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The anatomy of the serial killer

Multiple murderers always target the same five types of people, says Professor David Wilson, so why do we still not see them coming?

As David Wilson drains a large pot of spaghetti over the kitchen sink and rescues the garlic bread from the oven, the conversation turns to an altogether unpalatable topic: serial killings.

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The salad tossed and pasta served, we skirt around the subjects of favoured dumping grounds for victims, decomposing bodies and forensic evidence -- unsavoury meal-time chit chat, perhaps, but I suspect it’s a common theme at the Scot’s kitchen table.

The professor of criminology at Birmingham City University is widely regarded as Britain’s foremost expert on serial killings and regularly offers analysis and profiling to the police and media. It is into Wilson’s Buckinghamshire home, a rural retreat a stone’s throw from Silverstone race track, that I have been invited to discuss his latest book: A History of British Serial Killing.

His appearance is more akin to a rugby coach than a respected academic, dressed as he is in faded jeans with a casual shirt unbuttoned at the neck. “I’m sorry it’s not a census taker’s liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti,” he laughs mischievously, referring to Hannibal Lecter’s famous line from Silence of the Lambs.

Wilson, who is 52, may have left Scotland more than 30 years ago but the accent remains, the only hint of three decades of living in England betrayed by the occasional soft, Home Counties vowel. He was raised on a dairy farm on the fringes of Carluke, South Lanarkshire, although he tells anyone in England who asks that he’s from Glasgow. “It’s simpler that way,” he says with a shrug.

In his book, Wilson presents a definitive account of notorious British serial killings perpetrated by the likes of Jack the Ripper and Harold Shipman. Those with a penchant for gore and the macabre, however, will be disappointed -- the book nails its colours to the mast immediately. It is not, he writes, another tome about serial killers and he neither attempts to get inside the minds of murderers nor presents cod psychological explanations for why people kill. Instead, Wilson turns the spotlight on the often forgotten victims of serial killers: who they were, the events that led to their deaths and, most significantly, the conditions which allowed them to fall prey in the first place. It is, he says, about giving the victims a voice.

Throughout the book -- an engaging and thought-provoking read -- Wilson highlights the fact that almost every victim of a British serial killer in the past 120 years has belonged to the same five vulnerable groups of society: children, women, gay men, prostitutes and the elderly. These victims, he contests, betray the true nature of society’s values. Public policy, he says, has ensured the gap has widened between the haves and the have-nots to such an extent that those who inhabit these groups are often considered a burden, or at worst social outcasts, and therefore easier targets for potential serial killers. In drawing attention to this cultural anomaly, we are better placed to prevent such crimes.

  Obsessed and fascinated

 

To illustrate how society’s wider values affect the safety of these vulnerable groups, he writes that during the 1920s and 1930s there were no serial killers in Britain, perhaps because of the protection afforded by the introduction of the welfare state and the rise in status of women after they were afforded the right to vote. Conversely, Germany produced 12 serial killers during the rise of the Third Reich.

“People are obsessed and fascinated by serial killers,” says Wilson over a lunch of pasta carbonara. “I thought if I could harness the public’s fascination with serial killing to this broader, structural argument, I can say: look, the vast majority of people who fall victim only fall within these five groups. That does lead you into a position where you might be able to do something about serial killing.

“If we know it’s the elderly who are attacked the most, why should that be so? You start thinking about what we could do to prevent other elderly people falling victim. It’s no coincidence that the vast majority of the victims of serial killers are women and children.

“It’s significant that there’s never been a serial killer who’s targeted Premier League footballers, heart surgeons, professors of criminology or journalists working at The Herald. Serial killers have only ever been able to achieve their purpose by targeting vulnerable people. It’s a bit chicken and egg. What comes first: the predilection to be a killer or the understanding that you can kill within a particularly vulnerable group? I’ve always taken the view that we should look at access and opportunity before we consider motivation.”

The obsession with serial killers is surely at an all-time high. High-street bookshops stock countless accounts of the exploits of everyone from Peter Sutcliffe to 1960s Glasgow killer Bible John. There’s a wealth of websites about the deeds of such murderers, with Google returning an astonishing 16.9m results for the words “serial killer”.

Fictional killers like Hannibal Lecter and television dramas such as Dexter stoke the public’s fascination. Even BBC sitcom Gavin and Stacey goes as far as invoking notorious serial killers by naming the two main families the Wests and the Shipmans.

It’s a phenomenon which has mutated, says Wilson, into something altogether more unsavoury: one that clearly troubles him and which he refers to as “dark tourism”. He first noticed it three years ago in Ipswich. Between October and December 2006, five prostitutes -- Tania Nicol, 19, Gemma Adams, 25, Anneli Alderton, 24, Paula Clennell, 24, and Annette Nicholls, 29 -- were murdered in the Suffolk town by Steve Wright, a forklift truck driver. Wilson recalls visiting one of the crime scenes to offer his analysis to the police and media.

