Friends and neighbours of Derrick Bird were last night puzzling over what compelled an outwardly normal man who drank in the local pub and was polite and friendly to those in his tight-knit community to unleash one of Britain’s most deadly killing sprees.
The 52-year old divorced father with grown-up sons had, according to neighbours, become a grandfather for the first time two weeks ago. He spent the last 23 years working as an independent taxi driver and was a well-known and popular figure on Whitehaven’s Duke Street rank – the scene of the first recorded shooting – where he was known as “Birdie” and used to join the other cabbies chatting and smoking.
Drivers there yesterday said there had been no long-running disputes but that on Tuesday night a row erupted suddenly between Bird and at least one of his victims, a close friend and fellow driver, and he had driven off apparently in a rage. Police refused to be drawn on whether the first of the murders may have been targeted.
His friend Peter Leder said he had told him the previous evening: “You won’t see me again” – a statement he thought bizarrely out of character for a man who was outgoing and positive.
By the time police recovered his body 20 miles away in the idyllic beauty spot of Boot in Eskdale, Bird has killed at least a dozen people.
In 2007 four men beat Bird and left him unconscious with two broken teeth, when they jumped out of his cab and refused to pay their fare. One admitted actual bodily harm and Bird was said to have become “nervous and anxious”.
He separated from his partner and childhood sweetheart, a local woman, Linda Mills, several years ago and was close to his elderly mother, who lives in a nursing home. She is being cared for by relatives.
Since the attack he had put on weight and a relative of his former partner said he was “moody” and “didn’t have much in the way of self-esteem”.
He is thought to have two brothers living in West Cumbria. Though friends said he had guns – common enough in the rural Lake District – police would not reveal how he came to be in possession of the two weapons, one a shotgun, used in the killings.
Mr Leder said Bird enjoyed scuba diving, practising in the local pool, and he holidayed abroad each year with friends, recently visiting Thailand, Sweden and Russia. He was an outdoors enthusiast who liked walking and shooting rabbits on the Cumbrian fells around his home.
Others described him as a motor enthusiast who followed speedway, liked powerful motorbikes and was regularly seen tinkering with his car engine. Neighbours at his scruffy mid-terrace pebble-dash home where he lived alone in Rowrah, a small village five miles outside Whitehaven, spoke of a man with regular and unthreatening habits.
Whitehaven Councillor John Kane, who knew him, said it remained a mystery as to what had pushed Bird over the edge. "I would describe him as a very placid man. Very quiet and someone who kept himself to himself.
I was not aware that he was a gun owner. He was a very quiet person.” He added: “I don’t believe and you hear the rumours going round that it was anything to do with any criminal activities. It wasn’t to do with drugs. I honestly believe he has just gone over the edge.
Something has upset him and he just can’t handle it.” Michelle Haigh, landlady of The Hound Inn in Frizington where he was a regular described him as a "normal bloke". She too was perplexed as to what might have gone so catastrophically wrong. “He was a nice guy, nothing out of the ordinary. He would come into the pub, have a couple of pints, have a chat with his friend and go home,” she said.