|“||I stood there amazed. I found it all hard to believe, that I, Des Nilsen, had actually done all that.||”|
Dennis Andrew "Des" Nilsen, a.k.a. "The Kindly Killer" and "The Muswell Hill Murderer", was a Scottish necrophilic and ephebophilic serial killer who was active in London. He is sometimes called The British Jeffrey Dahmer because of similarities in their victimology and modus operandi.
Nilsen's father, Olav Magnus Nilsen (né Moksheim), was a Norwegian soldier evacuated to Scotland after the Nazis conquered his home country in World War II. His mother, a local fisherman's daughter named Elizabeth Duthie Whyte, married Olav in May 1942 against the opinion of her parents. Together, they had three children: two sons, Olav Jr. and Dennis, and a daughter named Sylvia. Olav was never interested in starting a family, however, and the couple divorced in 1948. As a result, the paternal role of their children was fulfilled by their maternal grandfather Andrew. As a young child, Nilsen was very close to his grandfather and would eagerly wait for him while he was at sea. On October 31, 1951, a month before Nilsen's sixth birthday, Whyte died of a heart attack while he was fishing in the North Sea. His body was brought to the family home for burial, and Nilsen's mother let him see it, telling him that his grandfather was sleeping.
The loss of his grandfather, plus being able to see the body before burial, had a profound effect in Nilsen's personality. He became quiet and reserved and would shun other adults' attempts to offer him affection. His favorite activity was to travel to the harbor alone and watch the fishing boats as they arrived and departed. During one of these excursions, in either 1954 or 1955, Nilsen somehow became submerged in the water and was almost dragged out to sea. He panicked at first, but once he ran out of oxygen, he had a near-death experience, which caused him to calm down and believe that his grandfather was coming to get him. He was then pulled out of the water by other youngsters. Shortly after this incident, Nilsen's mother remarried to another man, and the family subsequently moved to the inland village of Strichen.
With the onset of puberty, Nilsen realized that he wasn't heterosexual, but he was unsure if he was gay or bisexual, because the boys he was attracted to looked suspiciously like his sister. To test his attractions, Nilsen once fondled both his sister and brother as they slept, but his brother woke up in the middle of the act. Since then, Nilsen was bullied and called a "hen" (Scottish slang for a girl) by his brother. Nilsen decided that he would leave Strichen and join the Army Cadet Force at age fourteen, as a previous step to sign for the British Army after finishing high school. His first destination was Osnabrück, a city in West Germany. There, Nilsen drank high quantities of alcohol to reduce his shyness and help himself socialize. One time, he passed out and woke up on the floor of an apartment owned by a German friend. Though no sexual activity took place, this incident became a source for Nilsen's fantasy about having sex while one of the parties was mostly immobile, and he would pretend to be passed out during later drinking sessions in hopes that one of his partners made sexual advances on him.
In 1967, Nilsen was redeployed to Aden, South Yemen, and assigned to Al-Mansoura Prison. The violence from pro-independence groups led to the abductions or ambush murders of several of Nilsen's companions. Nilsen himself was nearly abducted by a local taxi driver once; the man had knocked him unconscious and placed him in the trunk of his car. However, Nilsen regained consciousness before reaching their destination. When the abductor opened the trunk with the intention of dragging him out, Nilsen knocked him to the floor with a jack-handle, beat him until he was unconscious, and left him locked in his own trunk. Now granted his own room, Nilsen began to use a freestanding mirror to simulate sex with a masculine partner. His fantasies became unambiguously necrophilic after he discovered the painting The Raft of the Medusa. Following brief stays in Britain and Cyprus, he was destined again to Germany, where he hired a prostitute so he could have intercourse with a woman for the first time. Nilsen found the experience "overrated" and "depressing" and concluded that he was indeed homosexual.
Nilsen retired from the Army in 1972 and returned to Strichen, where his mother repeatedly voiced her concern for Nilsen's lack of interest in female companionship. A few months later, Nilsen and his brother attended a group-watching of a documentary on male homosexuality. Everyone present spoke of the subject derisively, except for Nilsen, who defended gay rights. A fight between Nilsen and his brother ensued, and after its conclusion, Nilsen's brother told their mother that Nilsen was homosexual. This led to an estrangement between Nilsen and his brother, and in December, he left Strichen for London to join the Metropolitan Police. After graduating from the academy, Nilsen began to visit gay pubs, and he resigned from the force after about a year of service. After a brief stint as a security guard, he settled for a civil servant post at a job center, where he rarely interacted with his coworkers and was considered a workaholic. Nilsen had several brief, sentimental relationships during this period, but they all ended in failure. As a result, he came to believe that he was unfit for a long-time relationship.
