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The Stockwell Strangler: The killer who terrorised London's pensioners

Kenneth Erskine being led up some stairs by two detectives
Image: Kenneth Erskine (middle), The Stockwell Strangler | PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo | Background:

Between April and July 1986, the city of London was terrorised by an elusive serial killer that targeted senior citizens. He became known as ‘The Stockwell Strangler’ because four of his victims were strangled in south London’s Stockwell neighbourhood.

The first victim was 78-year-old Nancy Emms. Nancy was discovered in her bed at her home in West Hill Road, Wandsworth, on 9th April 1986. She had been sexually assaulted and strangled to death. Nancy had lived alone and at first, it appeared as though she had simply passed away in her sleep. It wasn’t until her television set was discovered to be missing that an autopsy was conducted, revealing that she was the victim of a homicide.

The killer then had a respite for two months before attacking 67-year-old Janet Crockett at her flat in Warwick House, Overton Road Estate, Stockwell. Much like Nancy, Janet was found strangled to death in her bed on 9th June.

The next two victims were 84-year-old Valentine Gleim and 94-year-old Zbigniew Stabrava. Both men were living in an old people’s home on Stockwell Park Road, Stockwell. They were both originally from Poland and one of them was a World War II veteran. They were sleeping in adjacent rooms inside the home when they were attacked on 28th June. Both were strangled to death, while Valentine had also been sexually assaulted.

On 8th July, 84-year-old William Carmen was sexually assaulted and strangled in his flat in Clephane Road, Islington. Before fleeing from the home, the killer had stolen some money. Then on 21st July, 74-year-old William Downes was strangled to death in his bedsit in Stockwell.

The final victim was 83-year-old Florence Tisdall. Florence lived alone at Ranelagh Garden Mansions in Fulham. On the morning of 23rd July 1986, her caretaker arrived at her flat to help her feed her three cats. When she entered the flat, she found Florence dead in her bed after being raped and strangled.

News of the gruesome murders swept throughout London like wildfire. The serial killer was targeting elderly people who are among the most vulnerable in society and his crimes sent shivers down the spines of the collective nation. The fact that he was targeting both men and women was terrifying and made it difficult for investigators to try and establish a profile.

Investigators sent out public appeals directly to the killer, with Det Chief Supt Ken Thompson stating: ‘This man needs help. I appeal to him to contact me. I will meet him.’ He additionally warned pensioners living throughout London to keep their doors and windows locked, and asked the public to get in contact if anybody they knew had been acting differently.

In addition to the appeals, Det Chief Supt Thompson put out extra detectives and uniformed police patrols within the area. He also announced he was considering whether to contact a psychologist who could help to build a profile of the serial killer.

Investigators were able to draw up a composite sketch of the killer. One of the victims of the Stockwell Strangler had managed to escape the attack. Frederick Prenice was in his bed when he saw a ‘shadow’ through the glass of his bedroom door. The figure then approached Frederick, placed his finger to his lips in a silencing motion and then began to strangle him. Frederick recollected: ‘I could see his head and his glaring eyes. When he got through the door he was grinning. It was a terrible grin.’ Frederick described the man who had attacked him as a white man but with a tanned or reddish face. He estimated that he was somewhere between 28 and 30-years-old and around 5 feet 8 inches tall.

The search for the serial killer was extensive and exhaustive. Over 100 experienced investigators were drafted into the investigation. One theory they were working on was that the killer’s place of employment brought them into contact with elderly people social workers, postmen, and delivery men.

Towards the end of July 1986, headlines across the media claimed that the sadistic serial killer had been captured. He was identified as 23-year-old Kenneth Erskine, an unemployed drifter from Hammersmith. Erskine had been linked to several of the crime scenes by his fingerprints.

Erskine was charged with seven counts of murder and was remanded to prison. He was ordered to stand trial for seven murders. Investigators suspected that Erskine was responsible for the deaths of four other people, including the murder of 81-year-old Wilfred Parkes, 75-year-old Trevor Thomas and 74-year-old William Downs. The victims were all strangled to death at their homes during the same timeframe as the other string of murders. However, there was not enough evidence for charges to be filed.

The murder trial began in January 1988. At the beginning of the trial, the jury was warned that the details of the murders would be ‘painful, unpleasant and distasteful’ to hear. Prosecutor James Crespi told the jury that all of the murders had taken place between April and July 1986. In each case, a window had been opened or had been left open. He said that there was not only a pattern but a spiteful pattern.

Erskine was an experienced burglar and was used to breaking into the homes of his elderly victims. He always ensured that they were alone and usually in bed before he crushed their throats with one hand while gagging them with the other. After killing his victims, Erskine would pull their bedcovers up to their necks to give the appearance that they were simply asleep.

A psychologist testified that Erskine’s mental ability ‘was rated amongst the lowest three percent in the country’. He further said that Erskine was ‘unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality’.

Kenneth Erskine was ultimately convicted of seven murders and was sentenced to life in prison with a minimum term of 40 years. In 2009, these convictions were reduced to manslaughter on appeal. Psychiatric reports found that at the time of the murders, Erskine was suffering from schizophrenia and therefore substantially diminished his responsibility for the crimes.