Published: 15:21, 02 December 2020
| Updated: 16:43, 02 December 2020
A fugitive shot dead by police while on the run from a murder investigation was lawfully killed, an inquest jury has found.
William Smith, who was gunned down on an orchard near Goudhurst, was wanted following the killing of Roy Blackman at his home in Biddenden during a burglary which saw a safe containing anywhere up to £250,000 in cash stolen.
On the night of May 1, 2016, Kent Police sent specialist firearms officers to surround and apprehend the 36-year-old. Two of the armed officers - identified only a Officers M and T - fired four rounds, three of which hit Smith in the head and chest.
The lengthy inquest into the fatal shooting, which began at County Hall in Maidstone on November 2, heard Officer M describe how he believed he was about to be killed when the wanted man pointed a shotgun towards him from behind a makeshift barricade in a shed on the land at Crowbourne Orchard.
Returning its finding this afternoon after slightly less than four hours of deliberation, the jury unanimously found Smith - a married father-of-four - was lawfully killed by the armed Kent Police officers, whose response was "reasonable and proportionate".
Delivering a narrative finding shortly after 3pm, the foreman of the jury said Smith had failed to respond to police warnings, before provoking his shooting by brandishing a single-barrelled shotgun at firearms officers.
The inquest had earlier heard how Smith had been "high on drugs" when 73-year-old Mr Blackman was viciously beaten to death during the bungalow burglary in March 2016.
Christopher Sutton-Mattocks QC, counsel for the inquest, described Smith was a "career criminal with a drug habit" who officers believed might try to shoot himself or provoke "suicide by cop" by engaging with armed police.
Jurors heard how DNA evidence had linked him to a number of violent, armed burglaries in the months leading up to his death.
One of these was the robbery of clay pigeon shooting champion George Digweed MBE, who was beaten by four balaclava-clad men who broke into his home in Ewhurst Lane, Northiam, in February 2016.
Intruders armed with a hammer smashed their way into the property where Mr Digweed lived with his wife, demanding properties and valuables.
The couple then had their hands bound with duct tape, and Mr Digweed was struck on the head and threatened with a Taser, before being forced to open his safe. As well as thousands of pounds in cash, the robbers took two shotguns and a Toyota Hilux was also stolen.
Smith's DNA was found on the hammer used in the burglary, while the DNA of mechanic Mark Love was discovered on the Taser. Love was later convicted of both the murder of Mr Blackman and the Digweed robbery.
One of the shotguns stolen during the Northiam break-in was later found near to Smith following his death at the hands of the police, while the barrel of the second was also recovered at the scene.
The firearms operation to recapture Smith - who was also known as 'Curly Bill' - began a week before the shooting when a senior officer completed a FA1 form outlining a number of different scenarios in which police might engage with him.
These ranged from him surrendering in person at a police station, right through to armed officers having to storm a building to apprehend him if his location was established.
The inquest heard from a Kent Police tactical firearms commander - identified only as Officer Y - about the fears senior officers had that Smith might attack unarmed officers in an incident reminiscent of the shooting of a PC during the Raoul Moat manhunt.
Six years earlier, Northumbria Police had launched a manhunt to apprehend gunman Moat. While at large, he shot and blinded unarmed PC David Rathband, who later took his own life.
Questioned by Mr Sutton-Mattocks, the officer was asked about the "fight or flight" risks associated with Smith, who the inquest has previously heard was considered to be emotionally or mentally distressed in the lead up to his shooting.
One of the concerns senior officers had was the risk that Smith, who was understood to have access to shotguns and a handgun, might be stopped by unwitting officers who would then be in grave danger.
"It pertained to an incident where Raoul Moat had attacked a police officer in his vehicle," Officer Y said. "The findings of that were current and pertinent at the time we were considering this."
Intelligence later revealed Smith was on rural land owned by his father-in-law at Smiths Lane just outside the village of Goudhurst.
"Our preferred outcome was that he would be compliant..."
The senior firearms commander in post on the night of the shooting - identified only as Officer V - told the hearing how specialist firearms officers were to be deployed to encircle their target to capture him alive while reducing risk to life for officers and the wider public.
She said: "The officers would approach unseen initially to get themselves in a position where they had sufficient cover and protection, and maybe a physical barrier between them and the subject."
"Then, once the containment was in place, communicate with Mr Smith, and then our preferred outcome was that he would be compliant and we could safely arrest him."
Leslie Thomas QC, counsel for Smith's family, questioned Officer V on her decision to proceed with the operation - involving six specialist firearms officers, six armed response officers and unarmed surveillance officers - as light was fading on the orchard shortly after sunset at 8.20pm.
Mr Thomas asked the witness if, with regard to the obligation to prioritise the right to life under Article 2 of the Human Rights Act, a consideration was made as to whether to postpone the attempt to capture Smith - known to be in possession of firearms - until the next morning when light came up.
