The top scientist behind a DNA breakthrough that solved a notorious triple murder has warned future research may be put in jeopardy by the closure of the Forensic Science Service (FSS).
Dr Jonathan Whitaker, a senior forensic scientist at the government-run company, said the planned closure of the FSS next month could put an end to the kind of “blue sky” research that led to the identification of Wales’ first documented serial killer.
The body of former Port Talbot nightclub bouncer Joe Kappen was exhumed in 2002 after a breakthrough DNA technique proved he was the notorious “Saturday night strangler” behind the 1973 murders of Geraldine Hughes and Pauline Floyd, both 16, and 16-year-old Sandra Newton three months earlier.Dr Whitaker was one of a team of forensic scientists working on the case and pioneered the use of familial DNA, which allows detectives to track down culprits via their family members.
Speaking to WalesOnline, he said the discovery would not have been possible without the kind of money and resources made available to scientists at the FSS, which began the process of winding down last year after it emerged it was losing some £2m a month.
But Dr Whitaker said the kind of research it did – something private companies taking over its work will not be able to afford to do – meant the FSS would “undoubtedly lose money”.
He said because of this, the ability of such companies to produce similar breakthroughs in DNA research in future “remains to be seen”.
Speaking from Weatherby, Yorkshire, where one of the last FSS labs to remain open is based, he said: “In future the other forensic providers have provided assurance that there will be money and resources to do research, but the FSS always had that big group of people able to do it.
“It remains to be seen whether it will be done on the same scale and whether it will have the same blue sky approach, rather than being dictated by the needs of the police.”
Dr Whitaker was researching “low copy number” DNA at a lab in Birmingham when he was approached by South Wales Police to help in their cold case investigation into the murders of Geraldine Hughes and Pauline Floyd.
The girls had been on a night out in Swansea’s Top Rank nightclub when they disappeared in September 1973.
Their raped, bloodied and strangled bodies were found the next morning at 10am in a wooded copse near their homes in Llandarcy.
The case grabbed national headlines and sparked a major manhunt, but eventually ground to a halt when no suspects were found.
Almost three decades later, a cold case team led by then-Detective Inspector Paul Bethell took up the case once more – convinced that advances in DNA technology would lead them to their man.
“This was where I came in,” said Dr Whitaker.
“It was around 2000 and I was working in the research and development group in Birmingham.
“We were working on a new way of using low copy number DNA profiling, which was opening up the possibility of generating DNA profiles from much smaller samples of DNA.
“In the past we had needed a blood stain about the size of a 10p piece, but this new technique meant we could generate profiles from millimetre-sized stains – or even just areas people had touched or handled.
“It was a also a very good way of extracting profiles from old DNA material which had broken down in a process of deterioration.”
Using the technique, Dr Whitaker was able to use old evidence kept on file by South Wales Police and the FSS to generate a complete profile of the killer’s DNA.
Further tests soon convinced police that this was the person responsible for the murder – not just of Geraldine Hughes and Pauline Floyd – but also of another 16-year-old, Sandra Newton, whose body was found in a ditch in Tonmawr after a night out in Briton Ferry three months before.
Over the next months the scientist and his team scoured the National DNA Database but were unable to find an exact match.
In normal cases, they would have uploaded the DNA profile to the database and left it there, hoping the culprit’s DNA might some day find its way onto the database. But this wasn’t any normal case.
“We were thinking these cases are so important to get a resolution, especially if someone is out there still offending,” said Dr Whitaker.
“People don’t forget this sort of thing and they worry about whether the culprit is still living in their community.”
With this in mind, Dr Whitaker and his team quietly went ahead with more tests – tests that would change the face of criminal investigations for good.
The new technique involved looking through the DNA database for partial matches, which would mean the person was a direct relative of the killer.
DCI Paul Bethell – now a senior investigating officer on South Wales Police’s cold case team – still remembers the phone call in which Dr Whitaker told him his investigation was back on track.
