Professor David Wilson has spent his career face to face with Britain’s most terrifying killers.

His work has taught him one groundbreaking truth: serial murderers choose victims which society sees as disposable, they kill the people we don’t care about. Here he talks to our Writer at Large

PROFESSOR David Wilson breaks into an aside about the Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen developing a crush on him when he was a young prison governor at Wormwood Scrubs in 1983. “I think he fancied me to be perfectly honest,” Wilson says matter-of-factly. “I think he just quite liked talking to a young man. I was distraction for him.” It’s an anecdote to make the flesh creep. Nilsen, after all, killed at least 12, but maybe 15, young men, though he was only convicted of six murders.

The anecdote isn’t a throwaway line, however. It has significance. Crucially, Wilson’s dealings with Nilsen became central to his ground-breaking theories around ‘what serial killing really means’. Wilson, from Carluke, is Britain’s most distinguished criminologist. His decades of study, coming face to face with Britain’s most appalling murderers, led him to this startling conclusion: serial killing is in fact a dark mirror in which all of society’s failures are reflected. For serial killers murder the people society has rejected: the homeless, runaways, sex workers, drug addicts – fellow humans deemed disposable.

There’s a terrible coda to Wilson’s thinking: this current era of ours, with rising poverty – and the inevitable surge in homelessness and desperation, economic suffering brings – will create more of the victims serial killers will prey on as people sink to the bottom of society. Expect murder to rise. ‘Good’ societies, which are relatively equal, feature less violent crime - especially serial killing – than societies where the gap between rich and poor is huge. In truth, then, serial killing has profound political overtones.

Wilson is currently professor of criminology at Birmingham City University and regularly appears on TV as an expert on serial murder. He also advises police. Minutes before we spoke, he’d just been contacted by a man, whose stepdaughter was murdered, desperate for help after police investigations led nowhere. “I get something like that almost every day,” he says. He’s investigated many cold cases, including the Bible John murders. He's convinced Peter Tobin is the infamous Glasgow killer. However Wilson’s greatest work of deduction saw him identify Jack the Ripper. But we’ll return to that later…

The victims

Wilson believes it’s a mistake to look solely “at serial murder from the perspective of the killer’s psychology”. Crawling inside a killer’s mind doesn’t explain why serial murder happens. “Instead think about which cultures produce more or fewer serial killers,” he says. It’s understanding who the victims of serial killers are which really explains the phenomenon. In Britain, one major victim group is sex workers. “Young women running away” are another key group. “The only group of men repeatedly targeted by serial killers are those who are gay.” The majority of Nilsen’s victims were homeless or gay men. The 1970 and 80s was an era of intense homophobia. Victims, therefore, are society’s most marginalised.

There was nothing in Wilson’s long discussions with Nilsen, nor their voluminous correspondence, which “gave any insight why he killed. In fact, he lied throughout. Instead, what I say is that society’s homophobia is the context in which to understand why Nilsen was able to kill so many young men”.

One of Nilsen’s victims escaped mid-attack, called police, and showed officers “the marks around his neck and told them ‘he just tried to kill me’.”. When police arrived at Nilsen’s flat, the killer told officers “it was just a gay lovers’ tiff”. When police heard that, they dropped the matter.

Nilsen and Dahmer
The Herald:

Nilsen’s case bears startling similarities to Jeffrey Dahmer’s murders in America. Both were ex-soldiers and alcoholics, whose crimes involved cannibalism and necrophilia. Dahmer targeted young ethnic minority gay men – illustrating society’s racism, and homophobia. In the Dahmer case, 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone managed to escape the killer’s flat. He’d been heavily drugged. The killer persuaded police the bloodstained child was his adult lover, drunk after a quarrel. Police walked Dahmer and the boy back to his apartment, where a body was already decomposing, then left. Dahmer injected acid into the child’s brain. The boy’s skull was eventually found during Dahmer’s arrest.

Wilson says “our most recent serial killer Stephen Port was killing in similar circumstances to Nilsen” – targeting gay men. One victim was an occasional male escort.

“We’d do a lot more to reduce serial murder if we’d a grown up debate about how we police sex work,” Wilson says. “Every single sex worker I’ve spoken to who sells sexual services on the street is addicted to Class A drugs – and often selling sexual services because her pimp, who happens to be her boyfriend, is also addicted. So if you’d a grown up debate about addiction you’d do a lot more to overcome incidences of serial murder.”

The Thatcher boom

Wilson’s research uncovered that “the high point for British serial murder, in terms of the most active serial killers, was inevitably 1986”. That’s right in the middle of the Thatcher era, with spiralling unemployment. Thatcher infamously said “there’s no such thing as society” in 1987. “Now I’m not trying to blame Mrs Thatcher,” says Wilson, “but we’d five serial killers active in 1986, the most I could find at any one time. On average there’s two active at any one time”.

