Written By: Naomi
Trigger Warning: Child Molestation, Necrophilia
Your neighbor was always a strange man. He was reserved and you would only have an awkward nod at each other if you passed one another. You could hear the clinking of many bottles when he took out the trash but he always got up early and went to work without a complaint. You think you can hear music from his apartment sometimes, he is always listening to music. Sometimes he will bring friends over, you never really see any of them leave, they must stay late into the night. But there is one thing that has always bothered you about your neighbor that lived on the top floor, the smell. You thought at first it was something that had crawled into the walls and died, but you realized the rotten smell was seeping down from his apartment. Sure you complained, but the landlord wasn’t doing anything. This building was falling apart anyway and you had so many problems with the plumbing always being backed up. But the day you saw police in the halls and your neighbor being led away in handcuffs was one you wish you could forget. And when bag after bag came out of that attic flat at 23 Cranley Gardens, you wished you could hear the clinking of glass instead of the smell of decay that followed them. It’s been a few days since then and you are in your apartment trying to let life go on as regular, sitting at the table with your morning coffee and the paper, your neighbors face is on the cover, “Dennis Andrew Nilsen, Charged With Murder” “16 Murders At Houses of Horror” “A Cut-Up Corpse Found In Drain.”
Dennis Nilsen was born on November 23rd, 1945 in Fraserburgh, Scotland to Elizabeth Whyte and Olav Moksheim (Nilsen). Olav was an alcoholic and often absent as he was in the Norwegian army and after their third child was born, Dennis being the middle child of his siblings named Olav Jr. and Sylvia, Olav and Elizabeth divorced. The family had been living with their maternal grandparents who were quick to support the divorce as they never approved of their daughter’s choice in husband and gladly agreed to help raise the children, Nilsen being four years old at this time.
Nilsen was regarded as a quiet and curious child who had fond memories of family picnics and spending a lot of time with his grandparents, particularly his grandfather who he was closest to. His grandfather was a fisherman and would take Nilsen on walks along the harbor, when his grandfather would be out at sea Nilsen would feel like his, “life was empty” until he would return home. But it was when Nilsen was six in 1951 that his grandfather’s health began to decline and he died of a heart attack while out at sea on a fishing trip. His body was brought ashore to the family home to be buried. On the day of the funeral Nilsen was showed the body of his grandfather in the coffin by his mother who reassures him that his grandfather was just sleeping. Nilsen later reflects back on this saying that,“ his heart beat strongly when he gazed upon the body.”
For years after this Nilsen became more reserved, he no longer participated in family activities and rejected affection that was shown to him by his family. He resented any attention given to his siblings and the popularity his older brother had, instead beginning to spend more time with his younger sister and became closer with her. There were many times thought that he would be alone and spend hours on the harbor.
During one of Nilsen’s walks on the harbor when he was 10 he fell into the water and began to drown and be pulled out to sea, he felt an odd sense of tranquility as he accepts he is going to drown but he is saved by another youth who drags him ashore. This incident led the family to move from their grandparents home to a flat and later their mother marries a man who would father 4 more children in the following 4 years. Nilsen did not like his stepfather and felt the man was too strict, both he and Nilsen’s mother would preach to the family the idea of impurities of the body but later grew to respect him.
Nilsen enters puberty and realizes that he is gay which he is ashamed of and starts to hide his sexuality from his family and the few friends he had in their new town. Nilsen realizes that the boys he was attracted to had similar traits as his younger sister and wanted to believe that his feelings for the boys were signs of attraction to her leading him to fondle her. He made no moves to be intimate with the peers that he had actually been attracted to but later describes that he himself had been fondled by his older peers and, “did not find the experience to be unpleasant.” At one point Nilsen even fondled his older brother in his sleep which Olav jr. discovers and begins to publicly shame Nilsen for being gay and calls him a girl. Nilsen uses the fact the he had fondled his sister as a sign that he was bisexual rather than gay to fight his internalized homophobia.
He also resented the way his family lived, seemingly never trying to improve their lives and for being poorer than other families, so he joins the Army Cadet force at 14 hoping to join the army when he was old enough and leave the small town he was living in.
Nilsen excelled in school and when he graduated from secondary school he entered the army in 1961 for a nine year enlistment period planning to train as a chef and a butcher. He did exceptional in his first three years of training and felt he belonged in the army, he was still hiding his sexual orientation from his colleagues and never showered with them since he feared he would become excited in their presence so he would often bathe separately. Nilsen started to drink more to overcome his shyness and interact with his peers. In one incident in particular Nilsen was drinking with a young German youth where he was posted with the army and woke up in the young man's flat, nothing had happened between the two but is sparked Nilsen’s sexual fantasy of having relationships with young slender men and them being “passive” which evolved into them being unconscious or dead. There were multiple times were Nilsen would try to have himself be taken advantage of and when drinking with colleagues would pretend to be unconscious in the hopes that they would, “make sexual use” of his body which leads him to creating both dominant and passive roles in his fantasies also fueled by his creative use of mirrors to be able to visually see himself without a head and imagine his own body as his partners.
