QUESTIONS were today being asked over why triple killer Michael Atherton had guns returned to him after they were seized by police.
Pictures of his victims, partner Susan McGoldrick, 47, her sister Alison Turnbull, 44, and her niece Tanya Turnbull, 24, have now been released.
It is believed an argument took place before 42-year-old Atherton shot the women before turning the gun on himself, at the house in Greenside Avenue, Horden on New Year’s Day.
Easington MP Grahame Morris said: “The issue is that in 2008 police responded to a call that there was a domestic argument and Mr Atherton had threatened to self-harm - to shoot himself.
“At the time the police took his firearms from him and he applied to have them returned. Police made an assessment and they were returned to him.”
Durham Police confirmed that the weapons were taken from Atherton’s house as a precaution, but as he insisted there had been no threat to harm himself, the weapons were returned. That decision followed national procedure, a force spokesman said.
Mr Morris called for a review of firearms legislation in the light of the tragedy.
Durham Police have confirmed that the shotgun used in the killings was registered to Atherton.
According to several witnesses, Atherton had been out drinking while Susan was out socialising with her own group of friends, which included Alison and Tanya.
Detective Superintendent Paul Goundry, who is leading the investigation, said: “We believe Mr Atherton and Susan returned to their home separately and shortly afterwards an argument took place.
“Mr Atherton produced a shotgun and in a matter of moments shot dead Susan, Tanya and Alison before turning the gun on himself.”
A family friend who has known Atherton and Susan, who worked in Aldi, for 40 years said the tragedy that unfolded on Sunday night was unbelievable.
The man, who does not wish to be named, said: “I spoke to Michael just before Christmas and he seemed fine. I have never seen him do anything bad before.
“From what I have heard he was feeling down from the heart operation. I liked Sue and I got on really well with her.
“They were both sociable. She worked hard, they both worked very hard.”
Fellow cabbies at Phillips in Peterlee where Atherton worked have also spoken of their disbelief that a seemingly quiet man who kept himself to himself could cause such devastation.
The bodies of all the women were found downstairs, with Susan found in the kitchen and Alison and Tanya, of Blackhall Colliery, discovered in the living room.
Atherton was found by the door which leads from the kitchen to the living room.
Post mortem examinations confirmed all four people died from gunshot wounds with inquests due to be opened soon.
Laura McGoldrick, Susan McGoldrick’s 19-year-old daughter from a different relationship, fled the house by jumping from a window.
It is understood that Atherton and Susan had a teenage son together.
Det Supt Goundry added: “My officers are continuing to work closely with the victims’ families to piece together the series of events that led to this tragic incident and to establish a motive.
“It appears at this stage in the investigation, that a family argument took place immediately prior to the shootings and we determined to leave no stone unturned in our bid to find out exactly what happened on the evening of 1st January.”
“Over the coming days we will continue to pursue all lines of enquiry and work closely with all relevant partnership agencies.
“This will help us develop the clearest picture we can of the tragic events of Sunday evening.”
* Those with information on the shootings are being asked to call Durham Constabulary on 101 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.