The Nilsen Files: The shocking truth I found in the archives

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Hattie Llewellyn-Davies (BBC/Wall to Wall)
Hattie Llewellyn-Davies (BBC/Wall to Wall)

In February 1983, a plumber called out to unblock a drain was confronted with the evidence of the horrifying crimes of a serial killer. This accidental discovery launched one of the biggest murder investigations in Metropolitan Police history. On his arrest, the tenant from the top floor flat, 37 year-old Dennis Nilsen, confessed that not only had he killed the three young men whose remains were found in his Muswell Hill flat, but he had in fact murdered up to thirteen other people over a period of five years.

Nilsen’s victims were young men he had picked up in central London. They were, he claimed, “mostly” homeless, or what he called “rent boys”, and so his confession took police from the leafy suburbs of North London, to Piccadilly and Soho in the heart of London’s West End.

The story as Nilsen told it is well known. It’s been the subject of books, documentaries and even acclaimed dramas. But when I began working on this documentary, I quickly realised that there’s another story that has been almost entirely overlooked - that of Nilsen’s victims. And I was haunted by a thought: how could up to 16 young men disappear from the nation’s capital without anyone seeming to notice?

Detectives on the case were faced with the daunting task of trying to identify people from the remains at Nilsen’s properties; he had attempted to destroy all traces of them by dismembering and disposing of their bodies. But just three days after he was arrested, detectives were able to name one of Nilsen’s victims: Stephen Sinclair, a 20 year oldman from Perth in Scotland. As I looked at the archive, I was immediately struck by the reporting of Stephen’s story; the way in which his criminal record, homelessness and background in the care system seemed to create the sense that his tragic death was in some way inevitable for someone like him.

Hattie Llewellyn-Davies knew Stephen Sinclair well (BBC/Wall to Wall)
Hattie Llewellyn-Davies knew Stephen Sinclair well (BBC/Wall to Wall)

And there was something else: Nilsen’s account of Stephen, and his death, was widely reported, and despite the fact that no other victims had been identified at that stage, was apparently used to create a profile of Nilsen’s victims as being on the fringes of society. But as I spoke to former detectives, journalists who reported on the case, and volunteers who worked with the homeless in London at the time, a very different picture started to emerge.

My first real breakthrough came by accident. At the age of 19, Hattie Llewelyn-Davies was working in an advice centre for young people looking to find work or housing in London. I originally approached her simply for some background.

In our first conversation Hattie told me that she knew and remembered Stephen Sinclair well. He had visited her advice centre many times; she recalled him as a funny, lively young man, full of hopes for the future. Before this, every account I had read had led me to believe that the victims in this case were forgotten and without connections to anyone. Her account was in total contrast to this and spurred me on to reconsider the stories of some of the other victims.

In the months following Nilsen’s arrest, three more victims were identified. Martyn Duffey, Billy Sutherland and Malcolm Barlow were named as victims in May 1983. But rather than all fitting the media profile, I discovered that both Martyn and Billy’s worried parents had reported them missing and had been looking for them for years before they were given the terrible news.

Piecing together these stories, I discovered how much of the narrative of this case relied on the account of the killer, which kept him in the spotlight and further diminished his victims. And I started to realise that this had also obscured the prejudices that have surrounded the case from the very start.

I came to this story as a filmmaker, but also as a gay man and early on I recognised that that although the discovery of a gay serial killer had made headline news, Nilsen’s sexuality was treated as almost too awful to fully explore. In 1983, it was still a libellous offence to claim that someone was gay. So, while his sexuality was described with hints and innuendos, the victims were openly referred to as “rent boys”, whether or not they actually were.

I found out about what was known dismissively as “the meat rack” in Piccadilly, a then well-known but generally ignored aspect of the capital where young men and even boys were sexually exploited by older men. What came across clearly from the archive, was an attitude that Nilsen’s victims, who were possibly involved in prostitution, or who were perhaps gay, were partly to blame for their own deaths. They were seen as having endangered - and worse still degraded themselves - by their association with a gay man.