“I was standing next to the police tape when a minibus pulled up and all these people got off,” he says. “I thought it was probably the victim’s family, so I went up to say something to them. The person leading the group, said: ‘Don’t worry about us, we saw it on the news and just wanted to have a look for ourselves.’

“These people are starting to visit the sites while [the murderers] are still active. It’s taking that schadenfreude of slowing down to have a look at an accident on the other side of the motorway to a completely different level. There’s something to be said about a culture which now wants to tour murder sites [while the murders are] happening.”

Wilson even shakes his head in disbelief at the popularity of Jack the Ripper tours, where tourists can trace the steps of Victorian London’s most celebrated killer. “Why do people go on Jack the Ripper tours?” he says. “Did you know that some of the prostitutes who still work the Whitechapel area are able to charge an extra 30 to 40 quid to have sex on the site where one of the murders occurred?”

The mention of the Ripper, who, unlike Wright, evaded justice after he killed five prostitutes, ignites a glint in Wilson’s piercing blue eyes. He says he expects to ruffle a few feathers by naming the man he believes was responsible for the brutal murders: a Polish immigrant called Aaron Kosminski. “I bet that part of the book will get lots of serial killer fanatics up in arms,” he says with a laugh.

  ‘Classic monologue type’

 

Wilson is qualified to make such a convincing argument. His background in criminology and the criminal justice system is exemplary.

A graduate of the University of Glasgow and Cambridge, he joined the prison service as an assistant governor fresh from studying, where his first placement was the notorious Wormwood Scrubs in London. As the bright young hope of the prison service his career saw him serve as a governor at establishments including the Young Offenders Institution at Finnamore Wood, Buckinghamshire, where, aged 29, he became the youngest governor in the UK.

He also delivered a sex offender treatment programme at HMPs Grendon and Woodhill, both in Buckinghamshire, where he designed and managed two specialist units for the 12 most disruptive prisoners in the penal system. This experience brought him into contact with some of the most notorious serial killers in the country, including Fraserburgh-born Dennis Nilsen, who killed 15 men and boys between 1978 and 1983. “He’s the most boring man you could meet,” Wilson says, smiling. “He’s one of the classic monologue type; he doesn’t do conversation, he regards you as a wall to talk to.”

Serial killers can, says Wilson, be divided into two distinct groups. “There’s the group who will talk and the others who resolutely refuse to discuss anything,” he says. “The serial killing group that does talk will often talk a lot of nonsense.” Therefore, to try to build up a clear picture of the phenomenon of serial killing based on the small percentage of killers who are prepared to talk is almost impossible. “They talk a lot of nonsense,” he reiterates. “What empirical basis is that? That’s why I’ve used the book more to discuss a structural approach to the question. Frankly, you don’t get anything sensible out of them. That’s why I distrust a lot of the FBI profiling stuff. It’s based on interviews they’ve conducted with convicted serial killers. This popular idea that you ‘enter the mind’ of a serial killer is just pants.”

Lunch over, Wilson pours coffee and suggests we retreat to the lounge where a wood-burning stove keeps the October chill at bay. He enjoys the rural life, he says. The home, which he shares with his wife Anne, a lawyer, and their 13-year-old daughter Fleur (their son Hugo, 18, has just left home to go to university), is a cosy yet expansive cottage in the bosom of rural Bucks, perched on the edge of a picturesque village whose skyline is peppered with thatched roofs and church spires. A regular face on television, whether as a resident expert or presenter, Wilson says the villagers are used to seeing TV crews descend on his home. Earlier this year he fronted Deadly Instinct, a documentary for Sky on the Ipswich prostitute murders. A self-acknowledged “old-fashioned liberal”, he is often the first person TV producers ask to comment on serious crime.

  From the Ripper to Shipman

 

The modern phenomenon of serial killing, Wilson’s book argues, began in 1888 with the discovery of the body of Whitechapel prostitute Mary Ann Nichols, the first victim attributed to Jack the Ripper. Wilson defines a serial killer as someone who has killed three or more victims over a period of greater than 30 days. Since then 31 killers have claimed the lives of 375 victims in Britain, the most prolific of which was Dr Harold Shipman, who was convicted in 2000 and is now thought to be responsible for at least 250 murders of mostly elderly female patients.

The most recently convicted British serial killer is Colin Norris. A nurse originally from the Milton area of Glasgow, he was labelled the Angel of Death after he was found guilty last year of killing four elderly patients in his care at a Leeds hospital.

