Dennis Nilsen. The Dangerous Stranger by Katherine Ramsland
Dennis Nilsen, 33, met the young man in the pub, late in 1978, and invited him home, to 195 Melrose Avenue in London. They continued to drink and eventually crawled into bed together to sleep. Nilsen woke up at dawn and realized that his new friend was now going to leave. He ran his hand over his bed mate’s body, becoming aroused. His heart pounded and he began to sweat.
He watched the young man sleep and looked over at the pile of clothing they had both discarded. He spotted his tie, so he got out of bed to retrieve it.
“I raised myself and slipped it on under his neck,” Nilsen wrote four years later. “I quickly straddled him and pulled tight for all I was worth. His body came alive immediately. We struggled off the bed onto the floor.”
Dennis Nilsen tightened his grip, not about to let go and lose this battle to the death. His victim pushed himself with his feet, with Nilsen on top of him, along the carpet. When he came up against the wall, he lay there and grew limp, giving up. Nilsen relaxed, but realized the man was not yet dead, only unconscious. He ran into the kitchen and filled a plastic bucket full of water in order to drown the man. Nilsen lifted him onto some chairs, draping his head back, and pushed it into the bucket. The man did not struggle, although water splashed all over the carpet.
The First Kill
“After a few minutes,” Nilsen recalled, “the bubbles stopped coming. I lifted him up and sat him on the armchair. The water was dripping from his short, brown curly hair.”
Dennis Nilsen had just killed a man and did not even recall his name.
Dennis sat there shaking, barely cognizant of what he had done and what he now faced as a result. He made himself a cup of coffee and smoked several cigarettes, trying to think what to do. His black-and-white dog, Bleep, came in from the garden and sniffed at the corpse in the chair. He ran the dog off and then sat down in shock. He removed the tie from the dead man’s neck and just stared at him. Then he got up, put a towel over the window, and hoisted the corpse onto his shoulders to carry it into the bathroom.
Gently, Dennis Nilsen put the dead man into the tub, ran water, and washed the man’s hair. “He was very limp and floppy.” He struggled to get him out of the tub and dry him off. Then he took him back into the other room and put him in the bed. His new friend was not going to leave him now.
He ran his hand over the still-warm flesh, noticing the slight discoloration of his lips and face. He pulled the bedclothes over him and sat on the bed, trying to think.
The Beginning of a New Dennis Nilsen
“It was the beginning of the end of my life as I had known it,” Dennis Nilsen wrote. “I had started down the avenue of death and possession of a new kind of flat-mate.”
Rather than being appalled by the sight of a corpse, Dennis thought it quite beautiful. He did not really know why he had killed the young man. Like Jeffrey Dahmer, Dennis Nilsen just knew he had not wanted the man to leave. He had spent Christmas alone and did not want to do the same for New Year’s. Now he had someone to spend it with.
Later that day Dennis Nilsen went to a hardware store to buy an electric knife and a large pot, but he could not bring himself to cut the body up this way. Instead, he opened some new underwear and dressed the body. Then Dennis took a bath.
That’s when he decided to try to have sex with the corpse. He got into bed, but could not sustain the arousal he had felt moments earlier, so he pulled the body off the bed and laid it on the floor. He used a curtain to cover it. He got into the bed and fell asleep.
Later he got up, made dinner and watched television with the body still lying there on the floor not far away.
Finally he knew he needed to do something. He pried loose some floorboards and tried to shove the body into the space, but rigor mortis had set in, preventing him from maneuvering. He stood the body against the wall, deciding to wait until the stiffness passed.
However, the next day, he was still standing there against the wall, so Nilsen laid him down and worked on his limbs to loosen them. Finally he was able to get him into his grave under the floor. He covered the corpse with boards.
After a week, Dennis grew curious, so he lifted the carpet and opened up the floor once again. The corpse was dirty, so Nilsen carried it back into the bathroom to wash it. Then Dennis washed himself in the same water. When he carried the body back to the living room, he was so aroused that he knelt down and masturbated into the corpse’s stomach. Rather than stuff him beneath the floor again, he trussed him up by the ankles. Eventually it went back under the floorboards. It remained there for seven and a half months, until Nilsen took it out and burned the remains in a bonfire. He added rubber to the fire to mask the smell of burning flesh. He raked the ashes into the ground. The young man was never identified.
