In this post we look at one of the most notorious serial killers in British history, the gruesome details of the murders shocked the nation as they read of the mild mannered civil service worker that had been hunting and murdering young men then keeping them in his home until they were too decomposed to visit anymore, this is the story of Dennis Nilsen aka “The Kindly Killer”.
Dennis Andrew Nilsen was born on 23rd November 1945 in Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire. Nilsen was the second of three children born into his parents Elizabeth Duthie Whyte and Olav Magnus Moksheim’s (both later adopted the surname Nilsen) difficult marriage. Olav was a Norwegian soldier who travelled to Scotland in 1940 during the Nazi occupancy of Norway, they were sent as part of the Free Norwegian Forces. Olav and Elizabeth married quickly after a brief courtship and moved into her parent’s house. Olav didn’t take married life all that seriously as he was preoccupied with his work with Free Norwegian Forces, this left him spending very little time at home with his new wife or attempting to find them a marital home. The couple divorced in 1948 after the birth of their third child, Elizabeth concluded that she had “rushed into marriage without thinking”. Elizabeth and the three children Olav Jnr, Dennis and Sylvia remained at her parent’s home, it was said that her parents did not approve of her choice in husband but did support her and the children after the split.
Nilsen was described as an adventurous child with a very rich childhood filled with family picnics in the Scottish countryside with his mother and siblings and countryside walks sat on his paternal grandfather’s shoulders along the harbour, he did later describe his grandparent’s lifestyle as “cold and dour” due to their piousness, but as a child it seemed that Nilsen and his grandfather shared a close bond as he described his countryside walks as a stage of contentment in his life and how his grandfather was his “great hero and protector” and whenever he would leave for sea, as he worked as a fisherman Nilsen described how his life would “be empty for me until he returned”.
Nilsen’s grandfather’s health began to deteriorate in 1951. He continued to work through his ill-health and on 31st October 1951 he died of a heart attack while fishing in the North Sea at the age of 62, his body was brought ashore and returned to the family home prior to burial. Nilsen described this as a vivid childhood memory for him, he remembered his mother’s weeping and asking him if he would like to see his grandfather again, he was taken into the room where the coffin was kept and said that as he gazed upon his body his heart beat strongly as his mother told him that his grandfather was just sleeping.
Nilsen was deeply affected by his grandfather’s death and became quiet and reserved and he would often stand alone at the harbour watching the boats. He withdrew from his family and repelled any affection offered to him by adult family members. As he grew up, he became jealous of any attention that his mother, grandmother and step-father would give to his siblings, he especially envied his older brother Olav for his popularity, as a result he became closer to Sylvia than any other member of his family as they would talk and play games.
On one of his trips to the harbour in Inverallochy Nilsen ended up submerged beneath the water and was almost dragged out to sea in 1954. He began to shout and flail his arms around, he described gasping for air that wasn’t there and recalled believing that his grandfather was coming to rescue him before feeling a “sense of tranquillity”. Another young man around the same age as Nilsen saved his life and pulled him ashore. Nilsen’s mother moved the family to a flat after this incident and married a builder named Andrew Scott. Nilsen resented his stepfather as he saw him as an unfair disciplinarian, as he got older, he did begin to begrudgingly respect his stepfather. In 1955 the family moved again, this time to Strichen.
Nilsen discovered he was homosexual when he started puberty, he was initially confused and shamed by this and kept this hidden from his family and friends. Most of the men he was attracted to bore some resemblance to his younger sister Sylvia, so on one occasion he sexually fondled his sister as he thought his feelings for men could be a manifestation of his feelings of care he had for his sister.
Nilsen never made any sexual advances on any of his peers that he was attracted to, but he later said that an older youth had fondled him and that he did not find the experience unpleasant. There was another incident with his siblings as he once crept in to his room and fondled and caressed the body of his older brother as he slept, Olav Jnr suspected that Nilsen was homosexual as a result of this and would belittle him for it in public by calling him “hen”, this is a slang term in Scotland for girl. After this incident Nilsen felt that he could be bisexual as he also performed acts on his sister.
As well as confusion and shame over his sexuality Nilsen found the small village of Strichen to be stifling and limited as like most rural villages entertainment or career opportunities are scarce. He also resented his parents as they were poorer than most of his peers’ families, although he said he respected his parents’ efforts to provide, he blamed them for not making any effort to better their lifestyle. Nilsen would never invite his friends over to the family home as he was ashamed of his family’s financial situation. As a potential option to leave his working-class rural life Nilsen joined the Army Cadet Force at 14.
His education was successful with an above average scholastic record, he was strongest in subjects such as art and history but avoided sport. Nilsen left school in 1961 and got his first job in a canning factory while he chose his career path. Nilsen decided he wanted to join the army after three weeks working in the factory, he intended to join and train as a chef. He passed the entrance exams and received his official notification that he was to enlist for nine years’ service in September 1961. He then started his training with the Army Catering Corps at St. Omer Barracks in Aldershot.
Nilsen settled into the army very quickly and excelled in his army duties within weeks, he described his training in Aldershot as “the happiest time of my life”, he enjoyed the travel opportunities and recalled that the highlight of his time there was taking part in a ceremonial parade attended by the Queen and Field Marshal Lord Montgomery of Alamein.
Nilsen’s homosexual feelings began to stir during his time in the army, he kept this hidden from his colleagues, he would never shower with any of the other men out of fear of developing an erection instead he would bathe alone, so he could also masturbate without discovery.
Nilsen passed his initial catering exam and was officially signed to the 1st Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers in Osnabruck, West Germany in mid-1964, he served as a private there and during this deployment he began to drink much more, he descried himself and his colleagues as a “hard-working boozy lot” many recalled that Nilsen would drink so much in order to overcome his shyness.
With his increased drinking and socialising Nilsen began to have fantasies involving young slender men being completely submissive, it started when he drank himself into a stupor with a German youth, Nilsen awoke in the youth’s flat, no sexual activity had taken place, but this was the start of his fantasies. They started out as normal sexual fantasies involving young men being passive, but the submissive side of his fantasies intensified when he started to imagine these men unconscious and then eventually dead. Nilsen also began to try and make himself vulnerable to sexual assault, whenever they would drink to excess Nilsen would pretend to be completely inebriated in the hope his colleagues would interfere with him sexually while he was unconscious.