Nilsen's first fatal victim was fourteen-year-old Stephen Holmes, whom he encountered at the Cricklewood Arms pub on December 30, 1978, after Holmes attempted unsuccessfully to buy alcohol there. Nilsen had been drinking heavily and believed that Holmes was around seventeen. He invited Holmes to his home, and they drank together until they fell asleep. The following morning, Nilsen awoke and found Holmes still asleep on his bed. Fearing that Holmes would leave him to spend New Year's Eve alone, Nilsen strangled Holmes with a necktie until he was unconscious, then drowned the boy in a bucket of water at the kitchen. Nilsen masturbated twice over Holmes' body and then hid it under the floorboards. Eight months later, he built a pyre behind his home and burned the body. In October, he met a student from Hong Kong, Andrew Ho, in another pub and lured him to his apartment with the promise of sex, but Ho escaped when Nilsen tried to strangle him. Nilsen was questioned about this incident by police, but Ho declined to press charges.
Two months later, Nilsen met a Canadian student, Kenneth Ockenden, in a pub, and offered to show him several London landmarks. After giving him the tour, Nilsen invited Ockenden over to his apartment. Then, he strangled Ockenden to death while he was listening to music. The following morning, Nilsen staged Ockenden's body in a number of suggestive positions, photographed it each time, and watched television with the corpse by his side. Afterward, he wrapped it in plastic bags and hid it under the floorboards. During the next two weeks, Nilsen dug up and reburied Ockenden's body four separate times. Every time, after he dug up the body and before he reburied it, he would place the body on an armchair, where it remained while Nilsen drank and watched television.
The next victim was sixteen-year-old hitchhiker Martyn Duffey, who was first strangled in his sleep and then drowned in the kitchen sink. Afterward, Nilsen took Duffey's body to the bathroom and bathed with him. He kissed, complimented, and masturbated over Duffey's body repeatedly over the two following days. When the body became bloated, Nilsen hid it under the floorboards. Nilsen's criminal activity increased starting in August 1980. After trying to spray the bodies with deodorant and insecticide to eliminate maggots and odors, he dismembered the bodies and burned them in a waste ground behind his home. In October, when Nilsen's landlord decided to renovate the property, Nilsen disposed of his latest victim earlier and moved to an attic flat in 23 Cranley Gardens, in the suburb of Muswell Hill. Though Nilsen continued to invite men, he refrained from committing murders for a while because he did not have access to the garden, nor did he have enough space under the floorboards. The only incidents in six months involved Toshimitsu Ozawa, a Japanese chef who fled when he saw Nilsen coming at him with a tie; and Paul Nobbs, who woke up in the morning feeling dizzy and with red eye. He went to a hospital at Nilsen's suggestion; he was later informed that someone had tried to strangle him. However, neither man reported Nilsen to the police.
In March 1982, Nilsen invited John Howlett for a drink. After Howlett fell asleep in his bed, Nilsen sat by his side and continued drinking before he tried to strangle him. However, Howlett awoke and struggled with Nilsen, almost overpowering him. He was eventually strangled to unconsciousness three times. After Nilsen realized that he was still breathing, he filled the bathtub with water and drowned Howlett for five minutes. Nilsen subsequently dismembered the body, flushed the flesh and organs down the toilet, and threw the bones in the trash. Two months later, the scenario was repeated with Carl Stotter, who slept in a sleeping bag. Stotter awoke to Nilsen strangling him and was then taken to the bathtub and forcefully immersed. Believing that he had killed Stotter, Nilsen placed Stotter on an armchair. However, he realized that Stotter was still alive when his dog, Bleep, jumped over and began to lick Stotter's face, because Bleep never interacted with the corpses. Nilsen decided to resuscitate Stotter, and later told him that he had accidentally strangled himself after being stuck in the sleeping bag's zip. Over the next two days, Stotter fell unconscious several times and had flashes of Nilsen strangling and drowning him. Stotter asked Nilsen about the memories, but Nilsen explained that Stotter would have nightmares whenever he was stuck in the zip, and that he would place Stotter in cold water to help him recover from shock. Nilsen invited Stotter to stay over again, but he declined.
Nilsen's next victim was Graham Allen, who was offered a meal, and subsequently strangled while he was eating an omelette (Nilsen would later claim that Allen had accidentally choked on it). Allen's body was left in the bathtub for three days, and Nilsen had to ask for a day off from work so he could dismember it. On January 26, 1983, Nilsen killed his final victim, Stephen Sinclair, who was strangled while in an alcohol- and drug-induced stupor on Nilsen's armchair. After killing him, Nilsen noticed that Sinclair's wrists were bandaged, removed them, and discovered that Sinclair had tried to kill himself only a few days prior. Nilsen then bathed the corpse, applied talcum powder to it, and arranged mirrors around the bed before undressing himself and lying naked next to the dead youth. After several hours, Nilsen kissed the body, wished it goodnight, and fell asleep alongside it. The body was subsequently dismembered and the parts placed in different bags, with Sinclair's own bandages being used to seal them.