Dennis Nilsen was astonished that he was able to get away with this and believed it would never happen again. He was wrong. It would happen fourteen more times.
The Second Kill of Dennis Nilsen
In October 1979, nearly a year after the first murder, a young Chinese student, Andrew Ho, went home with Nilsen. The young man wanted to try some bondage play. Nilsen was disinclined, but put a tie around his neck and told him he was playing a dangerous game. Ho left and informed the police, but no charges were brought.
By 1981, Nilsen had killed twelve men in that apartment. Only four were identified: Kenneth Ockendon, Martyn Duffey, Billy Sutherland, and Malcolm Barlow. Many of them may have been unemployed or homeless young men looking for a way to make money. Some were homosexual, and a few were male prostitutes. Dennis Nilsen claimed he went into a “killing trance,” and on seven occasions, actually freed the men rather than complete the act, because he was able to snap out of it.
The second victim was Kenneth Ockendon, a Canadian tourist.
Kenneth met Nilsen at lunch at a pub on December 3rd, 1979. They drank together for several hours, took a tour of London, and ended up in Nilsen’s flat. They got along very well, and the more Dennis Nilsen enjoyed Ockendon’s company, the more desperate he felt at the thought that the Canadian was flying home the following day.
He strangled Ockendon with an electrical cord from some headphones, dragged him across the floor, and then sat down to listen to several pieces of music while the body lay there on the floor. Then he removed the clothing and took him into the bathroom to clean him up. Once finished, he placed the corpse in bed and slept with it the rest of the night, caressing it frequently. In the morning, Dennis Nilsen stuffed the body in a cupboard, tossed out the clothing, and went to work.
During the day, the body rigidified in a doubled up position.
Nilsen took him out a day later and cleaned him up again. Then he dressed the corpse and sat him in a chair, taking photos of it in various positions. When he was finished with that, he took the young man into his bed and positioned it, spread-eagle, on top of him. He spoke to Ockendon as if he could hear. Then he crossed his legs together and had sex between his thighs. Finally, Nilsen relegated Ockendon to the space beneath the floorboards. He took him back out several times so they could sit together and watch television.
“I thought that his body and skin were very beautiful,” Nilsen said later. Then he would dress him in something fresh, put him to “bed” and tell him good night.
Five months went by before it happened again. On May 13th, 1980, Martyn Duffey, 16, turned up missing. He was homeless and he accepted Nilsen’s invitation to spend the night. After two beers, he went to bed. Nilsen climbed on top, trapping his arms under the covers, and strangled him. He went limp, but was still alive, so Dennis carried him into the kitchen and drowned him by pushing his head into a sink full of water. Then he took him to the bathroom and got into the tub with him. “I talked to him and mentioned that his body was the youngest looking I had ever seen.” Nilsen brought him back to bed and kissed him all over, then sat on his stomach and masturbated.
Duffrey went into the cupboard for two full weeks, and then was placed under the floorboards.
The One He Didn’t Want
The next one, Billy Sutherland, 27, slept with men for money. Dennis Nilsen did not even want to take him home, but he followed Nilsen after they went bar-hopping one night. Nilsen barely recalls strangling him and finding a body in his home the next morning.
Malcolm Barlow, 24, was an orphan with mental problems. He was also a pathological liar. Nilsen found Barlow loitering outside his home, complaining of weakness from epilepsy, and he took him home and called an ambulance. When Barlow was released, he came back and sat on Nilsen’s doorstep to await his return from work. Nilsen invited him in and they drank together before Barlow fell into a deep sleep. Nilsen found his presence a nuisance, so he strangled him. The next day, he stuffed Barlow in the cabinet under the kitchen sink. He sat in the flat with a half dozen other bodies awaiting disposal. Some of them Nilsen had kept in bed with him for sexual purposes for as long as a week. Having control over these men thrilled him and the mystery of a dead body that would not respond fascinated him. It was his feeling that he appreciated them more deeply than they had ever been appreciated before.
Nilsen sprayed his rooms twice a day to be rid of flies that were hatched. Another tenant mentioned the pervasive odor, but Dennis Nilsen assured her it was the decay of the building.
To get rid of the corpses, he would put his dog and cat in the garden, strip down to his underwear, and cut them up on the stone kitchen floor with a kitchen knife. Sometimes he would boil flesh off the head in the pot he had bought for the first victim. He had learned how to butcher, so he knew how best to cut up a body, and he placed the organs in a plastic bag. Then he would replace the whole package under the floor until the next step.
