David Fuller: How familial DNA helped detectives catch the 'bedsit killer' who preyed in morgues

Watch ITV Meridian's full interview with Detective Chief Superintendent Paul Fotheringham

David Fuller was a mild-mannered veteran hospital electrician nicknamed 'Uncle Dave' to those who knew him in the Heathfield, East Sussex, town where he lived with his family.

But a detective who helped catch the morgue predator says the double killer 'groomed' everyone around him to create the perfect conditions to secretly satisfy his depraved desires.

The 67-year-old was today jailed for life for beating and strangling Wendy Knell, 25, and Caroline Pierce, 20, to death before sexually assaulting them in two separate attacks in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, in 1987.

Detectives investigating the murders uncovered Fuller's dark history of necrophilia, after they found evidence on mortuary sex attacks when they raided his home.

It is feared the true number of his victims may never be known, as prosecutors said it is believed Fuller preyed upon the bodies of at least 102 girls and women, aged nine to 100, at the hospitals where he worked.

Lead investigator Detective Chief Superintendent Paul Fotheringham told ITV Meridian how Fuller "groomed" the people in his life to orchestrated the conditions that would allow him to hunt for victims undetected.

The 'bedsit murders' cold case files

Wendy Knell and Caroline Pierce's murders had remained unsolved for decades after the young women were killed in separate attacks in their homes in Tunbridge Wells in 1987.

In 2019, detectives made a breakthrough during a re-investigation of the cases, using familial DNA technology and forensic evidence gathered at the crime scenes more than three decades ago.

As detectives honed in on their suspect - they would go onto uncover a nightmarish trove of evidence.

What they found at Fuller's home would rock the lives of more than 100 bereaved families.

Horrified officers searching Fuller's three-bedroom semi-detached family home found material capturing him attacking corpses of all ages in hospital morgues.

His hidden library of footage and pictures captured him abusing dozens of corpses over 12 years before his arrest in December 2020.

Caroline Pierce was also killed in Tunbridge Wells in 1987 Credit: Family handout/PA

The scale of his offending over a decade has triggered scrutiny over how he went undetected for so long, and prompted calls for a full public inquiry.

DCS Fotheringham said the hospital electrician had carefully manipulated everyone in his life.

He explained: "Fuller groomed all of the people around him and he was known as 'Uncle Dave'.

"He also moved his shifts around as well, so he created the environment where he could safely work. The security they had at the hospital - he used to protect himself. That's how he got away with it".

  • Watch how David Fuller avoided CCTV in a hospital morgue to carry out his crimes:

DCS Fotheringham told ITV Meridian of the moment investigators discovered their suspect's catalogue of crimes went far deeper than the two murders.

He recalled: "When we arrested Fuller, we had a specialist search team go through his premises. Behind a small cupboard were four hard drives that were clearly hidden.

"Officers also found some other material, pictures of him in the mortuary, and it was definitely him with their bodies."

DCS Fotheringham described Fuller as a "calm" man who was able to conceal his dark secrets by charming those around him.

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

"He's showed no remorse at all for the offences. He feels sorry for himself.

"He's quite calm, very selfish. He's just extremely dangerous as an individual. For somebody to be able to do what he's done, but then present himself as normal, he is just so dangerous."

Today, the court heard from Fuller's victims' families including the nine-year-old victim's mother, who said the family would be 'haunted forever' by his crimes.

  • ITV Meridian's Tony Green looks back at the history of the 'bedsit murders'

The history of the hunt for the 'Bedsit Killer'

Retired Kent Police Detective Superintendent Nick Biddis worked on the bedsit murders case in 1987. He spent many months trawling through evidence to find the women's killer.

"There was a farmer who was ploughing a field at the time, and they always keep an eye on the ditches in the area. Every field in the area is surrounded by one ditch or another.

"When the farmer was examining the ditches, he discovered Caroline's body, and then I got the call."

At the time, DNA technology was still in its infancy.

Wendy Knell was killed by Fuller Credit: Family handout/PA

"This was 34 years ago when DNA was still very much in its early stages of development.

"There was no DNA database back then... and Caroline's body had been in the water in one of these ditches for almost certainly two to three weeks.

"The chances at that stage of any recovery of any forensic harvest from a DNA point of view, would have been almost impossible.

Mr Biddis, who was one of hundreds of officers who probed the case and combed through evidence, said finding Ms Pierce's body was heartbreaking: "There was always hope that she might be found alive. "

A DNA breakthrough

At Wendy Knell’s home, police had found blood-stained clothing, a blood-stained Millets carrier bag and a distinctive shoe print in blood.

