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'It's been almost 34 years since my sister was shot dead by a gunman – the Plymouth shooting made it feel like yesterday'




As the first news alerts about "multiple fatalities" as a result of a "serious firearms incident" in Plymouth appeared last Thursday, so too did the knot in the pit of my stomach.

It was the first mass shooting in Britain in 11 years, since a taxi driver killed 12 and injured 11 others in a shooting spree in Cumbria before turning his rifle on himself.

Eleven years. For those who live with the death of a loved one in shocking, traumatic and violent circumstances, news of another brutal episode means the years passed can suddenly feel like a matter of minutes.

Louise and Paul on her 21st birthday in July 1986 - just 15 months before her death (50363502)
Louise and Paul on her 21st birthday in July 1986 - just 15 months before her death (50363502)

For me, it's been almost 34 years – and yet that Thursday night of the Plymouth shootings, it once again felt like yesterday. Just as it did with Cumbria in 2010, Dunblane in 1996 and the countless, depressingly frequent mass shootings in the US.

Since I was 24 I have lived with the aftermath of my own 'Plymouth' – except mine is a 'Wolverhampton'.

It's not listed on the Wikipedia page 'List of massacres in Great Britain'. Yet the same number of people died as in the November 2019 London Bridge ISIS attack.

Louise was 22 and working as a trainee legal executive with a Wolverhampton law firm when she died (50363498)
Louise was 22 and working as a trainee legal executive with a Wolverhampton law firm when she died (50363498)

In Wolverhampton, three people were killed by a gunman, including the shooter himself – and one of the two innocent victims was my younger sister, Louise.

I've spent most of my life with her headstone dates seared into my brain: Louise Winspear, July 4, 1965 - October 6, 1987.

She was 22. The same age as the Plymouth killer.

Conversations and discussions rage in the media, online and in person about how he came to have his shotgun and firearms certificate returned to him, alongside issues of his mental health, his murderously misogynistic views and his social media rants.

Right now, these issues are for others. Me? I'm thinking about the loved ones of three-year-old Sophie Martyn and her father Lee, 43, who were heading home, of the killer's mother Maxine Davison, 51, of Stephen Washington, 59, who was walking his dogs, and of Kate Shepherd, 66, similarly going about her day.

The loved ones of the Keyham victims have unwittingly and all too tragically been admitted to a club that no one wants to belong to and that no one can quit: its members have been bereaved by the actions of a mass gunman (it almost goes without saying that it was a man).

When I joined the club back in 1987 it was just seven weeks after 'Hungerford', the Berkshire town where a 27-year-old man shot dead 16 people, including his own mother and an unarmed police officer, and injured 15 others before shooting himself.

It was also the week before the Great Storm that devastated the South East. My sister's death was sandwiched between arguably the two most seismic domestic news events of that year. It was the single most seismic event of my life.

Wolverhampton. It was a Tuesday. I was in Bishop's Stortford, working in the newsroom of the old Herts & Essex Observer, when my phone rang.

I heard a familiar Black Country accent; I'd spent my secondary school years in the town (as it was then). It was a hospital nurse calling to tell me Louise had been shot. I stood at my desk frozen in disbelief.

With that one sentence, in a matter of seconds, my world was tipped upside down, I was hurled into a surreal living nightmare and a void was implanted at the centre of my life – for the rest of my life.

Then, on the phone, I heard the voice of Helen, a partner in the law firm where Louise worked as a trainee legal executive and a woman for whom my mother worked, helping to look after her house and children. "Paul, you need to get up here straight away." Or words to that effect.

But I couldn't get to Wolverhampton straight away. I didn't drive in 1987. My partner at the time did – but she needed to get new tyres fitted to her car before undertaking a motorway journey to the West Midlands. So I had to wait.

Eventually we set off. By this time it was a national news story. But this was the pre-digital era, with no mobile phones in common usage, no internet and so no way of being updated.

When we left Bishop's Stortford, the man on the radio in the car said there were two dead and one injured. By the time we got to Wolverhampton it was three dead.

