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9 disturbing facts about Dennis Nilsen

Dennis Nilsen in the back of a police car
Image Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo | Above: Dennis Nilsen (Right) after he was sentenced to a minimum of 25 years imprisonment after being convicted of six murders and two attempted murders at the Old Bailey.

Dennis Nilsen confessed to murdering at least 12 young men and boys in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His crimes were horrific and the details were disturbing. To make matters worse, it's widely believed that the police missed several major opportunities to stop him.

These are some of the most disturbing details of his crimes.

1. He targeted the vulnerable

Nilsen’s victims included some of the most vulnerable in society: young men and boys (Stephen Holmes was only 14); some of whom were homosexual; many were homeless; often runaways; and sometimes, involved in sex work. They were often members of groups that tended to be dismissed and ignored by police at the time.

In the documentary The Nilsen Files, Lee Mason, who was a sex worker in the 70s, said the murders terrified members of the community. Homosexuals and male sex workers were widely seen by society as the lowest of the low and many were lured to Nilsen’s flat in the hopes of a drink, food, sex, or even just a bed for the night.

2. The press victim-blamed

Overlooking the missing men as sex workers and the homeless, some press reports of the crimes blamed the victims, insinuating that they were responsible for their own deaths.

3. He kept the bodies

Nilsen didn’t immediately dispose of his victims’ bodies after the murders. In fact, he often kept them as company, washing, redressing them, and keeping them in his home for weeks, even bringing them out to watch television with him.

4. He was a necrophile

He would also perform sex acts on the bodies, before dismembering them and disposing of the remains.

5. Body parts were hidden in his home

Many of his victims’ bodies were stored under the floorboards in his home. Later, when Nilsen confessed in prison, he told police of body parts that were hidden in chests, wardrobes, and drawers around his house. He would also often stage bonfires and burn their remains.

6. His victims could have been saved

The police were given multiple chances to arrest Nilsen after they were alerted to his crimes by men who had survived his attacks. 19-year-old Andrew Ho managed to escape and went to the police. However, Ho was an immigrant and as the homosexual age of consent was 21 at the time, he could have faced a prison sentence and declined to press charges. Police questioned Nilsen but took their enquiry no further.

Douglas Stewart also survived attempted murder at the hands of Nilsen and reported it to police. But when Nilsen told them it was simply a ‘lover’s tiff’ and they believed him.

Another Nilsen survivor, Carl Stottor, told the police after Nilsen had suffocated, then resuscitated him. He was only contacted after Nilsen had been arrested, but the police had completely dismissed his report at the time.

7. A plumber uncovered his crimes

Nilsen would often dispose of his victims' bodies by burning them, but he would also flush some of them down the toilet. In the end, this ultimately contributed to his arrest. After he wrote to his landlord to complain about the drains being blocked, an emergency plumber was sent in to investigate. He found the blockage was caused by the remains of human flesh.

When he returned the next day, the drains had been cleared, but he was able to find enough evidence in the pipes to take to the police. Other members of Nilsen’s building were questioned, but the smell coming from his flat alerted them to his crimes. This, ultimately, led to Nilsen’s arrest.

8. He confessed to his crimes on a personal dictaphone

Nilsen made his final confessions to police detectives in a series of now-infamous tapes that he dictated inside his prison cell. There is over 250 hours worth of audio recordings that outline his motives, his frame of mind, and how he committed the murders. The tapes have become a significant part of true crime folklore and even highlight the disturbing opinions he held about the world and society.

9. Victims remain unidentified

Decades after Nilsen’s crimes—and years after his death—there are still many possible victims of his who have not been identified. Nilsen himself didn’t even know who they all were. What’s worse, as he first confessed to killing 15 men, then changed the number back to 12, it’s possible we don’t even know the true extent of his crimes.