“I ask my prospective students to name a serial killer in Britain since 1960,” says Wilson. “Every single time, the first name I get is Myra Hindley. Within the next few answers I’ll get Rose West. They always name the women. I’ll explain that those two women murdered within what’s known as a folie a deux -- madness shared by two -- and ask if they can name the only female British serial killer who murdered by herself. Nobody knows. One of the things which intrigues me is why some serial killers emerge into public consciousness while others completely disappear.”

The female killer he’s referring to is Beverley Allitt, a nurse who killed four children in 1993. The account of Allitt, who worked at Grantham and Kesteven General Hospital in Lincolnshire, is perhaps the book’s most shocking. The nature of her crimes aside, what really appals is the circumstances that allowed Allitt to carry out the murders. Wilson suggests that Allitt, a perennial under-achiever, was ill-qualified for her role as a nurse on a sick children’s ward. The killings, he says, stand as a microcosm for the bigger argument. “Do you put all the responsibility on to Beverley Allitt or do you say: ‘Wait a minute -- that responsibility should be shared. How she was recruited, trained, supervised?’

“When we give people power over other people, regulating that power and ensuring there are checks and balances seems to me to be absolutely vital. Clearly we give power to doctors and nurses and large organisations like hospitals which are under pressure to meet targets and budgets. We’ve got to be aware that in some circumstances those individuals who are so minded will use those circumstances to repeatedly murder.”

The central argument of Wilson’s book remains straightforward: if it is a relatively simple task to identify the most likely groups in society who fall victim to serial killers, should it really be such an arduous job to protect these groups through wider public policy? Wilson thinks not.

“When I was in Ipswich I must have pointed out a hundred times until I was blue in the face, that less than an hour’s flight from Ipswich is Amsterdam,” he recalls. “There has been not one Dutch serial killer that has ever targeted prostitutes. They have a completely different approach to the policing of women who sell sexual services. What we’ve got to do is question whether our approach to the policing of women who sell sexual services creates the circumstances in which they’re going to become vulnerable to attack by serial killers.

“There’s a great deal we could do to protect people from falling victim to serial killers. Quite clearly, we could do quite a lot about homophobia -- that would do a great deal to protect gay men. We could do a lot about lessening the isolation and powerlessness of the elderly; we could give the elderly a voice. We could do something about the fact that 77,000 young people run away from home for at least one night every single year in this country. Nobody talks about that in our public policy. Why do so many young people run away, or get driven away, by whoever it is that’s in charge of their household? And those young kids -- when they do run away, when they are thrown away -- are incredibly vulnerable to being picked up by people who will use and abuse, and in some cases, murder them.”

  Sustaining vulnerability

 

The message from the book, Wilson argues, is the persistence of vulnerability. There’s a direct link, he claims, between 19th-century Whitechapel and Ipswich in 2006. “While one group of victims might have been addicted to gin and the other group addicted to heroin, there’s a persistence of the vulnerability,” he says. “That vulnerability is created by our attitudes toward people who sell sexual services. What we need is a public policy that says policing the people who sell sexual services in this way creates their vulnerability.”

Perhaps the most spine-chilling assertion made by Wilson in his book is that, statistically speaking, there are probably two serial killers operating in Britain today. And with four serial killers caught and convicted since 2000 (Shipman, Mark Martin, who strangled three homeless women in Nottingham, Wright and Norris) it’s a trend which Wilson believes is set to rise. “What’s happening at the moment is that new groups are emerging as being vulnerable to attack,” he says. “In particular, what worries me at the moment is the designation of our towns and cities as places where lots of young people will congregate and get drunk. The night-time economy is the only area in our cultural life where stranger-perpetrated violence is on the increase. I think that group, that area, the night-time economy, is a place where we’re likely to see serial killers working in the future. We’re creating the circumstances in which it’s easier for a serial killer.”

Far from being a harbinger of doom, though, Wilson also offers notes of comfort. We shouldn’t have too many nightmares, he says in true Crimewatch style, about being next on a serial killer’s list of intended victims.

“The trick is this,” he says reassuringly. “Always remember that it’s very difficult to actually kill somebody. You’ve got to have the right mind set to be able to do that.”

We leave the warm comfort of the lounge and make our way to the study, a cramped annexe lined with bookshelves upon which stand biographies of Sutcliffe, Shipman and President Barack Obama. The walls are a reminder of past glories, adorned with snapshots of Wilson’s time as prison governor, television appearances and a large black and white photograph of Che Guevara.

Most people who kill, he tells me as I head out the door, will be overwhelmed with guilt and remorse for having committed a single murder. “So it would be a very rare person,” Wilson adds, “who would want to say: ‘Well, I’ve done two murders -- I may as well become a serial killer.’”

 

A History of British Serial Killing by David Wilson is published by Sphere, priced £14.99.

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