‘Bizarre’ gunman who staked out his old company twice is jailed

COPS who stopped a suspected drink-driver were shocked after spotting a loaded sawn-off shotgun on his passenger seat hidden under a towel.

'Bizarre' James Houlden had twice staked out an address in a bid to confront the uncle of his former boss at a property firm, a court heard.

James Houlden

James Houlden

The 47-year-old, described in court by pals as a 'big softie', scratched off the gun's serial number before he 'laid in wait' prepared 'to use it at the very least to threaten and possibly to actually discharge it, possibly against an individual,' a judge said.

Family man Houlden, of Hayling Avenue, Baffins, was jailed for five years - the mandatory minimum sentence for the offence - after the firearms licence holder admitted shortening the £70 weapon he bought legitimately bought from a shop.

Portsmouth Crown Court heard how the former property development manager, who was hooked on Tramadol and drinking at the time, confessed to detectives he armed himself in the wake of a dispute with a company, A Plan Development, he worked for 18 months previously.

Janice Brennan, prosecuting, said Houlden had reported the firm, run by a Portsmouth magistrate, to the Health and Safety Executive 'concerned about possible asbestos'.

The shotgun James Houlden had loaded to confront the uncle of his former boss

The shotgun James Houlden had loaded to confront the uncle of his former boss

While that report turned out to be unfounded, Houlden also reported the Portsmouth firm to HMRC 'because of concerns he had about the way the business was run'.

Ms Brennan said: 'The crown cannot say they are well founded or not.'

But the firm owner's uncle David Cronin text him, Ms Brennan said, saying that 'he had crossed him once already: "don't cross the family again, I never want to hear your name mentioned again".'

In a second interview after his arrest on his way home on March 27, Houlden said he had waited for two days outside the business.

Ms Brennan said: 'He said he was prepared to use the weapon if circumstances arose that made his intention to threaten unworkable.

'There would have of course been no other reason for him to have wanted the shotgun and have further cartridges with him had he not had at the very least an intention to use the weapon.

'He had waited for two days outside the business in the hope of finding Mr Cronin.

'On the first day he had waited from about nine in the morning to five in the afternoon and then gave up.'

She added it was 'good fortune' he was arrested by police on his way home at around 1pm 'concerned about a possible excess alcohol offence'.

That was unfounded - but it was then cops spotted the loaded but broken open shotgun, together with two other cartridges in the van.

Houlden told detectives he 'scratched off the serial number so if anything did happen it would be less easy for the police to track the weapon back to him,' Ms Brennan said.

Three people gave evidence during the hearing on Friday praising Houlden, saying his actions were out of character. Seven others penned references.

Sentencing, judge Roger Hetherington said the defendant had been threatened and his actions took place after two 'unpleasant incidents where effectively you were being warned off'.

He said: 'But what was quite inexcusable is how you reacted to those threats.

'Instead of reporting them you armed yourself with this weapon, shortened into a sawn-off shotgun and took steps to lay in wait for the person who had been making this perceived threats to you with the intention of at the very least threatening him with the loaded sawn-off shotgun and potentially using it.'

He added: 'There were other factors in your life which may have contributed to the bizarre reaction to that threat made against you, which led to you behaving this way.'

Selwyn Shapiro, for Houlden, said it was an 'exceptional case' and he was 'tipped over the edge' through a combination of his mother dying from brain cancer, him suffering a blood clot in October 2017, and his wife suffering life-threatening pneumonia in late 2017.

Houlden admitted having a firearm with intent to cause fear of violence, having a prohibited firearm and shortening a shotgun.

He received five years concurrent for the first two offences, and two years concurrent for the third charge.