A new documentary which tells the story of Dennis Nilsen’s murders through the lives of his victims has asked whether homophobia in the 1980s led to police failings in stopping the serial killer.
The Nilsen Files, a BBC2 documentary, aired last night. It explores the possibility that The Nilsen Files could have helped catch the murderer, who killed at least 12 North London boys and men between 1978 and 1983.
It reveals untold details about the killer’s second victim, Kenneth Ockenden, a middle-class Canadian tourist who was murdered aged 23 after meeting Nilsen in a West End gay pub in 1979.
Even though Ockenden’s previous trips home were documented by evidence, the police concluded Ockenden was innocent.
The programme questions whether police were prevented from following up leads that might have led them to Nilsen, who often frequented gay pubs in the West End, because they refused to acknowledge Ockenden’s sexuality.
Detective Inspector Roy Davies had the task of finding Kenneth Ockenden after he disappeared in 1979. He described his investigations and how he tracked down Ockenden’s movements.
Between 1978 and 1983, Dennis Nilsen murdered up to fifteen young London men. BBC documentary The Nilsen Files, explores whether the killer could have been caught sooner
Although it was still illegal to say that someone is gay in 1983, Nilsen made innuendo about his sexuality and many of his victims were described by him as “down and outs”.
Detective Inspector Roy Davies was assigned to find Ockenden in 1979. He described the steps he took as part of that investigation.
He said that he had traced his footsteps around England. ‘There were two instances that worried me, of him going home with strangers from a pub, and then we ended up in King’s Cross…I thought he’d been murdered’.
Davies said that despite discovering Ockenden had left a London pub with men on two occasions, he was ‘keeping an open mind’, and that the victim’s father had been angry with the suggestion his son was homosexual.
The documentary tells the untold story of Kenneth Ockenden, a middle-class Canadian tourist who was murdered aged 23 after meeting Nilsen in a West End pub in 1979
You should keep your mind open. It could have been a friend who said, “I’ll put up for tonight”, but there may be another reason.
I kept my mind open, so we pointed it out to the father. The father was annoyed and I responded by saying, “We must ask these questions in order to find your son.” And that’s exactly what happened.
“No father wishes to tell someone they are gay. It is unfair to suggest anything real because he has not been here to defend him.”
Although investigations revealed that the tourist went home with two men after his disappearance, police refused to accept him as a homosexual.
According to DI Steve McCusker: “There is no evidence Kenneth Ockenden is gay. Nilsen took Ockenden to one of the bars gay, so it is possible that Ockenden wasn’t aware if this was a gay-friendly bar.
Hattie Llewellyn-Davies, who worked at the charity Piccadilly Advice Centre in the 1970s and 80s, met both Stephen Sinclair and Kenneth Ockenden
Detective Chris Healey added: ‘It may well have been a gay bar but I suspect Ockenden didn’t know and may have just popped in there for a drink.’
Despite Davies suggesting Ockenden had been murdered, the investigation hit a dead end until his fingerprints were found on a guide of London inside the killer’s flat four years later.
Hattie Llewellyn-Davies, who worked at the charity Piccadilly Advice Centre in the 1970s and 80s, revealed that Ockenden had visited their charity in the months leading up to his death.
‘He came in I would say a couple of times,’ she said. It wouldn’t have taken more than that.
“I was shocked by the media coverage, which suggested that he was an easy-going tourist. While we had tourists that came to visit us, the man was actually asking questions about survival skills and such like.
“We are known for our ability to sympathize with gay men, lesbian women, and we have had many people stop by to ask us questions. How do I deal with being gay in my life? How do I deal with it? What can I do to find a hostel which will not throw me away if I take a man with me or hold my hand when I have breakfast? Finding places where people can be themselves.
Hattie, along with her colleagues in charity, began hearing about many disappearances from young men who lived on the streets as Nilsen continued his murderous spree.
“We heard about a lot of missing young men from the grapevine,” she stated. You assume that someone has moved on when they go missing, but when the same story keeps coming up you wonder “What is going on?”
She reported disappearances to police but she claims that neither her nor the homeless were asked about them.
“You can go to police, and they will say, Thank you very much. We’ve written the story down. End of story.”
“If you are a west-end police officer, your job is to keep businesses safe and traffic moving.
“[So] it was difficult for anyone to prove that somebody had vanished. This is a highly transitory community, which the police do not have normal contact with. They feel almost invisibility and are therefore very difficult to prove someone has gone missing.
While working at the Piccadilly Advice Centre Hattie developed a relationship with another of Nilsen’s victims, Stephen Sinclair, who was murdered in January 1983, aged 20.
Hattie stated, “My first interaction with Stephen was when I came in to the front door asking questions about finding somewhere to sleep that night.”
Stephen hails originally from Perth, Scotland. He had previously traveled to London with the hope of finding better opportunities. Hattie saw him frequently in the six months preceding his death.
Hattie stated that Hattie “used us effectively and well, he was very resourceful that way.”
“I doubt Stephen chose to be on the streets. I believe that it happened, and he could not find a way out.
She felt that Stephen wanted to have “long conversations” about his life on the streets.
‘If you met Stephen when he was in a positive mood you wouldn’t see him as being anything but a nice human being…he was a real human being and that was important’.
Stephen is thought to have been killed by Nilsen, even though he had neither a job nor a fixed address.
Hattie stated that everyone felt an immense sense of loss. It was overwhelming among all our callers.
Lee Mason shared the stories of his prostitution experiences during his teens.
Elsewhere in the documentary, Lee Mason, who was involved with prostitution for five five years in his teens opened up about his experiences in the late 70s.
Lee stated that there was “terror” in the gay community following Nilsen’s murders. However, he claimed that police attitudes towards gay young men were extremely negative.
‘Trash, we were disgusting,’ said Lee. “We were the lowest among the lowest, and we were. These were kids trying to survive and what other choice did they have’.
‘We were nothing you’re a little puff so we don’t want to aggro, if that’s the life you wanna choose that’s the life you wanna choose’.
This evening, The Nilsen Files will air on BBC2 at 9:00 PM