Criminologist reveals darkest secrets of Britain’s most notorious killers
Reaching over the desk, Dennis Nilsen lightly touched the hand of criminologist David Wilson as he stood up to leave.
“Do you have to go?” asked one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers. The words sent a chill through the renowned expert on murder.
How many of his victims had heard lonely Nilsen asking that very question before killing them to prevent them leaving his home the next morning?
“It was his final gesture of trying to exert power over me,” says Wilson. “Both a come-on and a deliberate allusion to killing for company.”
Nilsen lured at least 12 gay men to his North London flat between 1978 and 1983 then murdered them.
A necrophiliac, he spent days sitting with the corpses, talking to them and washing them, before dismembering them, hacking off the heads and hands and hiding them under floorboards.
In jail he spilled his darkest secrets to Wilson, a criminal profiler who has tried to get inside the minds of some of the UK’s most violent men.
His career, spanning almost 40 years, began as an assistant governor at Wormwood Scrubs jail in London, he has also analysed monsters such Dunblane school shooter Thomas Hamilton and Derrick Bird, who shot dead twelve people in Cumbria in 2010.
He even correctly suggested that Suffolk stranger Steve Wright had harmed or killed other sex workers when his first two victims were found in Ipswich in December 2006.
He said at the time: “What we’re seeing is an organised serial killer. He’s probably used prostitutes in the past and he’s undoubtedly hurt prostitutes in the past. I would suggest that he’s killed them in the past too.”
Wright, now 60, was later jailed for life for the murder of five women.
And a meeting with a hitman convinced him that BBC Crimewatch presenter Jill Dando was the victim of a professional when she was shot on her doorstep in 1999.
He formed his theory after the assassin told him how hired shooters always struck on the doorstep because their victims were usually distracted trying to get in the door.
One of his most bizarre encounters was with Cambridge rapist Peter Cook, who struck fear into the university city when he attacked six women and injured two others between October 1974 and April 1975.
In 1988 Cook walked into his office at HMP Grendon, Bucks, and asked for a sex change – before requesting permission to breastfeed his toy dolls.
Wilson recalled: “He spent most of his time sewing dresses for dolls he bought with his prison wages.
“When he asked for permission to have HRT to become a woman called Janet I sat dumfounded for a few moments, trying to make sense of the Cambridge rapist now wanting to become a woman.”
“The surreal had just become more dreamlike,” he writes in a new book, My Life With Murderers.
Wilson concluded that Cook, who died aged 75 in 2004, was “self-indulgent and lacking any self-reflection” and was most likely “attention seeking”.
The encounter paled compared with Wilson’s meeting with Nilsen four years earlier.
Sitting with a panic button under a desk at Whitemoor jail, Cambridge-shire, he was stuck by how Nilsen looked “like a geography teacher who would struggle to keep control of his GCSE class”.
The loner opened up, confessing that he killed his first victim, 14-year-old Stephen Holmes, because “I wanted him to stay for ever. I couldn’t face him going.” He confided that he indulged in rituals of washing, dressing and stripping his victims, watching in a mirror as he fondled their corpses.
Such horror, described in detail by a killer sitting feet away, would be enough to break any man or woman.
But Wilson says he had become skilled in showing no emotion during his interviews. And he thanks his wife Anne and his two grown-up children for helping keep him sane.
He said: “You couldn’t do this job without a strong sense of self and a stable family life. If you show emotion or shock, then the interviewee gets a sense of power.”
There was one occasion when Wilson needed counselling – after listening to the depraved fantasies of a paedophile while researching links between porn use and child perverts.
“My own children were very young at the time and it was very difficult to listen to,” he said.
Wilson will never forget his first meeting with the country’s most notorious jailbird, armed robber Charles Bronson, 66, who has spent time in Rampton, Broadmoor and Ashworth psychiatric hospitals.
A warder turned the key to Bronson’s cell door and they found him standing naked, his body covered with black shoe polish.
While Bronson prides himself on his masculinity, Wilson believes there is an underlying homoeroticism behind his need to constantly strip off in jail.
He says: “I was not the only member of staff who thought there was something sexual about all that stripping off to show us his muscles and his genitals.
"He wanted to display his body and I believe he wanted to impress on everyone that he really was a ‘real man’.
“Of course the underlying homoeroticism is not what the media want to hear of Bronson, especially since he has become a poster boy for unregulated hyper masculinity.”
Despite listening to some of the most evil men, Wilson, 61, is convinced prisoners must be rehabilitated.
“Apart from 50 or 60 of the most violent prisoners, everyone will be out walking the streets at some point so it’s important that we work towards rehabilitating them.
“Finding out what makes them tick is vital and we are making huge strides. What people need to remember is murder is rare and serial killers are even rarer.”
My Life With Murderers by David Wilson is published by Sphere on Wednesday, £20.
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