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The Sunderland Strangler: Britain's lesser-known serial killer

Northern Spire Bridge
Image: The Northern Spire Bridge over the River Wear in Sunderland |

The vaults of UK crime are littered with despicable individuals. Some of these are infamous killers with dozens of books, podcasts, television shows and movies about them. Some, but not all.

This is the story of the Sunderland Strangler, a British serial killer that even the most committed and ardent of British true crime followers may not be aware of.

The first victim

On 26th November 1993, 18-year-old Thomas Kelly was found dead in an allotment hut behind Monkwearmouth Hospital in Fulwell, Sunderland. The teenager had been strangled to death with his own scarf. His body was then set alight and left to burn.

Solvents were later found in the hut, suggesting it was either somewhere local kids would go to get high or that the killer utilised solvents in the restraining of the local boy. Sunderland Police suspected foul play but struggled to confirm any real details around the case. Soon, those suspicions were confirmed by the discovery of two more young boys.

The second and third victims

Less than 10 weeks later, another boy had been found killed and burned nearby. On 8th February 1994, 15-year-old David Hanson was found dead in a derelict house in the Sunderland suburb of Roker. Firemen discovered the youngster's blackened remains four days after his murder when they fought a fire that was started inside an abandoned house at Roker Terrace, on Sunderland’s seafront.

Exactly three weeks to the day later, a third victim – 15-year-old David Grieff - was found dead on the same allotment plot that Thomas Kelly was found on.

All three of the young lads went to Monkwearmouth School and panic in the local area began to set in. How many more victims would the serial killer claim?

A quick arrest

Luckily for police and the community, the man responsible for the three murders was very quickly apprehended.

Then 24, Steven Grieveson was first taken into custody on 11th March 1993 and accused of trying to break into the property on Roker Terrace, where David Hanson's burned remains had earlier been discovered. This came after his fingerprint was discovered on a basement window and a footprint was discovered on boarding that had been pulled down to gain entry.

Additionally, witnesses came forward to report that on the evening of David Grieff's death, they had seen the two together. Grieveson's DNA was further matched by a profile obtained from semen discovered in David's stomach and mouth. The evidence was sufficient to persuade the authorities that they had their killer.

The trial, motivation and sentence

Grieveson was charged with the three killings in November 1995 after a thorough investigation. He was put on trial in early 1996 - it lasted six weeks. Although Grieveson didn’t testify during his trial, the court was informed of his contention that the three deaths were unintentional. He claimed that while he was intimidating his victims to make sure they kept his bisexuality a secret, he accidentally killed them. At Leeds Crown Court, he denied murder, arguing his mental health issues rendered him less responsible.

The opening arguments of public prosecutor John Milford were simple but convincing. He argued that Steven Grieveson killed the young men for two reasons: one was ‘to prevent them from revealing that he had demonstrated his sexual preference to them’, while the other was ‘simply because he enjoyed killing them and firing their bodies’.

The jury returned with their decision after four hours of deliberation: guilty. The moment Grieveson was found guilty of murder, the public gallery broke out into a rally of tears and cheers. The judge labelled the killer as ‘plain evil’.

The judge said that before releasing Grieveson again in the future, he would beg the Home Secretary and his successors to consider the situation ‘long and hard’. Thomas' father referred to the killer's sentencing as ‘a great relief', adding, ‘this monster is off the streets so no other family will have to go through what we faced’.

Grieveson received three life sentences and it was mandated that he spend at least 35 years behind bars.

A fourth victim

Four years into Grieveson's sentence, he was arrested for murder once more. He was taken to Sunderland's Gill Bridge Police Station and questioned about the murder of another young teenager from the area, Simon Martin. Simon, aged just 14 when he was killed, was found beaten to death in Gilside House in Roker, in May 1990. For his part, Grieveson vehemently denied any involvement. In fact, he continued to deny that he had meant to kill any of his three other victims.

Another four years later, The Sunderland Strangler had a change of heart. He decided to confess to murdering Thomas Kelly, David Hanson and David Grieff, doing so in a letter to the Victim Liaison Services. He made no mention of Simon Martin. This was June 2004.

It was a further eight years before Grieveson confessed to killing Simon too, claiming that while his first murder also wasn’t accidental, it wasn’t premeditated, either. The admission came after, he claims, ‘years of guilt’. On 24th October 2013, Grieveson was convicted of Simon's murder and given yet another life term to serve in prison.

Did Grieveson kill more?

The callousness of the murders, coupled with Grieveson’s ability to keep quiet about the murder of Simon Martin, has long made police suspicious that his kill count may be higher than four victims.

Grieveson was also arrested in February 2014, on suspicion of the 1992 stabbing of Nikki Allan, a seven-year-old girl who was discovered dead in an abandoned warehouse.

Grieveson had injured Simon Martin in 1990 and similar severe blunt force damage was found in Nikki’s skull. Although Grieveson was questioned about his possible involvement, detectives later said that they would not be taking any further action against him.

David Boyd was convicted in May 2023 of killing Nikki Allan.

The chances of release

Steven Grieveson was given four life sentences. They ran together, so it is possible that when he has finished serving his sentence, he could be released from prison. However, while he was not given a whole life order, it seems less than probable that a serial killer of children will be let out to wander the streets of Sunderland again.

What seems more likely is that his sentence will be reviewed before his release date and measures will be introduced to keep this killer away from children for as long as legally possible.

The Sunderland Strangler case is covered in Season 1, Episode 9 of Murdertown. Stream now on Crime + Investigation Play.