Two Bodies Under The Boards
At one point, there were two entire bodies beneath the boards and one dismembered. He also put pieces into the garden shed or down a hole near a bush outside. Internal organs he put into a gap between the double fencing in his yard. A few severed torsos he stuffed into suitcases. When he could, he dragged the bags and suitcases out to the yard and burned the bodies a few feet from the garden fence.
It always amazed him that no one queried him about his activities or tried to stop him. (In fact, when his apartment was vandalized, he had detectives investigate and they remained completely unaware that they stood over the remains of two men.) Children came from the neighborhood to watch the blazing fire, which burned all day, and Nilsen warned them to keep some distance from it.
As the fire burned down, he spotted a skull in the center and crushed it into ash. Then he raked the remains of six men into the earth. Five more were still to die in that apartment, their remains consumed in a third bonfire.
When he prepared to move to a new place, he checked around and nearly forgot that he had placed the hands and arms of Martyn Barlow near a bush. He took care of that final detail and then drove away, hoping to put this part of his life behind him. Sixteen months later, after he was arrested, police officers found over one thousand bone fragments in his former garden.
Dennis Nilsen had lost the use of a garden and even of a space underneath floorboards. The house where he moved had been divided into six apartments and his flat at 23 Cranley Gardens was an attic. He was sure this would be a deterrent for his compulsive homicides. However, three more murders took place, and his quarters presented a complicated problem regarding disposal.
The first victim was John Howlett, whom Nilsen called John the Guardsman. They had met once in a pub and had engaged in a long conversation. Then Nilsen was drinking alone one day when John walked in and recognized him. They chatted and then decided to go to Nilsen’s place, where after drinking awhile, John got into Nilsen’s bed. Nilsen tried to get him to leave, but he refused to go. Nilsen then found a length of loose upholstery strap on an armchair and used it to strangle the man. At one point he feared he would be overpowered, so he tightened his grip as John fought for control. Then he struck his head and soon went limp. Nilsen kept the strap on him until he was sure he was dead, and then went shakily into the other room. He soon became aware the John was still alive. He lopped the strap around his neck again and held it for two or three minutes. However, John’s heart was still beating, so Nilsen dragged him into the bathroom to drown him, leaving him there the rest of the night. Then he put the body in a closet as he contemplated how to get rid of it.
Eliminating The Dead
Dennis Nilsen decided to dissect it into small pieces and flush it down a toilet. He had to hurry as he had a friend coming to visit. When the flushing process took longer than expected, he boiled some of the flesh in his kitchen, along with the head, hands, and feet. Then the bones were separated and put into the trash. Some larger bones he hurled over the back garden fence into a waste area, and placed others into a bag sprinkled inside with salt and stored those in a tea chest. He covered that with a red curtain.
The second man was Archibald Graham Allan. Nilsen made him an omelet, and what he recalled of this death was rather odd. “I noticed he was sitting there and suddenly he appeared to be asleep or unconscious with a large piece of omelet hanging out of his mouth.” At that point he thought he strangled him, but does not recall. He thought the man might have choked on the egg dish. “If the omelet killed him, I don’t know.” Since an omelet does not leave red marks on someone’s neck, Dennis Nilsen supposed that he was the one responsible.
He placed Allan into a bath and left him there for three days, then dissected him as he had with John the Guardsman.
The third and last victim was Steven Sinclair, age 20, who took drugs and loitered about the Leicester Square. On January 23rd, 1983, some of his acquaintances saw him go off with strange man. They went to Nilsen’s home where Nilsen sat and listened to music, while Sinclair shot up and then fell asleep in a chair. Nilsen went into the kitchen and found some thick string, thinking to himself, “Here we go again.” The string was too short so he attached it to a tie. He draped the ligature over the sleeping man’s knees and poured himself a drink. Then he sat and contemplated all the pain in Stephen’s life and decided to stop it for him. He went over, made sure he was deep asleep, and then used the string-and-tie ligature to strangle him. He struggled slightly and then went unconscious. Nilsen told him, “Nothing can hurt you now.” Then he removed bandages on Stephen’s arms and discovered that he recently had tried to commit suicide with a razor.
