Everything you need to know about serial killer Dennis Nilsen (Dead at 72)

Everything you need to know about serial killer Dennis Nilsen (Dead at 72)

“The most exciting part …was when I lifted the body, carried it. It was an expression of my power to lift and carry the body.. to have control.”  

Dennis Andrew Nilsen was born on November 23, 1945 to Betty and Olav Nilsen. Betty was from Frazebrugh, Scotland and had met Olav, a Norwegian soldier in a cafe in England in 1940. Olav had moved to Scotland after the German invasion in 1940. The couple were married in 1942. 

Dennis was the couple’s second child of three. But despite being married, Betty and Olav did not live together most of the time, Betty lived with her parents – Andrew and Lilly Whyte – and rarely saw Olav who seldom visited. After eight years the couple divorced. Betty and her two sons and daughter remained at the Whyte’s residence. The Whytes were a deep-seated sea-faring family, and had been for many generations. The community were all of a similar background and there was a lot of in breeding resulting in a history of mental illness in many of the families; including the Whytes. 

Dennis’ grandparents were a strong influence on the young boy. They were strict but loving grandparents and Dennis quickly developed their argumentative nature and stern independence. The family was also incredibly religious. Lily would not allow cooking on Sundays and did not approve of any self-indulgent pleasures such as cinema, radio or drinking of alcohol. The lack of entertainment and enjoyment made Dennis withdrawn, he became sullen and moody, keeping mostly to himself. But if he did speak to anyone, it was usually his grandfather Andrew, whom Dennis idolised. 

When Andrew died at sea in 1951 his body was transported home and was placed in a coffin on the dining room table in the family’s kitchen. Dennis was not told of his grandfather’s death until he was told to come and see him – dead on the kitchen table. The sight, at the tender age of six, of seeing his grandfather’s corpse had a lasting effect on Dennis. From that moment on, Dennis always associated love and death as part of the same. Without his grandfather around, Dennis withdrew even further into his own world. He had few friends and kept to himself at school. He felt different to the others at school and as he began puberty he found he preferred males to the girls that the others talked about. In 1961, at the age of 15, he left school and immediately enlisted in the army. He was given a position in the catering corps where he was quite popular. He travelled with the army to Europe and the Middle East. During his years with the catering corps he became a dab band with a knife and could dissect meat with precision, 

In the army, Dennis was happy for a brief time, he even found himself a close friend. Dennis was a good photographer and persuaded his friend to pose for photos in the battlefields like a fallen soldier. It was the closest Dennis was to the action at the time. 

At the age of 21, Dennis found himself out of barracks after dark one evening in Aden, where the British forces were fighting against Arab terrorists. Being quite intoxicated, Dennis caught a taxi back to barracks but fell asleep on the way back and when he woke, he found himself naked and in the trunk of a car. Keeping his wits about him, he played dead when someone opened the trunk. As his captor grabbed him and tried to drag him out, Nilsen hit the man over the head with the car wheel jack, knocking the man unconscious. Dennis quickly dressed and returned to barracks. The incident spooked him, and forever more he found himself panicky and nervous. He had nightmares of being raped, tortured or murdered, 

By the age of twenty-six Nilsen left the army and quickly joined the police force in 1972. 

As police constable Q287 Nilsen was assigned to Willesden Green police station. But the police service lacked the mateship of the army. He disliked the roughness used by some of the other officers when interrogating suspects.  So with barely a year on the job, Nilsen resigned, 

The next position that Nilsen held was with the local job centre interviewing applications for vacant positions. He became quite popular with the applicants and, with his keen interest in unionism; he became the secretary of the public service union branch. 

His free time was spent in pubs in Soho and Camden Town, where he would date men., yet he yearned for companionship and always felt lonely and isolated. 

Back in his professional life he became increasingly more political, often participating in demos for workers’ rights, but he was still a meticulous worker though somewhat erratic. His demeanour would change from gentle and meek to hot-tempered in a short period of time. 

In 1975, Nilsen met David Gallichan outside a pub. The two men hit it off instantly and they moved in together the very next day. Making their little family complete with a dog named Bleep and a no name cat. Unfortunately, the relationship did not last as long as Nilsen would have hoped and the men parted ways after a brief yet passionate relationship. 

By 1978 Nilsen again felt isolated and continued his search for companionship. He met men in pubs regularly but nothing ever came of it. He felt even worse after spending Christmas 1978 home alone. 

On New Year’s Eve Nilsen met up with a young Irish man at a pub. The two men returned to Nilsen’s apartment at 195 Melrose Avenue in London to continue drinking and see the New Year in together. 

