Ep 10 – John and Joan Stirland

When Michael O’Brien shot dead a man outside a pub, he would have had no idea how harsh “justice” in the criminal world could be, or just how far-reaching his actions would be.

When Michael O’Brien shot dead a man outside a pub, he would have had no idea how harsh “justice” in the criminal world could be, or just how far-reaching his actions would be.

Listen to the episode below:

John and Joan Stirland - Image PA
Joan Stirland and John Stirland – Image PA

Saturday 30th August is a date that will be memorable to some.  Stella McCartney, daughter of Beatle Paul McCartney, married Alasdhair Willis on the Scottish Isle of Bute whilst across the pond in Los Angeles the family of Charles Bronson mourned the passing of the famous actor.

It was also sadly a date that would stick in the memory of the family of Marvyn Bradshaw.

Michael O’Brien and Gary Salmon had been barred from an after-hours drinking session at the Sporting Chance pub, in Bulwell, Nottingham.

O’Brien was hit on the head with a bottle or an ashtray during a row at the door of the pub, causing a cut above the eye.

The pair then went to Salmon’s house, where they dressed in dark clothing, gloves and balaclavas, collected a single-barrel shotgun and headed back to the pub.

Marvyn Bradshaw – who had not been involved in the original incident which had upset O’ Brien – was driving away in a car with three friends after the lock-in had ended.

O’Brien shot at their car, hitting Bradshaw in the head and causing him to die almost immediately.

But as tragic as the shooting of Marvyn Bradshaw by Michael O’ Brien was, it’s not the case we’re covering today. 

The death of Jamie Gunn

His murder is pertinent, though, as also in the car when he was killed was Marvyn’s best friend Jamie Gunn – just 18 at the time – who held Marvyn as he died.

Michael O’Brien, of Aspley, Nottingham,  was the son of a woman called Joan Stirland from her previous marriage.

Jamie Gunn was the nephew of Colin Gunn who was a crime boss with his own criminal empire in the Nottingham area.

Jamie Gunn, died on August 2, 2004 aged just 19 and although the official cause of death given was listed as pneumonia, it’s largely accepted that he was on a downward spiral caused by drink and drugs after witnessing the shooting of his best friend. 

He left behind a five-and-a-half month old son – Rhiece.

The arrest of Michael O’ Brien

When O’Brien was arrested, he blamed the murder on Gary Salmon, who he’d been with on the night in question.  Salmon was a friend of his who was already known to police.

Salmon, aged 32 at the time, was said to have “associates” across the country and went by a string of nicknames including Fish, Lol, and G.

It was the courageous testimony of two teenage girls who were in Salmon’s flat one night that led to a conviction.  One of them heard O’Brien say:

“I shot him; he was a bad man”

Testimony from a teenage eye witness

Peter Joyce, the prosecuting QC described to the jury what happened at Salmon’s flat that night saying:

“O’Brien was given the gun and pointed it at one of the girls. He pulled the trigger and there was a click. He said: that’s what I’m going to do to him.”

Prosecuting QC, Peter Joyce

The men left the flat on foot and headed towards the pub.  Minutes later, one of the girls heard a bang which was also heard by the landlady of the pub.

A Renault Laguna car with the driver’s window smashed was seen by police officers nearby on a grass verge.

Michael O’Brien was later jailed for life for Marvyn Bradshaw’s murder.  Gary Salmon had disappeared immediately after the killing, before eventually being caught and jailed for life for his part in the Marvyn Bradshaw murder.

As he passed the sentence, Judge Richard Powell told him:

“You killed a wholly innocent man and have shown absolutely no remorse. It was a deliberate and calculated murder.”

Judge Richard Powell

When O’Brien was found guilty of murder, he reacted by throwing a glass of water over the public gallery before ranting at the parents of the man he had killed, Lyndon and Christine, telling them:

“I’m not bothered. I’m a bad boy. It means nothing to me. Your son looked like a doughnut with a big hole in his head. I know where you live.”

Michael O’ Brien on being found guilty

He was ordered to serve a minimum of 24 years, but this was not enough to satisfy Colin Gunn who had seen his nephew, Jamie, spiral out of control after witnessing his best friend dying in his arms.

A former undercover police officer who worked alongside Colin Gunn told the media:

“Jamie and Colin were very close. Colin made up his mind that, because of what happened to Jamie, O’Brien and his family were going to get the same.”

Former undercover police officer

In other words, Michael O’Brien’s imprisonment wasn’t enough for Gunn, and it left only Michael’s mother and stepfather as targets for a revenge attack by the members of Gunn’s Bestwood Cartel crime gang.