Nilsen then bathed him and put him into the bed. He placed two mirrors by the bed and removed his clothes so that he could look at the two of them naked together. He experienced a feeling of oneness and thought that this surely was the meaning of life and death. He talked with Stephen as if he were still alive. The dog jumped into bed with them and sniffed at Stephen. Nilsen turned the young man’s head toward him and kissed it. He had no idea that this corpse would betray him and finally be the cause of his undoing.
Growing Up Alone
Nilsen believes his troubles can be pinpointed to the traumatizing sight of his grandfather’s corpse. He was born in Fraserburgh, Scotland, on November 23, 1945 the only child of Betty and Olav Nilsen. It was an unhappy marriage, full of conflict from Olav’s drunkenness and long absences.
The marriage lasted seven years until Betty divorced Olav. She and Dennis, along with his two siblings, were already living in the home of her parents, since her husband had never provided otherwise, so they just stayed where they were.
Young Dennis especially loved his grandfather, Andrew Whyte, but when Dennis was only six, Andrew died. Without telling Dennis what had happened, his mother took him in to see the corpse, which triggered a terrible awareness of devastating loss. He says in retrospect that it caused a sort of emotional death inside him.
When he was eight, he nearly drowned in the sea, and was rescued by an older boy who was playing on the beach. The boy must have been aroused by Nilsen’s prostrate body, for he removed his clothes and apparently masturbated onto him. Nilsen awoke to find a sticky white substance on his stomach.
A Kind Heart
Then his mother remarried two years later and he withdrew and became a loner. She had four more children and little time for Dennis.
He never exhibited rage, cruelty to animals or other children, or any type of aggressiveness typically associated with conduct-disordered boys who become killers later in life. In fact, he was horrified by cruelties that he witnessed by others.
Once he helped to search for a man who had turned up missing, and he and a friend found the man’s corpse on the banks of a river. The man had wandered out in the night and had drowned. The body reminded Nilsen of his grandfather, whose death and permanent departure he had been unable to comprehend. He felt oddly distant.
Having had no sexual encounters as an adolescent, but having experienced attraction to other boys, Dennis Nilsen remained fairly innocent. Once he had looked at his brother’s sleeping form, exploring his naked anatomy, but that had been quickly aborted.
He Learned Butchery
In 1961, he enlisted in the army and became a cook, which is how he learned butchery.
He began to rely on alcohol to stave off loneliness, although he kept his distance from others. It was during these years, when he finally got a private room, that he would lay down in front of a mirror in such a way as not to see his head and pretend to be unconscious. The “other body” aroused him and he would masturbate as he contemplated it.
During the last few months of service, he met a man whom Brian Masters, in the definitive book on Nilsen, called “Terry Finch,” and they developed a close friendship. Nilsen was clearly in love and he got the young man, who was not gay, to pretend to be dead while he took home movies. Their parting was a source of great pain for Nilsen. He destroyed the films he had made and gave the projector to Terry.
In 1972, he trained to become a policeman. One of the experiences he recalled was seeing autopsied bodies in a morgue. He found himself fascinated. Nevertheless, this job was not for him and after a year, he resigned. He got employment as a job interviewer and remained with that until his arrest.
Dennis Nilsen Questioned
He met a young man there, David Painter, who was looking for a job. Nilsen later encountered him in the street and they went together to Nilsen’s flat. Painter crawled into bed and fell asleep. He awoke to find Nilsen taking pictures of him, and he created such a row that he hurt himself and had to be taken to a hospital. Nilsen was questioned by the police and released.
Dennis fell into a life of casual pick-ups, but was trouble with how transient and superficial they were. He sought something more enduring. He was ready to commit, if only someone would commit to him. His fantasies in the mirror developed more bizarre qualities. Now he thought of the “other” body as being dead-a state he perceived as emotional and physical perfection. He even used make-up to achieve a better effect, including mixing up some fake blood to make it appear that he had been murdered. He imagined someone coming in to take him and bury him. Sometimes it worried him to be so in love with his own dead body.
In 1975, Dennis moved into 195 Melrose Place in north London-a ground floor flat with a garden–with a man named David Gallichan, who denied that their friendship was homosexual. They bought a puppy, which they named Bleep, and then added a cat.
Two years later, with their diverse personalities causing considerable distress to both, Nilsen ordered Gallichan to leave. Afterward, however, he felt very afraid that he would end up alone. “Loneliness is a long unbearable pain,” he wrote. He threw himself into his work, became increasingly more political, drank more, and watched a lot of television. The killings began a year and a half after Gallichan left.
