The material discussed in this article may be upsetting to some readers
A particularly grisly case, originating in Kent, England in the 1980s, has recently come to light thanks to breakthroughs in DNA profiling – and it’s turned out to be so much worse than anybody thought. Not only had 67-year-old hospital electrician David Fuller evaded punishment for 33 years for the “bedsit murders”, but he was also responsible for the sexual assault of at least 100 corpses of women and children across two mortuaries in hospitals where he worked.
Like the infamous cold cases of Jack the Ripper, Le Grêlé, the Golden State Killer, the identity of some victims of John Wayne Gacy, and Jack the Ripper again, Fuller was found by matching his DNA to a relative’s genetic material held on a database. However, the road to the discovery was a long one; the story of how these murders were solved is one of three decades of scientific progress.
When the two "bedsit murders" were committed back in 1987, DNA profiling was too primitive to help police find the killer. In fact, investigators at the time couldn’t even definitively say the murders were committed by the same person. The victims, Wendy Knell and Caroline Pierce, lived in the same town but had little else in common. Their deaths seemed dissimilar too: Knell was murdered first: she was found in her bed, beaten and strangled, on the morning of June 24 – according to local police, she had been raped during or after her death.
Pierce wasn’t killed until around five months later. Her body was found underwater in a roadside dyke more than 64 kilometers (40 miles) from where she lived – she had been abducted from her home three weeks earlier. But she, too, had been sexually assaulted, beaten, and strangled. Police suspected the two murders were connected, but they couldn’t prove it: they were able to collect forensic clues from both scenes, but, eight years before the creation of the UK’s National DNA Database and without any obvious suspect in custody, they couldn’t use it to pinpoint the killer.
By 1999, DNA forensics had evolved. Local police revisited the case and were able for the first time to build a complete DNA profile of Knell’s killer from the evidence left on her bedsheets – but searching the DNA Database revealed no matches.
It took another 20 years to link Pierce to the case. A partial DNA sample could finally be extracted from semen found on her tights – the only item of clothing she was found in – despite the three weeks her body had spent underwater. The DNA matched the samples found at Knell’s house.
What’s more, by 2019, a game-changing forensic technique had been developed: familial DNA. Instead of having to check the DNA evidence against the National Database in the hopes that the killer himself had made his way onto the system, familial DNA allowed investigators to identify people who were his relatives. This is the same technique that brought murderer William Earl Talbott II to justice back in 2018 – in that case, the perpetrator was found thanks to samples sent to commercial DNA testing companies by his second cousin and a half-first cousin once removed.
“[Familial DNA] was absolutely crucial,” Noel McHugh, who advised the Kent investigators and now works for the UK’s National Crime Agency, told the BBC. “[It] allowed the investigators to bring down the 6.5m profiles on the national DNA database to a workable number which would eventually identify the killer.”
With a list of now just 90 names, the detectives started eliminating suspects one by one: they traveled across the UK, visiting people on the list and taking voluntary DNA samples. The closest match was a sibling of Fuller.
From there, the evidence started falling into place: Fuller was the right age and in the right area at the right time – police even found diary entries describing his visits to the women’s places of work. They found photos of Fuller wearing the same brand and size of shoes that had left footprints at Knell’s murder scene, and discovered a cycling route he would take that went past the location Pierce’s body was found.
But that wasn’t all they found.
Four million images of sexual abuse – “a library of unimaginable sexual depravity,” prosecutor Duncan Atkinson QC said on Monday – were found across five terabytes of hard drive space, 1,300 videos and CDs, 34,000 photographs, and hundreds of hard and floppy discs. Some had been downloaded from the internet; some were filmed by Fuller himself.
They were filmed in the mortuary where he worked.
It’s a case “of a kind no British court has seen before,” commented Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) – at least 100 dead women and children, the oldest a 100 years old, the youngest just nine, sexually assaulted by Fuller.
Investigators have been able to identify most of the bodies thanks to more forensic advances: they picked out the names written on the bodies’ wristbands that were caught on Fuller’s camera and cross-referenced them with mortuary records from the dates harvested from the video metadata. Many of the names had been recorded by Fuller himself at a later date – “he wouldn't leave them alone,” prosecutor Libby Clark told the BBC.
“He admitted to searching for them on the internet, including on Facebook,” Atkinson said. “He claimed that this would be after the offending, rather than research before offending.”
The case has led police to mount an effort to locate and inform the families of the people Fuller abused, and Britain’s NHS is ordering health trusts to review mortuary and post-mortem protocols. UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid also announced an independent review into how Fuller’s actions were made possible, and the UK’s Human Tissue Authority has been contacted for advice on national regulations around the ethical use of human tissue.
“I want to say on behalf of the Trust, how shocked and appalled I am by the criminal activity by David Fuller in our hospital mortuary that has been revealed in court,” said Miles Scott, chief executive of the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust. “And most importantly, I want to apologise to the families of those who've been the victims of these terrible crimes.”
“I am confident that our mortuary today is safe and secure,” he added. “But I am determined to see if there are any lessons to be learned or systems to be improved.”