During his time in the army, possibly to test himself or to convince those he worked with that he was straight, Nilsen has intercourse with one female sex worker and brags to his colleagues but later he describes the encounter as, “over-rated and depressing.”
In 1972 Nilsen retired from the army after 11 years of service with the rank of corporal at age 26 and returned to live with his family for a few months as he considered his next career. His mother repeatedly voices how she doesn’t worry so much about his career but rather how she would like to see Nilsen settle down and start a family with a wife but his older brother outs Nilsen to their mother after an argument which causes him never to speak to his older brother again and have little written contact with the rest of his family from then on. He moves to London to join the Metropolitan Police where he became fascinated with his trips to morgues or any violent crimes that would happen. He begins to visit gay pubs and have several one night stands with men that he described as, “Soul destroying and a vain search for inner peace” since he wanted a long term partner and decided the issue was that his personal and professional life were not compatible, and so he resigned from his position in the police, taking up odd jobs as security guards before eventually landing a stable job as a civil servant in 1974 finding jobs for unskilled laborers.
It was in 1975 that Nilsen found 20 years old David Gallichan and the two agreed to move into a garden level flat together with an agreement with the landlord that they would have exclusive access to the garden. Nilsen and Gallichan claim not to of had a relationship but Nilsen does disclose he was sexually attracted to Gallichan and they had intercourse a few times. They each would bring home casual sex partners and Gallichan said Nilsen was never violent with him but did berate and talk down to him leading to arguments and the two splitting up in 1977 where Gallichan was forced to leave the flat to Nilsen. A number of short term and failed relationships later Nilsen decides that he must be unfit to live with if no one wanted to stay with him and he experienced deep feelings of loneliness.
It was December 30th, 1978 that a drunk Nilsen came across 14 year old Stephen Holmes in a pub after the boy unsuccessfully tried to buy alcohol. Nilsen invited Holmes to his flat where they drank heavily until they fell asleep. When Nilsen woke up he didn't want to wake up Holmes out of fear he would leave him and caressed the sleeping boy before deciding he would keep the boy over the new year, whether he wanted it or not, and strangled him with a tie until he was unconscious then drowned him in a bucket of water. He masturbated over the body twice before hiding it under the floorboards where he kept Holmes for 8 months before burning his body in a bonfire in the garden.
A few months later Nilsen met a student from Hong Kong named Andrew Ho who followed Nilsen to his flat after agreeing to have sex but when Nilsen attempted to strangle Ho he fled and reported it to the police. Nilsen was questioned by the police but Ho decided not to press charges as it was a bondage situation.
Two months after that Nilsen encountered 23 year old Canadian student Kenneth Ockenden at a pub. When Nilsen learned Kenneth was a tourist he offered to show him around which Kenneth happily accepted and also agreed to accompany Nilsen to his apartment for more drinks and a meal. While the two were listening to music Nilsen then wrapped the headphone cord around Kenneth’s neck and strangled him, dragging him across the floor as he did until he was dead and then continued drinking and listening to music with the very headphones he had just strangled Kenneth with. The next day he took multiple Polaroid shots of Kenneth's body in suggestive positions before laying the body on him and watching tv for a few hours. He then wrapped the body in plastic and stashed him under the floor, occasionally bringing him out to sit on the armchair next to him so they could watch TV together and would have conversations like the man was still alive. Kenneth was one of the few of Nilsen’s victims that were reported as missing by friends or family.
Nilsen’s third victim was 16 year old runaway Martyn Duffey who he found sleeping by a train station on his way home from a work conference, he offered the boy a meal and a place to stay for the night. He strangled Duffey with a ligature and then dragged his unconscious body to the kitchen to drown him in the sink then bathed the body. He moved the body around his flat and would kiss and compliment it, also masturbating to it. The body was stored for two days in a cupboard until signs of decomposition forced Nilsen to place Duffy under the floor as well.
After this Nilsen’s killings became more frequent and by the end of that year he had killed 5 others: 2 unidentified men, 27 year old sex worker Billy Sutherland, and 24 year old Malcolm Barlow who was an orphan with learning disabilities. Nilsen could not remember the identities of some of his victims but only the extreme detail of each killing and how long he kept the bodies before dissecting them. He accounts one murder where he had tried to resuscitate his victim but failed which caused him to break down and spit at his own reflection in a mirror. In another instance he recalls laying in bed with a body listening to music and bursting into tears.