Nilsen spent two years at this deployment before moving back to Aldershot, he passed his official catering exam while there and was deployed to serve as a cook in the British Army in Norway. He was then sent to the State of Aden in 1967 to serve as a cook at the Al Mansoura Prison. This was considerably more dangerous than his previous posting in Germany or Norway, when he spoke of this, he mentioned the many men that they lost in ambushed on route to the army barracks, Nilsen himself was also kidnapped by an Arabian taxi driver who beat him unconscious and placed him in the boot of his car. Nilsen managed to over power the taxi driver when he pulled over to drag Nilsen out of the boot, he grabbed a jack handle and knocked the taxi driver to the floor and beat him unconscious then locked him in the boot of his taxi.
In Aden Nilsen had his own room, unlike at his other deployments in Germany and Norway. This gave Nilsen the freedom to masturbate without his colleagues finding out about his sexuality. This freedom intensified Nilsen’s fantasies of a passive dead sexual partner, to compensate for the lack of unconscious body he would use the mirror, he would do this by using a free-standing mirror to create the effect of engaging in sexual acts with another man by positioning the mirror to cut his head out of view, it’s been theorised that this ruse created an ideal circumstance for Nilsen where he could visually split his personality, in the fantasies he could envision himself as the dominant and passive partner. Nilsen would find this ideal as it played into his need to dominate a man sexually and the other side where he struggled to be vulnerable to people in a healthy way.
The attack on Nilsen by the taxi driver started to affect his masturbatory fantasies when he started to incorporate the violence and vulnerability he felt into them, this was further nurtured by the death he saw in Aden and his interest in a 19th-century oil painting called The Raft of the Medusa, the painting depicts an older man holding the limp nude body of a youth as he sits by the dismembered remains of another young man. When asked about his fantasies he recalled one in which a slender, young, blonde soldier he had seen killed in battle was dominated by a “faceless, dirty, grey-haired old man” who would wash his body before engaging in intercourse with the spread-eagled corpse of the soldier.
Nilsen completed his deployment in Aden and returned to Britain to another assignment to serve with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at Seaton Barracks in Plymouth. He was a cook for 30 soldiers and two officers, making meals daily, he served for one year on this assignment and then he was transferred to Berlin. While in Berlin Nilsen had his first sexual experience with a woman, she was a prostitute he solicited. After the encounter Nilsen bragged to his colleagues but said later in life that he found sexual intercourse with a woman to be “overrated” and “depressing”.
He returned to Britain for a brief assignment with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in Inverness before being selected to cook for the Queen’s Royal Guard. Nilsen was reassigned in January 1971 to serve as a cook for a regiment in the Shetland Islands, following this Nilsen ended his 11-year military career in October 1972 at the rank of corporal.
From October 1972 to December 1972 Nilsen lived with his family while he decided on his next step career wise, his mother grew concerned while he lived there that he never had any female companionship, she voiced her opinion on this numerous times, saying she was more concerned with him marrying and starting a family than she was with his career choices. Nilsen’s sexuality was brought into question while at home also, he sat to watch a documentary with his brother Olav, his sister-in-law and another couple about homosexuality, everyone expressed disgust about the topic except for Nilsen who defended gay rights to the group. This caused a fight between Nilsen and Olav, which resulted in Olan informing their mother that Nilsen was homosexual. Nilsen left the family home shortly after this and never spoke to his brother again, he kept minimal contact with his mother, step-father and other siblings over the years through writing, he decided at this time to join the Metropolitan Police and moved to London in December 1972 to begin the training course.
Nilsen completed his training by April 1973 and was posted to Willesden Green as a Junior Constable, he performed several arrests in his employment, but never physically subdued a member of the public, he said that he did initially enjoy the work but missed the Army and the comradery that comes with it. As a result of this loneliness he began to drink alone in the evenings.
Nilsen started to frequent gay bars and engage in several casual sexual encounters with men, he described these encounters as “soul destroying” and a “vain search for inner peace” as he wanted long term companionships with these men. Nilsen again started to question his career choice as he tried to balance his personal and professional life while keeping both separate. In August 1973 his father passed away and left his three children £1,000. In the December of the same year Nilsen resigned from the police.
Nilsen took up employment as a security guard between December 1973 and May 1974, the work was rather unstable, so Nilsen decided to take a more secure job as a civil servant in May 1974. Nilsen was posted to a job centre in Denmark Street, in this job he would mostly find employment for unskilled labourers. He was known as a quiet, conscientious employee, and an active member in the trade union movement, he was an employee known to volunteer for overtime and cover work, but his general attendance record was mediocre. By 1979 Nilsen was promoted to the position of Executive Officer this came with additional supervisory responsibilities, he was later transferred to work this promotion in another jobcentre in Kentish Town, he remained here until his eventual arrest.
At the start of his career as a civil servant in 1975 Nilsen met David Gallichan, a 20-year-old man who had recently moved to London from Weston-Super-Mare, he met Gallichan while he was being threatened outside a pub by two other men, Nilsen intervened and took him back to his room at 80 Teignmouth Road in the Cricklewood district of London. Gallichan was also homosexual and at the time he met Nilsen he was unemployed and staying in a hotel, the night they met the two men spent the night drinking and talking. The following morning, they agreed to help each other by living together and splitting the cost of a larger residence, Nilsen used his father’s inheritance to help fund the living arrangement. They viewed a ground floor flat several days after at 195 Melrose Avenue, also in the Cricklewood district, they decided to move into the property and Nilsen negotiated a deal with the landlord that says that Nilsen and Gallichan had exclusive use of the garden at the rear of the property. After a few weeks together Gallichan also went to a pet shop in Kilburn High Road and bought a Border Collie cross puppy for him and Nilsen, they named her Bleep due to the muted sound her bark made as a puppy, Nilsen was besotted with Bleep and even said after his arrest “If I’m put away for life, what will happen to Bleep?” sadly, a few weeks after his arrest Bleep was euthanised, I assume as the shelter believed that no one would adopt her because of who her owner was.
