Stockwell Strangler

Kenneth Erskine

Stockwell Strangler

"He had this sort of terrible grin on his face"

During the summer and autumn months of 1986, a vicious serial killer known as the Stockwell Strangler stalked the housing estates of North and South London, targeting elderly men and women who were sexually assaulted and brutally strangled to death in their own homes. The first such murder occurred in April 1986, with the death of Nancy Emms, a 78-year-old spinster who was initially considered to have died from natural causes. A subsequent post mortem soon established she had been raped and strangled.

The following month, two elderly men were found suffocated and strangled in their beds, and there had been a rash of burglaries in the area which some suspected might be a possible motive. Police were not quick to link these murders to a single perpetrator, then on 9 June, another woman was found strangled in her flat in Wandsworth. This time the killer did not sexually assault the victim, but did leave a clear fingerprints at the crime scene. Later that same month two elderly Polish men were sexually assaulted and murdered, whilst another managed to survive his encounter to give police a chilling description of the killer.

In July, a further three men were found murdered under similar circumstances, and police were closing in on the elusive murderer. On 24 July, 80-year-old Florence Tisdall was found dead in the same way as previous victims, only this time a witness reported a strange man she encountered near the scene of the crime. Just four days later, police arrested a suspect in what the press were calling the Stockwell Strangler Case.

Burglaries in the city of London are a not altogether uncommon occurrance, however during the mid-1980’s a prolific burglar was targeting elderly victims, one of the most vulnerable members of society. 78-year-old Nancy Eileen Emms was a retired schoolteacher who lived on her own on West Hill Road, a suburb of Wandsworth in South West London. The reclusive spinster suffered from a mild form of dementia, and as a result she often lived in squalid conditions in her rundown basement flat.

In response, the local council organised for home help who would come several times a week to help clean up and cook meals for her. In the early morning hours of April 9, 1986, the home help visited Nancy at the flat during one of her weekly visits and found her dead. Emms was found tucked up in her bed with the bedclothes pulled up to her chin, with no signs of violence or anything to suggest suspicious circumstances, it appeared she had passed away peacefully in her sleep several days earlier.

Her doctor examined the body and believed she had died roughly three days previously, recording a verdict of natural causes on the death certificate. However, before the cremation was about to take place, the home help noticed the portable television set was missing from the cluttered flat and suspecting something sinister had occurred, and the police were alerted.

Nancy Emms

A post mortem was then carried out which revealed Emms had severe bruising to her upper and lower body, cracked ribs and finger marks around her throat. She had died from strangulation, and it was believed she had been sexually assaulted, because there were traces of semen found on her body.

Although it was impossible to establish, it was suspected she had been raped after her death. It was the opinion of the pathologist, that the victim had been attacked whilst she slept, her killer having knelt on her chest which resulted in the cracked ribs and severe bruising, then placed his left hand over mouth and throttled her with his right hand.

She was then turned over and the killer sexually assaulted her, before re-arranging the body to make it appear she had died peacefully in her sleep, with the bedclothes tucked up under her chin to cover the bruising to her throat. The television set was then removed, before the killer left the same way he came in, through an unsecured window.

Investigators surmised that killer had an found easy access point into the flat through an open window, as Nancy was known to often sleep with a window left slightly ajar when it was humid. Because of the mini heat wave the UK experienced that spring and summer, police said it might have been an opportunistic crime which escalated into murder. The victim was an elderly woman who wouldn’t have been able to put up much resistance against an adult male intruder.
Forensic officers were able to locate a hair sample on the bed-sheets at the scene of the crime. This single head hair was described as belonging to a person of Afro-Caribbean descent, and it was believed to have been left by the killer. With DNA and offender profiling still in its infancy in the UK, the police were left with no leads and began the long laborious process of trawling through the lists of burglars and sex offenders who were known to operate in the South London area in an effort to try and locate a possible suspect.
In their search for a potential suspect, detectives also looked if there were any other murders which matched that of Nancy Emms. They found that during the previous month, two elderly men had been found murdered under very similar circumstances. On May 6, 73-year-old Charles Quarell of Southwark was discovered on his bed at his home in King James Street, having been suffocated, whilst 70-year-old Wilfred Parkes was found on May 28, strangled in his bed.
It appeared the killer of both men had waited for them to retire to bed for the night before entering through an unsecure window then launching a cowardly attack, catching the victims off guard whilst they slept. When detectives searched further back, they came across the death of 57-year-old John Jordan, who had been found strangled beside his bed at his flat in Josephine Avenue, Brixton on February 4, 1986. Although there was no evidence to connect these crimes to the same individual, police were beginning to suspect that a serial killer might be targeting elderly victims in the London area.

