Police formally apologise for failings after 1986 schoolgirl murders

By John Mercury April 17, 2024

Sussex Police have formally apologised for failings in its initial investigation into the murders of nine-year-old girls Nicola Fellows and Karen Hadaway in 1986.

The force has also apologised for the wrongful arrest of Barrie Fellows, the father of Nicola, in a connected investigation in 2009.

The schoolgirls were sexually assaulted and strangled in Brighton woodland by paedophile Russell Bishop, who was 20 at the time.

The killings became known as the “Babes in the Wood” murders after the children’s tale of the same name.

Bishop was acquitted at the end of his first trial in December 1987 due to weaknesses in the case presented by police and prosecutors, and lies told by his ex-girlfriend, who was later jailed for perjury.

His acquittal left him free to kidnap, molest and throttle a seven-year-old girl before leaving her for dead at Devil’s Dyke, a valley in the South Downs, Sussex, in February 1990.

Chief Constable of Sussex Police Jo Shiner led an internal review following complaints made by the families in the wake of Bishop’s eventual conviction in 2018.

Russell Bishop in 1988 and 2018
Russell Bishop in 1988 and 2018

Following the end of the review, she met with the families to apologise for both the failings in the 1986 investigation and the wrongful arrest of Mr Fellows.

Details of the review have not been released at the request of the families, according to Sussex Police.

Nicola and Karen’s relatives fought for justice for more than 30 years before Bishop was finally jailed in 2018.

His retrial was based on fresh forensic evidence as part of a prosecution made possible under reformed double jeopardy laws.

During his second trial, Bishop tried to cast suspicion on Nicola’s father.

Mr Fellows had been arrested by Sussex Police on suspicion of sharing indecent images in 2009, but the force confirmed on Wednesday that there was no evidence he had done anything wrong.

The officers who arrested him were not aware that the allegations had already been investigated and dismissed in 1988.

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Barrie Fellows, father of Nicola, broke down in court as he was accused of murdering and sexually abusing her in 1986
Barrie Fellows arrives at the 2018 trial of Russell Bishop

Police pay tribute to ‘strength and dignity’ of families

In a statement issued after she had apologised to both families, Chief Constable Shiner said: “The murders of Karen and Nicola were horrific crimes which rocked the local community, and still resonate today.

“The impact on the community, however, pales into insignificance against the lifelong impact these crimes had on Karen and Nicola’s parents and families.

“Not only did they have to cope with the loss of two children in the worst possible circumstances; following Bishop’s acquittal in 1987, they campaigned tirelessly to ensure that their children received some justice, and Bishop was finally convicted in 2018.

“Throughout the years, the families have continued to engage constructively with Sussex Police and I pay tribute to their strength, their determination and their dignity.”

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The chief constable said she “formally and personally” apologised to both families in person for the failings in the initial investigation.

She added: “I have further apologised to Nicola’s father, Barrie Fellows, for his unjustified arrest in 2009 and for the distress and the long-lasting impact this had on him and his family.

“I make it clear now. Barrie should not have been arrested. There was, and remains, no evidence of any wrongdoing on his part.”

Forensic experts prepare to go into the wood where the bodies of Nicola Fellows and Karen Hadaway were found in 1986
Forensic Experts Examine Wood – Moulsecoomb Council Estate, Brighton

Mr Fellows was made a ‘public scapegoat’

In a statement issued through Sussex Police following the force’s apology, the families said: “This two-fold apology from Sussex Police is very much welcomed by both our families.

“It will help with our reconciliation of aspects that we had never fully understood, things that we always suspected but had never been addressed.

“There are still more answers to be sought in relation to the 1987 failures, but the part that Sussex Police had to play in the initial miscarriages of justice has now been answered and we appreciate the open and authentic way our apologies have been delivered.

“We are particularly relieved that Nicola’s father, Barrie Fellows, has also been fully vindicated of any wrongdoing. Barrie was made a public scapegoat whilst his life and that of his family, was already in pieces.

“This apology from Sussex Police for his wrongful arrest will help him to finally move forward with his life. His name has rightfully and properly been cleared.”


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