John and Joan Stirland feared for their lives

John and Joan Stirland lived in Carlton, Nottingham.  Just three days after O’Brien was arrested, shortly after 10pm on a Sunday evening, shots were fired through the windows of their home. Naturally terrified and fearing for their lives, the couple told police and moved out that same night.

They didn’t stay in one place.  They moved to North Yorkshire and then back to Nottingham before leaving police protection, moving to what they hoped would be a safe, peaceful life in a bungalow in Trusthorpe – a small coastal village in Lincolnshire, about 12 miles from Skegness.

Trusthorpe is described as “an isolated retirement and holiday community”.  An ideal choice for a couple trying to stay out of the public eye.

Renting a property, their landlord described them as “perfect tenants”, revealing that Mr Stirland was claiming housing benefit in the name of “Johan Steirland”

It’s believed that the couple had been living under those assumed names in Lincolnshire for about six months.  The move was triggered after a group of men had visited them late at night at their home in Carlton and told them they had 24 hours to get out or face the consequences.

Escaping 80 miles away, you’d think that they’d stand a chance at remaining anonymous, but around two weeks before their death whilst John Stirland was walking along the beach near his new home, he bumped into a family friend who happened to be visiting from Nottingham.

Gossip being gossip, the Stirland’s new life became the talk of their former hometime, especially in the pubs on what is described as “the notorious St Annes housing estate”, where the couple once lived.

Before our hearts break at the targetting of two innocent people, there’s a few reports online about the less palatable side of the Stirlands.  

One ex-neighbour was quoted as saying:

“Joan was a nuisance.  She was always shouting her mouth off about Michael. She would stick up for Michael, saying he would come out and shoot the others. It was drunken pub talk.

I heard that people paid them a visit and told them they had two choices: either to stay there and have constant trouble or leave within 24 hours. They have not been seen around here since.”

An anonymous ex-neighbour

And it seems that fearing for their lives didn’t make Joan Stirland keep her head down at all though.

In Trusthorpe her new neighbours said that Joan had been insulting other players at a local bingo game, leading to her being thrown out of the contest.

The reason that Gunn’s group is often referred to as a cartel crime gang is down to the sheer power and scope of his operation.

Bent coppers

Colin Gunn had a man by the name of Charles Fletcher join Nottinghamshire Police at the age of 19, thus giving Gunn and his cronies access to a corrupt police officer. 

Well Charles Fletcher was being paid £2,000 per month by Gunn on top of his normal salary.  As of 2020, after tax, that would be equivalent to £30,000 per year.

And what does that kind of money buy you?  We know that at the very least Colin Gunn hoped it would buy him the address of the Stirlands.  But apparently Fletcher either couldn’t – or wouldn’t – get that information for Gunn. 

Was the extra money worth it for Charles Fletcher? 


In 2006 he was jailed for seven years for corruption.

In the end it was a former British Telecoms employee called Stephen Poundall who contacted his ex-colleagues who still worked at BT, asking them to search the computer systems.  They did this, found the address details and handed over the address of the Stirlands. It should be noted that none of them – including Poundall knew why the address was wanted.

The BT employee was later convicted of illegally disclosing the information which led Gunn to the Stirlands.  The two BT employees – Anthony Kelly and Andrew Pickering – later admitted computer misuse and received suspended sentences and were both sacked from BT.

Said to enforce his leadership with extreme violence. Stories abound of Colin Gunn breaking people’s knuckles with a hammer or baseball bat as well as nailing their hands to tables.

Their public persona was different, though.  Apparently to this day in Bestwood local residents still talk fondly about a firework display organised by Gunn one year, and are quick to tell the story of how they once gave £100 to an old lady in her birthday card.

It was around 10.30pm on Saturday, 7 August, that a neighbour of the Stirland’s noticed a man lurking by their front door.

She didn’t report it that night but spoke to Joan Stirland the next morning. Joan rang Nottinghamshire police rather than the local Lincolnshire Police as she had stayed in touch with them ever since the shooting.

An officer called her back around 2pm that day to discuss things.

The police insist that Mrs Stirland was concerned but not panicked, stressing that she wanted them to be aware of what had happened but that she wanted discretion. 

Minutes after Joan had put the phone down, two men wearing boiler suits and baseball caps pulled up outside the Stirlands home in a black Volkswagen Passat and got out, leaving the hazard lights flashing.

