A massive police manhunt sparked by the brutal shooting of eight people in the Midlands ended on October 27th, 1978, with the capture of deranged killer Barry Williams.
The unmarried 36-year-old foundry worker, who lived at his elderly parents’ home in West Bromwich, had killed five people, seriously wounded three others and fired indiscriminately at several more, including children. He would serve 15 years in a secure hospital, but a decade after his release was arrested again, with police suspecting a repeat of his killing spree had been imminent.
Prior to the killings, Williams had been involved in a series of disputes with the Burkitt family, his next door neighbours on West Bromwich’s Bustleholme Mill estate, claiming the noise from their TV and record player disturbed him and his parents. During one such row, just a week before the shootings, he told the neighbours’ son, 20-year-old Philip Burkitt: “I’m going to exterminate you.”
The neighbours didn’t take his threats too seriously, but Williams had a firearms certificate and was a member of a gun club, where another member suspected he was stealing bullets. He had already been expelled from a different gun club over concerns about his behaviour, including modifying bullets to make them more powerful and shooting at dummies dressed in wigs.
On the evening of October 26th, George Burkitt was helping his son work on his Triumph Spitfire in front of their home. At 7pm, Barry Williams – annoyed by the noise they were making – snapped. He went outside and shot them both with a 9mm automatic pistol. The father, George, was killed instantly, but a wounded Philip fled, followed by Williams who shot him again, killing him.
He then shot and killed George’s wife, Iris, and put four bullets in the couple’s 17-year-old daughter, who miraculously survived. Williams then went to another neighbouring house and shot the married couple who lived there, but failed to kill them. After firing 23 bullets in just five minutes, Williams fled the scene by car, firing six rounds from a second .22 calibre pistol as he did so. In a nearby street he shot at two young boys playing football and a woman, but missed them all, and passing through the nearby town of Wednesbury he fired at the windows of houses and a shop.
In Walsall he stopped for petrol and drove off without paying, then a short time later stopped at another petrol station, this time shooting the married couple who ran it. The woman died at the scene and her husband later in hospital, taking the death toll to five. By now, over an hour after the first shots were fired, police had been alerted and the public were being warned to stay indoors.
That night Williams slept rough in some woodland, but the next morning his car was spotted on the Derbyshire Moors and a high speed police chase ensued. It ended 30 miles later when Williams crashed his car in Buxton. Still holding one of the pistols, he attempted to hijack one of the police cars which had been chasing him, but was overpowered by two police officers who rushed him despite being unarmed themselves. The second fully-loaded pistol was found in his car, together with more than 800 rounds of ammunition and several homemade bombs.
In March the following year Williams denied five counts of murder at Stafford Crown Court, but admitted manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. The prosecution accepted his plea after hearing from psychiatrists who said Williams was a paranoid psychotic. He was ordered to be detained indefinitely in high security hospitals, serving time in Broadmoor and Ashworth Hospital.
Williams was released on probation after 15 years, in 1994, when a mental health tribunal ruled he was no longer a danger to the public. His conditions of release required that he return regularly to Ashworth Hospital for further assessments, but he changed his name to Harry Street and moved to Wales, where he married in 1996 and had a child later that year. In 2005 the family returned to the Midlands, settling in Birmingham, but the story didn’t end there.
In October 2013 a police officer investigated allegations by a Birmingham man that his neighbour had waged a campaign of harassment against him. The officer spoke to the neighbour, Harry Street, but became suspicious when she could find no trace of him on any police systems. She only discovered his previous identity after speaking with his GP, and immediately alerted her superiors.
A police search of Williams’ home then discovered an improvised bomb, a revolver, two pistols and 50 homemade bullets. Williams was immediately arrested and returned to Ashworth Hospital for breaching the conditions of his parole. The judge making the order likened Williams’ recent behaviour to that leading up to the 1978 killings and said a similar tragedy had been “narrowly averted”.
It was made clear to Williams that this time he was unlikely to ever be released – a prediction which was realised when he died from a suspected heart attack on Christmas Eve, 2014.