While police continued to search for the killer, another elderly woman would suffer a similar fate. Located on the Overton Road Estate in Stockwell, Warwick House was a block of low-rise flats just a few miles from the basement flat where Nancy Emms lived.

It was here that 67-year-old Janet Cockett was found dead in her first-floor flat, in what were very similar circumstances to the previous victim. So similar that her death was initially attributed to natural causes, before a post mortem revealed she had two fractured ribs and had been strangled to death.

The killer had once again staged the crime scene, with the bedclothes pulled up to her chin so it appeared she had died from natural causes. Unlike the previous victim, Cockett had not been sexually assaulted, however her nightdress had been torn off and neatly folded by the killer.

Janet Cockett
This time investigators noticed something strange, as it appeared the killer had re-positioned several family photographs on a mantlepiece in the bedroom, placing them either face down or turned towards the wall. Janet had been the complete opposite of the reclusive spinster Emms, in that she had been married three times and had four children.
She had been recently widowed, but was still active and enjoyed a busy social life, spending her time with family and friends whilst serving as the chairwoman of the tenant’s association. Police were able to locate a single thumb print on a plant pot from the matlepiece and a clear palm print on a bedroom window, presumably left by the killer. It also appeared the killer had attempted to break into the residence of another elderly man, but was disturbed by a noise and fled.
Although investigators now had DNA and fingerprint evidence from two separate crime scenes, they did not have any suspects, or know if the crimes were committed by the same individual. Detectives started a search of palm print records of offenders they held on record in an effort to find a match to their elusive killer. Despite two elderly victims killed in almost identical fashion roughly 5 miles apart, the cases were not immediately linked, chiefly because they were being investigated by different police stations, and although detectives working both cases did exchange information, they did not believe there was sufficient evidence to suspect the same attacker.
It would be just over two weeks later when a potential victim survived his encounter with the vicious strangler. 73-year-old Frederick Prentice was a retired pensioner who lived in an old people’s home known as Bradmead, which was on Cedars Road in Clapham. Prentice described for detectives his terrifying ordeal. At around 3:00am on the morning of June 27, he was suddenly awoken from his sleep by what sounded like footsteps in the passageway outside his room.
When he sat up, he saw the shadowed outline of someone standing behind the frosted glass of his unlocked door, which was soon opened when a stranger entered his room.  He said the man was dressed all in dark clothing, and as he fumbled to turn on the light, the intruder placed his finger against his lips indicating him to stay silent. 
Frederick Prentice

After he did this, the young man ran and jumped onto Mr. Prentice before he was able to alert someone. He gripped the old man’s throat and began to squeeze hard, before relaxing it. He did this four times, squeezing his victim’s windpipe in a powerful grip and then allowing him to breath. Prentice recalled how the man had a deranged grin on his face and was clearly enjoying the sadistic game he was playing with his victim. The man then began hissing the same word over and over… “KILL… KILL… KILL.”

With the stranger’s hand still gripped around his throat, Mr. Prentice was unable to shout out for help. Mustering all his remaining strength, he managed to press the panic button on the wall above his bed. As he did this, the man violently pushed Mr. Prentice against the wall, jumped off the bed and started running out of the room. Moments later a warden entered, responding to the panic alarm, but the intruder had fled.

When Police searched the room, they discovered the man must have gained access to the complex through an open window, which had been left open because of the sweltering heat. The description given by Fred Prentice of his attacker was understandably vague given his ordeal, but it did provide investigators with somewhat of a clearer understanding of the person they were searching for. He was described as being young, in his late teens to mid 20’s, with dark hair and a suntanned complexion.

