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Pistol found dumped under bench near Birmingham pub bomb blast, inquest told

The gun was located just minutes after the first of two bombs had gone off at the Mulberry Bush in the city centre, the inquest heard
Richard Vernalls, Press Association

A pistol was found by a police officer dumped under a bench just yards from one of the Birmingham pub bomb blasts, an inquest jury has heard.

The semi-automatic gun – described as being in "pristine" condition by the constable who discovered it – was located just minutes after the first of two bombs had gone off at the Mulberry Bush in the 1974 attack in the city centre.

Retired West Midlands Police constable Adrian Howles told inquests into the bombings on Tuesday that he then handed the gun to an inspector, whom he named, at the scene.

He told jurors he had no idea what then happened to the weapon.

Revealing the find, Mr Howles was asked if he had confused the weapon's recovery with a similar set of circumstances, following an earlier IRA bomb attack in Coventry.

But the ex-beat officer, with 14 years' service, told the inquest: "Last time I went to Coventry my parents took me – I was eight years old, so no."

The blasts at the Mulberry Bush in the base of the city's famous Rotunda, and the basement Tavern in the Town in nearby New Street, killed 21 people and injured 220 more.

Bereaved families have waited 44 years for fresh inquests, which are now in their fourth week.

Mr Howles recalled how he rushed to the scene of the Mulberry Bush after hearing the bomb go off, and helped another officer load one casualty into a taxi heading for hospital.

Turning to how he discovered the gun, he said: "I was at the front of the Mulberry Bush and there were two youths about 30 yards away just the other side of Worcester Street, trying to attract somebody's attention.

"They beckoned me to go over.

"They were shouting, but I couldn't make out what they were saying until I got closer.

"They said 'There's something suspicious under the bench'.

"I knelt down, had a look, and there was a gun.

"I gingerly picked it up by the handle, placed it in my coat pocket and as soon as I could get rid of it, I did, to an inspector."

Mr Howles, who was wearing gloves, said the importance of assisting with the aftermath of the bomb attack meant he just put the gun in his uniform pocket.

Describing the firearm, he said "it wasn't one with a revolving chamber, it was a pistol – a handgun".

"The only way I describe it is like you see on TV – a semi-automatic weapon. It was dark and it was heavy," he said.

But he added it was also "clean".

"I would have thought if something had been left lying underneath there for any length of time, it would have gathered dirt, but it didn't, it looked pristine," Mr Howles said.

He admitted guns "frightened the life out of me" and he handed it to Inspector Roderick Richards as soon as he could.

Peter Skelton, counsel for the inquest coroner, asked: "Did it occur to you it could have been dropped by a perpetrator of the bombings?"

Mr Howles replied: "At that particular time, no – though I have thought that since."

Asked if he ever found out what happened to the gun, the former officer replied: "No."

He was then asked by Kevin Morgan, a barrister for three of the bereaved families, if he considered the fact the gun had not since been traced was "a potential lost opportunity to identify evidence".

Mr Howles replied: "Yes. If it was a true firearm. As I said in my statement it could have been an air pistol, it could have been an imitation.

"I really am no expert on them."

In a statement to the inquest, Inspector Richards said Pc Howles "did not" hand him a firearm.

Mr Howles was also one of two police officers who claimed to have heard mystery police band radio chatter before the bombings, from what jurors heard could have been an unidentified law enforcement team.

The ex-constable said that at the start of his shift, an inspector at Digbeth police station, near the city centre, told him and uniformed colleagues to be aware of "talk-through" on their radios later that day.

Mr Howles said he was on patrol in a panda car when he heard talk-through from voices he "didn't recognise".

He concluded "it was a surveillance, it was somebody being followed".

The ex-officer said he recalled hearing the name "Littlejohn" in connection with the radio chatter, and the location "Milk Street", in Digbeth, which is not far from the Mulberry Bush.

He believed a sergeant had told him the person's name later in his shift.

Mr Skelton told the inquest jury that detectives had been looking for a man called Littlejohn, around the time of the bombings.

Earlier, the daughter of the late former Superintendent John Tonkinson, based at Digbeth, told how he had recounted to her of hearing "radio transmissions" that night while driving back to the station.

"He said he'd been sat in a police car, listening to radio transmissions of officers tailing them, the bomb planters, and they lost them and that if they would have got in and arrested them before the bombs were planted they would have stopped it," Johanna Tonkinson said.

"My father was very troubled by this for the rest of his life and he was convinced that things had been withheld from the original [Birmingham Six] trial – he never specified what."

However, she said her father had been "deeply" affected at helping recover the dead and injured from the bombed pubs that night, which may have affected his "interpretation" of what he heard.

"It is very possible, with the passing of the time and the amount of trauma and time to mull it over in his head, he had blown it into something bigger than it was," Ms Tonkinson said.

Jurors were told that in a 1992 statement Mr Tonkinson had made no reference to linking the bombings to the radio chatter he had heard that evening.

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