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Detective's Casebook: Learning points from the David Fuller case

In December 2021, David Fuller received two whole life sentences for the murders of two women in 1987. He received concurrent sentences of 12 and four years for 68 further charges - many of which related to sexual offences against 101 deceased victims in a mortuary.

David Fuller pleaded guilty to two murders that took place in 1987 and to further unrelated sexual offences against 101 mortuary victims. 

It was a case that “had to be built around wellbeing” for the team working in Kent - as well as family liaison and other officers drafted in to help from other forces. 

The murders of Wendy Knell and Caroline Pierce took place months apart in 1987. It had been a cold case until 2019 when it was again re-opened thanks to forensic advancements. The development of ‘sperm elution’ made it possible for the first time to forensically link the two murders after a partial DNA profile was lifted from the tights of Caroline Pierce. This matched a full DNA profile that had been found at the scene of Wendy Knell’s murder.

It was a breakthrough that re-opened the case - and when investigators, using the familial DNA process, ran the full DNA profile against the DNA database they found someone that could be the brother of the offender which, along with other evidence, led to the arrest of David Fuller in December 2020. 

Unprecedented find 

Upon his arrest, a search team at his house found around 40 printed images, that he had taken of him sexually assaulting bodies in what appeared to be a hospital morgue. 

It was an unprecedented find that took the case in a radically different direction. 

A hide at Fuller's home

Homicide SIO, Detective Superintendent Ivan Beasley, told Police Oracle that “the detail of this case was traumatic and we had to look after ourselves”.

When faced with two category A murders, images of 101 different mortuary victims of sexual offences and other charges of indecent images - a decision was made to bring the wellbeing team into the investigating team itself and have them fully briefed. 

D/Supt Beasley said: “We got the health and wellbeing team to be very visible. 

“In every meeting, every briefing, every blog that I used to do weekly for my team, bearing in mind that we’re also in COVID with a lot of working from home while all this was going on. 

“We made it so it was the norm - it's not number eight on the agenda but straightaway; ‘How's everyone doing?’ We deal with that first and foremost.” 

Wrap-around welfare

The investigation team had a 24/7 line to the welfare team, which is something that Kent has brought in across the force now. 

The decision to fully brief the welfare team however was made more complicated due the nature of the case. Effectively there were two separate strands to the investigation - the 1987 murders and then the sexual offending relating to mortuary victims. 

If information from the second strand of the investigation were to reach the public domain, it may have affected the possibility of a fair trial for the murders, since it could have been difficult to find an impartial jury. 

The whole investigation was made completely sensitive - no one was told outside of the lawyer, barrister and partners involved in the case (key senior members of the NHS Trust). 

It also meant not telling the victims - the families of Wendy and Caroline as well as the families of the mortuary victims, until it was safe to do so. 

Ethics panel

It’s something an ethics panel was established for - to be able to advise and be consulted on. Chaired by the PCC’s Chief Executive, the panel featured a pathologist, a representative from mental health charity Mind, the then Victim’s Commissioner Dame Vera Baird and various faith leaders. 

“We wanted them to help us with that decision, when to tell them and actually even if to tell them. We could thrash out our rationale as to why, how and when we should tell people and the panel asked us - have you considered this? Have you considered that?” D/Supt Beasley told Police Oracle. 

“The decision was that we wouldn't tell anybody until after the murder trial unless something happened before that would allow us to tell people and it wouldn't affect the trial.” 

D/Supt Beasley explained that by summer 2021, it was decided that it would be the right time to tell Wendy and Caroline’s families -  because a review of the pathology that took place in 1987 showed that it was more likely he had killed them and sexually abused them after death, rather than it being a sexual attack that went over the top and resulted in him killing them. 

“So 33 years ago, you think your loved one might have been raped and killed? That's different to what we're saying is a necrophiliac who's killed your loved one in order to rape,” he explained. 

As for the families of the mortuary victims - things changed in summer 2021, just months before the trial was set to take place. 

A non-police leak of information to journalists forced the SIO’s hand and in order to get a court order to prevent publication, Kent had to proceed with six holding charges relating to the mortuary offending. 

Once the charges had been issued - it was decided that it would be the right decision to tell the families of the mortuary victims as these charges would be heard in Crown Court. 

It was a massive piece of work and one that could either take place on a planned day or needed to happen spontaneously were details to become public unexpectedly. 

On October 8 2021, Fuller was listed for a pre-trial hearing for 51 charges relating to the mortuary offending and other indecent imagery offences. 

D/Supt Beasley explained: “Because he was there at court in front of the same Judge there was a possibility that he could have changed his plea to ‘guilty’ for the two murders as well.

“If he'd have done that, the court order we had in place would have been lifted. So we had to get out to those families to tell and support them.

“October 8, we decided, whatever happened, that was notification day.” 

Following an initial not guilty plea on the basis of challenging the forensic evidence, Fuller had later changed his plea - admitting killing the two women but maintained he was not guilty on the grounds of diminished responsibility. 

This admission meant the risk of prejudice was slightly less than it had been were details of the mortuary offending to get out (although there would still have been a court order in place). 

Covert FLO requirement 

At the time, 78 of the 101 victims from the mortuary photos had been identified. It meant family liaison officers being sent to 84 different families mainly across the South East but with some elsewhere in the UK and others abroad - and doing it covertly. 

PCC Matthew Scott was able to secure £1.5m funding from the Ministry of Justice which went towards commissioning a bespoke support service for all these victims’ families - and having them available 24/7 for a period of time.

D/Supt Beasley wanted two experienced FLOs dedicated to each family. Through mutual aid, FLOs from 27 different forces came to Kent where they were briefed three days before ‘notification day’. 

Whilst the 160 FLOs were there, they were also wrapped up with the same wellbeing support as officers on the case in Kent. 

In the end, Fuller did not change his plea for the murders until November, but notification day went ahead as planned. 

After the FLOs returned to their own forces, briefings were also given to their own welfare teams so they could support the officers on return. 

It wasn’t the only time, the case had drawn on support from other forces. Back at the beginning, when the offender's DNA had first been run against the database, D/Supt Beasley needed officers to visit the top 90 possible familial matches to gather more information and ideally an updated DNA 17 sample. 

It was in the midst of the pandemic - but D/Supt Beasley was able to informally draw on the support of other SIO colleagues from across the UK. 

Drawing on support isn’t the only advice D/Supt Beasley would give following the case. 

“I think something that came out of this that we learned is that you need to take a step back,” D/Supt Beasley said. 

“Early on, if you recognise a case is massive, either straightaway or that it could get massive, you've got to take a step back and spend the time planning your structure around how you're going to deal with it.

“There was a lot of ‘how the hell are we going to do that?’ Use your team to come up with ideas. 

"An example was [when we were looking at digital devices], and tens of thousands of photographs any of whom could be victims, and I don't know who they are - How am I going to rule them in or out swiftly? 

“One of my team said - hold on apple facial recognition software will group photos of the same person (it would then be checked by a human as well). So that’s what we used. 

“Lastly, learning lessons in itself. This was a really big job and I knew from the outset we were going to have to do things we've never done before. There were so many new ideas, work arounds and things we could have improved.

“I thought if we only debrief at the end, we won’t remember all of this. So we had a learning lessons panel running through. Every meeting that we had, we were capturing our lessons learnt along the way and shared what we could when we could.” 

In December 2022 David Fuller was sentenced for the offences against the remaining 23 victims - 10 of whom remain unidentified to this day. He has received a total of two whole life sentences, 12 years and then four years imprisonment each to run concurrently. 

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