Despite being listed a furnished when they moved in the place was fairly empty and the two had to redecorate and furnish it over the months that followed. Much of the labour was completed by Gallichan, Nilsen discovered that he lacked any employment ambitions, so Nilsen saw himself as the breadwinner of the relationship, thus the dominant in the relationship. Nilsen admitted that he was sexually attracted to Gallichan, but the two rarely had intercourse.
Nilsen described this time in his life as domestic contentment, but the relationship between the two strained after a year of living together, they slept in separate beds and both men frequently brought various sexual partners back to the flat. When asked about their relationship, Gallichan insisted that Nilsen was never violent toward him, but would often berate him, the arguments got more intense and regular by 1976 and by May 1977 after another heated argument Nilsen demanded that Gallichan leave the residence. Gallichan informed investigators that this is when their relationship ended. In the following 18 months Nilsen began several brief relationships with young men, none lasted longer than a few weeks and none expressed interest in a serious relationship with Nilsen.
By 1978 in the middle of his career thriving Nilsen was struggling with his personal life, he lived a solitary existence as a result of the failed relationships young men. Nilsen admitted that he developed the notion that he was unfit to live with because of these failed relationships, he spent more of his evenings drinking and listening to music and threw himself into work during the day as a result of his loneliness and depression.
Nilsen’s depression and loneliness led him to commit the first of the 15 murders in 1978, on 30th December 1978 Stephen Dean Holmes aged 14 disappeared on his way home from a rock concert. Holmes was in the Cricklewood Arms on 29th December 1978 when he encountered Nilsen after he was refused alcohol. Nilsen said that he had been drinking heavily on his own all day when he decided that he must leave his flat and find company that evening “at all costs” he invited Holmes back to his flat to drink with him believing that he was 17-years-old. Both men drank heavily and fell asleep when back at Nilsen’s flat. In his subsequent confession Nilsen stated he was “afraid to wake him in case he left me”, he caressed the sleeping youth and it was then he decided that Holmes was to “stay with me over the New Year whether he wanted to or not”. Nilsen proceeded to get a tie and straddle Holmes and strangle him into unconsciousness, he followed this by drowning him in a bucket he filled with water, Nilsen admitted that he masturbated over his body twice before hiding Holmes’ body under the floorboards, Holmes’ still bound remains stayed under Nilsen’s floorboards for eight months, until on 11th August 1979 he built a bonfire in the garden and burned the body. Holmes was the only victim of Nilsen’s to not have been dissected before disposal, and his body remained undiscovered until November 2006.
Nilsen recalled the details of his murders after arrest and stated when speaking about the Holmes murder “I caused dreams, which caused death…this is my crime” adding “I started down the avenue of death and possession of a new kind of flatmate”.
Nilsen attempted to kill again two months to the day he disposed of Holmes’ body, on 11th October 1979 he attempted to murder a student from Hong Kong, Andrew Ho met Nilsen in a St Martin’s Lane pub and was lured back to Nilsen’s flat on the promise of sex, when back at the flat Nilsen attempted to strangle Ho, during the struggle Ho managed to flee from the flat and reported the incident to the police, Nilsen was questioned about the incident, but Ho decided not to press charges leaving Nilsen free.
Nilsen took his second victim less than two months after the attack on Ho, on 3rd December 1979m 23-year-old Canadian student Kenneth Ockenden had been on a tour of England while visiting relatives, he encountered Nilsen while drinking in a West End pub, Nilsen learned that Ockenden was a tourist and offered to show him several landmarks around London, Ockenden accepted this offer and after Nilsen invited him to his flat for a meal and to continue drinking. They bought more alcohol from a local off-licence on the way back to Nilsen’s flat including whiskey, rum and beer. Nilsen strangled Ockenden with the wire of his headphones while Ockenden was listening to a record, Nilsen insists that he does not remember the exact moment he strangled him, but he recalled dragging him across the floor by the wire of the headphones continuing to strangle him, after he poured himself a glass of rum and continued to listen to music on the headphones he had just used to kill Ockenden.
Nilsen purchased a polaroid camera the next day and started to photograph Ockenden’s body in various suggestive positions, he would lay his corpse spread-eagled above him on his bed as he watched TV for several hours before wrapping the body up in plastic bags and hiding him under the floorboards. Nilsen admitted to revisiting Ockenden’s body on four occasions over the next two weeks, he would seat the body in the armchair alongside him as he watched TV and drank for hours in the evening.
Nilsen attacked 16-year-old Martyn Duffey on 17th May 1980, Duffey had hitchhiked to London without his parent’s knowledge on 13th May 1980, he was questioned by the British Transport Police for evading his train fare and as a result he slept rough for four days near Euston railway station, Nilsen encountered him while he returned from a union conference in Southport. Nilsen recalled that when he found Duffey he was exhausted and hungry, he was happy to accept Nilsen’s offer of a meal and a bed for the evening. While Duffey slept in Nilsen’s bed, Nilsen tied a ligature around his neck, sat on his chest and tightened the ligature. Nilsen held his grip until Duffey was unconscious, he then took him to the kitchen and drowned him in the sink. After, he bathed with the body and recollected that it was “the youngest looking I had ever seen”.
Nilsen expressed affection for Duffey’s body, he placed him on the kitchen chair, then on the bed where he killed him, Nilsen repeatedly kissed, complimented and caressed the body while and after he masturbated on top of the body. He continued this for two days, stowing the body in a cupboard and re-visiting, when he noticed that the body began to bloat, Nilsen said “he went straight under the floorboards”.
As the year went on Nilsen increased his killing drastically, by the end of 1980 he had taken another five victims, his recollections of these murders were vague, but he did remember some details about how long each body was kept before dissection or small details about the victims themselves or as they were murdered. It seems the period after Duffey’s murder was a downward spiral for Nilsen as he seemed to lose control of his need to kill, this coupled with his excessive abuse of alcohol could have caused him to “black-out” and forget or block out some details of what he did.
26-year-old William Sutherland was the only victim identified out of these murders, he was a father-of-one from Edinburgh who occasionally worked as a male prostitute, Nilsen met him near Piccadilly Circus in August 1980, Nilsen did not recall any precise details about how he killed Sutherland, he remembered that he had strangled him as he stood or knelt in front of him, he said the next morning he woke and there was “another dead body”.
