Carl Stottor’s face was a mess. His ex-boyfriend had smashed him in the mouth with an ornament, and another deep wound near his cheek was angry and bruised. Carl, 21, had fled his home in Blackpool for a new life in London, and had only been in the capital for two weeks. He was sitting in the Black Cap pub in Camden, a hang-out for gay men. But he hadn’t gone there to pick anyone up. He just needed to feel safe among a friendly crowd.
A man standing at the bar came over to speak to him. He was in his mid-30s, with mousey, short hair, and was wearing glasses, a dark coat and jeans. “Do you mind if I sit here?” asked the man, politely. “It’s a free world,” said Carl.
This was the beginning of an encounter in May 1982 that would have a devastating impact on Carl’s life. “The guy was friendly and sympathetic,” recalls Carl. “He introduced himself as Des, and I told him about how down, alone and vulnerable I was feeling. He said he knew what that felt like. He thought what my boyfriend had done was terrible, and said I should feel good about myself. He said he was on his own, too, and had been through the mill like me. He seemed like an ordinary Joe Bloggs.”
But the sympathetic drinker was Dennis Nilsen, a man who had murdered a string of mostly homeless gay men. He would strangle and drown his victims, hack them up, boil their heads and store their remains under the floorboards or in cupboards. He typically picked them up in central London, lured them back to his flat (he lived first in London suburb Cricklewood and then Muswell Hill) and then choked or drowned them in his bathtub. He sliced off limbs using butchery skills he’d learned during his time as a cook in the army, and burned some of the bodies in his back garden, attempting to disguise the putrid smell by throwing tyres into the flames.
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That night, Dennis, 36, had seen the ideal victim. Like the others, Carl was down on his luck and receptive to flattery. The pair talked for hours, and at closing time Dennis invited Carl back to his place. “I won’t touch you,” said Dennis. “There won’t be anything sexual involved. Just come back and talk to me.” At first, Carl said no. But Dennis was so insistent, Carl eventually agreed – it felt good to be wanted.
During the short taxi ride from Camden to Nilsen’s attic flat in Cranley Gardens, Muswell Hill, the cabbie got lost and drove the wrong way. “Dennis got really annoyed,” remembers Carl. “He decided to pay the driver in the smallest denomination coins he could find, mostly just pennies and two pence pieces. He didn’t hit or threaten him, but he was quite aggressive – and that frightened me.”
The suspect stench
Dennis’s flat was grubby and an unusual stench hit Carl straight away. “It smelled like dog food. It was pungent – awful,” he says. “Later on the police asked me if I knew what a dead body smelled like. When I said no, they said that’s why I didn’t know what the stink was. The flat was bare and scruffy. The floor was dirty and so were the carpets. There weren’t any pictures or photos around. I thought to myself that this was a bloke who didn’t know how to clean. It was creepy – disgusting, really. If he’d been my boyfriend I would’ve kicked him out.”
The pair started knocking back large glasses of rum and coke. As they drank, Dennis’s dog Bleep wandered between them, looking for some attention. “Dennis was impatient with the dog, telling her off and shoving her out of the way,” says Carl. “I told him to leave her alone. I think the dog wanted human contact and company, but she didn’t get much in that flat.”
At one point, Dennis handed his companion a pair of headphones and played one of Carl’s favourite songs, ‘O Superman’, a spooky, sparse tune by eccentric American singer Laurie Anderson. “While I was listening I suddenly sensed that he was behind me,” says Carl. “Something made me turn round and Dennis was quietly standing right behind me. That really unnerved me. I asked him what he was doing and he asked me if I wanted another drink.” They both kept drinking, to the point when Carl felt sick.
Sleeping with a psycho
The two eventually went to the bedroom, but Carl won’t say whether they had sex or not. As they lay next to each other in bed, Dennis said something that sounded mundane, but would prove to be a chilling warning. He told Carl to be careful not to get caught in the zip of the sleeping bag. Carl heard his comment but drifted off to sleep without giving it much thought. Carl’s next memory is waking up in the night gasping for breath, in intense pain, with the terrifying sensation that the sleeping bag was coiled tightly round his neck. Dennis’s hunched shape was next to him, hands on the bedding and with a pointed knee jammed in Carl’s back, straining to strangle him as the zip bit deeply into his throat. As Carl thrashed his arms and legs, Dennis became agitated and tried to convince Carl that he was actually trying to free him from the sleeping bag.
“Dennis was saying, ‘Keep still, keep still,’” says Carl. “The pain and pressure was unbelievable and I passed out. The next thing I remember was being carried somewhere. Then I had the sensation of being plunged into cold water. He’d shoved me into the bathtub and pushed my head under the water. I managed to come up for air three times, but I was too weak – he was holding me down. There was nothing I could do. I thought, ‘This is it. I’m going to die.’”
