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Albert Dryden: The murder of Harry Collinson 20 years on

BEHIND us Dryden is stooping now, tying something to his thigh but we are too far away to make out the detail.

Albert Dryden points his gun
Albert Dryden points his gun

BEHIND us Dryden is stooping now, tying something to his thigh but we are too far away to make out the detail.

Ahead, an earthmover has been manoeuvred from the back of a low loader, the engine an ugly drone in this gentle countryside and the driver hidden behind the glare as sun bounces from the cab glass.

Harry Collinson, his white hard-hat faintly comic, is directing this doomed show with unhurried calm. There is no fear, no hint of strain. He has less than two minutes to live, but if he senses the darkness closing he betrays no trace.

Maybe the television crew, the reporters and cameramen make him feel untouchable.

Who could imagine death slipping free in such a moment?

But Dryden’s supporters seem nervous, watching and waiting as though they can taste the danger ahead. They are gathered – some with small children – in clusters across the ramshackle compound. They came to back him in his stand, this eccentric with the hillybilly air who took on town hall and refused to demolish his “house in the hole”.

We turn again and Dryden is moving towards us.

Now we can see it was a holster he was strapping to his thigh but the gun is already in his hand, hung loose by his side as he comes closer. His eyes are fixed. He walks past and down the slope to where Harry and the demolition crew are almost ready to break through the compound fence.

No one shouts a warning. No one does anything. We watch like a spellbound audience in the lulling half-light of a cinema show.

Now Dryden is at the fence, his arm held forward but still loose, only showing the pistol in his hand, not really taking aim. A final warning? Harry meets his eyes but calmly, calmly.

Harry asks the television crew: “Are you getting a picture of the gun?” And those are his last words. Dryden turns his cold gaze fleetingly to the camera, tightens his gun arm, and makes good on the terrible promise no one believed he would keep.

Albert Dryden is talking on the doorstep of his terraced home on the outskirts of Consett. He is dry-brushing his teeth and in good spirits, confident the “demolition day” announced by Derwentside Council will pass with his unfinished sunken bungalow living to fight another day.

I’m there to get his blessing to be inside the compound when the bulldozer arrives. He has always been protective of his land, a man whose moods can swing easily when his long planning battle is the subject.

It seems wise to make sure I will be welcome.

The story has been “a runner” played out in headlines and acrimony from the moment Dryden was told he had built his bungalow without permission. He would never back down. The council was patient but committed, and by the time “D Day” was fixed, the door to compromise had firmly closed.

Now as June 20 approaches, there is the creeping feeling Dryden is boxed in a corner. Many times as the row rumbled on he has made threats – he had the “firepower” to defend what was rightfully his, he had taken delivery of a Luger handgun from a contact in York. And if his bungalow was torn down, he would drive a dynamite-filled car into the civic centre and exact appalling revenge.

Now on his doorstep he tells me “D Day” will be a non-event. He has lodged a new appeal, the council will be powerless, and the bungalow will survive. And if he is wrong? If Harry Collinson decides time really has run out?

Dryden goes indoors, comes back holding a spent bullet he calls a “full metal jacket”, and says he has been practising on the moors with a weapon powerful enough to cut through a JCB.

Writing that now – it seems chilling.

But Dryden had been full of wild words from the beginning and although his gun warning was passed to police, it was impossible to believe anything solid was primed and ready behind the vitriol.

No one knew then that the man who in his younger days had launched home-made rockets into the moorland skies had amassed an arsenal of more than 30 weapons, the Luger included.

No one really saw the tragedy taking shape behind the circus the saga had become.

But in the end, in those dreadful slow-motion moments, Dryden simply stayed true to his word.

The tall grass is still wet with overnight rain, but we don’t notice. We are running, tearing towards the road while behind us, still more shots snap like small claps of dry summer thunder.

Real life didn’t kick in when Dryden first pulled the trigger – the shot sounded dull and we reached the milli-second conclusion he had fired only a blank; that Harry Collinson had only lost his balance as he dropped backwards into the ditch; that in a heartbeat he would stand.

Real life only returned on a dizzying jolt of adrenalin and raw fear when Dryden fired and fired again. The screams were real. The panic was lightning fast and overwhelming.

And even as we run we realise we should have known.

