The murders of four young gay men in 2014 and 2015 by the serial killer Stephen Port were nothing new. Nor, sadly, was the catalogue of police failings that followed. The murder of “queers” has been going on for decades, with investigations repeatedly marred by toxic incompetence, negligence, indifference and homophobia.
The mishandling of the Dennis Nilsen investigation is revealed in a damning three-part BBC documentary, which begins on Monday on BBC Two. It tells the grisly tale of mass murder and dismemberment from the point of view of the lives of the victims, and explores what their deaths tell us about society at the time. The missed opportunities to nail Nilsen are meticulously examined, including how police paid scant attention to parents concerned about their missing sons.
Nilsen is believed to have murdered up to 16 vulnerable young men, many of whom were gay, in north London between 1978 and 1983. He also attempted to kill several others. Most were homeless or runaways; some sex workers. Others were gay or straight youths, lured to Nilsen’s house with the promise of a meal, a drink or sex. It’s possible that most of the victims died needlessly, because – in a worrying foreshadowing of criticism of the police handling of the Stephen Port investigation – the police failed to conduct a robust investigation after the alert was raised regarding two attempted killings by Nilsen.
Directed by the gay filmmaker Michael Ogden, The Nilsen Files is an attempt to understand how as many as 16 young men could disappear from the nation’s capital without anyone seemingly noticing. From the outset, prejudice clouded police investigations and media reporting. The victims were often depicted in a lurid, unflattering light: as male prostitutes and drifters of no fixed abode, who inhabited an underworld on the margins of society. As one interviewee put it: “We were trash … the lowest of the low.” Some press coverage at the time insinuated that the victims were partly to blame for their own deaths. We’ll never know how many of Nilsen’s victims were sex workers, or gay – but, once described as such by Nilsen, police, media and public sympathy diminished. They were neither respectable nor seemed to matter. Nilsen’s killings might be exceptional because of their number and what he did to the bodies. But they fit a pattern. Gay men were regularly murdered during this period, and their killers were rarely exhaustively pursued by police.
During this era, the Met seemed more interested in prosecuting gay men than in protecting them. After the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, police harassment increased and gay arrests rocketed to more than 1,000 a year during the 1970s and 1980s. From 1986 to 1991, I identified in my own research, working as a human rights campaigner, 50 murders where evidence pointed to a homophobic motive. There was little media coverage or public outcry around these murders at the time they were committed. The police investigations that followed them were, in most cases, wholly inadequate: involving little liaison with the LGBTQ+ community and often only seemingly perfunctory appeals for witnesses. The LGBTQ+ community was subsequently promised new procedures were to be put in place, and that past mistakes would not be repeated. But the Stephen Port inquest verdict revealed this was not the case: failings continued, at least, at the Met.
A year after his first murder in 1978, Nilsen tried to kill Andrew Ho. Ho escaped and reported the attack to police. Ho was nervous and decided to not press charges. He was an immigrant and, at 19, under the then lawful gay age of consent of 21, and could have faced two years in jail. Nilsen was questioned but officers took no action. Had they done a proper investigation and caught Nilsen, 15 victims might still be alive.
Another survivor was Douglas Stewart, who fought off a strangulation attempt by Nilsen in November 1980. But police dismissed the incident as an alcohol-fuelled lovers’ quarrel. Stewart later said “as soon as the word ‘homosexual’ was mentioned, the police lost all interest”. Had police done a thorough search of Nilsen’s flat in response to Ho’s and Stewart’s reports against him, , they might have discovered bodies hidden under the floorboards, as well as traces of dissected corpses in his garden shed and on land at the rear where he burned body parts. Instead, Nilsen was left to kill many more times.
In May 1982, Carl Stottor was attacked by Nilsen and also lived to tell the tale. Again, the police did nothing. At Nilsen’s trial, 19-year-old Paul Nobbs testified that, despite escaping a murder attempt, he never went to the police. Prevailing homophobia helped silence him. He was under 21 and not out as gay to his family.
Although Nilsen’s crimes were first uncovered nearly 40 years ago, several of his possible victims remain unidentified. It’s time to reopen the police investigation, and allow the use of the latest DNA and forensic technology, to ensure the families of any unidentified young men killed by Nilsen can finally be given conclusive answers to the question of what happened to their loved ones.
These failings by the police can, sadly, be added to those revealed at the inquest into the failings over the Stephen Port investigation. From these findings, the Met must now work to establish, in consultation with the LGBTQ+ community, new binding protocols for how homophobic murders are investigated. Because, as we have seen – time and again – LGBTQ+ people are too often let down by the police. Over to you, Cressida Dick.