Belfast Telegraph

Police kept murder victim's skull

He was a man with a dark past whose badly decomposed body was found 18 months after he was killed. And for the last 12 years his skull has been held in the PSNI vaults

By Liam Clarke and Deborah McAleese

Police kept the skull of the victim in one of Northern Ireland’s most infamous unsolved murder cases, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

A former senior detective has told this paper that the skull of ‘Body in the Bog’ victim David Sullivan, who was murdered in Fermanagh in 1998, was retained for many years.

The revelation comes as the PSNI on Wednesday admitted they had failed morally by keeping body parts and tissue in 64 death investigations. The samples were retained as part of investigations into suspicious and unexplained deaths between 1960 and 2005.

Victims’ groups have now said there is widespread fear among families across Northern Ireland that their relatives’ body parts may have been kept without their knowledge.

Police launched one of the biggest ever manhunts in Northern Ireland’s history following the disappearance of David Sullivan (51) from his home in Enniskillen on August 26, 1998.

Most of his badly decomposed body was found by a man walking his dog near Belcoo in February 2000. The head, which had been separated by his killers, was found a few days later.

It was believed that Sullivan, who had previously served in the RAF and worked as a bus driver, may have been murdered because he was involved in a paedophile ring which targeted young boys.

He could only be identified by DNA testing after his elderly mother Florence provided samples. The remains were little more than a skeleton.

A former officer told why his skull was kept by police.

He said: “He had died from a blow to the head and the skull had to be retained as evidence. In court it would have been necessary to show the thickness of the bone. It was quite thin and it could have been argued that the person who dealt the blow did not believe it would prove fatal.

“The strength of the skull and the violence of the blow could, between them, make the difference between murder and manslaughter.”

The detective said the skull was retained for several years and may still be in police possession. The case remains open.

Meanwhile, the PSNI has apologised for failing to act “ethically” or “morally” by not advising families of victims that body parts and tissue samples had been kept as part of police investigations between 1960 and 2005.

Body parts, including skulls and organs, were retained to assist inquiries into suspicious and unexplained deaths, mainly murders, between 1960 and 2005.

The cases, including 23 related to the Troubles, were revealed as part of a UK-wide audit of all police forces.

Assistant Chief Constable George Hamilton said the PSNI had acted within the law but admitted that relatives should have been informed.

“Some of these families have been treated in a bad way because of lack of information. For the police service role in that, on behalf of the police service and the Chief Constable, we apologise for the upset that might have been caused,” Mr Hamilton said.

He added: “We can’t rewrite history. This was a different time, a different place.

“None of that is an excuse for the upset and anguish for the families who are now being presented with what can be very difficult information.”

When asked why families had been kept in the dark he said: “I am assuming that we did not see this applying to us because we had a legal basis on which to operate. “That is a hugely different thing from operating in a proportionate, ethical and moral way.

“I think the experience of the last few years in terms of how we deal with victims and families we are learning from that,” he said.

A number of families still have to be informed if any of their loved ones’ body parts were retained without their knowledge.

Mr Hamilton said he hoped that all families would be informed by Sunday.

The legislation was changed in 2006, making the retention of body tissue illegal. Mr Hamilton said that since then there has not been any difficulty.

“Prior to 2006 it was not custom and practice to routinely advise family members of retention of human tissue. Let me be clear, given what we know now and given the current day context, the police service are not defending that decision not to tell the families,” he said.

Mr Hamilton added: “The process of informing has started. We have offered to those families personally and do it publicly today an apology for the upset that has been caused to them.”

State Pathologist for Northern Ireland, Professor Jack Crane, said material would be kept in some cases to help determine the cause of death and for evidential purposes. He added that some of these cases had not gone through the criminal justice system and could still possibly come to court.

“We would be failing in our duty if there was something that could have evidential value and we had destroyed it,” Professor Crane said.

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