The bodies under the floor began to putrefy and attract insects, made worse with the summer heat. Nilsen would put deodorizers under the floor as well as spray insecticide but the smell did not go away causing him to remove and dissect the bodies of each victim he had collected in the past year with a large kitchen knife then burn them in a bonfire behind his apartment. He disguised the smell of burning bodies with a tire on top of the pile, letting it burn down to nothing and using a rake to ensure there were no recognizable bones left, if there were he would crush them with the rake which he did with a skull that had survived.
The following year in January, Nilsen lured an 18 year old into his home saying they would have a drinking contest and after several drinks he strangled the man with a tie and and continued his tradition of putting bodies under his floor and a couple weeks later he dissected this and another unidentified male he had killed a month earlier. He called out of work on these days which is something he did when he would be taking care of remains or be spending time with the bodies which became the main way they backed up his claims of the number of people he killed. By April he killed 2 others, the final murder at this location happened in September which was 23 year old Malcom Barlow. The man had been an orphan,had learning disabilities, and had epilepsy. He was slumped outside Nilsen's home saying that the medication for his epilepsy had made his legs give out. Nilsen called an ambulance for him and when Barlow was released from the hospital the next day he returned to Nilsen’s home to thank him for his help. He stayed for dinner, had a drink, and fell asleep on the couch where Nilsen manually strangled him and hid his body under the kitchen sink.
The landlord of his flat wanted to do renovations and Nilsen was obviously very hesitant to leave but took a payment of £1,000 to vacate, the day before he left he dissected his last five victims and burned their remains with the same methods he did the first time. He removed all bodies from under the floors and remains he had hidden in suitcases that were left by the garden shed. At his new location Nilsen was located in an attic flat and had no garden access and could not hide bodies under the floor. While trying to figure out what to do in his new predicament Nilsen invited a few people to his flat but did not attack them. He did try to strangle 19 year old Paul Nobbs in 1981 but refrain himself from completing the act.
His first official murder in the new flat was in 1982, it was 23 year old John Howlett who had been lured in from a pub to drink with Nilsen and while Howlett slept that night Nilsen strangled him. However Howlett attempted to fight back and even strangle Nilsen. Eventually Nilsen won the struggle and left Howlett unconscious. He attempted to kill Howlett after noticing he had begun to breathe again but when that failed, he went back to his old methods and drowned him in the bath.
He then met 21 year old Carl Stotter in a pub and targeted him because he was depressed and just exiting a relationship. He invited Stotter to his flat and after more drinks Stotter fell asleep in an open sleeping bag, waking up later to Nilsen strangling him and whispering for him to, “stay still.” Stotter says that in his half drunk and sleepy state he thought Nilsen was trying to free him from the zipper of the sleeping bag before falling unconscious. He then heard water running before he was submerged when Nilsen tried to drown him. He was able to pull his head up and say, “No more, please! No more!” before he was submerged again where Nilsen held him until he thought he had killed him and sat Stotter’s body in an armchair. But Nilsen’s dog named Bleep, licked the mans face and there was a tiny bit of life left in him. At the realization Nilsen put a blanket on the man and began to run his hands over his limbs and chest to promote circulation and moved him to his bed. He embraced Stotter when he regained consciousness and told the younger man he had almost strangled himself on the zipper of the sleeping bag and that he had resuscitated him. Stotter goes in and out of consciousness for two days but when he is finally awake long enough to question Nilsen on his memories of the situation Nilsen spins the story that after having a nightmare Stotter had gotten caught in the sleeping bag zipper and began to choke, after freeing him Nilsen placed the man in cold water since he was, “in shock”. He then walked Stotter to a nearby train station and allowed him to leave.
It was a few months later that he found 27 year old John Howlett and invited the man to lunch. Like with other victims he also does not remember when he strangled Allen just that he kept the body in the bathtub for three days before dissecting his body on the kitchen floor, calling out from work in the following days.
Nilsen’s final murder was of 20 year old Stephen Sinclair in 1983 who was a homeless drug addict and had scored some food off of Nilsen before being invited back to his flat. He passed out in Nilsen’s apartment from a mixture of alcohol and drugs while the two listened to music. Nilsen knelt before the unconscious man and said to himself, “Oh Stephen, here I go again” before strangling him with a tie and some rope. It was at this point that he noticed bandages on Sinclair's wrists which he pulled back to find deep cuts from when he had recently tried to commit suicide. He followed his usual ritual of bathing the body then, “rubbing talcum powder on the body after laying it in his bed and facing several mirrors at them. He laid there for hours with Sinclair before kissing the body’s forehead and saying, “Goodnight Stephen” and falling asleep.
