The warm night of 22 June 1987 brought death to Tunbridge Wells, a large town about 40 miles from London, in the county of Kent. It was that night that a monstrously evil killer struck, taking the life of a young woman and destroying a family in the process. Horrifically, the same man killed again just a few months later only about a mile away from the scene of the first murder. He has never yet been caught.
Wendy Knell was 25 years old in 1987 and worked as a shop manager in a Supasnaps store on Camden Road, Tunbridge Wells. She was attractive and slim, and had a boyfriend, bus driver Ian Plass. Although their relationship was becoming serious, Wendy lived alone in a basement bedsit at the end of Guildford Road, Tunbridge Wells. On the night of 22 June 1987 Ian and Wendy had spent the evening together, and it was approaching midnight when the couple arrived back at Wendy’s bedsit on Ian’s motorbike. That night was a Monday, and with both having to work the next day Ian dropped Wendy off, waving goodbye to her as he watched her get in safely. He then left and went home.
But somebody else was watching her also.
The next morning, Ian was contacted by staff at the store where Wendy worked, enquiring as to her whereabouts as she hadn’t turned up for work that morning. Ian went around to the Guildford Road bedsit to check on Wendy, and what Ian found when he arrived was the scene of unimaginable horror. Wendy was lying dead in her bedsit, savagely battered and had been strangled to death. She had also been brutally and savagely raped, and was left lying naked and covered in blood. Police were contacted by a shaken and distraught Ian, and began the murder enquiry by making house to house enquiries in the immediate area. A methodical search of the bedsit and surrounding areas began, and Wendy’s background and life was looked at to see if there was anybody who jumped out that could possibly bear a grudge or have the capability to commit such a heinous crime.
Police found nothing in Wendy’s background to suggest she had any unwanted admirers, and her family and friends were all in chorus that she was popular and well liked. She was faithful to Ian, and Ian was ruled out as a suspect almost immediately. Police could find no clear signs of forced entry to Wendy’s bedsit, and nobody in the neighbouring properties had heard or seen anything. Detectives came to the conclusion that the killer had gained access through a rear window, and was lying in wait for Wendy when she arrived home. He would have been there when Ian dropped her off.
The search of Wendy’s bedsit and the house to house enquiries revealed a number of possible leads. A few days before Wendy was murdered, a 19 year old female neighbour of hers was warned by a strange man not to leave her windows unlocked. An e-fit of this man is shown below.
Who was this strange man – and why was he drawing attention to himself in such a way? He has never come forward, or been traced.
Police discovered during the search that Wendy’s diary had been taken from her purse, along with a distinctive key ring. The key ring had a small brass cow bell attached to a multi-coloured key fob, a brass plate with “Woman of the Year” engraved on it, and two keys. They have never been found, and were likely taken as trophies. A muddy footprint was also found on a blouse lying on the floor of her bedsit. It was from a Clarks and did not match any of the shoes owned by Wendy, Ian or Wendy’s family and friends, leading detectives to believe that it belonged to Wendy’s killer. Detectives also believed that this trainer would have been rare at the time. Forensic detectives managed to recover trace elements of semen found upon Wendy’s body, leading them to be able to recover a partial DNA profile of her killer.
The enquiry continued and all leads were followed, with no success. The women of Tunbridge Wells lived in fear at the time; however, this fear had almost been put to the back of their minds by 5 months later.
Like Wendy, 20 year old Caroline Pierce also worked on Camden Road as a shop assistant. She also lived alone in a bedsit, coincidentally only about a mile from where Wendy had lived. There is no indication that both women knew each other, although they may have known each other by sight. It is reported that both women used the same café on Camden Road, so this is feasible. On the evening of 24 November 1987, Caroline had been for a night out with friends and had gotten a taxi back to her bedsit in Grovesnor Park. It was about midnight when she was dropped off, and as the taxi drove off, somebody attacked Caroline outside her bedsit. She managed to scream just once before she was abducted. Neighbours who heard a scream looked out of their windows, but saw nothing. The killer had been waiting in the shadows, and had efficiently abducted the young woman. When Caroline failed to arrive at work the next day, her concerned family reported her as missing. Officers immediately thought of Wendy Knell, and alarm bells rang that raised the question. Had the killer struck again?
40 miles away from Tunbridge Wells, a farm worker in St Mary in the Marsh on Romney Marsh discovered Caroline’s decomposing body in a drainage ditch three weeks later, on December 15. Like Wendy Knell, she had been battered to death, strangled and again savagely raped. It was clear that Caroline had been dumped there some time before, not long after she was last seen by the taxi driver. The clothes that she had been wearing on the night she was abducted, a long black skirt and a red jumper, were missing and have never been found. Caroline’s handbag was found nearby however- although her keys had been taken from it.
