David Fuller: Detectives fear number of bodies killer abused in morgues will never be known

Video report by ITV News Meridian's John Ryall

Detectives say a man who killed and sexually assaulted two women is believed to have abused more than 100 corpses at hospital morgues in a string of 'heinous acts'.

David Fuller, 67, has finally admitted the murders of Wendy Knell, 25, and Caroline Pierce, 20, in two separate attacks in Tunbridge Wells, Kent in 1987.

In the three decades since police began hunting the killer, they have found evidence of a necrophiliac predator whose offending reached a prolific scale that may never fully be known.

Fuller interrupted his own trial at Maidstone Crown Court to plead guilty to murdering the women.

Fuller had earlier admitted using his role as an electrician to gain access to abuse women's corpses at two Kent hospitals' mortuaries.

He managed to remain at large for years, until his arrest last December led to his crimes finally being laid bare.

Police said today investigators may never know the extent of Fullers' crimes, as his victims' families reacted to the prospect of the killer finally being brought to justice.

  • Watch the moment of David Fuller's arrest:

Ms Knell was found dead by her boyfriend in her bedsit in Guildford Road on June 23, 1987.

Her body showed signs of blunt force trauma to the head, asphyxiation to the neck, and sexual assault after her death.

Initial investigations found no clear signs of forced entry to Ms Knell's bedsit.

Ms Pierce was killed five months later after being abducted from outside her bedsit in Grosvenor Park on November 24 of the same year.

Neighbours described hearing screams from Ms Pierce’s flat on the night she vanished.

Detectives concluded Ms Pierce was attacked outside her home.

David Fuller, 67, pleaded guilty to the murders while on trial at Maidstone Crown Court Credit: Kent Police

Her body was discovered three weeks later by a farm worker in a water-filled dyke at St Mary-in-the-Marsh, near Romney Marsh.

She was naked apart from a pair of tights, and had also been sexually assaulted, beaten, and strangled.

Fuller was on trial on Thursday when his defence team asked that the charges be put to him again, as he no longer had a defence of diminished responsibility.

Prosecutor Duncan Atkinson had previously told the court that Fuller had sexually assaulted both women after they had died.

He said that evidence found during a search of Fuller’s home showed that he had taken images of women’s corpses in the mortuaries of Kent and Sussex and Tunbridge Wells hospitals.

The episodes revealed Fuller's “particular interest” in the sexual assault of dead women, Mr Atkinson told the court.

Caroline Pierce's body was discovered in a water-filled dyke at St Mary-in-the-Marsh in 1987.

The three-decade long hunt for a killer

Forensic clues were recovered from both crime scenes in 1987.

But during that era, DNA profiling was in still in its infancy.

Despite forensic samples being taken from multiple men in the local area, no matches were found.

The women's killer went undetected for more than three decades - but cold case teams were confident that one day science would bring them a breakthrough.

By 1999, advances in forensic science meant detectives were able to gain a full DNA profile of the suspect in Ms Knell's murder.

This was added to the National DNA Database, but again no matches were made and Fuller remained at large.

Over the coming years, the investigations were regularly reviewed in line with enhancements in DNA techniques.

However without a forensic match officers were no closer to finding their killer.

How DNA snared the Tunbridge Wells killer

Detectives from the Kent and Essex Serious Crime Directorate continued to explore any new possible leads.

By 2019, specialist examinations were carried out on evidence relating to Miss Pierce, where scientists were able to recover DNA that for the first time evidentially linked both murders forensically.

This led to a further review of the National DNA database, focused around analysing profiles which could have familial links to the suspect.

Working closely with the National Crime Agency, a list of 1,000 names was compiled of those most closely linked genetically.

Of these, police then identified a priority set of around 90 individuals.

The breakthrough came after voluntary samples had been taken from the first 20 people of this priority set.

One of these had been provided from a person who during previous Kent Police reviews had not been on the National DNA database.

Through this person, a relative was identified.

David Fuller was by then a 66-year-old man living in Heathfield, East Sussex.

Fuller was arrested at his home during the early hours of December 3 last year.

The next evening, following the fast-tracking of a DNA sample, the Crown Prosecution Service gave authority to charge him with two counts of murder and he was brought into custody.

A full DNA sample was taken from Fuller and a complex and lengthy process of analysis took place to compare it to the forensic evidence originally obtained from the 1987 crime scenes.

Modern forensic extraction techniques led to the recovery of compelling evidence which would eventually place Fuller at the scenes of both murders.

Detectives found a shoe print on a blouse in Ms Knell's home Credit: Kent Police

A crucial shoe print clue

Fuller's DNA was detected on a duvet, a towel, and a pillowcase in Ms Knell's home.

It was estimated to be in the order of at least a billion times more likely to have originated from the killer rather than someone else.

Tests on DNA from Ms Pierce's tights also showed it was 160,000 times more likely to have originated from Fuller.

A plastic bag, found on the floor behind the headboard of the bed in Ms Knell's bedsit, was re-examined.

A fingerprint detected on the bag was not on the fingerprint database and could only be compared when a suspect was arrested.

Once Fuller was in custody, detectives got their match.

During the original investigation, a shoe print found on a blouse in Ms Knell's home became a primary clue.

It was determined at the time that the print most likely matched a Clarks Sportstrek trainer.

Following Fuller’s arrest, a number of photos were found in his home which appeared to have been taken in the 1980s and showed him wearing the same style of distinctive trainers.

Photos were found in Fuller's home showing him wearing the same style of distinctive trainers. Credit: Kent Police

Fuller, who is in custody, faces a whole-life jail term over the women's murders.

