On 6 October 2014, 70-year-old Harry Street stood in the dock at Birmingham Crown Court in the West Midlands, England and listened as the judge sentenced him to a secure psychiatric unit. “The effect of these orders is that the defendant may never be released,” the judge told the court. This, however, was not the first time Harry Street had been detained indefinitely under the Mental Health Act. In fact, Harry Street was not even his real name. The man standing in that courtroom was Barry Williams, a ‘gun-obsessed’ spree killer who had killed five and seriously injured two in a horrifying attack in October 1978.
“It is quite apparent that this man commits offences of the utmost seriousness when he is mentally unwell.”
In 1978, Barry Williams was 34-years-old and lived at home with his parents on Andrew Road in West Bromwich. A quiet man, he had never shown aggression or violence and had no criminal history. His behaviour that autumn, however, had begun to raise concerns. He was a member of a local gun club and fully licensed for a semi-automatic pistol. In the weeks before the murders, his requests for wigs to be placed on shooting targets and random erratic behaviors had led to the club asking him to leave.
At around the same time, Williams was displaying an increasing obsession with the Burkitt family who lived next door to his parents’ home. He had complained about noise from their home soon after they moved in almost five years earlier. Music and noise from car repairs outside, the house seemed to be the two areas of focus for Williams and his ongoing feud with the family was escalating. On 26 October 1978, as 47-year-old George Burkitt and his 20-year-old son Phillip worked on their Triumph Spitfire on their driveway, Barry Williams sat inside his kitchen with anger building.
With no warning, Williams opened fire on the father and son with two different guns. George Burkitt was shot in the head and chest and Phillip received five fatal gunshot wounds as he tried to escape by running inside his house. Following Phillip to continue shooting, Williams shot and killed 48-year-old Iris Burkitt and fired multiple shots at 17-year-old Gillian Burkitt. She miraculously survived the shooting but received serious injuries to her back, chest, arm, and leg.
Judy Chambers lived on the same street and was shot as she opened her front door to see what was happening. She too survived. As the police arrived, Williams sped off in his own Ford Capri, leading police on a terrifying chase where he fired shots at the public and threw homemade bombs out of his car windows.
“You don’t understand. You would have shot them if you had been me. They were not human beings. They were just things.”
Reaching the outskirts of the town of Nuneaton, Williams pulled into a petrol station and shot dead 58-year-old Mike Di Maria and his wife, 53-year-old Liza Di Maria. It took a further 12 hours before police managed to capture Barry Williams. He crashed his Capri into another car, allowing police to overpower him and place him under arrest.
“Why didn’t you kill me? I was hoping to die. Why didn’t you shoot me?” Williams kept asking the police officers who arrested him. Before the killing spree, described as an “orgy of terror” by the Glasgow Herald in March 1979, Williams had become convinced the Burkitts were “deliberately making noises to upset him.”
At Stafford Crown Court, five months after the murders, Williams pleaded not guilty to murder and guilty to five counts of manslaughter by diminished responsibility. Two attempted murder charges were ordered to lie on file. Psychiatrists testified that after assessments they believed he had paranoid psychosis and Williams was sent indefinitely to the high-security unit at Broadmoor hospital.
After 15 years, Barry Williams was released in 1994 under the belief he was no longer a threat to other people. His decision to change his name to Harry Street afforded him anonymity, not only from the public who so clearly remembered his terrifying killing spree of 1978 but also from the police, who would find no prior criminal history for anyone by the name of Harry Street. He reintegrated himself back into society, unsupervised and free to descend once again into paranoid homicidal thoughts and planning.
In 2013, while living in Birmingham, he was accused of harassing his next-door neighbor, in an almost exact repetition of events in 1978. Early reports to police resulted in basic records checks and talks with Harry Street about his behaviors with police unaware of his true identity. Once the harassment intensified, a police officer decided to do some more in-depth checks on this man and discovered his GP, uncovering the truth about his history. This prompted a search of his home and the discovery of his stockpile of homemade bullets, bombs, and multiple weapons. The likelihood is that if Harry Street’s real identity had not been discovered, he would have carried out a further massacre.
Now an elderly man, Williams stood in Birmingham Crown Court to hear his fate, before being transported to the high-security psychiatric unit at Ashworth Hospital in Merseyside. Barry Williams, still using the name Harry Street, died of a suspected heart attack just over two months later on Christmas eve 2014.