Leigh Mason knew the true horrors of the area of Soho known as ‘the meat rack’ (BBC/Wall to Wall)
Leigh Mason knew the true horrors of the area of Soho known as ‘the meat rack’ (BBC/Wall to Wall)

But it was a hidden story about the murder of Canadian tourist Kenneth Ockenden that first exposed the part that prejudice may have played in missed opportunities to arrest Nilsen sooner. Often described as Nilsen’s “straight mistake”, when 23 year old Ken went missing in December 1979, he was the only victim to make the headlines before Nilsen’s crimes were discovered. But again, it was Hattie Llewellyn Davies who revealed that there was something more to his story. Hattie knew Ken, as he had visited her advice centre asking for what she called ‘survival skills’ - advice that young gay men and those exploring their sexuality often came to the centre for. Hattie told me that as well as being shocked to discover that Ken was a victim, she was also surprised by the way he was described in the media when he was publicly identified.

What Hattie told me didn’t match any of the other accounts I’d read, nor did the findings of the detective who originally looked into Ken’s disappearance back in 1979. Detective Inspector Roy Davies had discovered that on his travels around England, the young tourist had met other men in pubs and had gone home with them on at least two occasions. But when Roy reported this to the family, Ken’s father was said to be upset.

In 1980, Roy passed his findings onto a murder squad because of his concerns, but Roy’s discoveries about Ken aren’t reflected in any of the accounts of the case. When I suggested to the detectives on the Nilsen investigation that Ken might have been gay, they were adamant that he was straight.

Whatever the truth about Ken’s sexuality, I was left wondering whether in an era of widespread homophobia and out of a possible desire to protect Ken’s reputation, potential leads weren’t pursued that might have led police to Nilsen, who was a regular in many of London’s gay pubs?

As I continued to follow the timeline of the case, I discovered that there were young men who had survived attacks by Nilsen and who would become key witnesses in his trial in the summer of 1983.

The first survivor to testify was barman Douglas Stewart. Douglas revealed that in 1982, a year before Nilsen’s crimes were discovered he had met Nilsen in a well-known gay pub, went back home with him and awoke to find he was tied up and Nilsen was attempting to strangle him. After struggling free and escaping, he called the police, but was shocked when officers who arrived at the scene accepted Nilsen’s explanation and brushed off this violent attack as a lovers tiff. Douglas didn’t hear from the police again until after Nilsen was arrested.

Julie Bentley, sister of Carl Stottor, spoke of him as a young man comfortable with his sexuality (BBC/Wall to Wall)
Julie Bentley, sister of Carl Stottor, spoke of him as a young man comfortable with his sexuality (BBC/Wall to Wall)

The second witness to testify was a budding young drag performer, Carl Stottor. In May 1982, he met Nilsen in The Black Cap, a gay pub in Camden, and went home with him. That night, Nilsen tried to strangle and then drown Carl.

Carl’s younger siblings, Julie and Paul, kindly agreed to talk to me about him. Unlike the usual descriptions of Nilsen’s victims, they painted a picture of a young gay man, comfortable with his sexuality and a confident performer. But the way Carl was treated after he was attacked did feel sadly familiar. Like Douglas, Carl tried to report his attack to the police but as Julie and Paul told me, it was dismissed as a lovers’ tiff.

Carl Stottors attack wasn’t included in the charges against Nilsen at trial, but Carl made the brave decision to testify to help the prosecution’s case. And yet, in court, his drag act was mocked and his sexuality became the focus for the media. He was victim of a horrific violent crime, but was simply labelled as a “homosexual” in the press.

It was the testimony of a third survivor that really revealed the prejudice gay men were suffering at the time. In November 1981, 19-year-old language student Paul Nobbs was at the bar of the Golden Lion, trying to avoid the attention of another man. Nilsen intervened and bought him a drink, then invited him back to his flat. That night, he tried to strangle him as he slept.

