Sunday, May 20, 2018

Dennis Nilsen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer

Zoë Sharp

May 12th 2018 saw the death in prison of notorious British serial killer, Dennis Nilsen.
Dennis Nilsen in 1993
For those of you who don't know the story, Nilsen was arrested in February 1983 and eventually convicted of killing six men between December 1978 and January 1983. It is thought he actually murdered as many as fifteen, mostly homeless young homosexuals, who he lured back to his home and strangled, drowned or hanged.

Born in Fraserburgh in November 1945, from all accounts Nilsen had a relatively happy and stable childhood. The son of an Aberdeenshire woman and a Norwegian soldier who had travelled to Scotland to fight with the Free Norwegian Forces.

Nilsen, together with his older brother and younger sister, saw little of his father during his childhood. The couple divorced when he was three, but the young Dennis had a close relationship with his maternal grandfather and was apparently devastated when the old man died of while out on his trawler in 1951, when Nilsen was only six.

At puberty, he claims he began to realise his homosexuality and was mocked by his older brother. His mother remarried and had another four children with her second husband, but it is reported that, after a rocky start, Nilsen got on well with his stepfather.

He joined the army in 1961 as a member of the catering corps. During his military service, he was posted overseas to West Germany, Cyprus, Norway and South Yemen. While in Aden, he witnessed the deaths of fellow soldiers in ambushes and was kidnapped by a local taxi driver, who beat him unconscious and put him in the boot of the car. Nilsen fought back and survived the attack.

Nilsen in the army catering corps
It was in Aden that Nilsen claimed to have had his first sexual relationship, with an Arab youth. He also stated that he began to fantasise about having sex with a partner who was either unconscious or dead. He experimented with female prostitutes while serving in Berlin but apparently was not impressed by the experience.

Nilsen left the army in 1972 and lived back at home with his family briefly, before deciding to join the Metropolitan Police. He moved to London to begin training and was posted to Willesden Green station the following year. When his father died, leaving him a small legacy, Nilsen decided to resign from the police and became a civil servant in May 1974. He worked at two employment centres, where his main task was to find employment for unskilled labourers.

In November 1975, Nilsen helped prevent a 20-year-old man, David Gallichan, being beaten up outside a pub and took him back to his room in Cricklewood, where Nilsen learned that Gallichan was gay and unemployed. The two decided to look for a flat together almost at once, and moved into the ground floor of a property in Melrose Avenue in Cricklewood, where they also had exclusive use of the garden.

The two London properties: Melrose Ave (l) and Cranley Gardens, where Nilsen's crimes took place.
The pair redecorated the property, with Gallichan doing much of the work while Nilsen was the breadwinner. For a while the couple appeared contented, but the relationship began to show signs of strain, and in 1977 Gallichan moved out.

Nilsen admitted to loneliness and excessive drinking. On December 30th 1978, he encountered 14-year-old Stephen Holmes in a local pub, where the youngster had been attempting to buy alcohol. Nilsen invited him back to Melrose Avenue, where the two drank heavily. The following morning, Nilsen woke to find Holmes asleep on his bed and claimed he was frightened the youth would leave him alone over New Year. He strangled Holmes unconscious and drowned him in a bucket of water, then hid him under the floorboards for eight months. Eventually, Nilsen burned the body on a bonfire in the garden in August 1979.

In October 1979, Nilsen attempted to strangle a Hong Kong student named Andrew Ho, who had gone back to Nilsen’s flat for sex. Ho managed to escape and Nilsen was questioned by the police, but Ho did not press charges.

In December 1979, Nilsen met Canadian student Kenneth Ockenden in another pub. The Student was on a tour of England, and Nilsen offered to show him the sights before inviting him back to Melrose Avenue. Nilsen claimed he did not remember exactly when he strangled Ockenden, using the wire from a pair of headphones while Ockenden listened to music. Afterwards, he photographed the body in various poses before bagging it up and hiding it under the floorboards.

Several times over the next few weeks, Nilsen retrieved Ockenden’s corpse and sat next to it watching TV and drinking.

Some of the police evidence against Nilsen, including knives, ligatures, and the cooking pot in which he removed flesh from body parts.
In May 1980, Nilsen met 16-year-old Martyn Duffey, a catering student who was sleeping rough near Euston Station after hitchhiking to London from Birkenhead. Duffey was tempted back to Nilsen’s flat by the offer of food and a bed for the night, at which point Nilsen strangled him with a ligature while sitting on his chest, and then drowned him in the kitchen sink. He bathed with the body, moved it around the house, and then kept it in a cupboard before stowing it, yet again, under the floorboards.

Nilsen killed again in August, and again every month until February 1981, although only one of these victims was identified—26-year-old William Sutherland. Using some of the butchery skills Nilsen had learned during his army catering career, began dissecting the bodies and disposing of the parts on regular bonfires in the garden, adding old car tyres to try to disguise the smell of burning flesh. Indeed, the flat itself was starting to smell by this point, and Nilsen reportedly had to spray constantly to try to get rid of the insect infestation caused by the decomposing bodies.