Referring to how serial murder reflects the culture it occurs within, Wilson says he’s “absolutely convinced” serial killers in Britain will be targeting “people sleeping rough and the homeless”.

His research also revealed there were “no documented cases of British serial killers active between 1915 and 1941”. Wilson asks: “What is it about the time between the wars and 1986 which explains the difference?” The 1915-41 period, he explains, was a time when “people mattered in British culture in a way that they perhaps hadn’t mattered before”. So many young men had died in the First World War, and Britain lost many during the Spanish Flu pandemic. Governments were trying to “improve housing, healthcare, pensions and pay. People were seen as valuable. There was less othering of groups.”

Simultaneously, in Germany, however, Wilson’s research discovered matters were very different. Amid the chaos and hatred of the collapsing Weimar Republic and Hitler’s rise, there were “12 documented cases of serial killers, and you can guess who they were targeting: gay people, Jewish people. The Third Reich created groups of people seen as ‘other’, and these ‘others’ became the targets of German serial killers”. Fritz Haarmann murdered young men and sold their bodies as meat. Carl Großmann killed women and sold their flesh on the black market.

Poverty means murder

Stark inequality helps explain why serial killing is so prevalent in America. Wilson notes Japan – a more equal society – “has very few serial killers”.

The question about social and political culture creating the circumstances in which serial killers thrive also relates to “murder generally”, Wilson adds. “We absolutely know when the gap between the haves and have-nots increases you’ll get more homicide.”

There’s a scientific term for this phenomenon: the Gini Coefficient, which measures income inequality. “When it reduces you get fewer homicides. It’s about people feeling connected to one another, or distance from one another.”

Amid the economic chaos after the fall of communism in Russia, serial killing spiralled – although Soviet authorities had previously suppressed such information. Many victims were poor, young, homeless or alcoholic. It’s significant to note “the commonality between victims because [serial killers target] groups who won’t be missed. Or if they are missed the explanation is: they were sex workers, alcoholics, they’d underlying mental health problems.

“No serial killer has ever targeted professional footballers, or lawyers or dentists. They target groups who if they go missing don’t cause that much trouble.”

Fred and Rose West

The fact that serial killing reveals the gaps in society – who’s been left behind – means, says Wilson, that “serial murder actually tells you if your society is functioning or not. Serial killers therefore have a function in our society. They explain what’s going wrong – what’s happening that these groups can be picked off without us noticing or if we do notice caring.”

Many of Fred and Rose West’s victims were young women on society’s margins – some were teenage runaways, others from care homes. Their disappearance went all but unnoticed in wider society.

What does this all mean for the wave of poverty that’s hitting Britain – and fears that homelessness and sex work will rise? “We’re going to see an increase in violence because of the Gini coefficient,” Wilson says. “Crime isn’t fixed, crime alters to take account of the society in which the offender wants to offend.”

Covid mutilations

He points out that we’ve already started to see anomalies in crime during Covid. Some crimes “almost disappeared entirely” like domestic burglary, “whereas domestic violence rose inexorably. I also detected something else under Covid.” He pauses. Even as a criminologist Wilson has to prepare himself for what he’s about to say.

“It’s sometimes very difficult to talk about these things, but I’ve never seen so much mutilation of people. Victims were being overkilled. I felt that was definitely a societal reaction, or outgrowth. When I started in this work I came across one man who’d committed a beheading. I encounter that much more regularly, and certainly during Covid victims were being mutilated in ways that were unprecedented in my experience.”

The Herald: Professor David Wilson noted people were 'anatomised' from Covid, resulting in odd behaviour. 'I came across one man who'd committed a beheading. I encounter that much more regularly'Professor David Wilson noted people were 'anatomised' from Covid, resulting in odd behaviour. 'I came across one man who'd committed a beheading. I encounter that much more regularly' (Image: Newsquest)

Wilson says this is an example of ‘anomie’: a scientific term for “sudden transformations in our culture when old certainties are broken up – and you’ve got rapid urbanisation or rapid deindustrialisation, or in the case of Covid a global pandemic. The social bonds that people took for granted, when they were broken it unleashed behaviour one wouldn’t have expected to see without those sudden changes in our culture. We were no longer socialising, we were anatomised. That anomic reaction found its way into real crime.”

Digital atrocities

Our social atomisation is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in the online world. Wilson was recently shocked when he asked his new intake of 450 first year criminology students how many had watched a beheading video – every single one had. “I could never watch a beheading video. I turned down the opportunity to witness an execution in Texas. I don’t want to view that.”

He feels that for many young people the screen has become “a protective veil”. Online atrocities “don’t feel real”. There’s a “distance”, which his students felt made watching violence “more permissible”. Wilson adds: “It’s desensitising.”

Wilson turns to the role of the internet in modern crime. If the American freeway was the stereotypical locus of so much serial murder in the past, today the internet is the world’s crime scene. White supremacists, mass shooters, and incel killers have all recorded their crimes, with some even live-streaming murders, and often post-digital ‘manifestos’. Wilson calls this “social media homicide”. Many modern killers are ‘radicalised’ online or feed their fantasies online.

