Thanks to improvements in DNA profiling, a particularly gruesome case from the 1980s in Kent, England, lately become known – and it has turned out to be even worse than anyone suspected.
Not only had David Fuller, a 67-year-old hospital electrician, escaped justice for the “bedsit murders” for 33 years, but also he was also responsible for the sexual abuse of at least 100 women and children’s bodies at two mortuaries where he worked.
Fuller discovered by comparing his DNA to a relative’s genetic material stored on a database, similar to the famed cold cases of Jack the Ripper, Le Grêlé, the Golden State Killer, the identities of several victims of John Wayne Gacy, and Jack the Ripper again. The journey to the finding, however, was arduous; the narrative of how these crimes were solved spans three decades of scientific advancement.
DNA profiling was too crude to help police discover the culprit when the two “bedsit killings” occurred in 1987. In fact, detectives could not declare for sure that the killings were perpetrated by the same perpetrator at the time. Wendy Knell and Caroline Pierce, the victims, lived in the same town but had little in common. Knell was the first to be murdered: she discovered in her bed, battered and strangled, on June 24 – according to local police, she had raped before, during, or after her death.
Pierce was not slain for another five months; her corpse was discovered underwater in a roadside dyke more than 64 kilometers (40 miles) from her house, three weeks after she was kidnapped.
However, she, too, had been raped, beaten, and strangled. Police suspected the two murders linked, but they could not prove it: they were able to collect forensic clues from both scenes, but they could not use the National DNA Database to pinpoint the killer because it was created eight years before the UK’s National DNA Database and there was no obvious suspect in custody.
DNA forensics had progressed by 1999. Local cops reviewed the case and were able to establish a comprehensive DNA profile of Knell’s killer for the first time from evidence left on her bedsheets – but no matches were found in the DNA Database. Pierce was not linked to the crime for another 20 years. Despite the three weeks her corpse had spent beneath, a partial DNA sample ultimately recovered from semen discovered on her tights – the sole article of clothing she found in. The DNA samples matched those recovered at Knell’s home.
Furthermore, by 2019, a game-changing forensic tool called familial DNA has created. Instead of checking the DNA evidence against the National Database in the hopes that the killer had found his way onto the system, police were able to identify persons who were his relatives using familial DNA.
This is the same method that was used to apprehend murderer William Earl Talbott II in 2018 — in that case, samples supplied to commercial DNA testing organizations by his second cousin and a half-first cousin once removed were used to identify the offender.
Noel McHugh, who helped the Kent detectives and now works for the UK’s National Crime Agency, told the BBC “[familial DNA] was very vital.” “It allowed the detectives to narrow down the 6.5 million profiles in the national DNA database to a manageable number that would eventually lead to the identification of the killer.”
With just 90 names left on the list, the investigators began removing suspects one by one: they traveled across the United Kingdom, contacting persons on the list and collecting volunteer DNA samples. Fuller’s brother was the closest match.
The facts began to fall into place after that: Fuller was the correct age and was in the right place at the right time — investigators even discovered journal entries detailing his trips to the women’s workplaces.
They uncovered images showing Fuller wearing the same brand and size of shoes as the ones that had left tracks at Knell’s murder site, as well as a cycling path he would follow that passed by the spot where Pierce’s corpse was located.
However, that was not the only thing they discovered. Four million photos of sexual assault were discovered spanning five terabytes of hard drive space, 1,300 movies and CDs, 34,000 photographs, and hundreds of hard and floppy discs, according to prosecutor Duncan Atkinson QC on Monday, Some taken from the internet, while Fuller himself shot others. They shot in his workplace, a morgue.
It’s a case “unlike any other that a British court has seen before,” according to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), with at least 100 deceased women and children, the oldest of whom is 100 years old and the youngest of whom is just nine, sexually attacked by Fuller. Thanks to new forensic developments, investigators were able to identify the majority of the remains: they picked out the names inscribed on the dead’ wristbands that captured on Fuller’s camera and cross-referenced them with mortuary records based on the dates extracted from the video information. “He wouldn’t leave them alone,” prosecutor Libby Clark told the BBC. Fuller himself had recorded many of the identities at a later period.
Atkinson stated, “He acknowledged looking for them on the internet, particularly on Facebook.” “Rather than study prior to offending, he said that this would be done after the offending.” The scandal has prompted police to search for and notify the relatives of those who were mistreated by Fuller, and the NHS in the United Kingdom has ordered health trusts to reassess mortuary and post-mortem standards. Sajid Javid, the UK’s Health Secretary, also launched an independent investigation into how Fuller’s activities were made possible, and the UK’s Human Tissue Authority has been approached for guidance on national legislation around the ethical use of human tissue.
“I want to express how disturbed and outraged I am on behalf of the Trust by David Fuller’s illegal behaviour in our hospital morgue,” said Miles Scott, chief executive of the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust. “Most importantly, I’d want to express my condolences to the families of those who have been victims of these heinous atrocities.” He went on to say, “I am convinced that our mortuary today is safe and secure.” “However, I’m determined to explore whether there are any lessons or processes that can be improved.”