He said: “We had a small team working to get DNA samples from 500 potential suspects. I remember we had reached number 353 when I had this incredible phone call from Jonathan saying he had tried this new technique and come up with a new suspect list.
“There were several hundred possibilities, but by narrowing it down to the locality we were able to bring it down to 12, and one of those 12 was a name we recognised from the original investigation – Joseph Kappen.”
Kappen had originally been questioned as one of thousands of men in the vicinity who owned a car matching the description of one seen near Geraldine Hughes and Pauline Floyd when they disappeared.
In 2002 – in pouring rain and with thunder crashing overhead – police exhumed Kappen’s body from its grave and took DNA samples that proved his guilt.
“It was a day of great celebration,” said Dr Whitaker.
“It stands out in my memory even now because it was a huge milestone in the way that we could carry out investigations.”
DCI Bethell added: “It is really not an exaggeration to say that if it wasn’t for the work of Jonathan and Dr Colin Dark at the FSS and the tremendous work done in 1973 by preserving the forensic evidence we would not have solved that case.
“The FSS has done stirling work for 60 years and as a police service we are very sad to see them going.
“It’s almost like losing a member of the family because we have worked so closely together over the years – but we have to go forward and look to the future.”
* Jeffrey Gafoor
In 2003 security guard Jeffrey Gafoor was sentenced to life for the murder of prostitute Lynette White.
Three local men, Yusef Abdullahi, Tony Paris and Steven Miller, were convicted but were freed on appeal.
Almost a decade later, DNA technology advances and a new sample found at the scene helped to catch the real culprit.
Gafoor was not on the database but a sample taken from a relative gave the match that led to his arrest.
* John Cooper
John Cooper stood trial last year for the murders of brother and sister Helen and Richard Thomas and husband and wife Peter and Gwenda Dixon.
A key part of the evidence against Cooper rested on a partial DNA profile of Peter Dixon from paint flakes taken from the hand-painted barrel of a shotgun used by the defendant in a previous burglary.
When the black paint was stripped from the barrel, a microscopic bead of blood was found.
* Mark Hampson
The murder of Geraldine Palk went undetected for more than a decade until DNA technology led to Mark Hampson’s arrest.
The shipping clerk’s body was discovered in the brook running alongside Fairwater Leisure Centre in Cardiff three days before Christmas 1990.
Hampson was convicted and jailed for life at Bristol Crown Court in November 2002. He died in 2007.
* John Pope
In 2007, labourer John Randall Pope was arrested in connection with the death – more than 10 years before – of Karen Skipper, after blood discovered on the clothes she was wearing on the night of her death were found to have blood stains matching his DNA.
In 2010 the Court of Appeal quashed his murder conviction and ordered a retrial.
He was convicted of murder last year and sentenced to a minimum of 19 years in prison.
The history of the Forensic Science Service:
1929: Police reformer Arthur Dixon submits a proposal to the Home Secretary for the establishment of a police college, with laboratories to provide scientific research and investigation;
1934: Small police laboratories are established in Bristol and Nottingham;
1937: The first regional Forensic Science Service laboratory opens in Birmingham, followed by laboratories in Cardiff, Preston and Wakefield;
1984: Sir Alec Jeffreys, a professor at the University of Leicester, discovers DNA fingerprinting;
1986: The first DNA profiling is introduced;
1990: Single Locus Probe DNA profiling begins, enabling DNA to be extracted from smaller samples;
1994: Mitochondrial DNA profiling is developed, for use on old and degraded material;
1999: Low Copy Number DNA profiling is developed;
2000: The number of suspect profiles on the National DNA Database passes the one million mark;
2007: The DNA database becomes the world’s largest, containing 4.5m samples taken during criminal inquiries;
2010: The Government announces the FSS – which now employs 1,600 people – is to be wound up;
2011: Laboratories in Chepstow, Chorley and Birmingham are closed down;
2012: Remaining offices and laboratories to close in March.