The Pembrokeshire Murders: How a Bullseye appearance implicated the real-life killer John Cooper

Cooper murdered a pair of holidaymakers just weeks after he filmed appearance on ITV game show

Adam White
Thursday 14 January 2021 21:06
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Serial killer John Cooper on game show Bullseye

In May 1989, a Welshman named John Cooper filmed an appearance on the cult ITV game show Bullseye. He was skilled at darts, talked of the beauty of the Welsh coastline, and happily told presenter Jim Bowen of his love of scuba-diving. He was also a serial killer.

The unexpected significance of Cooper’s Bullseye appearance only became apparent 20 years after the episode was broadcast, and plays an integral role in a new ITV drama series about his crimes. In The Pembrokeshire Murders, Keith Allen stars as Cooper, while Luke Evans portrays the real-life detective trying to track down the killer.

Allen is digitally inserted (and de-aged) into real footage of Cooper’s Bullseye episode, bringing to vivid life one of the most disturbing elements of the mystery. While Cooper appeared jovial and friendly on television, he also hid a dark side. As well as being a prolific burglar of homes across the Welsh village of Milford Haven, Cooper had killed two people four years prior to filming the episode. Less than a month after Bullseye, he killed again.

“You’ve got an unusual hobby John, haven’t you?” Bowen asked Cooper during the programme. “Oh yes,” Cooper replied. “The scuba diving … on the coast line. We’ve got deep water where you can swim over mountains and all sorts of things.” Cooper’s performance on the show was relatively short-lived. Kicked off after the first round having failed to answer a sufficient number of general knowledge questions, he was then invited back in a later round, but that also proved unsuccessful – all three darts he threw missed their target. He forced a smile for the cameras nonetheless.

Three weeks later, Cooper held a pair of Oxfordshire holidaymakers at gunpoint, tying them up and holding them captive near a coastal cliff edge in Pembrokeshire. He demanded that the couple, named Peter and Gwenda Dixon, hand over their bank cards and pin numbers, before shooting them both at point-blank range.

While Cooper’s possible involvement in the Dixon murders, and that of the 1985 murders of siblings Richard and Helen Thomas, had been theorised by Welsh police, it wasn’t until 2008 that evidence was found that officially linked him to the crimes.

In his 2013 book The Pembrokeshire Murders: Catching the Bullseye Killer, retired chief superintendent Steve Wilkins, played by Evans in the new show, recalled the moment of truth.

Having learnt that Cooper appeared on Bullseye, Wilkins partnered with ITV presenter Jonathan Hill to unearth a copy of the episode. Once a copy was found, Wilkins was floored by what he saw – notably Cooper casually telling Bowen his knowledge of the exact spot in which the Dixons were killed weeks later. It was also quickly made clear that the unknown man in the police sketch bore an uncanny resemblance to Cooper as he appeared on television, with ITV’s camera capturing him in the exact same stance as that in the sketch.

“You could hardly make it up,” Wilkins writes in his book. “For the first time we could see Cooper as he would have looked at the time of the Dixons’ murder. In my 30 years service, I had seen many artist’s impressions and photo-fit efforts, but I had never seen as close a match as this.”

The Bullseye tape, and the discovery of small traces of blood found on items of clothing retrieved from Cooper’s home, proved pivotal to Wilkins’s case. Cooper was finally arrested for murder in 2009, and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2011. Cooper has always protested his innocence, but his attempts at appealing the verdict have proved unsuccessful.

The Pembrokeshire Murders airs over three nights on ITV, starting 11 January at 9pm

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