Of all the killers I’ve seen, none seemed so chillingly ‘normal’ as Dennis Nilsen: Veteran crime reporter NEIL DARBYSHIRE came face to face with many murderers, but one above all disturbs him still… and he’s been brought uncannily back to life on TV
The most remarkable thing about Dennis Andrew Nilsen was that he appeared so thoroughly unremarkable.
In the Old Bailey’s Court No 1 on the first day of his trial, he looked exactly what he was, a smartly dressed junior civil servant with a flat in the London suburbs and a dog. He was the man you saw in the bus queue or at the Post Office and vaguely registered but didn’t really notice.
With large, wire-rimmed glasses, sports jacket, slacks and tie (an accessory that would assume more sinister overtones later, when it was revealed to be his murder weapon of choice), he was the faceless man in the crowd.
The most remarkable thing about Dennis Andrew Nilsen (pictured) was that he appeared so thoroughly unremarkable
The less ordinary thing about him, of course, is that he was a serial murderer. As the trial days passed, he listened attentively but dispassionately as the full enormity of his crimes was laid out before the jury. It was almost as if they had been committed by someone else.
In police interviews he claimed not to remember killing some of his victims. Of one he said: ‘In the morning he was lying on the bed, fully clothed. He was dead. I came to the conclusion that I had killed him.’
In more than a decade as a crime correspondent, first on the London Evening Standard then The Daily Telegraph, I had the opportunity to observe a good many killers at close quarters across various courtrooms.
Terrorists with icy contempt for British justice; men who could blow up women and children or put a gun to a man’s head and blow out his brains, yet claim a spurious legitimacy because of their political cause.
Scary, malevolent gangsters who had eliminated rivals, or disobedient subordinates, or simply those unlucky enough to have got in their way. All bravado and muscular defiance.
In his ordinariness, Nilsen, who died at HMP Full Sutton near York in 2018, was perhaps the most unnerving of all. A monster in plain sight. Pictured: David Tennant playing Nilsen
Then there were the serial killers, those for whom murder was a way of life. The brooding, saturnine Peter Sutcliffe, aka the Yorkshire Ripper, who claimed to hear the voice of God telling him to kill and mutilate women.
Grinning, twitching Stockwell Strangler Kenneth Erskine who had a mental age of 11. He murdered at least seven elderly men and women in their homes, before doing unspeakable things to their corpses.
Sometimes he would fall asleep in court. An unscientific judgment it may be, but Erskine gave every impression of being stark raving mad.
Rose West by contrast, looked almost bored in the dock as the Crown detailed the reign of terror she exerted with her husband Fred at 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester. The only time her mask slipped was after conviction, when she had a screaming fit as she was taken down to the cells.
These killers were all unnerving in their different ways. But in his ordinariness, Nilsen, who died at HMP Full Sutton near York in 2018, was perhaps the most unnerving of all. A monster in plain sight.
After telling police he had strangled most of his victims with a tie, he said: ‘I think I started off with about 15 ties, now I’ve only got one left. And that’s a clip-on’
In court, he had a habit of fixing his gaze on you for what seemed like hours. It wasn’t an aggressive look, by any means. More a half-smile and slight cock of the head as if he wanted to initiate a conversation. But it was constant. Every time you looked up from a concentrated bout of shorthand note-taking, he would still be staring straight at you in that same almost quizzical way. Knowing what he was capable of, this was beyond disconcerting.
He also clearly fancied himself as something of a wag. After telling police he had strangled most of his victims with a tie, he said: ‘I think I started off with about 15 ties, now I’ve only got one left. And that’s a clip-on.’
Grim as the subject was, it broke the mood and half the courtroom burst into barely suppressed laughter. Nilsen laughed along, looking mighty pleased with himself for being so witty. He had a similar smirk when the court heard that when detectives asked him how many bodies he had stored under the floorboards at any one time, he answered: ‘I don’t know. I didn’t do a stock check.’
When they started to smell too bad, he used his skills as a former Army chef to eviscerate and then butcher them, keeping body parts under floorboards, in cupboards, in suitcases and in black bin-liners until he could get rid of them
In the new ITV drama Des, the superb David Tennant is made up to look uncannily like Nilsen, and certainly manages to capture some of his understated menace. But ordinary is difficult to act, and Tennant’s Nilsen seems to me to have rather more charisma than the original. Because the series is based largely on Nilsen’s own writings and self-analysis, Tennant is perhaps Nilsen as Nilsen saw himself, rather than as others saw him. But it is gripping, authentic drama.
It begins by setting the scene. The winter of 1982/3 was a deeply unquiet time in the life of this country. Margaret Thatcher’s brimstone cure for the ‘Sick Man of Europe’ —though it would eventually yield economic recovery — had seen unemployment rise to a record 3.2 million. The sense of fracture was almost palpable.
Jobless and rootless young men gravitated towards London in the hope of work. For many, it was a life in hostels or on the street. Some slipped into a demi-monde of drink, drugs and male prostitution, mainly around Soho and the West End.
It was in this netherworld that Dennis Andrew Nilsen stalked his prey.
