-automatic weapons, pistols, shotguns and air rifles, and then took up a tactical position at a busy intersection, opening fire at passing cars, and also injuring and fatally wounding some occupants.

This shocking crime in Australia received major news coverage around the globe, and was covered by the UK radio and TV news broadcasts. It is highly likely that Ryan would have recently seen some of the news coverage of the Hoddle Street massacre, and this may have influenced in his decision to begin shooting while unable to escape in his car. Like the perpetrator of the Hoddle Street massacre, Ryan had seemingly enjoyed shooting at vehicles during his spree, and having the challenge of shooting at moving targets.

Forensic experts showed that Ryan fired several times at most of the moving vehicles that came within range, and would then shoot at the occupants, almost as if he was having two challenges – stopping the cars, then killing the people inside. Like Knight, Ryan also demonstrated ‘set and run’ tactics – where he would occupy an area for a short while, and then move quickly and directly to another location, rather than standing ground in a single location – which made him much harder to stop.

There is little evidence to suggest that the news reporting of spree killings causes other seemingly ordinary people who see it to spontaneously commit spree killings themselves. However, many psychiatrists and psychologists suggest that such reporting, especially if it somehow inadvertently portrays the spree shooter as an anti-hero, a victim of society or a ‘flawed hero’, can be highly influential to those who may identify with such characters, and who may have already fantasized and thought about committing killing sprees previously. Such news coverage, especially if involving rolling footage from the actual shooting, or including video and pictures of the killer, almost acts as an influential green-light to the murderous thoughts and behaviours that some men, like Ryan, may have fantasized and thought about.

The parallels between Ryan and Knight are highly striking and require little further explanation, and other evidence shows that some spree killers directly refer to other spree killers when explaining their fatal actions. In the 25 days following the initial news coverage and repeated playing and broadcast of the video-manifesto made by Isla Vista spree shooter by Elliot Rodger in 2014, three further spree killing incidents occurred (USA, Canada and Australia).

In trying to understand spree shootings, the issue of access and ownership of guns is important, but it does not answer everything. Canada has only a fraction of the spree shootings that occur in the USA, despite Canada and the USA having very similar gun ownership levels among citizens. Understanding the psychology of the shooter is key.

In understanding spree killings, the role of mental illness on the part of the killer is inconsequential to the influence played by long-term disordered and unstable personalities, unable to cope rationally during a period of intolerable stress and panic. Ryan was not mad, but his personality, like his life, was flawed and disordered.