In September 1980 Nilsen took the next victim in the string of unidentified bodies, all he could remember about this murder was that he was an Irish labourer with rough hands, he mentioned the man wore an old suit and jacket and that he was around 27 or 30 years old, he met the victim in the Cricklewood Arms, but Nilsen later claimed to have fabricated this murder.
Nielsen’s sixth victim was taken in October 1980, again one of the unidentified bodies was described by Nilsen as a slender Male prostitute, around 5ft 10in, aged between 20 and 30 years old and of Filipino or Mexican descent, Nilsen described the man as having “gypsy-like” features, he encountered this victim in the same way as the others, while drinking alone in bars in the evening, this time he was at the Salisbury Arms.
The next murder in November 1980 was one of the victims from the unidentified bodies of 1980 that seemed to affect Nilsen, he said the victim was a vagrant from England in his 20s. Nilsen encountered him while the man slept in a doorway on Charing Cross Road. The man appeared to be emaciated and pale with several missing teeth, possibly as a result of drugs or just poor hygiene from living on the streets. Nilsen got the man to take a taxi with him back to Melrose Avenue and strangled him while he slept, he recalled vividly how this victim kicked his legs in a circular motion as if he was riding a bike while he was strangled, between 11th and 18th November Nilsen took an absence from work presumably to be with this victim. Nilsen mentioned that he believed this victim’s life had been “one of long suffering” And that the act of killing him had been “as easy as taking candy from a baby”.
The final victim in 1980 was a “long-haired hippy” from England aged between 25 and 30, Nilsen met this victim in the West End after the pubs had closed. It was determined that this murder took place in late 1980 around November or December, he was strangled just like the other victims and his body was kept under the floorboards of the flat until he removed the body and cut it into three pieces, after this he put the cut pieces back under the floorboards for a year and then burned it. This was another victim that Nilsen later claimed to have fabricated.
The accumulation of these bodies under the floorboards started to attract insects and created a foul odour, especially through the summer heat. Nilsen went to visit the bodies after some time under the floorboards and he said that one of the bodies was infested with maggots and pupae, and that one of the victim’s heads had maggots crawling out of the eye sockets and mouths. He started to place deodorants under the floorboards in an attempt to cover up the smell and he sprayed insecticides through the property twice a day to keep the infestation under control, but both the smell and insects remained at the property as the bodies decayed.
Nilsen moved and dissected the bodies of each victim under the floorboards since December 1979 and burnt them on a communal bonfire in late 1980, he built the bonfire on waste ground behind his flat. He tried to cover the smell of burning flesh he put an old tyre on top of the fire. Nilsen wrote in his memoirs about this particular occasion and how neighbourhood children stood to watch the fire, he wrote that he felt it would have seemed “in order” if he had seen the children “dancing around a mass funeral pyre”. Nilsen checked the ashes of the bonfire once it had extinguished to check for any distinguishable bones among the ashes, he noted that a skull was still intact, so he smashed it to pieces with a rake.
On 4th January 1981 Nilsen took his first victim since disposing of the last six bodies, he encountered an unidentified 18-year-old man at the Golden Lion pub in Soho, the man was described a “blue-eyed, young Scot”. Nilsen lured him back to his flat to partake in a drinking contest, the two men continued to drink when they arrived at Nilsen’s property then Nilsen strangled him with a tie. The body was placed under the floorboards, work records from this time show that Nilsen called in to work sick on 12th January 1981, he actually needed the time to dissect this victim.
Nilsen struck again in February 1981, Nilsen didn’t remember much about this victim other than he was in his early 20s, slim, 5ft 9in and originally from Belfast, he again met this victim on the West End when the pubs had closed for the evening, he was strangled with a tie, placed under the floorboards and then dissected. Nilsen reflected casually by saying “End of the day, end of the drink, end of a person…floorboards back, carpet replaced, and back to work on Denmark Street”
It wasn’t until April 1981 that Nilsen struck again and took his eleventh victim, he described this victim as an “English skinhead” in his 20s, Nilsen recalled that the man had a tattoo on his neck that said, “cut here” and he boasted how he liked to fight and that he was tough. The victim remained unidentified and encountered Nilsen at a food stall in Leicester Square. He lured the man back to the flat with the promise of food and alcohol, he was strangled and then his naked torso was hung in Nilsen’s bedroom for 24 hours before being placed under the floorboards. Nilsen later claimed to have also fabricated this victim during confession.
In September 1981 Nilsen took his last victim at the infamous flat 195 Melrose Avenue, on 17th September 1981 Nilsen discovered 23-year-old Malcolm Barlow slumped against the wall outside the flat, he enquired if Barlow was okay and Barlow explained that he was on medication for epilepsy that had cause his legs to weaken, Nilsen helped him into his flat and phoned an ambulance. The next day Barlow returned to Nilsen’s flat to thank him for his help the previous day. Nilsen invited him in for a meal and both began to drink rum and coke, Barlow fell asleep on Nilsen’s sofa and he manually strangled Barlow while he slept. Once he killed Barlow, he stored the body under the kitchen sink the following morning.
The landlord of 195 Melrose Avenue decided to renovate in mid-1981 and asked Nilsen to vacate, he was resistant initially, but accepted a payment of £1,000 from his landlord to vacate. He moved to an attic flat on 5th October 1981, his final address before arrest 23D Cranley Gardens in the Muswell Hill district of North London.
Nilsen burned the bodies he had in under the floorboards on another bonfire that he constructed in his garden the day before he vacated Melrose Avenue, he again made sure he topped the fire with a tyre to hide the smell of burning flesh.
In his new property in Cranley Gardens, Nilsen had no access to a garden as it was an attic flat, because of this he was also unable to hide bodies under the floorboards, for two months after moving in any one that Nilsen lured back with him was not attacked in any way, during this time however he attempted to strangle 19-year-old Paul Nobbs on 23rd November 1981, he refrained himself from completing the murder.