A low-level DNA profile was also later recovered from the duvet cover on Ms Knell’s bed, as advances in the technology continued.

David Fuller did routine maintenance tasks in the part of the mortuary covered by CCTV

As the science developed and the murders remained unsolved, samples were taken from many men in the area but no match was found.

In 1999, advances in science meant detectives obtained a full DNA profile but there were no matches on the national DNA database, launched in 1995.

A decade later, in 2019, police for the first time forensically linked the killer to Ms Pierce when a partial DNA profile was recovered from her tights, which had been in the water for three weeks more than 30 years earlier.

With still no match, detectives looked for any potential relatives on the DNA database, making a list of 1,000 names.

  • Watch David Fuller's arrest:

The list was whittled down to the 90 people most likely to have a familial link to the killer – by being a parent, child or sibling – and they were visited to obtain voluntary DNA samples.

A breakthrough came at the end of November 2020 when a very close match in a possible relative was found.

A DNA comparison with the sample recovered from Ms Knell’s home was an exact match.

And DNA found on her duvet, pillowcase, and towel, as well as intimate samples, was found by scientists to be a billion times more likely to have come from Fuller than anyone else.

Tests on the DNA from Ms Pierce’s tights showed it was 160,000 times more likely to have come from Fuller than anyone else.

  • Watch police raid David Fuller's home:

A fingerprint in Ms Knell’s blood, recovered from a carrier bag found on the floor behind the headboard of her bed, was also matched to Fuller.

And a shoe print found on a blouse in her blood matched a white Clarks Sportstrek trainer, which family photos recovered from Fuller’s home showed him wearing in the 1980s.

Paperwork proved he lived in Tunbridge Wells, where he worked as an electrician, at the time of the murders, while both sets of his grandparents lived near Romney, where Ms Pierce was found.

He had holidayed there both as a child and an adult and was a keen birdwatcher, who visited the marshland area to pursue his hobby.

One of the routes of a cycling club he was a member of went directly past the dyke Ms Pierce's body had been been dumped in.

And Fuller had previously been convicted of “creeper-type” domestic burglaries often involving break-ins through rear windows on England's southern coast in the 1970s.

What is familial DNA?

What is familial DNA?

Familial DNA was founded by scientist Alec Jeffreys in the early 1980s- DNA which would be described as the genetic fingerprint of people.

It wasn't until 1995 that the national DNA database was formed - and is run by the Home Office.

When a person is arrested, their DNA is taken, which is then loaded onto the national database. It is stored under certain Government rules.

Familial searching has been used in the UK for serious crimes since 2003. The technique uses standard DNA profiles and ranks the likelihood of a familial relationship between an unknown individual who has left DNA at a crime scene and individuals on the National DNA Database.

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How does it work?

The technique ranks the genetic likelihood of a familial relationship between the crime scene profile and individuals on the National DNA Database.

It can at best only identify parents, children or siblings on the database which are related to the crime scene DNA.

Noel McHugh from the National Crime Agency said, "There will be crime scene stains which come from crimes, and there will be a comparison. You may have that match. But with familial DNA, you'll have a crime scene stain which is unknown on the National DNA database.

"Effectively it doesn't match any of the six and a half million profiles there. So it's a way of looking in and scientists draw up a list of individual profiles that have similarities in genetics. There will be differences as well - unique markers.

"That list is handed to the National Crime Agency and they'll refine it even further with a likelihood ratio, looking at the age of the parent and child, and also geography markers to bring that list down to a manageable pool of people.

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How useful is it for solving crimes?

The UK already has one of the most efficient DNA databases in the world, with appropriately applied familial searches, identifying the bulk of perpetrators.According to the Government, since 2012, 120 cases have been authorised for familial searches, of which 9 have been resolved.

It is reported that the success rate of familial DNA is around 20%.

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DCS Fotheringham said Fuller's DNA ultimately placed him at the scene of the two bedsit murders, bolstering the forensic evidence gathered at the time of the murders more than 30 years ago.

He denied everything when police arrested him at the home he shared with his family.

But developments in DNA technology handed investigators the final thread they to sew up their case, DCS Fotheringham recalled.

"Whilst Fuller was in custody the scientists came back and said: 'it's him'."

Fuller's community was blindsided by his crimes.

Speaking after his conviction, neighbour Sue Stephenson, told ITV Meridian: "I was absolutely horrified when I found out. I said 'good morning' to him a couple of times.

"I'm upset for the families left behind. It must be awful for his wife and son. I feel for them.

"My neighbour has lived opposite him for about 22 years, and had no idea."

DCS Fotheringham had three words to describe Fuller.

"He's a monster."