Note: This article contains details that some readers might find upsetting.
ITV's Des, starring David Tennant, has once again brought the actions of Dennis 'Des' Nilsen into the public's consciousness.
Between 1978 and 1983, Nilsen ended the lives of at least 12 young men at his London home; first in Melrose Avenue, and then finally in Cranley Gardens. He had been able to get away with his crimes undetected for years, but when he was finally taken into police custody a media frenzy soon followed.
It is still not known for sure how many victims died by his hand, but estimates range from 12 to 15.
Due to the nature of the murders and Nilsen's methods of disposing of the bodies, there was little in the way of remains for investigators to work from. Evidence of human bone and flesh were discovered at both addresses, but it took a lot of detective work to try and identify who they belonged to.
Many of Nilsen's victims were homeless or vulnerable. He would invite them back to his home, offering them food, drink or other comforts.
But one man that didn't quite fit the same pattern was Kenneth Ockenden.
In December 1979, Nilsen crossed paths with a 23-year-old Canadian student who was visiting London. He had been touring England and visiting relatives, but on December 3, 1979 he was staying in a hotel in WC1.
At lunchtime, he met a stranger named Dennis Nilsen at a pub in the West End. The pair must have hit it off, because they spent a few hours buying rounds of drinks for one another and spent a long while chatting.
Nilsen, who had left work early for the day, offered to show Ockenden around London. They hit a lot of the big tourist spots together, going to Trafalgar Square (where they fed the birds), and visiting Downing Street and Westminster Abbey. Armed with his camera, Ockenden would likely have documented his day.
Des and Kenneth had dinner together and then abandoned their previous plan to go out for an evening drink, choosing instead to pass by an off licence and head to Melrose Avenue to listen to music and hang out together some more.
According to Nilsen's own account of Ockenden's murder (told in the pages of Brian Masters' Killing for Company) he had no memory of strangling him, but did so with a headphone cable.
After his death, Nilsen bathed him clean and put him to bed. Over the coming weeks, moving the body in and out from a space under the floorboards, Nilsen would speak to Ockenden as though he were still listening, as well as watch television with him and wash him.
The book puts forward the idea that Nilsen had been dreading Ockenden's eventual return to Canada, and that he had not wanted his new 'friend' to leave. Whether this was the motive for the killing remains up for debate; Nilsen's reliability is a contentious topic and, as the only living witness to the crimes, he was able to be in complete control of the narrative.
What we do know is that Ockenden had been Nilsen's second victim, about a year after his first.
The morning after his death, no doubt triggered by his failure to return to his hotel room still filled with belongings, media headlines had started to tell of a Canadian tourist gone missing.
At that point nobody knew of Des Nilsen's activities, let alone that the pair had crossed paths. In fact, Des attended his work Christmas party just two weeks after the murder.
It wouldn't be until after Nilsen's arrest a few years later that the search for Ockenden would gain a new lead and – finally – answers would be found.
While his police interviews have been described as matter of fact and free from emotion, Masters' book does offer up some alternative sides to Nilsen's personality. In a few entries, the convicted killer conveyed remorse at what he had done.
"I destroyed the records which reminded me of him afterwards," Nilsen said of Ockenden. "Smashed them with a spade and put them in the dustbin."
Des starts on Monday, September 14 at 9pm, airing on ITV.
Digital Spy has launched its first-ever digital magazine with exclusive features, interviews, and videos. Access this edition with a 1-month free trial, only on Apple News+.
Interested in Digital Spy's weekly newsletter? Sign up to get it sent straight to your inbox.
You Might Also Like