Dennis Nilsen’s Mistake
The last body Dennis Nilsen dissected-that of Stephen Sinclair-got the same treatment as the two preceding it. He boiled the head, hands, and feet, and placed the rest in plastic bags. He put one part in a cubbyhole in the bathroom and others went into the tea chest. Some of the flesh and organs were flushed down the toilet.
Nilsen may also have dumped some large pieces, because a man found a bag ripped apart near his garden, some distance away from Nilsen’s, which contained what looked like a rib cage and a spinal column. He did not report it and it disappeared within a few days. It was never tied to Dennis Nilsen.
There were five other tenants at 23 Cranley Gardens, but none of them knew Nilsen very well. During the first week of February, one of them noticed that the downstairs toilet was not flushing properly. He tried to clear the blockage with acid, to no avail. Other toilets seemed to be functioning as poorly, but Dennis Nilsen denied that he was having any problems. A plumber arrived to investigate, but his tools did not work. He called in a specialist.
Dennis feared that his own activities might be at the heart of the problems downstairs, so he stuffed the rest of Sinclair’s body into plastic bags, along with the partially boiled head. He locked the remains into the closet. He stopped flushing the toilet.
Dyno – Rod
Two days later, in the evening, a company called Dyno-Rod arrived to examine the blockage. Deciding it was underground, the technician, Michael Cattran, went into a manhole by the side of the house.
He noticed a peculiar smell. Cattran was convinced it was from something dead. He spotted sludge about eight inches thick on the floor of the sewer and found that it was composed of thirty to forty pieces of flesh. It had come from the pipe leading from the house. He reported his find to his superiors. The tenants gathered around him as he phoned, including Dennis Nilsen, and he mentioned that they might have to call the police. First, however, his company would do a better analysis by daylight. He then took Nilsen and one of the other tenants back outside with him to see the pile of rotting flesh.
Dennis Nilsen returned at midnight to remove the particles of flesh and dumped them over the fence. He thought about replacing them with pieces of chicken from the store, and then pondered suicide. Instead he sat alone in his flat and drank, surrounded by the body parts of three men.
However, the downstairs tenants had noticed his movements. When Cattran returned and found the sewer cleaned out, the tenants told him their suspicions. From deep inside the sewer, he pulled out one piece of foul-smelling meat and called the police.
Dennis Nilsen Knew
At work on the day of February 9, 1983, Dennis Nilsen told a co-worker, “If I’m not in tomorrow, I’ll either be ill, dead, or in jail.” They both laughed.
But Dennis Nilsen sensed something coming. When he stepped into the dark hallway to go to his flat, he saw three men waiting for him.
Detective Chief Inspector Jay told him they had come about his drains. He told Nilsen that human remains blocked them. Nilsen exclaimed in dismay, and then asked, “Where did it come from?”
They pointed out that it could only have come from his own flat and asked about the rest of the body.
Nilsen gave up and said he would come to the station. He knew his rights and admitted that he wanted to talk, and talk he did, as he unburdened himself in sickening detail. The more he talked, the more the police realized that they had been given clues over the past four years and had they acted differently, might have stopped the killing spree much sooner.
The Truth Unburied
A search of Nilsen’s closet uncovered several bags of male remains in various stages of decomposition.
These were taken to a mortuary for examination. Dennis Nilsen told them to look in the tea chest and under a drawer in the bathroom. He also pointed them toward his former apartment where he had killed “twelve or thirteen” men. He admitted that there were seven others whom he had tried to kill and had failed.
In the police station, Nilsen said, “The victim is the dirty platter after the feast and the washing up is an ordinary clinical task.”
Dennis Nilsen began to spill out the details of his murders at once, despite being cautioned. His formal questioning began on February 11th. It lasted over thirty hours, spread throughout the week. Nilsen talked about his techniques and helped the police to identify parts of the victims. He did not really require much prompting. The information flooded out, as if to purge his conscience and get rid of every possible memory. He made no digressions and did not plead for compassion. He also exhibited no remorse. He claimed later that his professional training allowed him to feign calmness so the officials could take down the information. He told them what they would need for conviction, but nothing personal. Privately, he was afraid and deeply disturbed by what he had done.
Thanks to Nilsen, it was possible to find the various pieces of bodies and assemble them into a person, as they did with Stephen Sinclair. His lower half was in a bag in the bathroom. From there they could figure out which torso was his, along with the rest. With a definite identity, they were able to charge Nilsen and hold him pending further investigation.