Police suspected the intruder had been an experienced burglar, who felt comfortable entering residential properties where the possibility of capture was high. Fred Prentice was lucky to be alive, and police were now beginning to suspect that his attempted murder might be connected to the same individual who had killed Nancy Emms and Janet Cockett. Detectives were determined to catch this sadistic killer, who clearly gained great enjoyment from tormenting his elderly victims before strangling the life out of them.

Police didn’t have to wait long before the killer struck again. The next evening, on June 28, the killer would claim two victims in the same night. The Strangler chose another old people’s home, this time it was the council run Somerville Hastings House in Stockwell Park Crescent. In the early morning hours, the night duty staff started to become suspicious at around 4:00am when they heard what sounded like someone using an electric razor.

As they went to investigate they saw the shadow of an intruder creeping through the corridors. They quickly contacted the police and then armed themselves with sticks, but the man had vanished by the time officers arrived. It was then that the bodies of 84-year-old Valentine Gleim and 94-year-old Zbrigniev Stabrava were found in their adjoining rooms at the home. Polish born Stabrava, who had fled his native country to escape the Nazis, had been strangled in the same manner as former British Army officer Gleim, who had also been sexually assaulted.

Valentine Gleim
Zbrigniev Stabrava

Police believed the intruder gained access through an open window, and in Mr. Stabrava’s en-suite bathroom they found a freshly used flannel in the wash basin and an electric razor which was plugged in. It appeared that quite bizarrely the killer had been brazen enough to take the time to wash and shave after committing the brutal double murders. When questioned, the staff provided a similar description to that given by Mr. Prentice, and investigators were now confident they were looking for the same suspect.

The similarities between the cases could not be ignored, and the police were hunting a killer who strangled his victims with his bare hands, and who sexually assaulted both elderly men and women. During an eleven week period, the deranged killer had claimed upwards of four victims, possibly more, and detectives stepped up their manhunt. This intensified strategy involved the use of plain clothed officers who were sent to conduct night-time covert surveillance outside dozens of old people’s homes throughout the South London area. 

Despite these efforts, it appeared the killer had become aware of the police presence, because he would strike again just over a week later, however this time he chose an area outside of Stockwell. By now the media were referring to the elusive killer as the “Stockwell Strangler”, and this may also have contributed to his targeting his next victim outside of Stockwell, in a possible effort to throw off investigators. At some point between the 6th and the 9th July, the killer crossed the River Thames and entered the Greater London home of 82-year-old widower William Carmen, who lived alone in a low-rise block of flats at Sybil Thorndike House on Islington’s Marquess estate.

Mr. Carmen’s daughter found his body in the early morning hours of July 9, in what would be the killer’s now standard modus operandi of leaving his victim in their bed, making it appear they had died in their sleep. But once again the tell-tale signs were evident, and the killer had turned all the photographs in the flat to face the wall, whilst footprints located outside matched those found at other crime scenes.

Presumably at some point during the previous three days, the killer had entered the flat in the early morning hours through and open window, and proceeded to strangle Mr. Carmen to death before sexually assaulting him. This time however, there were clear signs that a burglary had taken place, with the flat appearing to have been ransacked and between £400-£500 which Mr. Carmen had hidden in the flat was missing

William Carmen

Detectives suspected that robbery had now become a secondary motive, and the Strangler was acting out his sexual urges on London’s elderly residents. Indeed it appeared the killer had a unique sexual quirk and suffered from a form of gerontophilia, meaning he possessed an attraction to, and could only achieve sexual gratification from engaging in sex with, the elderly. This paraphilia might not entirely explain the offenders motivations for targeting elderly victims.

He may choose that victim type because of the increased vulnerability of the elderly as a social group, or more likely in the case of the Stockwell Strangler, might harbour rage or sadistic urges. As such, the strangler may not have a sexual preference for the elderly or exhibit gerontophilic tendencies, but targets them because they offer an easier victim to control.

Just four days after Mr. Carmen was found, another elderly victim was discovered, this time back over the south side of the Thames. On July 12, 75-year-old widower Trevor Thomas was found dead in his bathtub at his home in Barton Court, Jeffreys Road in Clapham. He had apparently been dead for some time, possibly as many as a number of weeks, and as a result there was significant decomposition to the body, meaning much of the forensic evidence found was no longer usable.