The men drank heavily and fell into bed, both falling asleep almost instantly. When Nilsen woke during the night he panicked that the fun would stop and the young man would leave, leaving Nilsen alone once more. 

Nilsen spotted one of his neck ties on the floor and, instantly, the answer came to him. Nilsen grabbed the tie and straddled the man’s chest. He looped the tie around the Irishman’s throat and pulled tight. The victim woke instantly and struggled with Nilsen who just pulled tighter on the tie.  The man fell to the floor and went limp, but he still made shallow gasps for air, Nilsen went and got a bucket of water from the kitchen and held the Irishman’s head in the water until he was sure the man was dead. 

The following day Nilsen took the body to the bathroom and washed it and dressed it before putting the corpse back into his bed and slept beside it. 

The next morning Nilsen knew he had to hide the body. Under the floorboards was a good temporary solution but the rigor mortis had set in making the body difficult to move. When the rigor subsided, Nilsen undressed and bathed the body again placed it in his bed and laid down next to it and masturbated.  The man’s death – though fulfilling sexual fantasies for Nilsen – also scared him. He expected to be arrested at any moment. But the police never came. 

After a week of living with the corpse, cleaning it, sitting and watching TV together, he put it under the floorboards where it remained for eight months. Then in August 1979, he wrapped it in a curtain and put it on a bonfire in the back garden. 

In October 1979, Nilsen brought home another date. Muse student Andrew I-To. The two men ended up having an argument at the flat, and Nilsen produced a tie and wrapped it around the man’s neck. Ho quickly put up a fight and managed to escape the killer’s hold. Ho reported the incident to police who subsequently interviewed Nilsen about the assault. However the police chose not to pursue the complaint. 

December 3, 1979 was the next murder. Kenneth Ockenden, a Canadian tourist met Nilsen in a pub in Soho in December. The two men chatted freely and Nilsen agreed to show Ockenden around London that day before Kenneth returned to Canada. 

By early evening the men returned to Nilsen’s flat for something to eat. As the night progressed, Nilsen knew the fun would come to an end and Ockenden would leave soon. The two men were incredibly drunk by this stage and Ockenden relaxed in a chair listening to music on the headphones. 

Nilsen went over to him and put the headphone cord around Ockenden’s neck and pulled it tight, as the two men struggled and fought, Nilsen’s dog Bleep barked frantically, however the neighbours never came to check to see if there was anything wrong.  Once Ockenden was dead, Nilsen sat calmly, poured himself another drink and listened to the music piping through the headphones. 

Later. Nilsen bathed and dried the body and placed the man in his bed and fell asleep cuddled up to him. The next day before leaving for work, Nilsen placed Ockenden’s body. in the cupboard. 

After work. Nilsen retrieved the body from the cupboard and took Polaroid photos of it in various positions before propping the dead man’s body in bed with him so the two could watch TV together. When Nilsen was ready to sleep he wrapped the body in carpet and placed it under the floorboards.  

The family of Ockenden reported him missing within days and Nilsen panicked. He had been all over London with the man before he killed him in his apartment. Any second, he thought, police would be knocking at his door. However, no one ever did. Nilsen now believed his fantasies and lust could take control. It seemed he was not destined to be caught. And for several more years he was right. 

In May 1980, sixteen-year-old catering student Martyn Duffey was the next to die at Nilsen’s hands. The two had been drinking together before retiring to Nilsen’s apartment where the two of them collapsed into bed. Duffey fell asleep immediately and Nilsen straddled him and strangled him into unconsciousness. Nilsen then dragged the lifeless body into the kitchen where he filled the sink with water and immersed the young teens head until he was no longer alive. 

“I then lifted him into my arms and took him into the room. I laid him on the floor and took his socks, jeans, shirt and underpants. I carried him into the bathroom. I got into the bath myself this time and I laid him in the water on top of me. I washed his body. Both of us were dripping wet. I somehow managed to hoist this slipping burden on to my shoulders and took him to the room. I sat him on the kitchen chair and dried us both. I put him on the bed but left the bedclothes off. He was still very warm. I talked to him and mentioned that his body was the youngest I had ever seen. I kissed him all over and held him close to me. I sat on his stomach and masturbated. I kept him temporarily in the cupboard. Two days later I found him bloated in the cupboard. He went straight under the floorboards.” 

On August 7, 1980 Nilsen met his next victim twenty-seven-year-old Billy Sutherland in a pub near Piccadilly Circus, Sutherland was a Scottish ex-con and was covered in tattoos. He considered himself heterosexual and had a girlfriend in Edinburgh but when he travelled around he lived day-to-day and would accept money for sex with men.  After the two men had spent an evening together drinking – going from pub to pub, Nilsen grew weary and was quite drunk when he decided to go home, 1-le did not want any company but Sutherland would not leave.  Sutherland asked Nilsen if he could stay the night as he had nowhere else to sleep. Nilsen found the request inconvenient, but let the Sutherland come home with him anyway. Nilsen was not in the mood for any company and killed the man for being a nuisance. 