The Skeletons in the Closets
Nilsen also accompanied police to 195 Melrose Avenue and pointed out where he had buried things and made bonfires.
A lawyer was now appointed to Nilsen named Ronald T. Moss, who listened with the police to Nilsen’s detailed confession. He was satisfied that Nilsen understood what was happening.
When one police officer insisted that Nilsen was a predator, with malicious intent, Nilsen responded, “I seek company first, and hope everything will be all right.”
Later he wrote his gruesome memoir for a young writer, Brian Masters, who turned Nilsen’s ramblings into a book. As Master’s says, “Nilsen is the first murderer to present an exhaustive archive measuring his own introspection. His prison journals are therefore a unique document in the history of criminal homicide.”
After the confession, Nilsen was removed to Brixton Prison to await his trial. He was troubled by the reaction of the press that immediately followed his arrest. “No one wants to believe ever that I am just an ordinary man,” he mused, “come to an extraordinary and overwhelming conclusion.”
The Ones Who Lived
Many young men-and even a woman-came home with Nilsen and left unharmed, but a few just barely managed to escape, and some of those had made police reports. A more thorough investigation may have saved some lives. Nilsen claims that he made seven attempts in which he was either fought off or later changed his mind. He recalls the names of only four, but three of them testified against him at trial.
In October, 1979, Andrew Ho made a complaint. He said Nilsen had attacked him, but he would not make a written statement or agree to attend court as a witness, so there was no follow-up. Perhaps Ho did not want to admit to his own solicitation of Dennis Nilsen.
Almost a year later, Douglas Stewart said that Nilsen had attacked him. He had fallen asleep in the armchair, waking to find his feet tied and Nilsen putting a tie around his neck. He fought back, knocking Nilsen over, and Nilsen told him to leave. He called the police to 195 Melrose Place on August 11, 1980, around 4:00 a.m., but they noticed that he had been drinking. They knocked at the door and Nilsen seemed surprised by what they said. They figured it to be a homosexual encounter, with both sides hiding some of the truth. They made a report, but Stewart failed to follow-up as required.
Nilsen lived in his Cranley Gardens flat less than a year and a half, but killed three men. He nearly killed several more.
On November 23rd, 1981-Nilsen’s 36th birthday–he took a nineteen-year-old gay student named Paul Nobbs back home with him and they sat drinking together. Then they went to bed and Nobbs woke up at 2:30 in the morning with a terrible headache. He woke again at six and went into the kitchen. In the mirror there, he saw a deep red mark across his throat. The white of his eyes were bloodshot and his face looked bruised. Nilsen commented that he looked awful and advised him to see a doctor. That day, Nobbs visited the university infirmary and learned that bruises on his throat indicated that someone had tried to strangle him. He declined to report the incident.
The victim right after him was John Howlett, who did not escape.
For New Year’s Eve that year, neighbors of Nilsen’s were invited to his flat, but they had plans. Besides, he appeared drunk, which disturbed them. They heard him leave the house and return home with someone. Then they heard a commotion upstairs. Someone came running down the steps, sobbing, and ran out the front door. That man was Toshimitsu Ozawa. He told police that he thought Nilsen had intended to kill him. He had approached Ozawa with a tie stretched between his hands. There was no follow-up investigation.
In April, 1982, Nilsen entertained a drag artist named Carl Stotter, 21. They drank together and went to bed. He attempted to strangle Stotter, who woke up, unable to breathe. He thought Nilsen was trying to help him, but that was not the case. Nilsen carried him into the bathroom and placed him in a tub of water, submerging him several times until Stotter begged for him to stop. Stotter then went under and stopped struggling. Nilsen thought he was dead and carried him to the couch. Bleep jumped up and began to lick Stotter’s face, aware that he was still alive. Nilsen then took him to bed and wrapped himself around the young man until he regained consciousness. Nilsen told Stotter that he had gotten his throat caught in the zipper of the sleeping bag that had covered him. Stotter attributed the experience to a bad nightmare, despite getting a check-up and learning that his condition was consistent with severe strangulation. He actually agreed to meet Dennis Nilsen again, but did not keep the appointment. He also did not go to the police.
