Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes had no idea that they were heading for an ambush. As far as they knew, they were investigating a report of vandalism, or – at worst - an attempted burglary.
Somebody had thrown a lump of concrete through the window of a house in a quiet suburb of east Manchester; the dispatcher who took the 999 call told the caller he’d send officers within an hour. Those officers were Fiona and Nicola.
They arrived at 30, Abbey Gardens at 10.52am. There had been no lump of concrete; no act of vandalism; no attempted burglary. The 999 caller, who had given his name as 'Adam Gartree’, was in fact Dale Cregan. And his only desire was to kill a police officer. The spot he had chosen, at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac far from the nearest armed police unit, suited his purpose as a deadly trap.
It has been calculated that within 31 seconds of Fiona and Nicola stepping out of their vehicle, 32 shots had been fired at them.
The first of those shots, aimed at Nicola Hughes, were deflected by her body armour. She turned to flee and was hit in the spine, below the protection of her bulletproof vest. She fell to the ground, paralysed. At that point, quite deliberately, she was shot three more times in the head.
Twenty-four more shots were aimed at her fellow-officer, now crouched near the front window of the house. Fiona Bone desperately tried to use her taser, but the weapon, designed to disable an attacker with a high-voltage electric shock, bounced away on the paving-stones.
Between five and eight bullets hit her, with the fatal shot penetrating the gap in her body armour beneath her arm, damaging her heart. And then, as the two women lay already dying, their attacker dropped his modified Glock handgun, tossed a hand grenade into the yard, and as it exploded in a storm of fragments, drove away to hand himself in to police.
Their killer was, in the words of one former detective, "a nobody". Dale Cregan, who has been sentenced to a whole life term for the murders of Fiona and Nicola, had been an obscure figure in the lower echelons of the Manchester underworld, a mid-ranking enforcer to a small and unimportant crime family in the east of the city.
But his journey to notoriety – and a life behind bars – began in May last year, when he carried out an order to kill a rival of his boss. Mark Short was drinking in a pub in Droylsden when a masked gunman stepped into the bar and began firing; Short died of his injuries.
Dale Cregan, now convicted of that killing, was initially arrested by detectives on suspicion of involvement, but was soon released on bail because of a lack of evidence against him. The bar of `The Cotton Tree’ had been full of drinkers at the time of the murder – but no-one, it seemed, was prepared to give evidence against a known thug.
He went to ground, knowing that his enemies, as well as the police, would soon want to call him to account. But within a few weeks he had struck again, killing David Short, the father of his first victim, as he unloaded furniture from his car. The violence of the attack, featuring a hand grenade as well as ten shots from a pistol as Cregan pursued Short through his home, sparked a huge manhunt by Greater Manchester Police.
Over 50 warrants were executed, with officers making arrests and searching any premises they thought might conceal the gunman. But he remained at large.
Some former detectives say this reflects badly on the Manchester force; a £50,000 reward was unable to tempt any associate of Cregan to turn him in, and no police informant was able to offer the hard information which would locate him. But, they admit, fear played its part. Fear, and the sudden notoriety of a man who had already killed twice in the most brutal fashion, was still undiscovered, and known to be heavily armed.
CCTV images now released by Greater Manchester Police show Cregan, disguised only with a pair of dark glasses to conceal his distinctive missing left eye, shopping for supplies at a filling station the day before David Short’s murder. Somebody, it is believed, knew perfectly well what his hiding-place was. And yet nobody made the 999 call which could have saved three more lives.
It has been suggested that, when Cregan made his own call to police, he knew his time had run out; that he had nowhere else to hide and nowhere to run. He himself said afterwards that it was an act of vengeance against the police who, he believed, were `hounding’ his family.
When he handed himself in at Hyde police station, almost his first words were: `Sorry about those that have been killed. I wish it was men.’
It could have been any officer on duty in that part of Manchester that morning. But it was Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes who took the call. And it was Fiona and Nicola who paid with their lives.