Nilsen met 23-year-old John Howlett when they were both drinking at a pub close to Leicester Square, Nilsen lured him back to his flat on the promise of an evening of drinking. Both watched a film and continued tod drink until Nilsen walked into the front room and fell asleep on Nilsen’s bed that was being kept there, presumably while he continued to move in. Nilsen sat at the edge of the bed and watched Howlett sleep while drinking after failing to wake him up, as he stared at him, he decided to kill him. Howlett fought back ferociously and even attempted to strangle Nilsen in the struggle, but Nilsen eventually overpowered him and strangled him into unconsciousness with an upholstery strap, he said he was left shaking from “the stress of the struggle” as he believed he was going to be overpowered, he attempted to finish his attack on Howlett three times over the next ten minutes, before finally drowning him in the bathtub, Nilsen had Howlett’s fingerprints on his neck for over a week after this murder. With Nilsen’s disposal methods being limited now he dismembered Howlett’s body and flushed portions of flesh and internal organs down the toilet and placed the victim’s bones “out with the bins”.
Nilsen’s next victim managed to survive a night with Nilsen, 21-year-old Carl Sottor as they were both drinking at The Black Cap in Camden, Nilsen and Sottor engaged in conversation, Sottor talked about his depression over a failed relationship then Nilsen invited him back to his flat, although Sottor was homosexual Nilsen assured him that the offer was not sexual. Sottor and Nilsen continued to drink before falling asleep, Sottor awoke later to find Nilsen strangling him and whispering, “stay still”. Nilsen thought he had killed Sottor, but he saw his dog Bleep lick Sottor’s face and realised that he was not dead. Nilsen managed to revive Sottor by rubbing his limbs and heart to increase circulation, he then laid him on the bed and covered him in blankets.
Sottor regained consciousness and Nilsen embraced him, explaining that he had almost strangled himself on the zip of his sleeping bag and that he needed to be resuscitated. Nilsen took care of Sottor as he drifted in and out of consciousness over the next two days, he became strong enough to question the sleeping bag story and Nilsen explained that he had gotten caught in the zip of his sleeping bag following a nightmare, he said he had placed him in cold water claiming he was in shock. After this Nilsen led Sottor to a train station and said goodbye to the youth, telling him that he hoped they met again.
Sottor testified in court and said that he initially believed that Nilsen was trying to free him from the zip of the sleeping bag before he reagained consciousness, he went on to say he remembered hearing “water running” then realised he was immersed in water and that Nilsen was trying to drown him, he said he managed to briefly raise his head above the water and gasp “no more, no more” then Nilsen submerged his head under the water again.
In 1982 Nilsen encountered 27-year-old Graham Allen while he tried to hail a taxi in Shaftesbury Avenue, he offered Allen a meal back at his flat and while he sat at the table eating an omelette that Nilsen made for him, he was strangled. Nilsen said later that he did not recall the exact moment he killed Allen only that he was eating at the table, Allen’s body was retained in the bathtub for three days before Nilsen dissected it on the kitchen floor. On 9th October 1982 Nilsen again called in sick to work in order to complete the dissection of Allen’s body, he then flushed small portions of flesh and small bone fragments down the toilet causing a blockage to the building’s plumbing.
Nilsen took his final victim on 26th January 1983, 20-year-old Stephen Sinclair was walking in the direction of the tube station on Oxford Street with Nilsen when acquaintances last saw him. Sinclair was a heroin addict that often self-harmed. Nilsen bought the youth a hamburger in order to gain his trust before advising him to accompany him to Cranley Gardens. They arrived at Nilsen’s flat and Sinclair injected heroin and consumed alcohol, he then passed out in the arm chair while he and Nilsen listened to the rock opera Tommy, Nilsen approached Sinclair and strangled him with a ligature constructed with a necktie and a rope while saying “Oh Stephen, here I go again”, after killing him Nilsen noticed the bandages on his wrist that covered two deep slash marks from Sinclair’s suicide attempt a few weeks previously.
Nilsen did his usual ritual of bathing the body, he then laid Sinclair’s body on his bed and applied talcum powder to the body. He arranged mirrors around the bed before lying naked alongside Sinclair’s body. Nilsen laid there for hours before turning Sinclair’s head toward him and saying, “Goodnight Stephen” and fell asleep next to his body. Sinclair’s body was dissected, and various dismembered parts were wrapped in plastic bags to be stored in either a wardrobe, a tea chest or within a drawer under the bathtub. Nilsen attempted to flush the flesh, internal organs and smaller bones of Howlett, Allen and Sinclair down the toilet, he also went to boil the heads, hands and feet to remove the flesh off these sections of the bodies.
Interestingly, Nilsen was a factor in the discovery of his murders because on 4th February 1983 Nilsen wrote a letter of complaint to estate agents about the drains being blocked at Cranley Gardens and that the situation was intolerable for him and the other tenants. On 5th February 1983 an acquaintance reported visiting Nilsen and claimed that he had not allowed them to enter the property, the reason being that he had the dismembered body of Sinclair on the kitchen floor.
Following his letter of complaint to estate agents, a Dyno-Rod employee, Michael Cattran came to inspect the sewage problem at Cranley Gardens on 8th February 1983. Cattran opened a drain cover at the side of the building and discovered that the drain was blocked with a flesh-like substance and numerous small bones. The discovery was reported to his supervisor Gary Wheeler who arrived at the property by the evening of 8th February, both decided to postpone any further investigation into the nature of the blockage the following morning.
Just before leaving the property, Cattran spoke to Nilsen and another tenant Jim Allcock, they discussed the source of the substance, Cattran exclaimed to both men that the substance in the drain resembled human flesh to which Nilsen chillingly replied, “It looks to me like someone has been flushing down their Kentucky Fried Chicken”.
Both Dyno-Rod employees returned to 23 Cranley Gardens at 7:30am the following morning, the drain had been cleared by now and this aroused suspicion with Cattran and his supervisor. Scraps of flesh and four bones were found in the pipe leading from a drain which linked to the top flat of the house, Dennis Nilsen’s attic flat. The bones found looked like they could be from a human hand, so both men phoned the police immediately, they inspected further and found some more small bones and discovered that the flesh looked either human or animal.
The remains were taken to the mortuary at Hornsey to be examined by pathologist Professor David Bowen, he advised police that the remains were definitely human, and that one particular piece of flesh had been from a human neck and bore a ligature mark consistent with strangulation.
The police learned from other tenants at the flats of 23 Cranley Gardens that the tenant in the attic flat was Dennis Andrew Nilsen, and that he worked in the job centre in Kentish Town. Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay and two colleagues decided to wait outside 23 Cranley Gardens until Nilsen returned from work, when Nilsen arrived the police explained they had come to enquire about the blockage at Cranley Gardens, Nilsen asked why the police were interested in the drains and if two of the officers with DCI Jay were health inspectors, Jay informed Nilsen that the other two were also police officers and asked for access to his flat to discuss it further.
