Manhunt in the Village : Think Vicar of Dibley Meets 24…

Are you sitting comfortably? I will begin… In the summer of 2010, Raoul Moat shot and killed a 29 year old man named Chris Brown, shot and injured his ex-girlfriend, Samantha Stobbart and shot and blinded PC David Rathband. Britain’s biggest manhunt for a generation began, and it moved from Newcastle Upon-Tyne to a rural village in Northumberland. My family home of Rothbury.

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Living and studying in Newcastle at the time, when I heard the news that a dangerous gunman was on the loose and was believed to be hiding in the countryside, where I grew up, naturally my decision was to get on the next bus and head home. It could have been because I felt I needed to be close to my family, it could have been that I was studying Journalism at the time and saw an opportunity, it could have been that my friend Alan told me it was a good idea (surely not, Alan made terrible decisions…), it could have been that I’m just a curious person and I didn’t want to miss out on the excitement that had hit our village (FOMO – most likely).

As I made my journey home an hour north of Newcastle, a text came through from Alan: “The police have released a statement that he is now a threat to the public – abort mission dammit, ABORT MISSION!” Too late, I was almost home.

The atmosphere in the village was not one of fear and danger however, it was more surreal excitement and disbelief that the virtually unknown, picturesque village of Rothbury had become the setting to the biggest manhunt in recent history.

It is here we  embrace the Vicar of Dibley, meets 24 theme….

Armed police roaming the street, elderly residents going about their usual routines, meetings in the village hall, camera crews and journalists galore and rumours that Ray Mears had been called in to help the police in their search… just a few of the scenes.

Make no mistake, this was a major case of a very serious nature, but within the village, amusing incidents of a farcical nature also took place. Please bear in mind that this is a light hearted account of ‘When Rothbury met Hollywood’:

Ignorance is bliss?

At a meeting in the village hall, police brief the residents of certain events as they announce they’re extending their search to the surrounding countryside. Rumours that Moat has access to news updates are rife. This, naturally concerns residents. Particularly due to frequent features on how he could be surviving in the wild. As one elderly resident piped up: “I wouldn’t have a clue how to survive in the wilderness for this many days, but with all of the tips you’ve been giving, I’d be confident now. Do you not think you might be helping him a bit here?” … Ignorance is bliss?

The Sighting:

Thursday evening. Late. Almost the wee small hours of Friday. Up late working on dissertation. Dad’s up too and getting ready for bed. Faint sound of a helicopter overhead has been there for a couple of hours now. There’s a £10,000 reward for any information on Moat’s whereabouts. After changing into my pyjamas I took a peak out the window, at the same moment, a man in a baseball cap walked past our house. As I go to say goodnight to dad, I announce, “Dad, just seen Moaty”… we laugh. Obviously it’s not him…

The morning after:

Turns out it probably was him.

The tempting tomato:

We live on a quiet road next to the River Coquet. A few houses, close neighbours. One of our neighbours further down, elderly chap, lovely man, appears on ITV news the next day: “Yes, well I was awake late and I thought I saw a rustling in my allotment. The next morning after visiting my greenhouse I knew something strange was going on, because my one ripe tomato had gone…” – The sighting. IT WAS HIM! The search continued…

It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to/The Great Escape:

Tensions are higher than ever in the village. Day 6 in Rothbury – still no sign of Moat. Until…  Roughly 19:00 – Family outing is about to commence. The Ballantyne’s are making a break for it. Parents are going for a romantic meal in town, grandma’s off for a week’s holiday at my aunty and uncle’s and I’m heading back to Newcastle for a birthday/house party with my uni classmates. Or not…

In a state of agitation or stress getting ready, our observations seemed to be flawed. As the car pulled forward a few meters, we appeared to be driving straight into a scene from a movie. (A pinnacle turning point in the 24 village saga…) A few meters in front of us were several armed police in a stand-off. Some standing, others crouching, all guns pointing… dad seemed confused and continued to drive towards target – thought his services were needed perhaps? Two policemen came running towards us, waving us to move back (never mind dad, maybe next time…) They inform us that they have found Moat.

The biggest manhunt in recent history. After a week-long search, the wanted man is found and is a mere few meters away from us. My initial thoughts? ‘Does this mean I’m going to miss the party?’ Grandma’s first thoughts? ‘Well I guess that means I’m not going to our Ian’s now…’  It’s times like these that your priorities really do shine through… and you need to have a word with yourself and re-assess them…

In the house we troop, aided by one of the policemen.

Image Just a regular Friday evening…

This is like the weirdest dream I have ever had:

Things just got stranger as surrealism entered our home with the policeman as he instructed us to stay calm, stay away from the windows and stay indoors. Also to please keep the back door open, as he and some of the other officers may need access to the house at any time. Access into and out of the village had been closed. There were officers at the entrance to the Riverside near our home, blocking journalists and anyone else from getting through. There was no way I was getting to that party…

Grandma, dad and I slunk into the back room to watch the live Sky News feed, whilst mum paced the house, unable to relax. She could occasionally be found in the living room, peaking out the window at the snipers. Albeit crouching, she didn’t want to get told off… Though let’s be honest, they had bigger issues to deal with…

I was conversing with some of my friends at the party via text and Facebook chat (the youth of today and technology…). It turns out they were all glued to the screen watching the live updates too.

Is that your mum on the news?

Yes. Naturally, where there’s a Susan, there’s a way…

The phone rang almost non-stop that evening. Relatives, distant friends from as far as South Africa and many, many journalists. It turns out those folk are pretty good at tracking down telephone numbers. And at great speed.

As my dad, grandma and I sat watching the news, we suddenly got an update. Excitement. The conversation went a little like this:

Journalist: “Yes I have a Riverside resident on the line who is able to see the events from her window. Susan Ballantyne, hi, can you give us any information?”

