A farmer has told how he fought off a triple killer a day before he battered three pensioners to death in Exeter.

Former public schoolboy Alexander Lewis-Ranwell attacked North Devon farmer John Ellis with a saw blade and a four foot stick shortly before he carried out the three killings.

Mr Ellis feared he was going to be killed as Lewis-Ranwell swung the heavy saw at him. It was an old lumber saw designed to be used by two people and the blade was a potentially lethal weapon.

The farmer feared he was going to have his head cut off and was left with a series of cuts on his arm after fending off the saw.

The 28-year-old was arrested for the attack on Mr Ellis close to his farm at Goodleigh, Barnstaple, on the morning of February 9 this year but released by police the next morning.

Court artist sketch by Elizabeth Cook of Alexander Lewis-Ranwell (left) listening to barrister Richard Smith QC at Exeter Crown Court, as he has gone on trial with an insanity plea after killing three pensioners in the city. Picture: Elizabeth Cook/PA WireCourt artist sketch by Elizabeth Cook of Alexander Lewis-Ranwell (left) listening to barrister Richard Smith QC at Exeter Crown Court, as he has gone on trial with an insanity plea after killing three pensioners in the city. Picture: Elizabeth Cook/PA Wire

He travelled to Exeter where he beat 80-year-old Anthony Payne to death with a hammer at his home in Bonhay Road. He walked a mile and a half to Cowick Lane where he killed 84-year-old twin brothers Dick with a spade.

Lewis-Ranwell, of Croyde, and formerly of Broadwoodkelly near Okehampton, denies three murders by a plea of insanity.

The jury at Exeter Crown Court has been told there is no dispute that he carried out the killings and the only issue in the case is the severity of the mental illness he was suffering at the time.

He is a paranoid schizophrenic who was in the grip of a delusion that he was hunting down a paedophile ring. In reality, all the victims were completely innocent.

Judge Mrs Justice May has told the jury they will have to decide if he was so ill that he was completely unaware that what he was doing was illegal, or whether he had some awareness.

He is currently a patient at Broadmoor Special Hospital but is being treated at Langdon Hospital, Dawlish during the trial.

Richard Smith, QC, has set out the chronology of the case and told the jury that Lewis-Ranwell was arrested for the first time on Friday, February 8 after burgling one farm near Combe Martin and then behaving strangely at a second near Ilfracombe.

He was released in the early hours of Saturday February 9 and taken to the Freedom Centre in Barnstaple, where he stayed for three hours before arguing with the manager and storming out.

He then walked to Goodleigh, where Mr Ellis's wife Maureen found him trying to release horses and alpacas from their pens.

Mr Ellis has not given evidence in person because his account of what happened next is not disputed, but Mr Smith read his witness statement to the jury.

Mr Ellis said he heard his wife calling him from the alpaca enclosure and used a pair of binoculars to see what was happening. He then hurried to help his wife.

He said: "I saw a man holding two things, I grabbed my coat and hat and put my boots on. I ran down the drive and saw him standing on the lane. My wife was still in the alpaca pen.

"She said he was trying to let them out and I said 'you can't do that' and told him to f*** off. He was holding a saw and started to approach me. He was verbally abusive to me and my wife.

"He was coming towards me swinging the saw. Maureen came out of the pen and I told her to go and phone the police and she ran back to the house.

"The man was swinging the saw around. I backed away but was still facing him. I saw him swinging the saw and coming towards me. It came close to me and I thought 'this isn't good'.

"I put my left arm up to protect my face. I thought he was going to have my head off. The saw hit my left wrist, leaving three puncture wounds from the teeth.

"He also had a four-foot long stick. After the saw hit me, I turned around and he raised it. He swung the saw again and hit me in the lower back with the flat side.

"I continued to run back to the house and he followed me and when I got to the driveway, he was right behind me. I tried to close the gate and lock it.

"He was jabbing my chest with the stick. He raised it to hit me and I grabbed it. It broke and left me with a three foot stick. I got the gate partially closed and he swung at me with the saw again.

"He did not hit me and the saw broke off at the handle. It fell on the floor and I kicked it away so he could not attack me with it again.

"The stick was still in my hand and I went to hit him to protect myself and he turned around and walked down the road. I went to the house until the police arrived and found the alpaca's gate had been opened.

"During the attack he asked me if I was a paedophile. He sounded quite well educated and he remained calm and collected."