“Perhaps you didn’t regard the law as having much relevance to a person of your importance” judge tells Wisbech councillor sentenced on firearms charge
PUBLISHED: 16:57 29 August 2014 | UPDATED: 18:15 01 September 2014
A Wisbech councillor – and former town mayor – who was found guilty of possessing an illegal firearm has been spared the minimum five year prison term set out for the offence because of “exceptional circumstances”.
Jonathan Farmer, 57, of South Brink, Wisbech, was instead given a 21 month suspended prison sentence, ordered to do 250 hours unpaid work, pay £2,000 costs and a £100 victim surcharge at Cambridge Crown Court on Friday.
A Walther PPK hand gun dating from 1941, with a barrel less than 12 inches in length, was discovered during a police search of Farmer’s home on January 10.
Farmer said the hand gun, which had been in his possession for 25 years, was a gift from a veteran of the battle of Monte Cassino in Italy who had taken it from a German officer.
He was found guilty of a single offence under the 1968 Firearms Act after a two day trial at Cambridge Crown Court last month.
The offence carries a minimum prison term of five years unless there are “exceptional circumstances”.
Addressing Farmer, Mr Justice Hawkesworth said: “Someone with your position in the community has a responsibility to demonstrate exemplary behaviour so I find it reprehensible that, in the aftermath of the gun amnesty, you didn’t hand it in.
“It is also extraordinary that for 25 years you never considered the gun might fall into the wrong hands.
“Perhaps you didn’t regard the law as having much relevance to a person of your importance.
“But it is clear you never fired the weapon or used it for any criminal purposes and I find the circumstances in which you came into possession of it to be exceptional.
“Your long public service must be factored into the balance too. I accept you are a fool and an arrogant man rather than a criminal.”
QC Stephen Harvey, defence, in his plea of mitigation, said: “I would argue the circumstances in this case are exceptional.
“Farmer was given the gun by a dear friend who told him it had been de-commissioned so he thought nothing improper or illegal of keeping it. Therefore, it never occurred to him to do anything about it.
“No live ammunition was found alongside the gun. It has never been fired, nor has it been shown to anyone else.
“He is at no risk of re-offending. In fact, the prospect of him re-offending is non existent.
“He is a man of impeccable character who has served the military and the public sector.”
Detective Constable James Bennett said: “This should serve as a warning that anyone who finds, or is given a gun, should alert police at once.
“While there is no suggestion that Farmer planned to use this gun for any criminal purpose, the law is there for a reason – to prevent such weapons ending up in the wrong hands.”
Firearms manager for Cambridgeshire Constabulary, Ralph Barker said: “The message is clear – if you come into possession of a firearm, call police immediately.
“People should be assured that if they notify us, they will not get into any trouble. An officer will come round to collect and assess the weapon and advice will be given on how to proceed.
“Often, guns which hold sentimental or historical value can be deactivated and returned to the owner.”
Jonathan Farmer believes it was as long ago as 1979 or 1980 when he met Bruce Pearce in Coventry.
“He was a different generation from me, about the same age as my father,” he recalls.
“Bruce was born in 1914 and when I met him he was on a candidates list to be the council in Coventry. The reason I struck up a conversation with him was because I had a badge with machine guns on it.”
Farmer recalls Mr Pearce asking him: “‘How come you’re wearing the machine gun corps badge’ (I was then in my 20s) ‘because that was disbanded in 1926?’”.
The pair strike up a conversation about the military, Mr Pearce also having served in the Territorial Army of which Farmer was by then a member.
The years passed and both were involved in various organisations “and subsequently Bruce came to our wedding in Wisbech. He was like a second father; a bloke I really got on with” explained Farmer.
Before Farmer moved to Wisbech, however, he was given the PPK pistol which Mr Pearce, a member of the 5th Maratha Light Infantry, had taken off a Germany officer at Monte Cassino in Italy, a critical battle during the Second World War.
By the end of the Battle of Monte Cassino a famous monastery had been destroyed but the hill had been captured leaving the route open to Rome.
“He handed onto me the gun, in a holster, and his words to me were ‘it’s been deactivated but don’t try firing it, it will blow your hand off’”. The gun was put into a cupboard at Farmer’s home in Wisbech where it stayed for the next 25 years.
It was only removed when a 7.30am knock on the door by Cambridgeshire police officers in early January, accompanied by sniffer dogs, said they were “acting on intelligence and had I any fire arms on the premises?”
Farmer said: “I explained the only weapon I had was deactivated although it transpired it wasn’t. They explained that under the firearms act there was no excuse for possessing it”.
The next thing he knew was of being arrested, put into the back of a police van, taken to Kings Lynn investigation centre, a duty solicitor provided, and interviews conducted and recorded.
Less than a week later he was charged.
In the subsequent months both he and his wife Susanah, the deputy town clerk of Wisbech, have gone about life as usual, Farmer himself often heard cracking jokes about the case, being on the receiving end of banter, even at a recent Fenland council meeting after his conviction but prior to sentencing. Both he and his wife have also dipped mightily into their savings, shelling out £1,000 a month on legal fees as part payment of an expected mega bill still to come.
The trial verdict, he said, left him “gobsmacked. I wasn’t surprised by the speed or the unanimity of the jury – only that of the verdict! “ He expected what he terms “12 normal people” would find him not guilty but, in a speedy deliverance, came back in the time it had taken him and his legal team to drink a coffee.
“If I had been tried at the old courthouse in the Fens it might have been different,” he said.
Farmer’s immediate post guilty assessment was to describe the jury as a “bunch of liberals in Cambridge who pathologically hate Conservatives and firearms” as he faced the prospect of serving a longer prison term than Fenland farmer Tony Martin who had actually used a gun and killed a man.
On the day of his conviction he said: “The verdict has shocked me. It just seemed so irrational that 12 people could come to that conclusion. A lot may be to do with geography since in almost any other court in the country a jury would have come to a different conclusion.”
Farmer still is not sure what the “intelligence” was that brought the police to his doors but the answer may lie within his own circle of friends and acquaintances. Sometime last year an anonymous letter was sent to council leaders, officials and even to MP Steve Barclay alleging his ownership of a Beretta pistol.
Nearly all who received the email, and scanned the allegations, tore it up.
Clearly not, though, the one either re-directed or sent direct to Cambridgeshire police.