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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 June 2006, 13:18 GMT 14:18 UK
Deadly end to a summer's day
By Chris Summers
BBC News

Three men have been convicted of conspiring to murder a couple at their holiday home in Lincolnshire. What led to their deaths?

Joan and John Stirland
The couple were entirely innocent victims of a feud

John and Joan Stirland were pottering around their tiny chalet in the seaside resort of Trusthorpe on 8 August 2004 when their killers came for them.

The Stirlands were not gangsters or criminals and their only "crime" was to be related to Michael O'Brien, who had been convicted of a murder outside a Nottingham pub the previous year.

O'Brien was Mrs Stirland's son and when he shot dead Marvyn Bradshaw in August 2003 he lit the touch paper which led to the death of his mother and stepfather.

Nottinghamshire Police caught up with O'Brien soon after the shooting at the Sporting Chance pub in the city's Top Valley area.

Map of the East Midlands
30 August 2003
Marvyn Bradshaw murdered by Michael O'Brien (Joan Stirland's son)
14 September 2003
Shots fired at Stirlands' home. They flee Nottingham
Christmas 2003
Stirlands move to Trusthorpe
13 July 2004
Mrs Stirland tells Notts police of threats after O'Brien is convicted
14 July 2004
Lincs police told of threats
8 Aug 2004:The Stirlands are murdered

On 14 September 2003 unknown gunmen fired shots at the Stirlands' home in the Carlton area of Nottingham.

The shooting terrified the couple, who immediately fled the city and began a nomadic existence.

The trial at Birmingham Crown Court was told that the couple were offered places in a witness protection scheme but turned it down, although sources close to the family dispute have denied they were offered such protection.

The Stirlands moved first to Bridlington, on the Yorkshire coast, and then Goole and by December they had settled in Trusthorpe, a quiet seaside resort not far from Skegness.

Mr Stirland, 55, and his 51-year-old wife rented a bungalow on the Radio St Peters estate in Trusthorpe, which got its distinctive name from its role as a wartime RAF radio station.

They thought they were safe.

In July 2004 O'Brien went on trial.

Several associates of his victim had appeared in the public gallery at the trial and at one point a shouting match broke out between O'Brien and one of the men.

Score to settle

When the jury convicted O'Brien of murder he reacted by throwing water over members of Mr Bradshaw's family and made an offensive remark about their dead son.

Michael O'Brien (left) and Marvyn Bradshaw
The killing was triggered by Michael O'Brien's murder of Marvyn Bradshaw (right)

When he was jailed for life associates of a Bradshaw friend - part of a powerful Nottingham crime family - felt cheated.

They wanted to kill O'Brien, to even the score up, but were unable to now that he was in a maximum security prison.

So they hit on the idea of punishing him by killing his mother and stepfather.

But by this time the Stirlands had gone into hiding.

Accomplices were recruited and they began making discreet inquiries.

They contacted a former BT worker, Stephen Poundall, in a bid to find the couple's address. They did not tell him why they wanted it.

Phone trace

He contacted former colleagues, Anthony Kelly and Andrew Pickering, who ran a computer search.

They found the address and passed it on to Mr Poundall, although they also had no idea why he wanted it.

Leading up to killings
7 August 2004
2230 BST
Stirlands' neighbour spots prowler
8 August 2004
Neighbour tells Mrs Stirland of prowler
1130 Mrs Stirland phones Notts police
1400 Notts police officer calls Mrs Stirland back
1410 Lincs police told of prowler
1430 (approximately) Stirlands shot dead
2124 Police find Stirlands dead

Kelly and Pickering later admitted computer misuse and were given suspended jail sentences. Both were sacked by BT.

One of the defendants knew his parents were friendly with the Stirlands and he pumped them for information about the couple's whereabouts, although they too were unaware of the reasons for his questions.

Another defendant also carried out surveillance of the Stirlands' home.

In early August a member of the gang, who was staying at a caravan site in Ingoldmells, bought a pay-as-you-go mobile phone in nearby Skegness.

It was bought with murder in mind and was disposed of immediately after the killings.

With their preparations ready the killers struck on Sunday, 8 August.

By mid-afternoon they (the Stirlands) were dead. They were shot in their own home. They were the victims of a calculated, ruthless and merciless execution
Timothy Spencer QC

Timothy Spencer, QC, prosecuting, told the jury: "In many ways it was a perfect August day. It was bright and sunny and hot. It was, however, far from perfect for John and Joan Stirland.

"By mid-afternoon they were dead. They were shot in their own home. They were the victims of a calculated, ruthless and merciless execution."

The gunmen - believed to be John Russell and Michael McNee - responsible fled in a stolen VW Passat, which was abandoned and set on fire in a secluded lane four miles away.

Anthony Kelly, the BT worker who had unwittingly helped the gang, later told the murder trial about his reaction when he found out the Stirlands had been executed: "I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I was sick to my stomach."

When detectives heard about the killing they immediately realised the motive for the murders and slowly built up a body of evidence.

The key part of it was the discovery of the purchase of the "murder phone" in Skegness.

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