Raoul Moat played cat and mouse in river tunnel system

RAOUL Moat was able to evade the hundreds of police officers patrolling the village of Rothbury and its rural hinterland even though he was hiding right among them.

For several days the fugitive gunman managed to avoid police marksmen, sniffer dogs and even the sophisticated search equipment of an RAF Tornado before he shot himself in the early hours of yesterday morning.

But while the police scoured the countryside surrounding Rothbury, there were clear indications that Moat was holed up in the village and yesterday it emerged that he might have been sheltering underground.

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The fact that he was able to keep one step ahead of so many highly trained officers, recruited from 15 forces across the UK, will be a key aspect of the Independent Police Complaints Commission's investigation into the police operation.

It was an undertaking that involved the cream of Britain's police forces.

The Metropolitan Police sent 40 of its elite firearms officers – the most highly-experienced marksmen and women in the country, trained to confront suicide bombers and to take split-second decisions on when to shoot.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland sent 20 armoured cars designed to withstand attacks by armed paramilitaries during the Ulster Troubles.

Air and land exclusion zones were established over Rothbury as officers tried to narrow a search that saw them declare at one stage that the "net was closing" before offering a 10,000 reward for information that would lead to Moat's arrest.

Not even an RAF Tornado fitted with infrared imaging equipment appeared able to shed any light on where the fugitive was hiding.

That could have been because Moat had been shielded from the infrared beams by entering a network of tunnels built to protect the village from flooding.

That was the intriguing possibility raised yesterday by locals, who believe Moat could have spent much of the week hiding in a storm drain, not far from where he eventually shot himself and near the spot where his car was found on Tuesday.

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A construction worker who worked on the installation of the drains system said Moat could have spent hours beneath the feet of officers, who were frantically hunting for him.

The builder, who would give his name only as Jason, said the circular pipes are big enough for a man of Moat's stature. He said the pipes may have worked as a shield against heat detectors used by police during the week-long manhunt.

"He could have made his way up from the river bank to the main street using the pipes," said Jason.

"They are round pipes which lead to the river. They're not very long. He could crouch down and get through there.

"He may have come out of a manhole cover near to the main street. A man of his size could have easily pushed the lid off with his shoulder."

The storm drains, which run under the main street of the village and out to the river bank, were refurbished last year after severe floods swept the village in September 2008.

He said that a number of families in the village play in the drains with their children.

"If he was fishing on the river he would have known about the drains; he probably would have seen children going in and out of them," said Jason.

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He added: "If it's true that Moat knew this area, he would have known about the storm drains. You can easily fit in them and get from the river to the town centre."

It remains to be seen whether or not it was a storm drain that allowed Moat to remain on the run for so long.

But what is certain is that he was not always hiding out in the wilderness – an impression that was given by the pictures of armed officers searching the moorlands and coniferous forests outside Rothbury.

Much of the time, he was in the village itself – an idea that shocked the villagers.

"People have been terrified and refusing to leave their homes," said Stephanie Armstrong, who runs an outdoor clothing store, Otterburn Mill.

"I'm just glad it's all done," she added, revealing her relief that some form of normality is about to return to the market town when the enormous police presence pulls out.

Yesterday, however, scores of police remained and a cordon still prevented access to the River Coquet, which runs through the town and provided the backdrop to Moat's last desperate act. As police yesterday continued their search for a second gun believed to have been carried by Moat, the properties beside the spot where he killed himself after a six-hour stand-off with police were also sealed off.

It was the owners of those houses, who had observed the strange goings on of the last few days, who gave clues suggesting that Britain's most wanted man had been sheltering in a lair right beside the centre of the village.

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There had been sporadic sightings of Moat in the village, the first being on Monday. There were also reports of a man raiding allotments yards from the storm drain.

Jack Tarrant was one of many residents to notice disturbances in their greenhouses and allotments, when he noticed that a pepper plant, cucumber and tomatoes were missing, fuelling the idea that Moat was gathering food from households in the area.

Disturbingly for one resident, Moat appeared to have smashed a window, broken into her home, raided her kitchen cupboard and spilled her food.

At 8pm on Tuesday, the unnamed mother heard rustling behind a closed door before fleeing to a neighbour's house to call police.

The young mother and her family stayed away from her house, which was close to where Moat eventually killed himself. But when she did return, she was convinced that he had broken in later that night and slept in her bed.

There were more sightings on Thursday evening when Bob Herdman, 75, noticed a man in dark clothing and a cap prowling around the river bank allotments where Moat was eventually confronted by police.

The next morning reports circulated of a topless male bathing in the Coquet by the former Thrum Mill.

Other, even bolder sightings, placed Moat in the town's main thoroughfare, where he was seen walking in the High Street beside the village chip shop.

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A local lawyer, Martin Woodford, said the public would have many questions to answer.

"I think Northumbria police have been good, but I think there are still things that need to be answered after what happened last night.

"People seem to be relieved that the stand-off has ended, but it's sad that there was still a death."

Alan Syron, 56, said: "It's very sad that there was a loss of life. I had hoped there would have been a peaceful conclusion.

"I think that even though Moat did bad things, a lot of people are feeling for him today."

Larry Lambert, 71, said: "I am quite relieved because he was dysfunctional and you never know what these guys will do when they flip.

"Quite frankly, I thought the search would go on for months because there were so many places to hide."

Carole Murray said it was a "big relief" that the police operation had ended.

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