The odour of rotting flesh was immediately noted by the officers upon entry to the flat, Nilsen continued to ask why the police were interested in the drains and he was informed the blockage had been caused by human remains, Nilsen replied to this by feigning shock and saying, “Good grief, hoe awful!” to which DCI Jay replied “Don’t mess about, where’s the rest of the body?”. Upon hearing this Nilsen calmly admitted that the rest of the body could be found in two plastic bags in a wardrobe in the flat, the officers noted that an “overpowering smell of decomposition” had been coming from the wardrobe.
The officers did not open the cupboard, but they asked Nilsen whether there were any other body parts to be found in the flat, Nilsen replied “It’s a long story; it goes back a long time. I’ll tell you everything. I want to get it off my chest. Not here- at the police station”. Nilsen was then arrested and cautioned on suspicion of murder and taken to Hornsey Police Station, as he was escorted by the police officers, they asked whether the remains had been from one person or two, Nilsen blankly stared out of the car window and replied, “15 or 16, since 1978”.
The plastic bag containing remains were removed from the wardrobe in Cranley Gardens that evening and taken to Hornsey Mortuary, one bag contained two dissected torsos, one had been vertically dissected and a shopping bag was found containing internal organs, the second plastic bag in the wardrobe contained a human skull almost completely devoid of flesh, a severed head and a torso with arms attached but hands missing. Both heads had evidence that they had been subjected to moist heat, from Nilsen boiling the head.
Nilsen confessed there were further human remains hidden in a tea chest in his living room, with other remains inside an upturned drawer in his bathroom, this confession was recorded in interviews conducted on 10th February 1983. The remains he was referring to were revealed to be from three men, all of whom had died from strangulation, usually a tie. Nilsen couldn’t name one victim, one was known as “John the Guardsman” and the other was identified as Stephen Sinclair, he went on to state that from December 1978 he had killed “12 or 13” men at his former address, he also admitted to attempting to kill another seven men, saying they had either escaped, or the one occasion where he had revived and released one victim.
Further searches were conducted on 23 Cranley Gardens on 10th February 1983 also, it revealed a lower section of a torso and two legs stowed in a bag in the bathroom, a skull, another section of a different torso and various other bones in the tea chest. Later on, Nilsen accompanied police to his old address in Melrose Avenue, he indicated the three locations in the rear garden where he burned the remains of his victims, investigators found over 1,000 bone fragments in the ground at Melrose Avenue, many of them were charred and blackened by Nilsen’s bonfires.
On the same day that additional remains were uncovered from Cranley Gardens the plumber who responded and reported the discovery in the drains Michael Cattran contacted the Daily Mirror informing them of the ongoing search for human remains. The newspaper published the first information about the case on 10th February, but Cattran’s revelations sparked a national media interest in the unfolding events with the case. On 11th February 1983 reporters from the Daily Mirror had obtained photos of Nilsen from his mother in Aberdeenshire, they appeared on the front page of the paper the following day.
The police now had 48 hours to charge Nilsen or they had to release him, in the 48 hours they reassembled the remains of the victims found in Cranley Gardens, they did this on the floor of Hornsey Mortuary, Professor David Bowen was able to confirm from this and fingerprints matching police files that one victim found was Stephen Sinclair. On 11th February 1983 at 5:40pm Nilsen was charged with the murder of Stephen Sinclair and a statement confirming this was then released to the press.
That same evening the formal questioning of Nilsen began, for this Nilsen agreed to be represented by a solicitor after previously declining the facility, the police totalled 16 separate interviews, equalling 30 hours-worth of questions over the following days. Nilsen answered the questions and he was adamant that he had no idea why he had killed, he said “I’m hoping you will tell me that” he insisted that any decision to kill was made just moments before the act of murder.
The full extent of his ritual was revealed through interviews, in most cases the victims were killed by strangulation, some of the victims had been drowned after being strangled into unconsciousness. When the victims were dead, he would bathe them, shave their torsos, and applied make-up to any blemishes on the skin. They would usually be re-dressed in pants and socks, then he would drape the victims around him and talked to them. He would also masturbate as he stood alongside or knelt above the body, he confessed to also having intercrural sex with some victims adding that his victims were “too perfect and beautiful for the pathetic ritual of commonplace sex”.
Nilsen destroyed all of the victim’s personal possessions after his post mortem ritual, this was an effort to wipe their identity, making them a “prop” as Nilsen called them in his fantasies. Nilsen recalled being emotional in the period where he would talk to the victims, he mentioned one victim in particular Kenneth Ockenden and noted “his body and skin were very beautiful” and that “the sight almost brought me to tears”, he also mentioned another victim that was unidentified was so emaciated that he simply discarded the remains under the floorboards.
The questioning moved on to why the heads that were found at Cranley Gardens showed signs of moist heat, Nilsen confirmed that he frequently did this in a large cooking pot on his stove so that the internal contents of the head would evaporate, eliminating the need to dispose of brain and flesh.
The disposal method of the internal organs and soft tissue down the toilet, which lead to his arrest was the only method he could think of to dispose of these, he explained that unlike at Melrose Avenue he did not have exclusive use of the garden. As a result, Nilsen kept the bodies at Melrose Avenue for much long before disposal and would keep more bodies at this address, saying he kept “three to four under the floorboards” before he would begin dissection, he would them wrap the dismembered pieces wrapped in plastic bags and return them under the floorboards, but in two instances, the victims Kenneth Ockenden and Martyn Duffey were placed in the suitcases and stored in a shed in the rear garden, until Nilsen made his second bonfire to dispose of the bodies. Nilsen confirmed that he had removed the accumulated bodies from under the floorboards and dissected the remains on four occasions, on three occasions he then disposed of the remains upon the bonfire. Nilsen also mentioned that he would remove the internal organs from the victims’ bodies and placed them in bags to be thrown over a fence for the wildlife to eat.
