Serial killer Dennis Nilsen could have been stopped before he committed first murder, top cop reveals

AFTER being plied with booze and passing out, a young lad wakes to find he has been stripped naked and is about to be strangled.

Terrified, the boy escapes by jumping through the glass in a window, leaving him with injuries that needed more than 100 stitches.


This is already an horrific encounter — but the man he escaped from was Dennis Nilsen, one of the UK’s worst serial killers, and he had avoided becoming his first victim.

The victim’s family didn’t want to take the case to court and now, speaking out for the first time, an investigating officer says it was a missed chance to cage Nilsen before he went on to kill a dozen mostly gay or homeless men in London in the late Seventies and early Eighties.

In new Netflix documentary Memories Of A Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes, Det Sgt Bob Brenton says: “We discovered that the juvenile was a missing person and we spoke to his parents, but his father just said, ‘He’s not going to court’.

“I remember saying, ‘Do you realise what is going to happen if you do not bring a prosecution? He’s gonna do this to somebody else’. But, no, they were adamant.

“I was fuming. He would have gone to prison — GBH with intent is potentially life imprisonment.

“I had to type out an intelligence card, and at the top I typed, ‘In my opinion this man is a dangerous psychopath’.

‘Pale, skinny waif of a kid’

“I always think about what if they’d said, ‘We’ll prosecute him’. Who would still be breathing today?”

The documentary is based around tape recordings that Nilsen, who died in jail aged 72 in 2018, made while serving a life sentence for murders carried out between 1978 and 1983.

It also hears from key figures involved in the investigation of his killing spree, which saw the former soldier and one-time Met Police officer strangle and drown at least a dozen young men and boys before burning the bodies, hiding them under his floorboards or flushing the body parts down the toilet.

The one-off Netflix show looks at how he  lured his victims back to his homes in Melrose Avenue and Cranley Gardens in Muswell Hill, North London, with the promise of booze, food or a place to spend the night.

It was to one of these addresses that Det Sgt Brenton was called in the late Seventies.

He said: “Before Nilsen killed anybody, I got a phone call ordering me to go to an address to investigate a serious assault.

“The first thing I noticed was the walls had been painted black. The living room window had been completely smashed and there was blood everywhere.

"A young juvenile had been taken from the address to hospital. He was just a pale, skinny waif of a kid, and if I remember rightly he had over 100 stitches.

Before Nilsen killed anybody, I got a phone call ordering me to go to an address to investigate a serious assault.

“He had been picked up in a pub by a man with a dour Scots voice and was taken back to the flat, plied with alcohol, then he woke up and discovered he was naked and this man was coming towards him. So, fight or flight. He hurled himself through the window. I went back to the police station and this Scottish man was there — and it was my friend Denis.”

Det Sgt Brenton was shocked to discover the suspect was “Des” the copper who he had worked with in the Met Police in 1973.

He said: “I asked him why this young juvenile hurled himself through the window and he said, ‘Well, I don’t know why he did it. But if you’ve got the evidence, you charge me, but if you don’t, you let me go’.

“And that was our Denis, he knew the law. I didn’t say much to him other than, ‘You have no idea how lucky you are’. He must have thought he was the luckiest person in the world.”

They just wanted to take him home and forget that it had all happened.

Also on Nilsen’s side, according to Det Sgt Brenton, was that the victim’s parents were too ashamed their son was gay to take the case to court.
He added: “They just wanted to take him home and forget that it had all happened.”

After getting away with attempted murder, Nilsen continued to target gay people, rent boys and the homeless knowing that society would be less likely to notice or care if they went missing.

His spree only ended when cops were called to investigate the drains outside his flat, which had been found to be congested with rotting human tissue and bones. When he was arrested at his home — which reeked of decomposing flesh — officers found more human remains in his wardrobe.

On top of his cooker was a boiled head in a pot. Nilsen immediately confessed to the murders and initially claimed he could have killed as many as 16 people.

‘He’d avoid eye contact, a real loner’

Det Sgt Brenton recalled: “The Det Chief Supt running the enquiry ordered me to come over to his office because he wanted me to tell them all about my friend Dennis.

“Nilsen was one of these people who, if you spoke to him, he would drop his head, he’d avoid eye contact, a real loner.

“He wore a uniform and didn’t really achieve anything. I don’t think he had any interest in it. He went before he was pushed and there was no leaving do.”

I thought, ‘That’s why he’s got away with it for so long— he’s a police officer, he’s going to be one step ahead’.

It was this meek manner that allowed Nilsen, who went on to work at a Jobcentre, to continue killing without arousing suspicion. But one of the detectives in the case, Karen Hunt, believes his brief time in the Met was also key to ensuring cops did not catch him for years.

She says: “When we found out it was a police officer,  I thought, ‘That’s why he’s got away with it for so long  — he’s a police officer, he’s going to be one step ahead’.

“There were two officers I knew in uniform who’d worked with him. Some of the victims were homeless men, some of them were gay, but not all of them. They were just guys that were drifting through.

“But there was one connection — Nilsen knew that if they were to go missing, no one would notice any time.

“I swear to you, in Cranley Gardens, if the bodies had not got stuck in the drain and affected the people that lived below him, he would have killed for another few years.

“The only reason he was stopped was because his activities imposed on someone else, it was nothing to do with the victims.”

  • Memories Of A Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes is on Netflix from August 18.




‘I’M HARBINGER OF DEATH’

THE documentary is based on more than 250 hours of tapes made by Nilsen during his time behind bars serving his life sentence.

They were found in his personal archive after his death from a pulmonary embolism in 2018. He had been incarcerated for 34 years.

In the recordings he can be heard discussing everything from his victims to mundane subjects such as the curry served up to him for lunch in the prison canteen.

But a recurring theme is his claim he wasn’t the evil figure the police and society portrayed him as – despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

In his sinister, slow delivery, he is heard saying: “I am demonic. I am strong and weak. I am the harbinger of death. I am not a monster, I am a man.” And in a later section he reveals how prison chiefs refused to downgrade him from his Category A status – the band reserved for the most dangerous criminals.

Nilsen is heard saying: “I was given this categorisation review – Category A. They said, ‘Your custodial behaviour is satisfactory. Reports, however, describe you as a cold and calculating individual who has shown little inclination to confront your offending behaviour.

"There are no recommendations due to the absence of any real remorse’. So I took it upon myself to provide a very short comment, ‘This report is just the sort of politically correct, prejudiced, hatchet job which one can expect from petty officials anxious to embroider the monster myth’.”

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