Over the next six months Nilsen killed another seven men. All of them remain unidentified. Most of them were more than likely transients and those who would do anything for a warm bed for the night. Nilsen would kill those who had little chance of being reported missing. Drifters and tourists usually were his victim of choice. Those with little or no family contact. This ensured that Nilsen’s killings would continue undetected. 

Nilsen’s next victim fitted this description perfectly. Twenty-four-year-old Malcolm Barlow had no family – his parents were dead and he had no close friends. Most of his life he had been in care due to medical handicaps. He had severe epilepsy and was on strict medication. Barlow was also always in trouble with authorities and would drift from place to place to avoid prosecution.  Barlow and Nilsen met quite by accident. I3arlow was unwell and leaning against a brick fence a few doors away from Nilsen’s apartment building, when Nilsen walked past on his way to work. Nilsen thought the man looked quite ill and stopped to offer him a cup of tea back at his flat. 

Once inside the flat, the killer assessed the man’s health and contrary to his usual habits, called the man an ambulance. Barlow was admitted to hospital for several days, due to asthma and was given medication to help manage his failing health. A few days later, on September 18, 1980, Barlow returned to Nilsen’s flat to thank him for his caring good nature but Nilsen was not home. When Nilsen returned from work he found the man sitting on the front steps of the apartment building. Nilsen was not in the mood for the unexpected company but let Barlow in to the flat anyway. 

Nilsen poured himself a drink but did not off the visitor any knowing he would be on medication. The young man asked for a drink and continued to insist until Nilsen gave in and poured the man a scotch. Barlow ended up having a few glasses of scotch. An hour later Nilsen could not arouse the comatose man. Not wanting to call an ambulance again and arouse suspicion, he decided to strangle Barlow to get him out of the way. Nilsen then covered the man’s lifeless body in garbage bags and shoved him under the kitchen sink, as there was no longer room under the floorboards, 

By December 1980, Nilsen knew he had to get rid of the bodies that he had accumulated throughout the tiny fiat. He collected all the bodies together in the small kitchen and sat on the floor with a butcher’s knife. His knife skills from the army now came in handy. He cut up the bodies into smaller, manageable pieces and filled garbage bags with the body parts. 

The internal organs were put into two bags that he threw over the fence at the end of the garden. The rats, birds and flies devoured the lot in less than two days – half of the evidence was gone. Nilsen built a giant bonfire in the gardens of his Melrose Ave flat. He concealed most of the bags of body parts in rolled up discarded carpet. Nilsen was even clever enough to mask the telltale smell of the burning human bodies with an old tractor tyre he put on top of the makeshift funeral pyre. 

In October 1981, Nilsen moved into an attic flat at 23 Cranley Gardens. He thought that by not having floorboards or a garden to conceal his victims that he may be less inclined to continue his murderous campaign. That was not to be. 

Nilsen murdered John Howlett at the new flat in March 1982. Howlett was a transient and had always been in trouble with police. The man had met Nilsen several times in the local pubs and one evening the two men returned to Nilsen’s new flat together. 

Howlett was tired from the alcohol, but Nilsen felt like a few more, so while Howlett retired to Nilsen’s bed for the evening, Nilsen sat alone with his thoughts and a few more glasses of scotch. Nilsen soon decided to join the man in bed, however it was murder that he wanted. Nilsen took with him to the bed, a strip of upholstery and quickly had the strap around the sleeping man’s throat. As Howlett struggled, Nilsen pulled tighter. After an immense struggle Howlett hit is head on the headboard of the bed and went limp. Nilsen thought the murder was over and went to fix himself another drink before starting his usual ritual with the body. But Bleep the dog’s incessant barking from the bed made Nilsen rush back in. Howlett was alive and attempting to sit up on the bed, not knowing what had exactly transpired.  Reverting to his tried and true formula Nilsen dragged the semi-conscious man to the bathroom and drowned him in the sink. 

Graham Allen was the next of Nilsen’s victims. He was so insignificant to Nilsen that he cannot even remember how or when he had killed the man, except he had first made an omelette.

