On the 24th February 2020, a month before the first Coronavirus lock down, John Zurick, 67, shot to death his estranged wife Debbie at their property near the village of Winsford on Exmoor. He then took his own life. A respected and well connected couple, they had ran a gun-dog breeding and training business. They were known to members of the Royal Family and they were neighbours and friends with Stanley and Jennifer Johnson. Their daughter, Rachel was also a neighbour and their son, an occasional visitor, was the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.

The Johnson and Zurick properties were positioned close to each other in the style of a very private hamlet at the end of an unsealed by-way road on the outskirts of Winsford which is in the Exmoor National Park in Somerset. Surrounded by high woodland and pastures there was no indication from the public road of the significance of where this by-way leads to. The Zurick’s had originally rented their property, “Nethercote” from the Johnson’s. They later purchased it. By 2019 the Zurick’s marriage was in trouble and they had separated. Debbie Zurick was living in Ireland and was in a new relationship.

The circumstances preceding this murder suicide were not made clear in the press. John Zurick was deeply affected by the marriage break up and was drinking heavily. A short time before the shooting he had been drinking with a friend on the other side of Winsford and in the late hours decided to drive home. Driving through the village he got his car wedged and beached on a grass bank trying to cross a simple and shallow river ford in Ash Lane in the middle of the small community.

Driving a different car than usual neighbours close to the ford failed to recognise the vehicle and his noisy attempts to extricate himself. Had they realised it was John Zurick they would have helped him and got him home. Someone called the police. He was breathalyzed and arrested for drink driving. In the process he declared his desperate state and a desire to kill himself. The consequences led to his shotgun certificate being temporarily revoked and his guns taken into secure custody by the police. This is a standard procedure and irrespective of his mental state. All legally held shotguns are listed on a holders certificate.

The police were unaware of an outstanding and undeclared weapon John Zurick had illegally kept back and had used to murder his wife and kill himself.

On the day of her murder Debbie Zurick had returned to their property to retrieve belongings, she was in company with a female personal friend. Whilst the friend went to the kitchen to make coffee John Zurick suggested that he and Debbie walked some of the dogs to talk things over. They had only reached a gate when he attacked his wife with the illegally held shotgun, fatally wounding her. He then returned to the house and forced the friend into a room and locked her in it. He then went to an outbuilding and shot himself. The friend managed to free herself and called the emergency services. When they arrived both husband and wife were actually still alive. Debbie Zurick died at the scene whilst paramedics tried in vain to revive her. John Zurick was airlifted to hospital and died four days later.

When I visted the location and the properties in September 2021 Zurick’s Toyota 4×4 was still parked in a field near the property.

On the 29th March 2020 in the small village of Woodmancote near Chichester in West Sussex a fatal shooting took place. Robert Needham, 42, used a licenced shotgun to kill his two daughters, Ava aged 4 and Lexi 2, his partner, Kelly Fitzgibbons and the family dog. He then killed himself.This horrific shooting murder has already slid away from public memory and perception despite the fact that it involved two very young children. Why is that, especially in the UK where we boast that shooting murders are so rare.

It is perhaps too simple to consider that this family in the first Coronavirus lockdown was at risk from Needham as a result of it. But perhaps it merely lit the fuse that was going to trigger a diabolical act he had been brooding over and contemplating for a long time.

The manner in which pure domestic killings are reported is generally the same and sadly this incident was no exception. It will be described as a shocking event in a normally quiet and peaceful community. The police will quickly advise the immediate locality and the wider media that there is no further danger, it is ‘self-contained’, or an ‘isolated incident’. Theses killings are nothing of the sort. Locals will be interviewed by the press and they will always remark on how surprised they are that such an act could take place in their crime free community. The location is indeed the epitome of quiet and peaceful.

Domestic murders are often unwittingly catalogued as quiet and private. The devastation and sorrow even sometimes extends to the perpetrator who almost becomes one of the victims. Invariably the killer will be a male. The victims are nearly always adult females and children.

The press reported that friends and neighbours had no idea that Needham had a shotgun. He wasn’t known to be a member of a local shooting club. Let’s make something clear here. Needham did have a shot gun certificate, (SGC), but a shotgun certificate does not require the holder to be a member of any shooting organisation or club and the possession does not require the holder to advertise the fact to neighbours.

