John Cooper is a real-life serial killer who terrorized Wales in the 1980s. “The Pembrokeshire Murders” is a limited series dramatizing true events and the cold case murders that landed him behind bars. Today, Cooper is serving four life sentences.
The three-part series is being released on BritBox Tuesday, February 2, 2021. It was released over three nights in the United Kingdom on ITV beginning January 21, 2021. Cooper is played by Keith Allen. Luke Evans plays Steve Wilkins, who was a real Welsh detective determined to solve the cold case.
The murders were solved, in part, because Cooper appeared on a game show around the time of the murders. The appearance on “Bullseye” earned him the nickname, “The Bullseye Killer.” You can watch his appearance on the show here or below. Cooper was convicted in 2009 and sentenced to life in prison.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Cooper Began Committing Burglaries & Robberies After Spending All the Money He Won in a Competition
Cooper won 90,000 pounds and a new car during a competition called spot the ball, according to BBC. Spot the ball is a game involving British football and often serves as a newspaper promotion. When he won the contest, he quit his job as a welder’s mate. But his money didn’t last long. He had a bad gambling habit and lost money on houses during several moves throughout Wales.
He became a career burglar in 1983. He was convicted of 30 burglaries, but police believe he was responsible for many more, the news outlet reported. His first double murder was committed during a break-in on December 22, 1985 at Scoveston Park, Pembrokeshire, Wales. There, he shot 56-year-old Helen Thomas, followed by her brother, 58-year-old Richard Thomas, according to BBC. Prosecutors postulated that Helen Thomas caught Cooper while he was breaking into the home.
The Thomases knew Cooper. He worked as a farm laborer and lived near their three-story home. Prosecutors speculated she recognized him or his voice when he broke into the house. Richard Thomas was not home at the time, but he arrived while Cooper was still inside. Cooper shot him also, BBC reported. He then set fire to their house to destroy the evidence.
The second double murder was tied to a robbery. Gwenda and Peter Dixon were on vacation from Oxfordshire, England, when they encountered Cooper on a coastal path in Pembrokeshire near Little Haven. He tied them up and demanded their bank card and pin number, then shot them both at point-blank range. Cooper used their debit card to withdraw cash and sold Gwenda Dixon’s wedding ring for 25 pounds.
At the time he was linked to the murders, he was serving a 16-year prison sentence for robbery and burglary. He was also accused of cornering five teenagers, raping one at knifepoint and sexual assaulting another in an attempted robbery in 1996.
2. Cooper Had a Wife & Two Children & Accused His Son, Andrew, of Committing the Murders
One of many unsettling details in “The Pembrokeshire Murders” was Cooper accusing his son, Andrew, of committing the heinous crimes. Cooper really did blame his son of committing the murders, and it was this detail in part that drew Writer Nick Stevens’ interest, according to The Eagle.
Andrew is played by Oliver Ryan in the series. Stevens met with the real Andrew when he was working on the series.
“Steve Wilkins was disgusted by this strategy, as any parent would be,” Stevens told The Eagle.
Cooper’s son testified against him at Swansea Crown Court, saying his father would often leave the house at night with a shotgun hidden in his coat, according to BBC. Cooper was married and had two children, a boy and a girl.
3. Cooper Appeared on the Game Show, ‘Bullseye’ Three Weeks Before Committing a Double Murder
It was, in part, Cooper’s appearance on an ITV game show that led to his arrest and conviction. He was a suspect in the case when detective Steve Wilkins dug up archive footage of the show, “Bullseye,” knowing Cooper had appeared on the show around the time of his second double murder. Wilkins was surprised to see Cooper’s image matched a police sketch of the killer from shortly after the murder.
“You could hardly make it up,” Wilkins wrote in his book, The Pembrokeshire Murders: Catching the Bullseye Killer. “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.”
Cooper appeared on the show in May 1989 and talked about his love of scuba diving when he was introduced on the show. He also described the area where he would kill Gwenda and Peter Dixon just a few weeks later.
“You’ve got an unusual hobby John, haven’t you?” host Jim Bowen asked Cooper. “Oh yes,” Cooper answered. “The scuba diving… on the coast line. We’ve got deep water where you can swim over mountains and all sorts of things.”
Cooper did not last long on the show. He was kicked off after the first round, in which he failed to correctly answer enough general knowledge questions. He was invited back in a later round, but was unsuccessful again when he threw three darts which all missed their target.
4. Cooper Abused Animals, Sometimes in Front of His Children & Abused His Son Andrew
Cooper was a fisherman and a farmer who enjoyed the outdoors, according to BBC. He attempted to portray himself as a caring husband and father, but investigators said at trial his brutality extended to his family.
Gareth Rees, a detective on the case, described the abuse on a documentary.
“He was a nasty individual even in the family environment. He lived on a farm and he killed a pig…with a hammer,” Rees said. “And when his children were small they reared some chicks and he shot them with a shotgun in front of them.”
Express reported Cooper abused his son severely, throwing him against the wall for minor offenses. At age 11, Cooper pointed a gun at him and pulled the trigger, his son said years later. Andrew changed his name from Adrian, which was the name given to him by his father. Andrew was named Adrian because his dad liked the Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue,” and wanted him to have to “fight” because he had a girl’s name.
5. Cooper Abused His Wife, Pat, Who Unknowingly Gave Police DNA Evidence That Linked Cooper to the Dixon Murders
Cooper abused his wife for years, the Mirror reported. She unknowingly provided police with a key piece of evidence in his murder case.
Cooper kept a trophy from his murder of the Dixons – Gwenda Dixon’s shorts. He appeared on surveillance footage withdrawing money with Peter Dixon’s debit card wearing khaki shorts that appeared to be women’s shorts. Years later, when Cooper was in prison for burglary and robbery, his wife provided the shorts to investigators not knowing the evidence they contained, according to the Mirror.
“We found the DNA of Peter Dixon’s daughter trapped in the seam,” Wilkins told the Mirror. “Now she’d been in Cyprus at the time of the murders so how the hell does her DNA make it into shorts owned by John Cooper unless they actually belonged to the Dixons? It’s absolutely incredible to think Pat’s simple act would lead to him finally facing justice.”
This also tied Cooper to the attack on five teenagers in Pembrokeshire in 1996. Cooper was wearing a balaclava and brandishing a sawed-off shotgun when he demanded cash, raped a girl at knifepoint and sexually assaulted another girl, the Mirror reported. Pat Cooper died in 2009, according to the Express.