In September 1981 Nilsen found 23-year-old Malcolm Barlow slumped against a wall outside Melrose Avenue. He called an ambulance for Barlow, who was released from hospital the following day and called round to thank him. After plying Barlow with food and drink, Nilsen manually strangled him and hid the body under the kitchen sink—presumably, there was no more room under the floorboards.

In mid-1981, Nilsen’s landlord required him to move out so renovations could be carried out on the property. The day before, Nilsen got rid of the parts of his last five victims on his final bonfire, again topped with car tyres.

Police searching the rear garden at Melrose Ave
Nilsen moved to a top-floor flat at Cranley Gardens in Muswell Hill in September 1981. Here, he had no under-floor hiding space and no garden access, so for two months he tried not to kill any of his visitors. Then in November 1981 he attempted to strangle 19-year-old student, Paul Nobbs, but did not kill him.

In March 1982, he brought 23-year-old John Howlett back to the flat and, when Howlett fell asleep on Nilsen’s bed and could not be roused, Nilsen attempted to strangle him with an upholstery strap. This caused a huge struggle, during which Howlett almost succeeded in strangling Nilsen before being overpowered himself, although not killed. Nilsen later finished Howlett off in a bath full of water.

He tried to kill 21-year-old Carl Stottor by strangling and drowning him, but Stottor survived. Nilsen convinced the youth that he had become entangled in the zip of his sleeping bag during a nightmare, and that Nilsen had revived him.

In September 1982, Nilsen met 27-year-old Graham Allen while hailing a taxi. Invited back to Muswell Hill for a meal, Nilsen strangled Allen while he was eating an omelette Nilsen had prepared for him, then stored his body in the bath for three days before dissecting him on the kitchen floor.

Nilsen’s final victim was 20-year-old Stephen Sinclair, strangled with a tie-and-rope ligature when he fell asleep listening to rock opera in Nilsen’s flat after heavy drinking in January 1983. Nilsen slept alongside the body before dissecting it, storing various parts in plastic bags about the flat. As with the previous victims at this address, he tried to dispose of some bits by flushing them down the toilet, even boiling the hands and heads to remove the flesh.

Inevitably, this method of disposal played havoc with the drains. In February 1983 Nilsen wrote to the letting agent to complain that the drains at Cranley Gardens were blocked. When Dyno-Rod were called in, they discovered human flesh and small bones. The police were called in and the remains traced to the pipes leading from the top-floor flat. One of the small pieces of skin recovered revealed evidence of a ligature mark.

Dennis Nilsen under arrest in 1983
Nilsen was quickly arrested after body parts were discovered still in plastic bags in his flat. He confessed to the killings and was initially charged with the murder of Stephen Sinclair. Other charges followed—another five counts of murder and two of attempted murder. Nilsen was convicted at the Old Bailey in November 1983 and sentenced to a minimum of 25 years. This was replaced by a whole-life tariff by the Home Secretary in 1994, a punishment Nilsen apparently accepted.

He died in HMP Full Sutton in Yorkshire, aged 72.

This week’s Word of the Week is sanguinary, meaning involving or causing much bloodshed, bloodthirsty, or flowing or stained with blood. From the Latin sanguinarius, meaning bloody, from which we get exanguination, a severe loss of blood. Not to be confused with sanguine, meaning cheerfully optimistic, hopeful or confident.

Zoë’s upcoming CrimeFest events:


  1. Zoe, I confess that could not read past the second murder description. Too gruesome. Too painful. Too tortured.

    I do like the posters, though. And I would love to have been there for your panels. Your wit under pressure would have made me laugh as you always do.

    1. You were sadly missed, Annamaria. Jeff did his best to fill your shoes, but it just wasn't the same.

  2. Interesting that he was the one who complained about the drains, although he was clogging them up himself... Very sickening indeed...

    1. I get the impression he added his voice to the complaints rather than was the instigator of them, but stranger things have happened. The usual cry of the crime writer at that point is: "If I put that in a book, nobody would believe it!"

  3. Jeff walking around in my shoes. Now that would be a feat!

  4. Not to be indelicate, but was he also a necrophiliac? You wrote early in the article that he was interested in having sex with sleeping or the dead. So was he able to make his dream come through?
    Also, no wonder the landlord wanted to do a bit of re-decorating-he was either grateful his tenant did not complain about the smell or bugs or he thought the tenant was just filthy.

  5. Brochers eh! (Someone from Fraserburgh).

    I think the disbelief part of stories like this are that we would never think of doing anything like this, so would never believe someone else could possibly be so "evil" . Crazy story that he was able to get away with it for so long, especially with some surviving. Could the lack of charges against him from survivors be because of the stigma of homosexuality at the time meaning they were ashamed and therefore didnt want to press charges? Sad if so.

    Thanks for telling this story ��