As with the Wendy Knell enquiry, detectives examined Caroline’s life searching for leads that may possibly lead them to her killer. They found nothing; Caroline had no boyfriend and had gotten on well with her family. She was popular and well liked, and all of her friends that were with her on the night she was abducted reported nothing out of the ordinary, no one had been seen paying Caroline extra attention or following her. Nobody had rowed with her, and she had left alone in a taxi. The taxi driver who dropped her off was interviewed and reported not seeing anyone hanging around the bedsit where Caroline lived. Tragically, he had driven off and turned the corner when Caroline’s killer struck. Detectives were convinced that the same man was responsible for both murders, and officially linked the two. The inquiry into both murders continued, but when all possible avenues had been explored, the inquiry wound down, although was never closed. Both cases have been appealed twice on Crimewatch UK years apart, and in each case calls have been received and possible names for the killer have been put forward. However, the crucial call has never yet been received. The hunt for the vicious killer remains active with regular reviews.
Is the same man responsible for both murders? TTCE is of the opinion that to believe that both murders were committed by two different people would be near impossible, even regardless of police officially linking both killings. What would be the odds of two men with the same psychopathy operating separately within a mile of one another, and randomly choosing two women that are quite similar in appearance, that worked in the same road, lived a mile apart from each other in bedsits, and it is reported that both used the same cafe in Tunbridge Wells for lunch? Surely too great to seriously consider? The mirrored features of the MO in both murders also support both killings being the work of the same man. Both women lived alone in bedsits. Both women were of similar physical appearance. Both women were raped, battered and strangled. Both had items taken from them as trophies – and in both cases this included a key ring and keychain. Although detectives could find no evidence that either women had been stalked or followed, they remained convinced that the killer had deliberately targeted them – had he seen them at different times in the café perhaps? Did he frequent the Camden Road shops through living or working nearby?
What is then, known about the killer? To begin, it is impossible to ascertain a physical description of this man, even if the e-fit that police issued concerning the strange man who warned the neighbour is used as a basis. The passage of time since both killings is so vast that any appearance will have changed drastically. It is very likely that these are not the first crimes this man has ever committed. The level of violence, both physical and sexual used in each murder is too great for these to be this man’s first offences – crimes of this magnitude are built up to. It is likely this man is or has been a prolific burglar, and is very familiar with the Tunbridge Wells area – Guildford Road for example is a very populated street of terraced houses and it would take someone of experience and confidence in housebreaking to be able to enter unnoticed. He may have lived in the area at the time or at least at some point, or may have worked there.
It is also likely that this man will have sexual crimes in his past, as has been alluded to above; levels of horrific sex crimes such as these are unlikely first offences. This may include rapes or serious sexual assaults, and would almost certainly include perhaps being a Peeping Tom or a prowler. It is very likely due to the locations of the crimes that this man had watched and surveyed them on several occasions, and had measured the level of risk of offending here, the risk of disturbance or capture, and assured himself of clear routes of access and egress from the scenes. He is likely to have followed and stalked either or both women – they were not randomly chosen and it is likely that this man had learned their habits over a period of days or even weeks. It would be easy to label this man as being seriously psychologically disturbed, and he does have a serious sexual disturbance to have committed such horrific crimes as he has. But as any reader of true crime will know the psychopath can often operate successfully, functional in society, and under the radar. This killer is calm and collected and shows signs of organisation, yet abandoned all of this and was savage almost beyond control in the actual murders themselves. He left no fingerprint evidence and such minute trace evidence at the Knell murder scene that it took years for forensic science to advance to the point where a full DNA profile was obtainable from this evidence. He was patient and calm enough to watch and wait for both women, and was able to rape and kill Wendy without anybody in the adjoining bedsits hearing or seeing anything. He was able to efficiently and swiftly abduct Caroline from a populated street, meaning he owned, or at least had access to a car. Caroline’s body was not found for nearly 3 weeks and had been transported nearly 40 miles from where she lived. How else would she have been moved here? And why was she killed and moved elsewhere – this is a significant difference from the Knell murder, and is likely that the Romney Marsh area was another area that the killer was familiar with. It is possible that the killer had a place nearby, perhaps a workshop or building that he knew he could take Caroline to to minimise risk of detection. Perhaps he had apparatus at such a place to inflict extra pain and suffering upon her.