Paedophile subculture

In the past, Wilson says, paedophiles could only find one another with great difficulty, often through back street sex shops covertly selling child abuse images. He notes that the Scottish child killer Robert Black operated this way. Now, paedophiles find material at the click of a mouse and the internet “also gives them access to like-minded people”. Sex offenders today feel “included in a subculture rather than excluded from mainstream culture”.

The role of the internet in offending “goes back to my theme”, says Wilson, of how crime and culture intertwine. “There’s always a number of dangerous, damaged, disturbed people in our culture, and their ability to harm others will either be made easier or more difficult because of the kind of culture and values we have.”

Wilson recalls a “very prominent paedophile” he studied over a year who’d committed “many offences against children”. After every prison interview, Wilson had to “spend an hour with the psychiatrist” as the encounter was so traumatic. He has “no doubt” the man’s use of child abuse images “encouraged him to sexually offend with children, they were pushing his fantasies into further appalling behaviours”. Once fantasies are enacted, Wilson explains, “it’s no longer fantastic”, so an offender’s fantasies become “deeper and completely and utterly disturbed. Social media is permitting access to the darkest recesses of human imagination.”

Jack the Ripper

The Herald:

For a man who’s confronted Britain’s most appalling criminals, the “trope” of the “evil genius serial killer” offends Wilson. Moors Murderer Ian Brady, from Glasgow, was often portrayed as an ‘existential killer’ inspired by the philosopher Nietzsche. “He wasn’t a counter-cultural phenomenon,” Wilson sneers. “He killed kids.”

Jack the Ripper is the greatest example of a serial killer shrouded in the ‘evil genius’ myth – that the Whitechapel Murderer was a brilliant surgeon or aristocrat: a Victorian Hannibal Lecter. The real killer was nothing of the sort. Wilson is convinced he’s established the Ripper’s identity. Using the latest criminology tools, including geo-profiling – which works out the location of a killer’s home related to murder scenes – and HOLMES, the Home Office’s Large Major Enquiry System, Wilson has named Aaron Kosminski, a non-entity who lived in London’s east end, as the real Jack the Ripper.

At the time of the crimes – 1888 – Kosminski was a suspect, but soon after was committed to an asylum, where he later died. It’s impossible to say with 100% certainty, Wilson adds, that Kosminski was the killer as the events took place 134 years ago, however, all available evidence points to him, and other suspects just don’t stand up to the same type of rigorous investigation.

Like Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, Jack the Ripper targeted women at the margins. “What does that tell us about society?” Wilson asks. On the flip side, he says the Ruth Ellis case – the last woman hanged in Britain after shooting her abusive partner – would today be focused on “coercive control. She’d have a defence of provocation. It would’ve been manslaughter. Think about what this tells us about society.”

Bible John revealed

Another recent serial killer who targeted women on the margins was Steven Wright, the so-called Suffolk Stranger. He murdered sex workers. The killings had a profound effect on Wilson. During the investigation, Wilson publicly dismissed claims that two victims had been left in water indicating the killer was religiously motivated and trying to “cleanse them of their sins”. It was simply “to destroy forensic evidence”, Wilson told reporters. However, the killer was listening to Wilson’s comments in the media and the next victim was deliberately “placed in a crucifix position”. Wilson realised the killer was trying to muddy the investigation and create “a false narrative”. It horrified him that his words could cause such a killer to “change their behaviour”.

Glasgow’s Bible John killings are another infamous unsolved case Wilson has investigated. He’s certain serial killer Peter Tobin – currently on his deathbed and serving life in Scotland for murdering Angelika Kluk, Dinah McNichol and Vicky Hamilton – is guilty. “As far as we can possibly say, Tobin is Bible John.” Wilson is sure Tobin will take his secrets to the grave with him, however. “That’s the most common thing I discovered about serial murderers I worked with.” The other shared trait is that they all cared excessively “about their brand, in PR terms”. Nilsen, for instance, hated being asked about cannibalism and necrophilia as it wasn’t the image he wanted in the public mind.

Brushes with death

Surprisingly none of these killers scared Wilson. The first time he came close to death was in a confrontation with a violent burglar. The man, who disliked Wilson, came to his office when he was a prison governor with a razor blade hidden under his own foreskin. He planned to attack Wilson. On another occasion a mentally ill man stalked Wilson to his university office but was eventually sectioned.

What the public doesn’t know about Wilson from their experience of him on their TV screens is that he’s rather charming and amusing company in real life. Like the serial killers he studies, people have a false impression of him - they aren’t evil geniuses, and he’s not dark and brooding. “Actually, I even tell jokes sometimes,” he says with a self-deprecating giggle. Just not today, though.

David Wilson will be giving a public lecture in Glasgow on October 13.
Click here for details.

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