We can’t believe but we should have known: Dryden in his corner. Dryden, for the first and last time, asked to make his stand.

We gather on the roadway, breathless and overawed. A policeman is on his radio saying “confirm one dead, one dead”. His voice sounds high and ragged.

From Dryden’s compound another shot thuds out, distant now. He is still there, firing at an enemy who never saw him coming.

But in the end, in those dreadful slow- motion moments, Dryden stayed true to his word

Page 4 - Officer doomed by his attmpt to do a tough job in the correct way >>

Officer doomed by his attmpt to do a tough job in the correct way

by Neil McKay - Durham reporter

"FREE Albert Dryden" posters on cars were not an uncommon sight in the Derwentside area during the days and weeks after he was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder in the full glare of publicity of planning officer Harry Collinson.

There were elements of sympathy for the backwoodsman who was well known as a local eccentric.

Rock band Hawkwind penned a song which was supportive of his supposed plight, while even now a site on the social networking site Facebook calling on Dryden to be freed has 922 members.

Colleagues of Mr Collinson reported that, after his death, the public were more aggressive towards civic centre staff.

In a book by author Chris Foote-Wood called The Derwentside Story 1974-2009, written to mark the demise of Derwentside District Council due to local government reorganisation, former council leader Joe Rhind said: "The murder of our chief planning officer was a huge shock to everybody.

"Never before had we thought that a council officer, or a councillor, might be harmed in the course of doing his or her duty. Council staff were put under terrific pressure.

"For the first time members of the public started to get aggressive. We had to bring in new procedures to avoid anything like this happening again."

Part of the reason for public sympathy towards Dryden was because the bulldozer arrived with Mr Collinson to demolish his bungalow amid a fanfare of publicity, with TV news crews, reporters and photographers present.

This could have been construed as public humiliation, but Peter Reynolds, a former colleague of Mr Collinson, saw things differently.

He said: "Harry Collinson was a very conscientious officer.

"He was determined not only to do everything exactly correctly, but that everything should be done openly and honestly.

"All the necessary approvals were in place, and the council could have sent a bulldozer in the night and knocked down Dryden’s bungalow without anybody knowing.

"Instead, Harry arranged for the demolition to take place during the day, and notified Dryden in advance."

Twenty years on and it is difficult to find anyone who will speak publicly in support of Dryden.

Alex Watson, another former Derwentside leader who was on the planning committee at the time of the shooting, said: "People may have some sympathy for Albert but nobody would condone cold-blooded murder of a conscientious planning officer and a decent man."

Technology has brought it all home

Colin George Multimedia Editor

WHEN the crowd of reporters gathered around Albert Dryden’s house 20 years ago, they were the singular looking glass through which the public could witness dramatic events.

The subsequent TV footage, photos and eyewitness accounts brought home the horror of his shooting spree in a way people had rarely seen before.

The world has moved on since then, and the advent of the internet and the explosion of 24-hour media means news can touch people in ways we couldn’t imagine in 1991.

Now we are used to seeing reports, photographs and video from the scenes of horrific events. But this deluge of coverage has not diluted the impact of atrocities. Far from it.

And on the morning of July 3 last year, when a similar panic gripped the North East as killer Raoul Moat went on his gun spree, the power of our digital news coverage in tandem with print went a long way towards informing the public.

The Journal and our sister paper the Evening Chronicle first broke the news on our websites at around 8am as details began to emerge of the double shooting in Birtley, Gateshead.

As the day wore on and the manhunt for Moat grew, our reporters on the scene provided video reports on our site and YouTube channel, as well as witness reaction to the killing.

We then revealed how Facebook profiles showed the relationship between gun victim Samantha Stobbart and Moat.

Recent activity on Samantha’s page showed how she went from being "in a relationship" to "single" days before the shooting that left her fighting for her life.

This insight into the heart of their relationship was something that could never have been envisaged two decades previously.

We also used Twitter to share word of the latest developments, and when Moat was cornered in Rothbury nearly a week after going on the run, our live blog ran until the fateful end.

As a newspaper, it is our job to shine light on these dark events, and celebrate the achievements that go on in your community.

And whether it is through live coverage of local council meetings and elections, to the recent fire at the Byker scrapyard that could be seen across the North East, we will continue to do that through all the ways we can.

 

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