I don't remember the name of the newsreader who informed me – at the same time as hundreds of thousands of others – that my sister had died. I remember it was somewhere on the A14. I've never liked the A14.

Louise had been invited by a solicitor at the law firm where she worked, who was acting for the wife in a divorce case, to attend the eviction of the husband from the marital home because he refused to accept the reality. It turns out he was deadly serious.

First he shot dead the bailiff, Dennis Hull, who knocked at his door. Then he walked down his driveway to the solicitor's car parked in the street in which Louise was sitting in the front passenger seat.

He opened the door and shot her at point blank range. Then he went back into his home and shot himself.

No one knows why he shot Louise. The inquest heard that his eyesight was failing and my theory is that he believed the female figure in the front of his wife's solicitor's car was his wife.

The Plymouth shootings were all over in six minutes. I don't know how long the Wolverhampton episode lasted. But there wasn't enough time for Louise to be safe from harm. She made it to hospital, but nothing could be done there to save her.

The days that followed are a blur in the fog of my appalling long-term memory.

What I do remember is my mother's cry that first night without Louise. Actually, it wasn't a cry. It was a howl. I've never heard a human being utter a noise like it since.

But I can imagine howls have been shattering the nights and days in Keyham, crying out for Sophie, Lee, Maxine, Stephen and Kate.

My parents, 50 and 48 at the time, were divorced. My father was living in a care home as a result of his multiple sclerosis. My mother and I arranged Louise's funeral.

We visited her in the funeral director's chapel of rest to place a few personal items in her coffin.

The epitaph on Louise Winspear's resting place is from William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (50363496)
The epitaph on Louise Winspear's resting place is from William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (50363496)

For her epitaph, I sought inspiration from a book. And it's as fitting today as it was 34 years ago: "Death lies on her like an untimely frost / Upon the sweetest flower of all the field." From Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. A tragedy indeed.

The funeral was held in the glare of media coverage; Louise's photo and the story of her death had been national front-page news. Well-wishers lined the route of our funeral cortege to pay their respects and policemen stopped traffic to let us pass. Just as Plymouth mourns now, so Wolverhampton did then.

Now, my sense of having been robbed of a precious relationship with my only sibling diminishes as each year passes. Saddest of all, I don't remember Louise's voice, her laugh.

Louise and older brother Paul in the garden of their family home in Hampshire in about 1966 (50363500)
Louise and older brother Paul in the garden of their family home in Hampshire in about 1966 (50363500)

I have photos of her, ranging from black and white ones of us as toddlers in the back garden in the 1960s, through the hilarious fashions and hair don'ts of the 70s and 80s, to one of her as the beautiful young woman that she was when her life was ended.

She lives on in the only significant item of hers that I have: a piece of textiles work she did at secondary school, the lips-and-tongue logo of The Rolling Stones in the late 70s/early 80s.

She lives on whenever I hear Avalon by Roxy Music or Young Hearts Run Free by Candi Staton.

Throughout my lifelong career as a journalist, I have invited strangers to share with our readers the stories of their losses – through my colleagues' reports or in their own words – but I have never, until now, shared my own. Plymouth – and that knot in my stomach – was the prompt.

I have had to accept that I live with a void that – even 34 years on, and maybe because of other, various losses in my life – has a habit of swallowing me up without warning and then spitting me back out to resume that mundane task I was in the middle of.

And just because that void is there, it does not mean that there is not room also for happiness, love and joy.

"Grief is like living two lives. One is where you pretend everything is all right, and the other is where your heart silently screams in pain."

* For help and support, contact national charity SAMM (Support After Murder and Manslaughter). Call 0121 472 2912, text 07342 888570 or visit https://samm.org.uk/. I found strength 31 years after Louise's death through SAMM. In 2018 I attended a weekend retreat laid on by them at no cost to the attendees. As soon as I walked into the room, knowing that every other person there had been bereaved by an act of violence, I no longer felt alone and I felt understood.



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