Between December 1979 and February 1983 he lured, intoxicated and strangled 15 young, mostly gay men, before engaging in sexual activity with the bodies. He kept them in the flat for several days after killing them (‘a different kind of flatmate’, as he described them).
He propped some up in chairs and talked to them in the mornings before leaving for work and the evenings, after he came home. At least one he bathed, laid out and dusted with talcum powder as if awaiting burial.
When they started to smell too bad, he used his skills as a former Army chef to eviscerate and then butcher them, keeping body parts under floorboards, in cupboards, in suitcases and in black bin-liners until he could get rid of them. Some were boiled up in a large pot on his kitchen hob.
If he hadn’t moved from a ground-floor flat, where it was relatively easy to burn and dispose of mortal remains in the garden, to a second-floor one, where he resorted to flushing bits of flesh and bone down the lavatory, he would undoubtedly have killed more.
In the new ITV drama Des, the superb David Tennant (pictured) is made up to look uncannily like Nilsen, and certainly manages to capture some of his understated menace
He displayed little self-criticism — even telling police it was their fault for not catching him sooner — and no remorse. ‘I have no tears for my victims,’ he wrote. ‘I have no tears for myself.’ As a young reporter on the London Evening Standard, I recall the charge that went through the newsrooms of Fleet Street after the initial tip came through that human remains had been found by a Dyno-Rod man clearing a blocked drain in Muswell Hill, North London.
First it was thought to be one body, then two, then three — then a lot more at a completely separate address five or six miles away in Cricklewood.
The gruesome tally would eventually be 15, but as they had been dismembered and the parts boiled, burned, buried or flushed, it was difficult to be at all sure.
Shivering in the snow outside the Cricklewood address, 195 Melrose Avenue, I watched as forensic officers trooped through into the back garden with sieves, prospecting for teeth and bone fragments Nilsen had buried or discarded.
What kind of monster could have done such things? Who were these hapless victims? What was the motive? And how had the police allowed this carnage to go on undetected for five years?
Between December 1979 and February 1983 he lured, intoxicated and strangled 15 young, mostly gay men, before engaging in sexual activity with the bodies
In his copious writings to police and writer Brian Masters, Nilsen gave clues but no real answer.
He came from a broken but not notably violent home. He was conflicted by his homosexuality, but until 1978 had shown no particular signs of sexual violence. His work colleagues found him opinionated but dull and no one described him as angry.
As he pleaded not guilty to murder because of diminished responsibility, psychiatrists for the Crown and the defence had to debate whether he was a calculating, cold-blooded killer, or was so mentally ill that he could not be held responsible for his crimes. Was he ‘mad or bad’, in the rather blunter argot of the crime hack?
Dr Patrick Gallwey, called by the defence, said Nilsen’s personality disorder was so overwhelming that he was ‘a man drowning in his own nightmares’. For the prosecution, Dr Paul Bowden conceded that strangling people was not normal behaviour but said he found no evidence from interviewing Nilsen that he had a severe personality disorder and believed he was well aware of what he was doing.
To most of us, the idea that a man who can murder 15 people, have necrophiliac sex with them, treat their corpses like visitors to his home and chop them up could be anything other than insane would be mad in itself. But the law sets a high bar for insanity and the Crown won the day.
Dr Patrick Gallwey, called by the defence, said Nilsen’s personality disorder was so overwhelming that he was ‘a man drowning in his own nightmares’
What is unquestionably true is that Nilsen was a narcissist largely untroubled by conscience over his crimes. His letters from prison to senior investigating officer Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay display an almost risible grandiosity. ‘There is no disputing the fact that I am a violent killer under certain circumstances,’ he wrote. ‘The victim is the dirty platter after the feast and the washing up is a clinically ordinary task . . .
‘Could it be the subconscious outpouring of all the primitive instincts of primeval man? Could it be the case of individual exaltation in beating the system and the need to beat and confound it time and time again? It amazes me that I have no tears for these victims. I have no tears for myself, or those bereaved by my actions.’
Mad or bad — or both?
Des focuses on the police operation as much as on the crimes themselves. While their attempts to identify victims (most of whom were not even reported missing) after his arrest were impressive, there is no doubt they should have caught him much earlier.
On at least three separate occasions, surviving victims went to them with allegations of attempted murder. None of the complaints got beyond a cursory examination and the one time Nilsen was interviewed, he was able to persuade police that he and his accuser had simply had a lover’s tiff.
Would the police perform any better today? The more recent case of Stephen Port, jailed for life in November 2016, suggests not.
Port raped and killed at least four men at his East London home after hooking up with them on gay dating sites. He spiked their drinks with a fatal dose of the date-rape drug GHB and when he had finished with them, dumped three of the bodies in the same graveyard near his home.
Despite numerous clues to his identity, it took more than two years to catch him. The case highlights the fact that with the advent of social media and sites offering casual sexual encounters with complete strangers, there is far more scope for predators.
The police have come a long way since 1983 in trying to engage the gay community and treat victims of crime within that community with respect. Whether they have succeeded is — as the Port killings showed — highly debatable.