He dissected Sinclairs body like the others and stored the parts in plastic bags that he kept in wardrobes, tea chests, or a drawer under his bathtub. He sealed the bags with the bandages he had found on Sinclair's wrists. The way he disposed of organs, flesh, and smaller bones of his victims in the new flat was by flushing the remains down his toilet. He also boiled the heads, hands, and feet to remove the flesh. Fortunately the way he was disposing of bodies was causing a backup in the drainage system of the apartments and Nilsen filed a complaint himself about it. This leads some investigators on the case to believe that he engineered his own arrest.
A plumbing company came on site and it was an employee by the name of Michael Cattran who discovered the pipes were full of a fleshy substance and small bones. He called a supervisor about what he found but the blockage would need to be investigated the following morning, Cattran was approached by Nilsen and another tenant who were interested in what he had found about the blockage, he described what he found and joked that someone had flushed their kentucky fried chicken.
When the company returned in the morning the pipes had mysteriously been flushed clean but they managed to find some of the fleshy material and bones in the pipe still which looked to belong to a human hand and led the supervisor to call the police. The flesh was taken for testing where it was identified as human and some that was found to be a part of a neck had signs of strangulation. The drains that were causing the block were traced back to Nilsen’s flat, when told the substance was human remains he pretended to be shocked but the police did not fall for it since his entire flat smelled of rotting and decaying flesh. When the police asked him where the rest of the body was he calmly told them about the plastic bags. This had been the day Nilsen had been waiting for, even saying it was the day he was saved. In the police car they asked him how many people he had killed, thinking it was one or two, you can imagine how they felt when he blankly told them it was 15 or 16 people since 1978. The bags in the flat included the remains of 3 people, including two dismembered heads and large body parts. Some who reflect on Nilsen right before his arrest described him as, “frighteningly normal looking.” Until Nilsen had confessed about killing those people, the police did not know anyone had been murdered.
During his 16 interrogations that totaled 31 hours, Nilsen says he was unsure why he killed and that he only made the decision who to kill moments before he did it. He would strangle almost all of them and drown others before bathing the bodies, shaving all the hair from their torso to match his ideals and used makeup to hide blemishes on the skin. If he was moving the body around he would dress them in socks and underwear. He would stand and marvel at the bodies when he placed them around his flat and even become emotional viewing them, feeling they were works of art. A majority of the time he would just masturbate to the bodies but there were times he would have intercrural sex with the bodies but stressed that he never actually penetrated his victims since he felt the bodies were, “too perfect and beautiful for the pathetic ritual of commonplace sex.” In a documentary its noted that in response to the question if he was gay Nilsen said he was not and would not tell any of his victims if he was for sure or not.
When asked if he felt remorse or guilt for his actions he said he wished he did feel guilty but that he got happiness and thrill from the acts that he did not have otherwise. The act of killing was not what he enjoyed but it was the, “art and the act of death” that he worshiped. Nilsen made sure that during his interrogations he showed no fear to the police and was the one surprising them the entire time, eve going to the lengths of drawing maps for the police of where he had burned the bodies at his old address. If the press got something wrong on the case it was the only time he showed aggression saying they were inept and wanted to make sure they got the details right.
During his trial Nilsen was charged with 6 counts of murder and two counts of attempted murder. Nilsen attempted to plead not guilty by reason of diminished responsibility due to mental defect which is the argument that while he did break the law he could not be found liable for doing so as his mental functions were impaired or diminished due to state of mind being affected by drugs, alcohol or a psychopathic personality disorder according to Scottish law. Three survivors of Nilsen’s attacks were brought in to testify, Paul Nobbs, Douglas Stewart and Carl Stotter, the men originally did not come forward out of fear of having their sexuality outed by the police if they reported the attacks.
When two psychiatrists testified on the case in defense of Nilsen one diagnosed Nilsen with, “borderline, false-self as if pseudo-normal, narcissistic personality disorder” and having occasional schizoid disturbances which is a personality disorder where there is a lack of interest in social relationships and tend to be more solitary and sheltered while being detached from many and apathetic. The other said that there was a lack of emotional development and he was only able to view humans as parts of his fantasies. Nilsen’s association with unconscious bodies and arousal were rooted in narcissistic traits and an impaired sense of identity causing him to depersonalize other people. In rebuttal to the testimonies the prosecutors psychiatrists who had interviewed Nilsen for over 14 hours total found that Nilsen was simply manipulative and fully capable of forming relationships but forces himself to objectify others, seeing no evidence of maladaptive behavior and no disorder of the mind.
Nilsen was found guilty and sentenced to life, he was sent to prison in 1983 at age 38 until he died in May 2018 at the age of 74