The bodies of four members of the same family were discovered at a house in Horden, near Peterlee, a small town just over ten miles from the city of Durham, late on New Year’s day. Michael Atherton, 42, shot and killed his partner Susan McGoldrick, 42, her sister Alison Turnbull, 44, and her niece Tanya Turnbull, 24.
Laura McGoldrick, Mrs McGoldrick’s 19-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, escaped through an upstairs window as the shootings began. She later had shotgun pellets removed from her shoulder and wrist. Atherton’s 17-year-old son Michael Jnr. and a man whose identity hasn’t been revealed also escaped.
Atherton, a taxi driver, had a licence to keep three shotguns and three other section one weapons, which require greater authorisation than a shotgun. Police confirmed the weapon used in the shootings was a shotgun that was legally registered to Mr Atherton.
Durham Police revealed that Atherton’s weapons had been seized in 2008 when officers were called to Atherton’s home after his family raised concerns that he had threatened to shoot himself. The weapons were later returned as Atherton, who was described by a close friend as ‘hot headed’ and ‘prone to bouts of depression’, insisted he had not threatened to harm himself.
A spokesman said: “It was one person’s word against another. If there was no grounds for applying for the revocation of a firearms licence the guns would be returned to the firearms licence holder.”
The incident has sparked national debate about the enforcement of gun licensing laws in the UK.
Grahame Morris, MP for Easington, which includes Peterlee, said that the police should consult suitably qualified health care professionals when deciding if a person is fit to hold a gun licence.
He said: “At the moment it is fairly subjective – the police are responsible for carrying out an assessment of whether an individual is a fit and proper person to hold a firearms licence. My view is there should be some input from a suitably qualified health care professional.
“Secondly, I also wonder whether it is reasonable to keep firearms in a domestic situation.”
The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has launched an investigation into why a man with a history of threatening to self-harm was allowed to keep six firearms.
Atherton’s victims had been out at a disco at the local rugby club. According to police, shortly after they returned home an argument broke out. Atherton, who had been out drinking separately in the hours leading up to the shootings, fetched the guns and immediately opened fire. The shots were said to have been fired within seconds of each other.
According to neighbours, the couple had been together for around 19 years and were ‘just a lovely normal couple’. Friends suggested that Mr Atherton had been suffering from depression brought on from a heart condition months before the shootings.
One neighbour, Steve Patterson, said: “He said he was fed up with the way his life was going. I think he started feeling down after an operation he had on his heart in 2011.”
Another Peterlee resident added: “Nothing like this has ever happened before. It is a quiet neighbourhood. I think people are very saddened by what has happened.”