FIREARMS officers who confronted an unstable man carrying a gun have been praised for their “commendable conduct and selfless courage.”

Judge Christopher Prince’s comments were made about the actions of armed police officers in response to reports of a man carrying what appeared to be a genuine hand gun in daylight, in Bishop Auckland, on May 25 last year.

The Northern Echo:

The judge’s commendation was made at Durham Crown Court as he sentenced the gun man, Sam Houlihan, who was shot in the arm by one of the officers after refusing requests to put down what emerged was an imitation air pistol, while sitting in a taxi boxed in by police vehicles, on Cockton Hill Road.

Houlihan has now been made subject of an indefinite placement in a secure hospital unit, under the Mental Health Act.

Psychiatric reports prepared for the case concluded he suffers schizophrenia or episodic psychosis, made worse by his failure to take the required medication and by his consumption of alcohol or drugs.

The court heard he was released from a psychiatric unit in Darlington, where he previously voluntarily admitted himself, against his family’s wishes, only two days before the shooting.

Troubled by various issues in his life, including the breakdown of a long-term relationship, he tearfully rang his grandfather on May 24, saying he wanted to end his life, as “people and gangsters were after him”.

The Northern Echo:

Richard Bennett, prosecuting, said Houlihan bought the air pistol at a sports shop in Bishop Auckland earlier on the morning of May 25, although he did not also purchase either pellets or ball bearing ammunition it fires.

He carried it with him, at times openly, as he visited other premises in Bishop Auckland, buying a bottle of whisky at a newsagents, before taking a taxi.

Police were, by then, alerted and force vehicles followed it along Cockton Hill Road, before, at temporary traffic lights near the Masons Arms, armed officers surrounded the taxi.

The terrified driver, Paul Gardner, who had been signalling to alert police, was told to get out of the taxi.

But Houlihan continued to hold the air weapon, while swigging whisky from the bottle, and was repeatedly asked to put it down, including a warning that he may be shot if he refused.

The court heard Houlihan appeared to pull a cockinglever as he held the gun in his right hand, and then crossed himself with the sign of a crucifix.

As he leaned forward and began to level the gun towards the nearest two officers, he was shot by one of them, through the taxi window.

He was then pulled from the taxi and as officers tried to administer first aid, he both apologised and spat at them.

The 24-year-old defendant, of Linburn Drive, Bishop Auckland, previously admitted possessing a firearm with intent to cause a fear of violence, and possessing a firearm when prohibited, due to a previous conviction.

Judge Prince made the indefinite secure hospital order, “for the protection of the public”.

Detective Chief Superintendent Adrian Green, of Durham Police, said: “Today’s sentence reflects the seriousness of the incident involving Houlihan.

“It is still unclear what Houlihan’s intentions were, but his possession of a firearm in a public place was reckless and frightening to the public and attending police officers.”

The Northern Echo:

A statement issued by Mr Gardner’s family said: “Paul was a loving and caring person with a big smile and a big heart. He was a very kind-hearted man.

“He will be truly missed by us all. We ask that you respect our privacy at this difficult time.”