In the late seventies and early eighties, a stalker named Dennis Nilsen prowled the streets and bars of London, in search of young, vulnerable men and boys. Lured back to his flat with the promise of food, alcohol and shelter, once his victims settled in comfortably, Dennis Nilsen would strike, strangling the young men before molesting their carefully positioned dead bodies.
For those familiar with true crime, Dennis Nilsen’s shocking crimes bear eerily similar to USA killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s, minus the cannibalism. On the outside Dennis Nilsen appeared a non descriptive, bespectacled and slim man, hardly the type to feel much danger about going home with. But on the inside he was a monster, obsessed with enjoying the immobilized bodies of his dead victims.
In true crime popular literature and media, Dennis Nilsen is commonly referred to as the ‘Company Killer’, described as a lonely man who killed then molested the dead bodies of young men as he didn’t want them to leave him. But this type of label downplays the sick brutality of his crimes. Three of Dennis Nilsen’s victims were teenagers, and all of his victims he killed were sexually molested after death, except for one, who Dennis claimed to have killed because the man ‘annoyed him’ and had followed him home after a nights drinking.
Dennis admitted to pleasuring himself over fantasies of immobilized men for years prior to the murders and had even put make up on himself to appear dead and pleasured himself over his own reflection. Dennis might, as he claims, have ‘gently’ bathed the bodies after killing his victims, but let’s not forget he not only murdered these young men and violated their dead bodies, but also dismembered and disposed of their remains in bonfires and down his sink.
Dennis specifically targeted attractive young males, who’d fallen on hard times and led somewhat transient lifestyles. By killing these men Dennis could not only live out his sick fantasies, but also have power and control over the type of male he perhaps felt in ordinary life was unobtainable to him.
Kenneth Ockenden, Billy Sutherland and Stephen Holmes
One of the biggest tragedies of the case is that some of the victims have never been identified. In a time when open homosexuality could still lead to significant social ostracization, this social climate could have played a factor in the transient lifestyle some of Dennis’s victims lead, making these men vulnerable to this dangerous predator. Paul Nobbs, aged 19, when attacked by Dennis, felt the police would have written it off as a domestic squabble, common at the time if a gay man was assaulted by another gay male and tried to report the crime. Another victim, Douglas Stewart, who was not gay, did try report Dennis to the police, but claims the police never contacted him back.
I began my journey by taking the tube and bus to Muswell Hill in North London. The white house on Melrose Avenue, Cricklewood where Dennis’s first eight murders occurred still stands today. A sunny mid autumn afternoon, I could hear the shouts of children playing in the large park nearby, giving the street a nice family feel. I wondered how Dennis’s victims might have felt as he lead them towards the tall white house, did they feel any slight sense of apprehension, the way most people would before going to a strangers house? Perhaps alcohol or drugs blurred their inhibitions and they’d been thinking only of a meal, drinks, a possible sexual encounter and a warm bed to sleep.
The second part of my trip was to visit Piccadilly circus, Soho and Charring Cross Road, all spots were Dennis had cruised for and picked up victims. After a quick visit to Piccadilly circus, I headed down the bustling streets of Soho (these days more hipster swagger than greasy spoon charm), towards the Golden Lion Pub. Dennis had bought one of his victims a hamburger at an Oxford St McDonald’s before taking him back to his place. So my next stop was to head towards the Oxford St McDonald’s near Shaftesbury St to buy a hamburger.
Taking the tube from the Leicester Station, arriving at Cranley Gardens, the sweet smell of fresh air hit my nose as I walked up the hill. The walk to the house from the tube station took about 15 minutes, but would have been shorter if I hadn’t needed to stop and ask for directions. The friendly people I asked all seemed to have a look of faint amusement, as if the whereabouts of this particular address was a common query.
Reaching the notorious former murder flat, I stood outside the Victorian/Tudor style white building. Compared to the other neatly kept sections, the property had a slightly scruffy look to it. Standing outside and thinking of the horrors committed there, it was a bit hard not to imagine a disgusting smell of rotting corpses wafting out.
It was the foul stench and body parts clogging up drain pipes that became Dennis Nilsen’s downfall. After neighbors complained about the smell and had trouble flushing their toilets, a plumber was brought in, unable to fix the job himself, he called in a specialist company for unblocking drains. The specialist, recognizing the sludge as dissolved body parts, called the police. Confronted by police, Dennis Nilsen confessed and remains imprisoned for his crimes, serving a full life sentence with no possibility of release.
List of Dennis Nilsen’s known victims:
Stephen Dean Holmes (Aged 14).
Andrew Ho – Young student from Hong Kong, victim of attempted murder; Kenneth Ockenden (Aged 26).
Martyn Duffy (Aged 16); William ‘Billy’ Sutherland (Aged 27); Unidentified male prostitute from the Philippines or Thailand; Unidentified young Irish man Dennis Nilsen met at a bar; Unidentified young man, Dennis Nilsen unable to recall further details; Douglas Stewart, victim of attempted murder; Unidentified young man Dennis Nilsen found sleeping in a Charing Cross doorway.
Unidentified young Scottish man Dennis Nilsen met at the Golden Lion pub in Soho; Unidentified young man from Scotland; Unidentified young British skinhead man Dennis Nilsen met in Piccadilly Circus; Malcolm Barlow (Aged 24); Paul Nobbs (Aged 19 at time of attack) victim of attempted murder; Toshimitsu Ozawa (aged ??); John Howlett (Aged 23); Carl Stotter (Aged 21 at time of attack) victim of attempted murder.
Graham Allan (Aged 27).
Steven Sinclair (Aged 20).
Sources of information:
Cawthorne Nigel (2014) Bodies in the Back Garden: True Stories of Brutal Murders Close to Home. London. John Blake Publishing.
Masters, Brian (1995) Killing for Company. United Kingdom. Arrow Books.
Wilson, David (2007) Serial Killers Hunting Britons and their Victims. 1960 – 2006. Winchester. Waterside Press.