"In terms of waiting until the morning, officers had been on for a long shift and there was also a consideration about resource levels," Officer V said, "but the longer you leave it there's a risk of escape."
Mr Thomas said: "Sending in armed officers, you had options and one of those options was, for officer safety and for Mr Smith's safety, going in the following day. That's an important decision."
"Did you consider going in in the early hours when the light was up," the QC asked the senior firearms commander.
"Not to a great degree," Officer V replied.
Mr Thomas went on to question the witness about the plan for the operation, which he suggested appeared "half baked".
"I believe I shouted 'gun' or 'weapon'..."
Questioning the earlier evidence that police hoped to encircle Smith unseen but using vehicles as they surrounded him, he said: "It's not a particularly covert approach, is it, if they are approaching in vehicles?"
"No," Officer V replied.
The inquest later heard Officer M, who was the operational firearms commander leading the officers on the ground, describe the moments leading up to Smith's fatal shooting.
Specialist firearms officers had set up an inner cordon around the land where the fugitive was identified as being, while a further six armed response officers formed an outer perimeter designed to cover major escape routes from the rural location.
The six officers of the inner group moved onto the site via an entrance from Smiths Lane. A locked gate blocked their way, so a police car was used to break though at a speed fast enough to damage the windscreen but not enough to set off the vehicles airbags.
As they approached towards the stables, shed and mobile home on the site, Smith - who was described as wearing a cowboy hat, dark top and jeans - spotted them and retreated.
The operation's tactical firearms commander, communicating with the team on the ground from a remote office-based location, approved a "limited entry" of the shed where Smith was hiding, meaning officers could open the door to see what was inside.
Officer M told the hearing how he trained his red laser sights on Smith's torso, which he could see along with a shotgun above what looked like an upturned sofa or chair.
"I believe I shouted 'gun' or 'weapon'," he said.
Screaming out "get back", he retreated with Officer T, who tripped over a step as they backed away from the shed towards a mobile home next to the shed. A stun grenade was then launched into the wooden hut to disorientate Smith.
Having retreated and established a containment around the shed, Officer M said he could still see the black barrel of a gun pointing outwards from the structure.
Officer M, who was by this point around 10 metres from Smith, said: "I remember screaming at Mr Smith, I can only assume something like 'armed police, put the gun down'. I remember screaming at the top of my voice at him."
"I believed I was going to be killed," the Kent Police officer continued. "Mr Smith put his head down towards the barrel, he was aiming that gun. In my mind he was going to shoot, I was going to die. I fired."
Despite the shots from the Heckler & Koch carbine rifle, the barrel of the weapon was still pointed in the direction of the officers.
"I did not know if I had hit," Officer M said. "I fired again."
Mr Sutton-Mattocks said: "Did you feel you or Officer T or both of you were in imminent danger?"
"Certainly," Officer M replied, "I felt myself or Officer T would be shot."
Three of the four shots fired by Officers M and T struck Smith, one above the left eye and two hitting him in the chest.
Despite attempts to resuscitate the suspect, he was pronounced dead at the scene by paramedics at 9.10pm.
A post mortem examination gave cause of death as fatal gunshot wounds to the head and chest. A toxicology report also found Smith - who had a history of using drugs including cocaine, MDMA and ketamine - had been drinking in the hours before he died and had blood alcohol levels almost three times the legal drink driving limit.
"Coming to terms with his death is a daily struggle..."
At the start of the inquest Mr Thomas read to the court a short statement from his widow Nancy, a midwife.
"I was married to Bill for 17 years since July 3, 1999. We have four children, they are now 20, 19, 16 and 11. Bill was a loving and supportive father to our children, and we all miss him so much.
"Coming to terms with his death is a daily struggle.
"I know that the offences for which he was accused are extremely serious, but like everyone else in this country he was innocent until proven guilty."
The coroner, Her Honour Judge Alexia Durran, ended the inquest by thanking Smith's widow Nancy for her conduct during the sessions in which she heard evidence detailing her husband's death.
"They acted with professionalism and courage throughout..."
Speaking following the inquest's conclusion, Kent Police Deputy Chief Constable Tony Blaker extended his sympathy to Smith's family and praised the officers involved in the operation.
"All Kent Police firearms officers are trained to the very highest, nationally-accredited standard and are subject to a rigorous re-accreditation regime," he said.
"It is important to recognise that Kent Police firearms officers perform a difficult and challenging role to an extremely high level. During this dangerous and high risk operation they acted with professionalism and courage throughout.
"The aim of the Kent Police operation on May 1, 2016, was to bring Mr Smith, who officers wanted to speak to in connection with the murder of Roy Blackman in March that year, safely to custody and all officers involved in the operation were focused on that outcome.
"In circumstances of this nature, firearms officers have to rapidly ascertain the most appropriate course of action in order to best protect members of the public and prevent further harm. In this case, they discharged their firearms and despite efforts by officers to revive him Mr Smith did not survive."