All of the bodies from Melrose Avenue were stored for several weeks or even months under the floorboards and Nilsen recalled the putrefaction of these bodies made the task “vile”, he said he would drink whiskey to calm his nerves and having to grab handfuls of salt to brush away the maggots from the remains, he admitted that the act often made him vomit. Despite his initial repulsion he also admitted to masturbating over the dismembered remains as he knelt or sat alongside the corpse, he stated this was his “symbolic gesture of saying goodbye to his victims”.
Nilsen was also asked in the questioning whether he had any remorse for his crimes, he replied “I wished I could stop, but I couldn’t. I had no other thrill or happiness” and emphasised that he did not enjoy killing, but “worshipped the art and the act of death”.
Nilsen was transferred to Brixton Prison that evening to be held on remand until his trial, he said that his mood was “one of resignation and relief” on the way to the prison and believed that he would be viewed as innocent until proven guilty.
On 26th May 1983 Nilsen was committed to stand trial at the Old Bailey on five counts of murder and two of attempted murder, a sixth murder charge was later added. Nilsen was represented throughout his committal hearing by a solicitor Ronald Moss, after initially dismissing his representation on 21st April, Moss was reappointed after Nilsen had complained to magistrates that he had been afforded no facilities with which he could mount his own defence. This went on several times during Nilsen’s case Moss remained as legal representative until July 1983 when Nilsen decided to defend himself once again and dismissed Moss, he returned as legal representative on 5th August 1983.
Nilsen started acting out while on remand, he threatened to walk around naked in protest of his remand conditions, as a result he was put on cellular confinement. He was confined until 1st August 1983 and on this day, he threw the contents of his chamber pot out of his cells aiming and hitting several prison officers, after this incident Nilsen was charged with assaulting prison officers and found guilty on 9th August 1983, he spent 56 days in solitary confinement as a result of this charge.
Nilsen had intended to plead guilty to each charge in the upcoming trial initially, and with Nilsen’s full consent Moss began to prepare a defence, but five weeks before Nilsen dismissed him for another solicitor Ralph Haeems, his advice was that Nilsen agree to plead guilty by diminished responsibility.
The trial of Dennis Nilsen began on 24th October 1983, he faced six counts of murder and two attempted murder, the trial was held at Old Bailey before Mr Justice Croom-Johnson. It started with the chief administrator of the court whether he entered a plea of guilty or not guilty for each charge, he entered a plea of not guilty, after he entered the plea the jury was sworn into the courtroom.
The dispute between prosecution and defence was Nilsen’s state of mind during and after the murders rather than whether he had actually killed. The prosecuting counsel Allan Green argued that Nilsen was in fact sane, in full control of his actions and murdered with premeditation, while the defence counsel Ivan Lawrence argued that Nilsen suffered from diminished responsibility, and that he was unable to form the intention to commit murder and should be convicted of manslaughter instead of murder.
The prosecution opened the case for the crown by describing the events of the day they discovered the remains at Cranley Gardens and the arrest of the defendant, the discovery of three dismembered bodies in the property, his confession and how Nilsen took them to the charred remains of the victims killed at Melrose Avenue, and all the efforts Nilsen put into concealing his crimes. To close his argument Allan Green quoted what Nilsen had said to officers after his arrest, “At the precise moment of the act, I believe I am right in doing the act” and then added “The Crown says that even if there was a mental abnormality, that was not sufficient to diminish substantially his responsibility for these killings”.
The first witness to testify was Douglas Stewart a young man who escaped Nilsen in November 1980, he awoke in Nilsen’s flat to find his ankles bound and Nilsen straddling him, Stewart successfully overpowered Nilsen and in the struggle, Nilsen shouted, “Take my money!”. The prosecution used this to argue Nilsen’s rational state of mind as he was aware that other tenants may be able to overhear. Stewart reported the incident to police after he left Nilsen’s flat and they did question Nilsen and noted the conflicting details that both men gave and dismissed it as a “lovers’ quarrel”. The defence cross-examined Stewart and tried to undermine his credibility. Pointing to minor inconsistencies in his testimony, the fact that he had consumed alcohol on the night he met Nilsen and the suggestion that his memories could be magnified due to the fact Stewart had previously sold the story to the press.
The following day, 25th October 1983 the court heard from another two men who had survived attempts by Nilsen to strangle them, the first was Paul Nobbs, he was a university student when he met Nilsen and testified that he accompanied Nilsen back to his flat for alcohol and sex and woke in the early hours with “a terrible headache”, he washed his face and noticed his eyes were bloodshot and his face was red, when he saw Nilsen he reportedly told him “God! You look bloody awful!” and advised the youth to see a doctor. The prosecution used Nobbs’ testimony to show Nilsen’s self-control and the ability to stop his homicidal impulses, but the defence asserted that Nobbs’ testimony showed Nilsen’s rational self, struggling not to act on his impulses.
Carl Sottor was next to take the stand and recounted his time in Nilsen’s flat in May 1982, in which Nilsen strangled, drowned and resuscitated him, during the testimony Sottor’s voice would frequently quaver with emotion as he recalled the incident, so much so that the judge had to allow him time to compose himself and continue speaking. The evidence that Sottor gave was not included as part of the indictment against Nilsen because Sottor’s whereabouts were not known until after the indictment had been completed.
The arresting officer DCI Peter Jay recounted the events of Nilsen’s arrest next, he mentioned Nilsen’s “calm, matter-of-fact” confessions, then he read several of Nilsen’s statements given after his arrest one said, “I have no tears for my victims; I have no tears for myself, nor those bereaved by my actions” Jay told the court how he noted this to be strange as anyone who is convicted for crimes such as these to be forthcoming with information. Upon questioning by the defence counsel, he conceded that Nilsen provide most of the evidence against himself and encouraged the discovery of further evidence that could contradict his own version of events. DS Chambers followed DCI Jay and read Nilsen’s formal confession to the court, this included graphic descriptions of the ritualistic and sexual acts Nilsen performed on his victims’ bodies, his methods of storing remains, the dismemberment, disposal, and problems with decomposition such as maggot colonies. The jury was visibly shaken by this statement and some looked over at Nilsen in disgust, Nilsen sat listening to this with indifference on his face. The following morning the prosecution included several exhibits into evidence including the cooking pot he used to boil heads, a cutting board he used to dissect John Howlett and several rusted carving knives, which had previously belonged to Martyn Duffey.