The taking of trophies highlights just how much this killer relished what he had done, and by collecting personal property from each victim, it creates his own macabre trophy cabinet. It is common for keys to be taken from victims by the offender as a trophy, examples being the Railway Rapist John Duffy, and the Pembrokeshire quadruple killer John Cooper. It is this necessity to relive the crimes by taking a trophy that must leave the reader of clear opinion that this man will have gone on to kill again. These murders have excited this man to the extent that he has taken an effect to help him relive that euphoria he felt – but as with other killers that feeling fades over time and needs to be repeated, refreshed. There are several cases of unsolved murders of young women around the country in the years following the Bedsit murders that police have examined that could be possibly linked. The use of a car in the Pierce murder drastically expands the potential geographical killing ground of this man – yet police have not to date been able to forensically link the man to other crimes in the country. It does not fit that this man would just stop killing unless it was due to circumstances out of his control. Perhaps he was caught and imprisoned for other offences, or there is the possibility that this man is now hospitalized, or even dead. Or of course, he may still be alive, free and still offending, perhaps in a different part of the country. If so, he has honed his murder skills as he has been able to have avoided detection for decades. Who knows just how many other murders this man may have been responsible for?
“These crimes are right at the top end in terms of violence. It would be unusual for someone like this to stop. Usually there is a build-up to attacks like this. We are not ruling out that this man could have attacked many more women. But at the moment we cannot forensically link him to more crimes”. – Detective Chief Inspector Rob Vinson (SIO Kent Police Cold Cases Unit)
Two names that have been consistently linked with the case are that of serial killer Peter Tobin, and bus stop killer Levi Bellfield, due to their links with the Kent area. There is much documented about these killers and their crimes, so it is not the intention of TTCE to recap their crimes here. Both men are currently serving whole life tariffs and are being looked at for possible links to other unsolved murders UK wide, but in the case of the Tunbridge Wells bedsit murders, both men have been cleared on the basis of their DNA not matching the sample taken from the crime scene of the Wendy Knell murder. And it is the killers DNA fingerprint that remains the strongest, most crucial piece of evidence that detectives have– although a matching result on the National DNA database has so far proved elusive. Detectives have visited many persons of interest in the inquiry and to date have eliminated over 500 persons through DNA samples, and swabbed over 1000, visiting countries as far afield as Australia and Canada on the basis of information received. This elimination process continues as detectives still receive names and information from the public after every appeal. There are several high profile killers already serving life in UK prisons that, due to their MO and choice of victim when killing, it is the opinion of TTCE that they would undoubtedly be persons of interest to the inquiry. However, it is quite likely that because these killers DNA would be on the database already, they have been ruled out.
This man is believed to be one of the most dangerous and possibly prolific killers that Britain has ever seen, and destroys whole families through his actions. Caroline’s parents emigrated to Spain in the years following her murder, and although they are fully supportive of the investigation remaining open, they shun and decline any publicity because of the suffering that Caroline’s death has caused their family. Wendy’s family still to this day bear the scars of losing their middle child in such awful circumstances. When speaking to the press on the 25th anniversary of their daughter’s death, Pamela and Bill Knell told how the murder had impacted their lives.
“It’s driven us apart as man and wife. My wife can’t bear me near her. She’s afraid of anything physical. If I put my arm round her, she’ll say, ‘Don’t do that’. Before we had the perfect life but from that day it’s just a stressful life. You just go from day to day and try to cope.” – Bill Knell
“I had just turned 50 when we lost Wendy and everybody told me my life was going to begin – but it ended. We don’t want to die not knowing what happened and who did this, and we feel renewed hope that he will be caught. Things wouldn’t get a lot easier but we could sleep easy because of where he is, hopefully locked up for life” – Pamela Knell
The Knell family were given a bottle of champagne after the murder to “celebrate when he’s caught”. Amid frustration that this man still has not faced justice, the bottle was thrown away some years ago. But police have not given up, as the detective leading the cold case review had this to say about his quarry.
“What we realise is that over time allegiances change. Someone may have been shielding the killer and for whatever reason that person has not come forward yet. It’s important to note that any member of the public shouldn’t be afraid to give us names. We’ve got his DNA. Only the guilty man needs to fear us. We keep looking. You should spend every day looking over your shoulder because we’re still looking and we’re going to find you” – Detective Chief Inspector Rob Vinson (SIO Kent Police Cold Cases Unit)
Anyone with information should call Kent police on 01634 884 043 or the confidential Crimestoppers number on 0800 555 111.
The True Crime Enthusiast