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‘Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes’ True Story
In the five years between 1978 to 1983, Dennis Nilsen brought home fifteen young men with him from London bars. After they’d go to sleep in his flat, he’d strangle and dismember them, burying them under his floorboards, in his yard, or even burning their bodies in bonfires. But it wasn’t until his neighbors called a plumber for their clogged drains in 1983 that human remains were found in the property’s pipes, and their upstairs neighbor Nilsen was arrested. A new Netflix documentary Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes drops on August 18 and recounts Dennis Nilsen’s horrific crimes, using Nilsen’s own audio recordings from prison as well as interviews with those impacted by him to tell the terrible tale.
The documentary about the notorious British serial killer traces the timeline of his life from childhood, through his killings, up to his 1983 arrest. Dennis Nilsen grew up in Scotland, and according to his tapes, was sexually abused by his grandfather until his grandfather’s death when Nilsen was five years old. Nilsen also explains in his tapes that he realized he was gay when he was eight years old. He served in the army before he moved to Britain, where he first worked as a security guard before eventually becoming a police officer. According to his tapes, he resigned due to homophobia in the department. A fellow officer interviewed in the documentary calls Nilsen “a real loner.” At the time of his arrest, Nilsen was working at a job centre in London.
A few years before Nilsen’s murder spree began, the police were called to Nilsen’s flat after a teenaged boy jumped out of the third-floor window one night. He needed 100 stitches but survived, and claimed he had jumped after he’d woken up stripped naked with Nilsen attacking him. But, according to the Netflix doc, the boy’s family did not want him to testify publicly, so Nilsen was never charged for the crime.
Police searching the grounds of Nilsen’s North London flat.
His killings began in 1978. Nilsen frequented gay bars in London’s West End and targeted runaways, homeless boys, drug-users, and sex workers, according to Netflix’s documentary. Similar to American serial killer John Wayne Gacy, many of his young victims were selected deliberately because they were less likely to be reported missing. He’d lure them to his home with the promise of food and alcohol, and once they had fallen asleep, he’d strangle them to death.
But it was not the 15 missing victims that helped the authorities catch on to him, or even the survivors who did report their encounters to the police. It was instead a clogged drain pipe in his flat, the second apartment of his in which he’d been disposing of his victims’ bodies. When a plumber found four fingers and some human flesh in the building’s drain pipes on February 9, the police entered Nilsen’s apartment, immediately smelled death, and arrested him. He initially confessed to killing 15 young men and boys, and after searches of that location and that of his previous flat, authorities recovered eleven bodies. Sadly, only eight of Nilsen’s fifteen victims have been officially identified: Graham Allen, 27, Malcom Barlow, 23, Martyn Duffey, 16, Stephen Holmes, 14, John Howlett, 23, Kenneth Ockenden, 23, Stephen Sinclair, 20, and William Sutherland, 26.
Nilsen being escorted to a court appearance on February 12, 1983.
Bryn ColtonGetty Images
Nilsen pleaded guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, with his defense arguing that he was insane. He was found guilty of six counts of murder and two of attempted murder, and was sentenced to life in prison in November 1983.
In prison, Nilsen was allowed to keep two budgie birds named Hamish and Tweetles, who’s chirping can be heard in the tapes played in Netflix’s documentary. The serial killer also produced 250 hours worth of tapes while in prison, co-wrote a biography called “Killing For Company” in 1985 with Brian Masters, as well as his own memoir “History Of A Drowning Boy” over a period of 18 years. The memoir was banned from release in 2001, and was only published this May.
Dennis Nilsen served 34 years of his sentence before he died at the age of 72 in prison. After suffering a pulmonary embolism and hemorrhage and undergoing surgery, he died in May of 2018.
Lauren Kranc is an editorial assistant at Esquire, where she covers pop culture and television, with entirely too narrow of an expertise on Netflix dating shows.
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