Arrest, Incarceration, and Death
On February 4, Nilsen complained to estate agents about the drains being clogged, seemingly unaware that it was the body parts of his own victims clogging them. When plumber Michael Cattran informed Nilsen that he had found the drain packed with a fleshy substance and small bones, Nilsen joked that someone was flushing down "their Kentucky Fried Chicken". Cattran and his supervisor returned the next morning to clear the drain but found that someone else had done it. Suspicious, they examined the pipes leading to the drain and found more bones and scraps of flesh in a pipe coming from the top floor of the house, where Nilsen resided. After informing police, a pathologist confirmed that the bones were human, and that one of the flesh scraps was part of a neck bearing marks typical of ligature strangulation. As three officers waited for Nilsen to come home, they noticed the smell of decomposition at his front door. Nilsen first feigned shock when the officers told him that the blockage was caused by human remains, but when they told him to tell them the location of the rest of the body, he led them to one of the closets containing remains.
When asked if there were more, Nilsen said that it was "a long story" and that he would tell it all at the police station. While being driven there, an officer asked Nilsen if the remains belonged to one person or two. Nilsen looked out of the window and replied, "Fifteen or sixteen, since 1978." Nilsen soon made a full confession and led officers to the lot where he had destroyed the remains in Melrose Avenue. However, he claimed that he had no intention to kill until the moment right before a murder. He also claimed that he ignored the reason for the murders, adding that he hoped the police would tell him. On November 4, 1983, Nilsen was found guilty of six murders and one attempted murder, and sentenced to life in prison without parole for 25 years. The possibility of parole was eliminated in 1994 by Home Secretary Michael Howard, who replaced Nilsen's sentence with one of whole life order. Nilsen reacted to the news by saying that he accepted his life sentence and had no desire to be free again.
On May 12, 2018, Nilsen died as a result of complications following a stomach surgery at the age of 72. While incarcerated at the Full Sutton Prison in East Yorkshire, England, Nilson was transferred to a hospital in York on May 10, suffering from abdominal pains. During the procedure, Nilsen suffered a blood clot and later died. An autopsy ruled his cause of death was pulmonary embolism and retroperitoneal haemorrhage.
Nilsen's victims were young homosexual men, all of whom he met in bars or transients, and all of whom he encountered randomly. He would lure them to his home by offering them food, alcohol, or shelter; and strangled them with a ligature after they passed out or fell asleep. If the victim was unconscious but not dead yet, he would drown them in the sink, bathtub, or a bucket of water. Afterward, he would bathe the corpses, shave them, apply makeup, clothe them, prop them on the bed or armchair, and destroy all of their personal belongings. During the subsequent period of "cohabitation", he would embrace and talk to them, also masturbating and performing non-penetrative sexual acts on the bodies.
While living in Melrose Avenue, Nilsen eviscerated the bodies and abandoned the organs in a fence behind his property or near Gladstone Park. He later dismembered the bodies and burned them in pyres, adding car tires to the blazes in order to mask the smell of burning flesh. After the flames died down, he searched the ashes for recognizable remains with a rake and smashed any he could find. When he was in Muswell Hill, he dismembered the still-fresh bodies in the bathtub or the kitchen; boiled the heads, hands, and feet; flushed the flesh, internal organs, and smaller bones down the toilet; and kept the rest of the bones in bags until he took them out with the trash.
James McKeith, one of two psychiatrists testifying on behalf of Nilsen's defense, declared that Nilsen had a lack of emotional development and difficulty expressing any emotion but anger, constituting an unspecified personality disorder. The second psychiatrist, Patrick Gallwey, diagnosed Nilsen with a borderline, pseudo-normal narcissistic personality disorder, with occasional schizoid outbreaks that worsened as a result of social isolation. He was intellectually aware of his actions, but not of their nature. On the other hand, the prosecution's own psychiatrist, Paul Bowden, argued that Nilsen was only abnormal in a colloquial sense. He was instead a manipulative individual capable of forming relationships, but who had willingly chosen to objectify people, and he had no mental disorder as a result.
On Criminal Minds
- Season Eleven
- "Drive" - In sharp contrast to his American counterpart Dahmer, who is one of the most commonly referenced criminals in the show, Nilsen has only been named once. He was brought up (alongside Dahmer, no less) when the BAU theorized that an unsub who decapitated his victims might be a partialist who used dismemberment as a way to obtain sexual gratification. However, in real life, Nilsen only dismembered his victims as a disposal method.
- Season Twelve
- "A Good Husband" - While not directly mentioned or referenced (though Dahmer is), Nilsen seems to have been an inspiration for the episode's unsub, Mark Tolson - Both were homosexual killers whose parents divorced while they were minors, were in relationships with men that ended prior to their killings, targeted fellow homosexual men, found their victims in bars, and dismembered their victims (though Tolson did it as a form of torture with his last three victims, whereas Dennis did it post-mortem as a form of disposal).