He had previously admitted killing the two women but his defence told the trial he was suffering from an abnormality of mind at the time. 

But as the court reconvened for the afternoon, Oliver Saxby QC informed Mrs Justice Cheema-Grubb that Fuller should be rearraigned. 

He said: "We form the view he no longer has a viable defence to either count, which Mr Fuller has accepted."

The jury of eight women and four men was thanked for its service on what the judge described as 'an unusual case with unspeakable aspects'.

Killer abused corpses at hospital mortuaries

Before pleading guilty to the murders, Fuller had admitted abusing corpses in mortuaries at the Kent and Sussex and Tunbridge Wells Hospitals.

Speaking on Thursday, Miles Scott, Chief Executive at the Maidstone & Tunbridge Wells NHS Foundation Trust said: "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 this week."

  • Miles Scott, Chief Executive at the Maidstone & Tunbridge Wells NHS Foundation Trust:

He continued: "Most importantly, I want to apologise to the families of the victims of these terrible crimes.

"Sir Jonathan Michael, a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, has been commissioned to independently chair an investigation into how this could have happened and to identify anything we could or should have done to avoid it."

In a statement released after Fuller's guilty pleas, Kent Police Detective Chief Superintendent Paul Fotheringham, said: "Fuller used his role as an electrician at these two hospitals to carry out these heinous acts on deceased victims.

"Not only did he kill and assault two young innocent women in 1987, who should have had their whole lives in front of them, he then found another way to continue his horrific offending by assaulting and defiling multiple victims and traumatising their already grieving families in a way that is clearly beyond comprehension." 

He added: "We have worked diligently with the Health Trust, coronial services, and examined records including medical, to carry out the identification process for the victims.  This robust procedure has been scrutinised by senior police officers and staff, and a senior coroner’s officer.

"Part of our enquiries has been to identify victims and we have found evidence of 100 victims, having worked through the vast majority of evidence. 

"So far, we have been able to formally identify 81 of his victims in the mortuary. We have specially trained family liaison officers who have spoken to all the families of those we have identified to date.

"Dedicated and specialist welfare support services has been made available to those families. These specialist officers will speak directly and privately to all families of further victims we are able to identify as the investigation continues. 

"Unfortunately, this ongoing process is not a matter with which the public is able to assist.

"We have narrowed down the potential identification of some of the outstanding victims and our officers will make further enquiries in a sensitive and private manner to families whose loved ones were in the mortuary during the time period we have established they were there so that we can try and determine who they are.

"Sadly, it is likely to be the case that some of the victims will never be identified. In these cases there is such limited information available to help us with establishing their identities, and there are no lines of enquiry outside of the investigation that can assist us."

The mortuary offences, whereby Fuller subjected dozens of female corpses of all ages to sexual penetration, carry a maximum of two years' imprisonment.

'He will not be in a position to hurt or cause any more pain'

Outside Maidstone Crown Court on Thursday, police read out a statement on behalf of Wendy Knell's family, including her mother Pam, who has been at the trial throughout, her sister Jane and brother Phil. 

Miss Knell's father Bill died in 2017 without seeing justice.

They wrote: "For 34 years, we as a family, the police and press have been focusing on what actually happened to Wendy, wanting to know who did it and how she spent her last moments alive.

"We now know, and sadly it's much worse than we could have ever imagined.

Wendy Knell was described by her family as "beautiful, kind, generous and caring".

"Hopefully we can now start to grieve and move past the pain, and remember her as the beautiful, kind, generous, caring, funny girl she was, who had a smile and kind word for everyone - a daughter, a sister, an auntie and good friend to many people.

"Although the timing has meant our dad is not here to share this moment as we lost him four years ago. It broke his heart he never found out before he died.

"Yet he has been with us every step of the way until now, we are deeply sad he's not with us today.

"Although the guilty plea won't change anything deep down, as the pain and loss will always be there, it is good knowing he will not be in a position to hurt or cause any more pain, not just for our family but Caroline's family and friends who have been on this same journey with us, and all the other families his life has affected. We feel a deep sadness for you all. 

"We want to thank the cold case team for coming through and for all their support over the years, and especially since his arrest.

"We are so grateful to all our family and friends for the amount of support we have received." 

Outside court, Ms Knell's mother Pam said the guilty plea had been a "very big surprise," as she thanked cold case detectives for their decades of work solving the murders.

She added: "It hasn't sunk in yet. It's going to take a long while."

  • Pam Knell, Ms Knell's mother speaking outside court:

"I don't think much at the moment. It was so quick. After all these years, it's hard to believe it's so suddenly happened. I was sat there thinking did I hear right?

"Wendy was a funny person. You wouldn't know what she was going to do next and things like that. She was fun and used to do a lot, take me out because I couldn't drive.

"We miss her. She would have loved to have children. She was only 25.

Miss Pierce's family are believed to have moved to Spain several years ago. She was described in court as 'fun, outgoing, sociable, and with a strong character'.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid described Fuller's crimes as "horrific" and "unspeakable."

The government was working closely with Kent Police and Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust, he added.

On the government's request, the NHS has written to all Trusts asking for mortuary access and post-mortem activities to be reviewed against current guidance, Mr Javed said.

An independent review had also been launched into the case, and he had the Human Tissue Authority for advice on whether changes are required to existing mortuary regulations.

Home Secretary Priti Patel added that she hoped the families of Miss Knell and Miss Pierce can "find some solace in seeing justice finally done".

  • Anyone wanting to contact Kent Police about Fuller's offending is being urged to contact the force.