Although the death of Mr. Thomas was not initially included amongst the victims of the Stockwell Strangler because it was impossible to determine how he died or if he had been sexually assaulted, his death was considered by detectives to be linked, and they were 90% certain they were dealing with a sixth Strangler victim.

William Downes

The Strangler claimed another victim just eight days later, when the body of 74-year-old William Downes was found at his home on the Overton Estate, the same housing estate where the second victim, Janet Cockett had been murdered. It appeared the killer was returning to his favourite hunting grounds. Mr. Downes was a reclusive pensioner who lived alone and very rarely left his small studio flat situated in a block known as Hollies House, which was another low-rise block of flats that the killer seemed to favoured.

On the morning of 21st July, the body of Mr. Downes was found by his son in his bedsit, and it was determined he had been murdered the previous evening. He was lying naked in bed, with the sheets pulled up to his neck, in that familiar way the Strangler left his victims. There were semen stains on the bed-sheets and he had been strangled and sexually assaulted.

The autopsy concluded Mr. Downes had died from asphyxia due to manual strangulation, and it appeared the killer had once again gained entry through an unsecured window, but this time left a single palm print on the garden wall and gate as he entered the property. Mr. Downes son later said he would often warn his elderly father about the dangers of leaving his window unsecured, especially with a killer on the loose. He said, “I told him, I warned him to keep his door and windows locked, especially at night, but it was hot and I think he left just one slightly open to let some air in.”

The investigation was by now placed under the overall command of Detective Chief Superintendent Ken Thompson of the Metropolitan Police, who held a press conference in late July to a large gathering of television reporters and journalists. The media had long speculated the murder spree was the work of a single individual, and were eager to find out all they could from DCS Thompson about the killer they had nicknamed “The Stockwell Strangler”.
The police chief explained how all but two of the murders had taken place in the Stockwell area, and all the victims were retired elderly men and women, who had all been killed during the early morning hours. The suspect targeted low-rise housing or blocks of flats, mainly because it was easier to gain entry and it was believed he deliberately chose dwellings where elderly people would reside, and picked out properties that would usually consist of visible railings on the outer walls.
It was suspected the killer was either local or familiar with the Stockwell area, because he was able to navigate his way through the network of residential and industrial estates which separated the homes of each victim. A police psychologist was assigned to the case in an effort to determine why the killer chose his elderly victims, and to better understand the apparent attempt at covering up his crimes to disguise them as natural deaths. Was it some bizarre psychological ritual the killer needed to act out, or was he simply playing games with the police.
The police had sufficient eye witness descriptions of the killer, from surviving victim Fred Prentice and the staff members at the Somerville Hastings House. These descriptions were of a young-looking white male, with a sun-tanned face, short dark hair, who had a deranged and frightening grin. There were several theories about the Strangler and his day to day life. Some detectives surmised he might possibly work in an old people’s home, or some type of employment, such as a milkman or postman, that would put him into contact with his potential targets.
There was also sufficient evidence to suggest the killer was an experienced burglar, who was adept at gaining access to homes. This point was contentious however as the killer had left several prints at a number of the crime scenes, which seemed to indicate a carelessness for forensic awareness or an ineptitude at covering his tracks. There was no doubt the killer was mentally unstable, and sexually disturbed because of his paraphilia, with many suspecting he was a gerontophile. The person they sought was an extremely dangerous individual, and the police needed to stop his murderous spree.
The national newspapers ran a front page story on the Stockwell Murders, and as a result many of the old age pensioners of South London were left in fear that they would be the killer’s next victim. This fear was strengthened by the lurid details in the press stories of the Stockwell Strangler, which built up a nightmare vision of a “faceless monster”, stalking the elderly and creeping into their bedrooms at night to defile and murder. The press clippings were usually accompanied by a chilling but vague artists impression of the killer.
The purpose of these press stories were not just to frighten the elderly, it was intended to serve as a warning of the danger that was lurking outside their bedroom windows. The police hoped they would remain extra vigilant and take better precautions if living alone. People who had elderly neighbours and family members were urged to check up on them regularly.
Police patrols were increased throughout the targeted areas, and teams of plain-clothed detectives were assigned to man nightly observation posts, in the hope they would catch the Strangler before he struck again. A special helpline was set-up by the charity Help the Aged, so that elderly people who feared for their safety could make contact.
Investigators were still searching the records in an effort to match the killer’s palm print to a suspect. They had already matched the palm print taken by Mr. Downes flat which had been left on the garden gate and kitchen wall, with the print taken from the home of Janet Cockett, the Stockwell Strangler’s second victim who had been murdered weeks earlier on the same estate.
This match was a big step forward and meant detectives were now certain they were looking for a single perpetrator. Meanwhile, the search for a match to the palm print continued, however the process was painstakingly slow and there was no way to expedite the results.
In 1986, fingerprint records were still in the transitional stage of being computerised from those held as physical copies, and despite hundreds of thousands of fingerprint records having already been transferred to computer disk, the work of transferring the palm prints had not yet begun. This meant the prints taken by detectives from the two crime scenes had to be checked manually against records held on file.
The relatively small team undertaking this mammoth task had no less than four million files to check through. Through sheer perseverance, they were able to narrow down the number to a manageable amount by focusing on known South London petty criminals and burglars to locate a match. The team was under immense pressure, because investigators did not know when the killer would strike again.