Not long after that they returned to the car and drove off.  The bungalow door was left ajar in their wake

Two miles away they dumped the Passat in a quiet country lane and set it alight.  It was later confirmed that the car had been stolen on 31st July from – believe it or not – Nottinghamshire.

Having fled from their previous home in Nottingham 8 months before after their house in a quiet suburban street in the Carlton district of the city had shots fired at it, they would have rightly expected a quick response from the police.

Outdated methods of communication

The officer from Nottingham Police passed this message on to Lincolnshire Police the same afternoon that he had spoken to Joan.

Naturally, being 2004 and the police forces in the UK being completely up-to-date with technology, this was done by fax. 

Unfortunately, Lincolnshire Police had no previous intelligence about the threat level that the Stirlands faced as it was recorded under Nottinghamshire Police and thus they didn’t treat it as a priority.

The Duty Inspector in the Lincolnshire control room that day was Phil Parkinson.  He said the fax was on a sole piece of paper and made reference to shots being fired at the Stirland’s previous home in Nottingham.

The fax also made reference to reports of a prowler at the Stirlands home, and even though the couple were known targets, Parkinson was quoted as saying:

“My answer to why I didn’t deploy armed officers at the time was that, based on the information I had, I didn’t have enough to suggest a serious enough risk assessment.

It was one page, so of course it didn’t go into any massive detail, and I’m pretty sure it didn’t mention the name ‘Gunn’ on there. It might have done, but not that I can remember.”

Lincolnshire control room Duty Inspector, Phil Parkinson

It wasn’t until 9.30pm that officers visited the property, by which time the couple were already dead, having been shot in what press said at the time appeared to be a gangland-style killing by two men dressed in black and wearing baseball caps who were seen making their way into the semi-detached bungalow on Radio St Peters, the main road through Trusthorpe.

When questioned, neighbours commented that they thought the bungalow was rented, saying that although the couple didn’t mix with neighbours or the local community, they were keen gardeners.

One neighbour went on to say that their young grandchildren – who had been visiting – had only left the day before.

Criminal psychologist Dr David Holmes said:

“Colin Gunn was a larger-than-life character who grew to be the ‘gang lord’ of the Bestwood Estate. He was someone who produced fear in the entire area. He was someone who had nobody to oppose him.

The police were really frightened to tread foot in there. He was someone who would get you, or he would get your family, if you didn’t do what he said.”

Criminal psychologist Dr David Holmes

Neil Woods, a former undercover detective who managed to infiltrate the Gunn cartel, said:

“Colin Gunn is one of the most vicious gangsters that I’ve had any connection with as a police officer. He is essentially a thug.”

Neil Woods, undercover detective
Colin Gunn - Crimelord and part of the murder of John and Joan Stirland.
Colin Gunn. Image courtesy of CBS Reality.

Capturing Colin Gunn

Thanks to CCTV and mobile phone records It didn’t take police long to link the crime to Colin Gunn.  It was revealed in court that police had tracked over 7,000 phone calls during the investigation.

When they arrested Gunn, he was quick to claim innocence, telling police when interviewed that he was just “on holiday” at a caravan park close to where the killings took place, and that he went there “most weekends”.

Colin probably felt overly confident. Despite having been implicated in no less than four murders and over fifty shootings, he hadn’t been charged with a single crime since 1998.

In fact, even that crime in October 1998 shows Gunn’s influence.

Colin was arrested for a brutal attack on a man outside the Astoria (now Ocean) near the back of the Broadmarsh centre. Oddly, the CCTV footage mysteriously went missing.

Colin Gunn got a few hundred hours’ community service and even then, he paid someone else to do it for him. 

And ultimately nobody was convicted of the murder of John and Joan Stirland.

On 30th June 2006, Colin Gunn was sentenced to 35 years for conspiring to murder the Stirlands.

His parting remarks to the jury were:

“Thank you, you scum bags. I hope you die of cancer.”

Colin Gunn, on being sentenced

He then went on to call the judge a paedophile. 

Gunn got a further 9 years (to run concurrently with his life term) in 2007 for conspiring to corrupt Nottinghamshire police officers.  His corruption of having trainee detective Charles Fletcher in his pocket had caught up with him.

If he ever makes it out of prison, he will be 75.

Fallout from the case

The day after the trial Gunn’s supporters rioted in Bestwood, with around thirty people setting fire to cars and causing £10,000 worth of damage.

John Russell got a minimum of 30 years, and Michael McNee received at least 25 years, both for the same offence. 

An inquest said that a series of failures by Notts Police contributed to the deaths of the couple, and cleared Lincolnshire Police of any wrongdoing.

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