Two psychiatrists testified on behalf of the defence, Dr James MacKeith was first to give his testimony on 26th October 1983, he testified that a lack of emotional development had made it difficult for Nilsen to express any emotion other than anger, and as tendency to treat other human beings as components of his fantasies, Dr MacKeith also described Nilsen’s association between unconscious bodies and sexual arousal, stating that Nilsen had an impaired sense of identity and was able to depersonalise other people due to narcissistic traits that he possessed. Concluding his testimony, he said Nilsen displayed signs of maladaptive behaviour that could be attributed to an unspecified personality disorder that Dr MacKeith believed he suffered. Prosecution contended that an unspecified personality disorder diagnosis showed Dr MacKeith was undecided in his conclusions on Nilsen, Dr MacKeith then contended that this unspecified personaily disorder was severe enough to reduce Nilsen’s responsibility.
A second psychiatrist testified for the defence, the psychiatrist Dr Patrick Gallwey diagnosed Nilsen with a “borderline, false-self as is pseudo normal, narcissistic personality disorder” adding that he suffered occasional schizoid disturbances that he could manage most of the time, he stated that in the episodic breakdowns, Nilsen became predominately schizoid and acted impulsively, these episodes being further aggravated by Nilsen’s lifestyle in social isolation and heavy drinking, he argued that because of this Nilsen was not guilty of “malice aforethought”. Upon cross examination focused on Nilsen’s degree of awareness and ability to make decisions during the murders and conceded that Nilsen was intellectually aware of his actions, but due to his personality disorder he did not appreciate the nature of his action, thus explaining his indifference and lack of emotion to his victims, their loved ones and the end of his own life through being caught.
On 31st October 1983 the prosecution called their psychologist Dr Paul Bowden to testify in rebuttal of the psychiatrists that testified for the defence. Dr Bowden interviewed Nilsen 16 separate times before the trial and in court he testified that he found Nilsen to be abnormal in a colloquial sense, stating Nilsen was a manipulative person who was capable mentally of forming relationships, but chose to objectify people, he further said in contradiction to the defence’s psychiatrists that Nilsen displayed no signs of maladaptive behaviour and that Nilsen suffered no disorder of the mind.
On 3rd November 1983 the court hear both the prosecution and the defence’s closing arguments and the jury retired to consider their verdict. On 4th November 1983 the jury returned with a majority verdict of guilty upon six counts of murder and the attempted murder of Paul Nobbs, Nilsen was sentenced to life imprisonment with a recommendation that he serve a minimum of 25 years.
After the sentencing Nilsen was transferred to Wormwood Scrubs to begin his sentence, he was detained as a Category A prisoner, assigned his own cell and could mix freely with other inmates. Nilsen did not lodge any appeals to his sentence and accepted the Crown case that he had the capacity to control his actions and that he killed with premeditation, he elaborated on this on the day of his conviction saying he “took an enormous thrill from the social seduction, the getting the friend back, the decision to kill, the body and its disposal” he went on to claim further that his drunkenness was the only reason at least two of his attempted murders were unsuccessful.
Nilsen started to become a target in prison for his notoriety, in December 1983 he was attacked by an inmate named Albert Moffat, Moffat cut Nilsen on the face and chest with a razor blade resulting in Nilsen needing 89 stitches, after this incident he was transferred to Parkhurst Prison then to Wakefield Prison, he remained here until 1990. He was again transferred in 1991 because of concerns for his safety, he was held in a vulnerable-prisoner unit at Full Sutton Prison. In 1993 he was moved again to Whitemoor Prison, he was again detained as category A prisoner, but in this prison, he had increased segregation from other inmates.
In December 1994 Nilsen’s initial 25-year sentence was replaced by a whole life tariff by the Home Secretary at the time Michael Howard, the new tariff meant that Nilsen would never be released from prison, he accepted this punishment.
In 2003 Nilsen was transferred for a last time to HMP Full Sutton, he remained here as a Category A prisoner and worked in the prison workshop translating books into braille, much of his free time was sent writing painting and composing music as well as corresponding with various people who wished to contact him.
Nilsen died on 12th May 2018 after being taken to York Hospital on 10th May 2018 complaining of stomach pains, he suffered a blood clot as a result of surgery complications, which lead to his death. After his death several of the items presented in trial have been displayed at New Scotland Yard’s Black Museum, the exhibit includes the stove he boiled the heads of his final three victims on, the knives he used to dissect the bodies, the headphones he had used to strangle Kenneth Ockenden, the ligature that he made for his final victim and the bath from his Cranley Garden address he used to drown John Howlett and retain the body of Graham Allen for dissection.
Nilsen has been described as a killer that doesn’t necessarily fall into one single psychological category, he was a narcissist and like most people with a narcissistic personality he was in conflict with his own self hatred. In cases of narcissistic personality disorder the causes are often environment (family imbalances, too much praise/not enough praise), genetics (mental illnesses in family) or neuro-biological conditions that would affect the brain’s connection with behaviour and thinking. In Nilsen’s case it was his environment that aggravated his narcissistic personality, initially the trigger was the death of his father figure and hero, when he lost his grandfather he was young with no understanding of the concept of death and loss, so when his mother just showed him the body with no real explanation it stirred up feelings, for the first time he would have seen that his grandfather is gone and seeing his protector in such a vulnerable state made him feel vulnerable and unprotected, so as a defence mechanism he thought the way to overcome his this vulnerability was through dominance and thus began his interest in the dead that later grew into an interest in complete control of his victims’ bodies when he had murdered them.
In the physical acts of murder and torture Nilsen inflicted on his victims you can see the self-hatred Nilsen really feels, the attitude his family had toward homosexuality played a big part in his self-hatred because he desperately wanted the adoration of his family for so long in his youth, although when he grew up and cut them off after an argument with them over gay rights, the feelings of inadequacy in the eyes of his family stayed with him and affected forever how he viewed his sexuality, this is seen in the fact he would drown and “save” his victims from drowning is like he is making the victims mimic his trauma and become surrogates for himself, and then killing them in such a personal way as strangulation, is like he’s trying to kill himself with every victim he took, as a narcissist he would have had suicidal tendencies, but would be too scared to go through with it, so that’s why he chose young and often homosexual men to fit his sexual fantasies and his fantasies of death.