A mentally disturbed man from Croyde battered three elderly victims to death having been released by police just hours earlier.

The trial of Alexander Lewis-Ranwell at Exeter Crown Court has heard from the prosecution of his bizarre spree of behaviour across North Devon before he committed the killings.

Lewis-Ranwell, formerly of Broadwoodkelly near Okehampton, denies three murders.

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

Judge Mrs Justice May has told the jury the facts of what he did are not in question and the only issue is whether he is not guilty through insanity or guilty of manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility.

He was arrested twice in the space of three days by police in North Devon but was freed from Barnstaple police station on each occasion.

He was released on the morning of the killings and travelled to Exeter where he bludgeoned one 80-year-old victim with a hammer before moving to a second house and battering 84-year-old twin brothers to death with a spade.

The prosecution said he carried out both killings on the same afternoon in February this year while experiencing delusions caused by a severe form of paranoid schizophrenia and failing to take prescribed medication.

The 28-year-old believed he was carrying out a campaign against a paedophile ring and believed all three victims were involved in it.

In fact, they were completely innocent and the allegations were a figment of his mind, the court heard.

He killed the men within the space of three hours in houses which were just a mile-and-a-half apart.

The first attack was on Anthony Payne, aged 80, at Bonhay Road. The second was on 84-year-old brothers Dick and Roger Carter in Cowick Lane.

Arrests in North Devon

Richard Smith, QC, prosecuting, said Lewis-Ranwell went to Lee Meadow Farm at Combe Martin on Thursday, February 7, where he caused damage, stole items and let animals out of their pens.

He demonstrated signs of mental illness both at the farm and at the Castle Inn at Combe Martin, which he visited that night.

Police were called to the pub when he refused to leave but he was not arrested.

The next morning he went to Twitchen Farm, near Ilfracombe and was arrested at 9.49am after releasing a pony.

He was held until being released in the early hours of February 9. He was dropped off at the Freedom Centre for the homeless in Barnstaple but did not stay there.

He walked to Silver Spring Farm near Barnstaple where he attacked smallholder John Ellis with a saw and a four-foot wooden stick.

He attacked Mr Ellis that morning and was arrested for the second time and released on Sunday, February 10.

Killings in Exeter

Lewis-Ranwell took a taxi and asked to go to Haldon Hill, near Exeter, but the driver was so concerned about his behaviour that he dropped him at Copplestone Station.

He took a train replacement bus to Exeter, where he carried out the killings before going to two pubs in Ide and sleeping rough near the Castle in Exeter.

Lewis-Ranwell went into the Rougemont Hotel the next morning and was arrested after demanding breakfast and attacking the night porter and two other members of staff with a glass bowl and a heavy standard lamp.

He was arrested again after police used a stun gun on him in the car park and he was taken to Wonford House mental hospital after being assessed by a doctor.

He was identified as the killer from CCTV showing him entering Mr Payne's home, taken from student accommodation nearby.

Justice May said Lewis-Ranwell is entitled to be found not guilty by reason of insanity if at the time of the killings, he did not realise that what he did was against the law.

She said: "It is an entirely subjective issue. You are going to be looking at what was in his mind at the time of the killing."

Three victims

Prosecutor Mr Smith gave details of the killings.

He said: "He stopped at Mr Payne's house in Bonhay Road and saw a sign on the front door about the occupant being an elderly man of 80.

"He went in through the front door and found or followed Mr Payne upstairs to a bedroom. He took up a hammer and bludgeoned him to death with blows to the head and moments later, he was back out of the house.

"Some two and three quarter hours later he walked down Cowick Lane to the home of the elderly twin brothers. The house appeared unoccupied and run down.

"He went through the gate and one brother ushered him out, but undeterred he walked around the back, scaled a garden wall and took up a spade from the garden.

"He went inside, and once inside he beat both brothers to death with blows to their heads from the spade. There is no dispute in this case that he killed all three men.

"Also, there is no dispute about how he did those killings. The facts are not in dispute. This man's mental illness lies at the very heart of this case.

"He was at the time suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and delusions. One delusion was that he was in some way involved in uncovering a long standing paedophile ring which was preying on and abusing children.

"He believed his victims were in some way involved with that. They were not. Of course, they were not involved in any such thing."

Mr Smith said aspects of Lewis-Ranwell's behaviour suggested that he knew that what he had done was wrong.

He left Mr Payne's home by the back rather than the front door, and ran when walking past the Carters' home a few hours after the killing.

The trial continues.