The Sentencing of Dennis Nilsen
While awaiting his trial, Nilsen decided to dispense with his legal aid, Ronald Moss, but then reinstated him. Nearing the trial date, he fired him and hired Ralph Haeems, the lawyer of a prisoner with whom he was in love, David Martin. Haeems decided to go for a “diminished responsibility” defense, citing a mental abnormality in Nilsen. His defense counsel was Ivan Lawrence, asking for a charge of manslaughter.
Dennis Nilsen examined the crime scene photos and felt ill over his atrocious acts against others. He wondered if the victims’ families could ever forgive him.
He wrote over fifty notebooks of his memories to assist the prosecution, and also drew a series of “Sad Sketches” showing what he had done to some of his victims. On the eve of his trial, he wrote, “I have judged myself more harshly than any court ever could.”
Dennis Nilsen was charged with six counts of murder and two charges of attempted murder. Alan Green was the prosecutor. He maintained that Nilsen had killed in full awareness of what he was doing and should be found guilty of murder. His principal evidence was from Nilsen’s lengthy statement to the police, while the defense relied on psychiatric analysis.
The trial began on October 24, 1983. The charges were read and Nilsen pleaded “Not Guilty” to each one.
Green described the events of the morning of Nilsen’s arrest, but did not force the jury to look at photos of the grisly remains. He also mentioned that there was another count of murder and of attempted murder, but these had been determined too late to include in the original indictment.
Those who testified against Nilsen were Paul Nobbs, Douglas Stewart, and Carl Stotter. Nilsen attempted to undermine their credibility by helping his lawyer to point out problems with some of their statements. He said that Stewart had stayed for another drink after the alleged attack, which Stewart could not explain, and the defense counsel managed to get him to admit that he had sold his story to the media, with embellishments. Nobbs admitted to a sexual encounter with Nilsen and said that he had appeared to be quite friendly throughout the evening. Stotter, shy and quite terrified by the proceedings, also said that Nilsen had been solicitous and friendly. Nevertheless, his chilling account had a damaging effect on the defense.
Nilsen’s interviews with the police were read verbatim, taking four hours. The evidence presented in court included the cooking pot, the cutting board used to dissect one victim, and a set of knives that had belonged to Martyn Duffey.
The defense witness, Dr. James MacKeith, discussed the various aspects of unspecified personality disorder from which he believed Dennis Nilsen suffered. He then described how Nilsen had always had trouble expressing his feelings, and he always fled from relationships that had gone wrong. His maladaptive behaviors had been in place since childhood. He had the ability to separate his mental and behavioral functions to an extraordinary degree, which implied diminished responsibility for what he was doing. The psychiatrist also described Nilsen’s association between unconscious bodies and sexual arousal. He was also narcissistic and grandiose, with the added hindrance of blackouts from excessive drinking. He had an impaired sense of identity and was able to depersonalize others to the point where he did not feel much about what he was doing to them.
On strenuous cross-examination, MacKeith was forced to retract his judgment about diminished responsibility in all of the cases. He said that was for the court to decide.
The second psychiatrist, Dr. Patrick Gallwey, diagnosed Nilsen with a “Borderline False Self As If Pseudo-Normal Narcissistic Personality Disorder.” He settled for a False Self Syndrome, which meant that Nilsen had occasional outbreaks of schizoid disturbances that he managed most of the time to keep at bay. Such a person is most likely to disintegrate under circumstances of social isolation. In effect, Nilsen was not guilty of “malice aforethought.”
Guilty as Sin
Even the judge questioned Gallwey’s obtuse medical jargon and his testimony had the effect of being over the jury’s heads.
A rebuttal psychiatrist was called, Dr. Paul Bowden, who had spent fourteen hours with Nilsen-much more than those doctors for the defense. He found no evidence for much of the testimony put forth by the other psychiatrists, and thought that Nilsen was manipulative. He did see Nilsen as a unique case, with a mental abnormality but not a mental disorder. His explanation of the difference was not very clear.
During the summing up, in which the case was reduced to its basic elements, the judge instructed the jury that a mind can be evil without being abnormal, thereby dispensing with all of the psychiatric jargon.
The jury retired on Thursday, November 3rd. The following day, at 11:25 a.m., the judge said that he would accept a majority count, since there were two dissenters on every issue, except the attempted murder of Nobbs. At 4:25, they delivered a verdict: Guilty on all counts.
The judge sentenced Dennis Andrew Nilsen to life in prison, not eligible for parole for 25 years. Nilsen was almost 38. Nilsen was never released from prison and died in May of 2018.