Carl remembers being taken out of the bath and dripping water on the floor. Then everything went black. At some point he had a dreamy recollection of being high up in a front room, looking down on a man lying on a sofa, whose face was covered in blood. Dennis was standing in the corner of the room. Carl says, “The dog was licking the man’s face and I was looking down on them. Then I felt a surge forward, as if I was moving into the man’s body. I realised that the man on the sofa was actually me. It felt like I’d had a near death experience.”
The missing hours
Astonishingly, Carl believes that Dennis revived him with heart massages and possibly mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. When Carl finally regained full consciousness, three days had passed. What happened in the that time is anyone’s guess. Dennis’s first words to Carl were, “Do you want a cigarette?” Befuddled by memory loss following his drunkenness, and distracted by his pain, Carl actually believed Dennis’s version of events.
“He said I’d become caught in the sleeping bag zip. I asked him about the cold water, and he said he’d put my head under to bring me out of shock. I couldn’t work out what had happened.”
Carl looked in the mirror and saw that his face was almost bursting with red blood vessels. He was frightened and insisted on going to hospital. The two walked through the woods and even arranged to meet again the following week, before parting at Highgate tube station. Carl remained oblivious to the fact that Dennis had tried to kill him, even though medics at the hospital told him his injuries were suspicious. He didn’t turn up for the meeting with Dennis the next week because he still felt so ill from his injuries, which included a deep cut circling his neck and sharp pains in his throat.
Carl says he reported the incident to the police two weeks later, but they never investigated it. “In those days, the police didn’t do anything about attacks on gay men,” he says. Dennis was caught about nine months later on 8 February 1983. Neighbours had contacted the council complaining of blocked, smelly drains. Inspectors found a flesh-like substance in them, later identified as human remains. Dennis was arrested and admitted killing “15 or 16” people. Police tracked Carl down again, and on 4 November 1983 his evidence helped convict Dennis on six counts of murder and two of attempted murder. Dennis is currently in Full Sutton Prison in York and has served 25 years of his life sentence.
Life after death
Carl has had nightmares and flashbacks about the attack, and has tried several times to kill himself. He’s a deeply damaged man, but it’s difficult to determine whether this is the result of the Nilsen attack, or other events in his life. He endured childhood sexual abuse, rape and was disowned by his parents. He was diagnosed as HIV positive ten years ago and is too unwell to work.
But like a moth to the flame, Carl still wrote to Dennis in prison. He received several replies, which Carl says have since been stolen. “I asked Dennis why he tried to kill me – and why he then revived me. He says that there was a thread of ‘love and humanity’ between us.” Carl also says he’s turned down a £40,000 offer from a Sunday newspaper to visit Dennis in prison, talk about it and be photographed outside the jail.
There remain many unanswered questions. Why would a serial killer revive a victim so close to death and at his mercy? And why would Dennis risk letting go of a victim who could potentially report him to the police? Whatever the answers, Carl is aghast at the suggestion he had a lucky escape. “I don’t feel lucky. What he did will stay with me forever,” he says.
It’s been over 26 years since their dark encounter, and Carl still carries the physical scars from the attack; two white lines about an inch apart that circle his neck. To help ease his mental pain, Carl collects models and knick-knacks about ancient Egypt. Before meeting Dennis, Carl performed as drag queen Khara Le Fox. Now he doesn’t have the confidence to get back on stage.
But Carl doesn’t blame himself. “I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he says. And now he’s forging a new life. “I’ve even got a new name, which I don’t want to disclose, because Carl Stotter died at Dennis Nilsen’s home that night.”
WHO WAS DENNIS NILSEN?
Dennis Nilsen killed at least 15 men in London between 1978 and 1983. He preyed predominantly on young drifters and homeless boys. He was eventually caught when his last victim’s body became lodged in the drain outside his Muswell Hill house, causing a terrible stink to hang over the neighbourhood. A drainage company investigating the situation found fleshy substances and small bones stuck in the pipes – at first, they thought it was chicken, but later it was identified as human remains.
Nilsen started his crime spree in 1978 in a flat in Cricklewood. He attempted to strangle the victim, eventually identified in 2006 as 14-year-old Stephen Dean Holmes, then drowned him in the bath. He stored the body under his floorboards, regularly taking it out to masturbate over.
Nilsen would also bring out the bodies of his victims to dress up, watch TV and to have sex with. He’d keep their corpses hidden in the house for months or even years, eventually disposing of them with a combination of boiling them up in pots, cutting them up with knives, and placing them in plastic bags or suitcases. He’d then burn the bags in his back garden. In total, he murdered 12 victims in Cricklewood. In November 1981, Nilsen moved to a new house in Muswell Hill, and murdered a further three victims before being arrested.
Nielsen was convicted of six murders and two attempted murders on 4 November 1983. He was initially imprisoned for 25 years, but that was subsequently raised to a life sentence by the Home Secretary. He is currently in HMP Full Sutton.