Val Atkinson reported on the missing young men for BBC Scotland (BBC/Wall to Wall)
Val Atkinson reported on the missing young men for BBC Scotland (BBC/Wall to Wall)

Unlike Douglas and Carl, Paul didn’t report the attack at the time. He was 19 and although he had been the victim of a crime, he was in danger of prosecution himself: in 1981, the age of consent for gay men was 21. And it was common for gay men to be arrested for “importuning” which could often be as simple as holding hands or kissing.

It’s shocking to think that at the same time police resources were being used to prosecute young gay men, Nilsen was picking up his victims, taking them home and murdering them and all without seeming to attract any significant police attention.

In court, Paul, who hadn’t come out to his family, had to come out to the whole world and give intimate details of a one night stand.

After a ten day trial, Nilsen was found guilty of 6 counts of murder and 2 attempted murders. At the end of the trial, the judge, Justice Croom, commended the police on an exemplary investigation. But in fact as I discovered, what the trial had actually revealed via the testimony of survivors was that there had been multiple opportunities to apprehend Nilsen years before his arrest in February 1983.

However, one of the earliest missed opportunities to apprehend Nilsen wasn’t revealed until after his sentencing - I found the details in the archive of Mirror journalist Douglas Bence.

Former Mirror journalist Douglas Bence saw documents that showed Nilsen had been arrested before (BBC/Wall to Wall)
Former Mirror journalist Douglas Bence saw documents that showed Nilsen had been arrested before (BBC/Wall to Wall)

In October 1979, a young man called Andrew Ho reported to police that Nilsen had tried to kill him. Written by one of Douglas’s colleagues, the document recounts the fact that Nilsen was arrested and interviewed for two days for attempted murder. He was only released because Andrew, who was 19 years old, was fearful of pressing charges. The archive document quotes an officer who dealt with Andrew’s complaint. He described Nilsen as “dangerous - pathological, even”.

The document is staggering. If this warning had been taken seriously and Nilsen kept on closer watch in 1979, 15 young men might still be alive.

Nilsen was sentenced to life in November 1983 and you’d think that’s where his story would end. But throughout the Eighties and Nineties Nilsen continued to make the headlines: letters would be leaked, books released and he was even interviewed for a television documentary. Yet, despite all this attention, I was struck by the fact that he never parted with any new information about the eight or nine victims who remained unidentified.

In 1995, the TV series Missing featured the story of Stephen Holmes, a 14 year old boy who had disappeared in 1978 in Cricklewood, North London. In the programme, his mother, Kay, tells of her horror when she realised how the time and place might connect his disappearance to Nilsen. But Kay was told by the police that there was no evidence to link him to Nilsen.

Chris Healey was a detective on the original Nilsen investigation (BBC/Wall to Wall)
Chris Healey was a detective on the original Nilsen investigation (BBC/Wall to Wall)

Then in 2006, detectives on the Met Police’s Cold Case team reviewed the Nilsen case, examining cases of missing boys and young men that matched the vague descriptions Nilsen had originally provided. Andy Baker was on the panel of the Cold Case review team in 2003, and he told me that his officers took a photo of a boy missing since 1978 to Nilsen, who readily identified him as his first victim.

But Chris Healey, a detective on the original Nilsen investigation, told me that Nilsen initially admitted to the murder of Stephen, only to deny it when he was told that Stephen was only 14 years old. It’s clear that in 1995, Kay Holmes was not aware of Nilsen’s initial confession when he was arrested in 1983. By the time Stephen was finally identified as a victim in 2006, Kay had died - four years earlier, perhaps without ever knowing what had happened to her son.

When I started out on this journey a year ago, I had no idea the extent that homophobia and prejudice had impacted this case. What I’ve discovered is that with tragic repetition, it’s these prejudices which led to missed opportunities that could have led to Nilsen’s arrest years before 1983. And while he has become infamous, I feel that it’s the lives and stories of his victims - the sons, brothers, fathers and friends - that should be remembered.

The Nilsen Files is on BBC Two from Monday January 24

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