Susan Ballantyne (aka mum): “Not really. Well yes, erm, we were just about to leave the village but were told to return to the house. They’ve found him and he’s sitting on the grass with a gun and the snipers are facing him”

Journalist: “That must be very frightening…”

Susan Ballantyne (aka mum): “Not reeeeally, there are lots of armed police around. We just have to stay indoors…The police have made us feel very safe…”

Facebook chat update for Jessica: “Jess… is that your MUM talking on Sky News…!?”

… Had a word with mother. It won’t happen again… My mother, who had spent all week watching from afar but avoiding any actual contact with journalists as they tried to interview as many locals as possible, then ended up talking live on Sky News, as viewers across the country were glued to the TV screens. She doesn’t do things by halves… Immediately exclaimed she didn’t know what else to do and was caught off guard.

I told her to have a break from the phones for a while, I would handle the calls from now on and tell them we didn’t have any more information…

I now work for the Paparazzi:

Ok, so I didn’t do such a good job not talking. News of the World called (they were still big back then). Very charming man aka clever journalist… told him I studied Journalism and he offered me advise/help. Asked very nicely if I could take a photograph of the scene. Explained I couldn’t really see a lot. He persisted, discussing Exclusives and payment etc.. I said I’d give it ago. Mum not allowing me to go near the window did the camera-work, sneakily leaning at the window with my camera. The whole time not realising that Moat was in the picture, as we could only see the snipers at the time.

And that is the story of how my brief career as a Pap began. Bizarre and interesting experience – some fair and corporative journalists, some rude and unworthy of anyone’s time… A ruthless career!

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The exclusive with the News of the World, showing the stand-off between Raoul Moat and the police officers, outside our home.

Stealthily does it…

Back to ‘reality’ and into the back room to watch the news with grandma (who FYI took this all very well and I think was just a little annoyed that she couldn’t just watch Midsummer Murders or Poirot…)… “Hello Love, just checking all is ok in here?” Out of nowhere one of the armed policemen appeared next to us. Not hearing him so much as creep in, grandma’s cup of tea went flying and I jumped in sheer shock… the man was like a Ninja. A jolly Ninja. Please note: If a major police stand-off is taking place outside with the most wanted gunman in the UK, please make your presence known before shouting, “Hello love” whilst carrying a gun…

Tea anyone?

The sun was going in as dusk was upon us. Bearing in mind my parents didn’t get to go for the meal they’d planned that night, dad was sitting at the kitchen table eating some cereal. After a knock on the door, a flood of police officers trooped in: “Hello, Hello”… “very sorry to bother you…”, “Those midges are terrible!”

Making another pot of tea at the time, we got out extra cups for our officer guests. Just then there was commotion in the back yard. One of the detectives had arrived, Jack Bauer style, climbing over the back gate whilst simultaneously dropping his mobile down the back of our decking (perhaps not quite as cool as Jack…) Dad was on it. Hammer and chisel in hand, ten minutes later, said detective was reunited with his phone (dad’s more Bruce Willis that Jack Bauer, but both are good to have around in these situations).

Policemen had to rush out as they got an update from one of the snipers.

Grandma was mostly worried that they hadn’t finished their cup of tea. I explained they were a bit busy…

News of the World picture

Paul Gascoigne should turn up to every crisis:

Sky News update. Paul Gascoigne (Gazza), ex Footballer and England World Cup star had arrived at the entrance to Rothbury. Naturally. It couldn’t get any weirder, so why not!?

Gazza has had many problems over the years which are known to the public, most notably his fight with alcoholism. He remains a loved figure in the North East and occasionally frequents the village of Rothbury.

The news reporter reveals that Gazza tried to negotiate with the policemen as he wanted to talk to ‘Moaty’, believing that he could help as he had met him before and was a friend. Speaking on Real Radio, Gazza revealed the items he had brought with him to comfort the gunman:

A dressing gown

A big jacket

Some chicken

Some bread

A Can of lager

A fishing rod

All very useful items, I think you would agree. Gazza’s idea was that after shouting, “Moaty, it’s Gazza!” they’d then fish together and have a chat. I for one was a fan of this idea, and to this day wonder what would have happened if the Police had allowed this reunion to take place. But alas, he was turned away…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFcc1ofOoJg – Real Radio conversation with Paul Gascoigne

You will know how the story ended. After a six hour stand-off, Moat shot himself and was rushed to hospital. No one knows the conversations that were had between Moat and the police during the stand-off, but we know the officers tried tirelessly to negotiate with the troubled man that evening.

http://news.sky.com/story/791984/cornered-gunman-moat-refuses-to-surrender – Sky News Report

Summary:

The severity of this case and the unforgivable crimes that were committed cannot be taken lightly. An innocent man was murdered, a woman was injured and a policeman was blinded and a few years later took his own life. I do not intend for any of these factors to be glamorised or taken lightly. The murdered victim, Chris Brown, has always been over-shadowed by the infamously powerful role Moat played within the media, due to his control over the police for so long.

I hope not to offend anyone in anyway by writing this post. It is not about the crimes which took place, but more an overview from someone who has grown up in Rothbury, having experienced Moat’s presence in our lovely village during the bizarre and lengthy manhunt. As mentioned, the serious nature of Moat’s actions cannot be downplayed, but the farcical nature in which things were unfolding in the sleepy, suburban village of Rothbury, did at times seem too strange to be true. This is what I wanted to focus on.

The biggest manhunt in recent history. The Northumbrian Police, armoured cars from Northern Ireland sent across, armed police officers from the Met brought in, helicopters, TV crews and journalists, Ray Mears, armed police in our house, and …Gazza…

To date, this has been the most extraordinary thing I have experienced.

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