LONDON, U.K. – Hallmark doesn’t make cards for murderers who kill themselves while on the run from police but, following an unexpected outpouring sympathy for a man who briefly became Britain’s most-wanted criminal, perhaps it might change its mind.
Raoul Moat, a former nightclub doorman who shot his ex-girlfriend and killed her lover, emerged as an unexpected folk hero this week as Facebook groups named in his honor became forums for fury — not at his crime wave, but for what many perceive as his persecution by police, media and society.
And as hands were wrung over the rights and wrongs of pitying a killer, Moat was unwittingly promoted to a cause célèbre of free speech when Prime Minister David Cameron aired his own concerns and backed calls for the social networking site to pull the tribute pages.
“As far as I can see, it is absolutely clear that Raoul Moat was a callous murderer — full stop, end of story — and I cannot understand any wave, however small, of public sympathy for this man,” Cameron told lawmakers during his weekly Q&A session in parliament.
Two weeks ago, virtually no one outside a small community in northeast England had heard of Moat, newly freed from prison after serving an 18-week sentence for assault. Within days of his release, every detail of his life was being picked over.
Moat’s crime wave was short but shocking. On July 3, two days after his release, the 37-year-old confronted his ex-girlfriend Samantha Stobbart, shooting and killing her new lover Chris Brown. Moat then shot Stobbart twice in the stomach, leaving her in critical condition.
A day later, Moat — who apparently had mistakenly been led to believe Brown was a police officer — attacked a police patrol car, shooting and badly wounding its occupant.
If he had turned himself in or been swiftly captured, Moat’s actions were unlikely to have earned much notoriety. Instead Moat went to ground, shaving his hair Mohican-style and capitalizing on Rambo-inspired survival skills to thwart efforts to find him.
In the news vacuum of a hot British summer, certain stories tend to expand to fill the space. Moat’s manhunt, reportedly the country’s largest for decades, fit the bill perfectly.
The tabloid Sun newspaper called him a steroid-pumped “psycho commando” who could “live of the land for weeks.” Rolling news channels drafted in survival experts to tramp through nearby woodlands and show their audience how they too could catch and eat rabbits.
As police, backed by SAS Special Forces and at one point a Royal Air Force fighter jet, eventually closed in on their quarry, the surrealism of the operation was further enhanced by the arrival of former England soccer World Cup star Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne.
An apparently inebriated Gazza, who has faced a much-publicized battle with alcoholism since bursting into tears on-pitch during the 1990 World Cup semi-finals, later told a local radio station he had brought “Moatie” a can of beer and some chicken, claiming he could talk him into surrendering.
There was no surrender. After a six-hour standoff, a single gunshot was heard as Moat apparently turned his weapon on himself.
But his story was far from over.
Even while Moat was on the lam, it had emerged that a warning by prison officials that he might try to harm his ex-girlfriend had gone unheeded. And in the days that followed his death, recordings of Moat asking for psychiatric care also came to light. The care was never given.
Post mortem, support for his situation has snowballed, with in excess of 30,000 members signing up to one Facebook page titled “R.I.P Raoul Moat, You Legend!” before it was removed — not by Facebook, which refused, but by creator Siobhan O’Dowd, in response to the backlash.
Though some of the support for Moat appears based on misogyny or contempt for the law, much of it was evidently more balanced, viewing his death as symptomatic of police and media willingness to hound an unstable man, or the disenfranchisement of a corner of society that Moat represents.
A divided response from commentators has also revealed that the prime minister’s insistence that no sympathy be shown for a “callous murderer” is viewed by many as too simplistic, and his opposition to the Facebook page a clear misjudgment of free speech issues.
Facebook defended the pages, insisting its site was for people to “discuss things in an open way.” It said distaste for a subject under discussion was “not a reason to stop debate from happening.”
But Daily Telegraph commentator Ed West invoked the public mourning that followed the death of the Princess of Wales in an attack on what he called the “Dianafication” of Moat. “Let his family and loved ones mourn, the rest of us should save our sympathy for the victims,” he wrote.
Summing up her own reasons for starting the Facebook page, O’Dowd said she did not condone Moat’s actions but, expressing a pithy sentiment certainly worthy of any Hallmark card, added: "He was still a human being at the end of the day."