The final victim was a punk drug-addled drifter named Stephen Sinclair, Sinclair met Nilsen on January 26, 1983 while trying to scrounge enough money to live another day.  Nilsen felt pity for the young man so he bought him a hamburger and took him home. After a few drinks at the flat Sinclair slumped down into one of the chairs – he was unconscious.  Nilsen explains the events of the murder during his arrest: 

‘I picked up one of his wrists and let go. His limp arm flopped back onto his lap. I opened one of his eyes and there was no reflex. He was deeply unconscious.  I took the ligature and put it around his neck.. I took each loose end of the ligature and pulled it tight.._ He stopped breathing. His hands slowly reached for his neck as I  held my grip. His legs stretched out in front of him. I  held him there for a couple of minutes. He was limp and stayed that way. I released my hold and removed the string and tie. He had stopped breathing..” 

On February 2, 1983 Jim Allcock, one of the tenants of Nilsen’s apartment block noticed that the toilets and drains were backing up. The plumber that came said he would return the next day as the main street sewer needed to be looked at as well.  

By February 8, when no work had been done, Michael Cattail of Dyno-Rod Plumbing Co was asked to come and look at the problem that was worsening. Cattail found disgusting putrid lumps of a greyish-white substance blocking the pipes coming from the house into the main sewer. 

However darkness was falling and the plumber told Jim Allcock he would return at first light the next morning. Cattail called his supervisor and told him about the substance he found in the drains and told him he suspected it to be flesh. 

Nilsen had seen Cattail come and inspect the drains and knew he had been found out. Nilsen had been disposing of his victims by flushing their cut up parts down the toilet. He knew he had little time to remove the offensive lumps blocking the sewer before the plumber returned with the police. 

Nilsen cut-up the decapitated body of Sinclair and placed the pieces into garbage bags which he added to the other rotting corpses in his cupboard. He sprayed air-freshener around the room and hung mothballs in the robe to attempt to hide the smell. 

During the night Nilsen cleared out the lumps of flesh from the main sewer, collected it in garbage bags and traipsed up and down the stairs to throw the bags over the back fence. What Nilsen didn’t realised was that the other tenants spent the night listening to Nilsen trekking up and down the stairs. 

When Caftan arrived the next morning, he found that most of the flesh had been cleared away. Most of the tenants were quick to raise their suspicions with the plumber about Nilsen’s midnight activities. 

The police were called and small pieces that Cattail was still able to collect from the drain were taken for analysis and confirmed as human in on 

The police then waited for Nilsen to return that afternoon from work to ask him about the body he had discarded in the drain. 

Nilsen told the police they would find the rest of it in his cupboard in his flat. One officer walked up to the wardrobe and the smell emanating from it was enough evidence to arrest Nilsen and take him in for further questioning. 

On the way to the police station one of the officers asked Nilsen:  Are we talking about one body or two? To which Nilsen replied a-matter-of-factly: Fifteen or sixteen since 1978, On further questioning Nilsen gladly spoke of the murders he had Committed, He was almost happy to finally be caught and unable to kill again. 

Nilsen was remanded in custody for seven days from February 12, 1983 before being transferred to Brixton prison in March to await his trial. The trial of Nilsen opened on October 24, 1983 in No I. Court at the Old Bailey. The Judge presiding was Mr Justice Croom-Johnson. The courtroom was silent as chief administrator of the Court Mr Michael MacKenzie began to read out the charges of murder to Nilsen. 

To each charge he was asked, 

“How say you Nilsen, are you guilty or not guilty?” 

To which Nilsen replied “Not guilty”. The entire court knew that Nilsen was guilty of each murder but what was in question was the man’s frame of mind when he killed each victim. 

The prosecutor, Mr Allen Green, stated that Nilsen had killed with full awareness and deliberation and was therefore guilty of each murder. 

The defense council Ivan Lawrence claimed that Nilsen suffered from such abnormality of mind as to substantially hinder his responsibility for his acts and therefore only guilty of manslaughter.  The trial followed these preliminary ideas for days. Going back and forth arguing whether Nilsen was in possession of his full faculties when he murdered the men. 

Yet the evidence heard may never had happened. Nilsen had wanted to plead guilty to the murders but was counselled against it by the defense.  Therefore, after several days Nilsen changed his defense counsel and changed his plea at the same time. However the trial was already in full-swing and continued to its conclusion. On November 3, 1983 the members of the jury retired to consider their verdict, 

The following day they returned their findings. Nilsen was found guilty of six murders and two attempted murders. There was insufficient evidence to pursue the other ten murders. The judge sentenced Nilsen to life imprisonment, with the recommendation that is should mean no less than twenty-five years. 

He began his prison sentence at Wormwood Scrubs before being moved to several other prisons for his safety before finally being placed at Full Sutton in Yorkshire, where after serving more than thirty-five years in prison, Dennis Nilsen, at the age of 72 passed away peacefully in his cell on May 12, 2018. 

One Response

  1. Thanks for that s in-depth writing about Dennis. I used to live in crouch end and went past the cranley garden road.

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