During the inquest however it was discovered that he had failed to reveal on the licence application that he had been treated for depression and work related stress.

The conditions of a shotgun certificate are different and less restrictive than the requirements for a firearms licence. They are separate documents and in press references they are often confused and inaccurately described.

What could initiate such a cruel twisted act. Domestic shooting murders do not feature in the news like random, mass, or spree shootings. It is perhaps a wrong approach. Pure domestic murders are perceived as not involving innocent members of the public but of course that is not the case, the victims are all innocent members of the public. The only difference is they’re known intimately to the killer and they’re often trapped. The scenario is one of horror beyond comprehension.

Was the Woodmancote murder suicide a mass shooting?

There is no clear definition, The American FBI definition of a mass shooting is the killing or injuring of four people with no interruption or “cooling off period” and not including the perpetrator. The US Investigative Assistance for Violent Crimes Act of 2012 defines it as three victims. In Australia it’s five. In the UK where shooting murders are far less frequent than in the US and indeed Australia the figure of four victims is generally accepted as the definition. The fact that it is more a rare occurrence in the UK however perhaps makes it more pertinent.The Plymouth mass shooting in August 2021 has been added to the three remembered UK mass shootings, Hungerford 1987, Dunblane 1996 and Cumbria 2010. In these instances it is the location that reminds us rather than the perpetrator’s name.

The issue is complex and there are no straightforward answers. Some such killings involve family, known and random victims. In 1987 when Michael Ryan perpetrated the Hungerford Massacre he killed both people he knew and was close to and victim’s unknown to him. He killed his mother and close neighbours. Derrick Bird’s first victims in 2010 when he set out on the Cumbria killings was his brother and his solicitor.

In most UK domestic shootings, the majority of victims are women and children. More recent examples were perpetrated by –

Christopher Foster in 2008, (2 female victims + perpetrator suicide)

Andrew Copland in 2009, (2 female victims + perpetrator suicide)

Michael Atherton in 2012, (3 female victims, 1 injured, 3 escaped + perpetrator suicide)

John Lowe in 2013, (2 female victims)

George Pattison 2023, (2 female victims + perpetrator suicide)

Be under no illusion, a domestic shooting murder or murder suicide is an horrific affair especially when it involves children. There is nothing sanitised and privately sad about it at all. It was reported that the Woodmancote victims received fatal wounds to the head, neck and upper body. One only has to hope that these poor souls didn’t have to suffer this terror for long before they met their end.

Perpetrators have issues that have festered and lingered. Walkabout and drive by mass shooters generally plan, are often sober and unaffected by drugs. Pure domestic shooters act impulsively and are often drunk. Their attack whilst loosely considered is suddenly triggered and often in the confines of a property. All these perpetrators have issues and stresses; personal, emotional, financial. We all have those, but these cowardly monsters are special and in their deluded, narcissistic and fevered minds they have special needs. They need to end their misery and they want to take others with them as punishment to those left behind. They want recognition, even an insane form of infamy. They just leave a confused desolate void.

The couple and their two children were described by locals as a normal family. Particularly kind remarks were reserved for Kelly who was described as someone who cared deeply for Robert Needham and their daughters Ava and Lexi. Emma Ambler, Kelly’s sister spent a lot of time with Kelly and her family and admitted to liking Rob Needham, she had no reason not to. She described him as laid back and quiet but he liked to drink and spent time away on fishing trips. That was brave of her to admit because it would have been so much easier to say, “I never liked him”. It just adds to the shock and confusion of such events. She also added that Kelly had never voiced that she had any cause to fear him. There is never an easy explanation.

Emma has set up a charity foundation in memory of Kelly, Ava and Lexi. The aim of the organisation is not only to honour their memory but to bring attention to these horrific occurrences especially when perpetrators have legal access to guns.

One local however was interestingly quoted as describing Needham as a ‘bully’ and a ‘nasty piece of work’. Is this just hearsay. In the immediate context it is but this witness perhaps sensed something that people closer to him overlooked or just couldn’t see. This grotesque crime was certainly perpetrated by such a person at the time.