This fear was realised on 24 July 1986, when the Strangler claimed what would be his final victim. Like many of the elderly who were killed by the Stockwell Strangler, 80-year-old Florence Tisdall lived alone in her ground floor flat in an apartment block at Ranelagh Gardens, Hurlingham. It was situated close to the River Thames in Putney Bridge, which had been her home for the past sixty years. Florence was partly deaf and blind, and she found it difficult to move about without the use of a walking frame.

She had a love of cats, enjoying their company and besides the three she owned, she also entertained and fed various neighbourhood strays who wandered into her home. She regularly left a window open for them to come and go as they pleased.

Florence Tisdall

On 23 July, Florence made a rare trip to the hairdressers to get her hair done specially for the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of York, which was to be broadcast on television that day. She was a staunch Royalist, and watched the wedding celebrations on her television whilst having a glass of sherry in celebration. Because of the sweltering heat, she left a window open to let in some air and for her cats to come and go, before retiring to bed early for the evening.

The next morning, the body of Florence Tisdall was found by the apartment block caretaker Terry Bristow, who often checked on her. She was found lying in bed, the covers pulled up to her chin to hide the savage murder and sex attack which had taken place. The pathologist found she had the signature bruising on her throat, and two broken ribs from where the killer had knelt on her chest whilst strangling her.

It was determined she had been killed roughly 12 hours earlier, which was much earlier than the Strangler had previously struck. He had always launched his attacks during the early morning hours, so there was significantly less chance of being seen by any potential witnesses, however there was loud noise coming from a disco taking place at the Eight Bells pub opposite her home in celebration of the Royal Wedding, which would have drowned out any screams the victim might have made.

This latest murder of a defenceless old woman shocked the public and police once more. The Metropolitan police came under increased criticism for their failure to capture the Strangler. However, in the next few days there would be a significant breakthrough. The team of detectives who had been searching through thousands of prints in an effort to match the palm print of the Strangler to a suspect had found a match. They finally had their suspect and the public would soon have a name and a face of the monstrous Stockwell Strangler.

The prints matched those of 24-year-old Kenneth Erskine, a known burglar and homeless drifter who was known to live a transient existence between several squats in the Stockwell and Brixton areas. Police staked out Erskine’s last known address, one of the squats in Brixton, but it was discovered he had left there some months ago, and investigators were unable to locate where he was currently residing. When police made further enquiries, they found that Erskine regularly collected his unemployment benefit every Monday at a Social Security Department Office in South London known as Keyworth House.

He had been going there to claim since 1984, and was well-known to the staff there, who called him “the Whisperer”, because of his quiet and timid nature. On July 28, 1986, teams of officers staked out the building, and when Erskine arrived to sign on, he was placed under arrest. As he was handcuffed Erskine offered no resistance or struggle and was promptly taken to Clapham police station for questioning. The Stockwell Strangler was off the streets, and they now wanted to know what type of person could commit such heinous crimes against such vulnerable people.

Keyworth House (Source; Daily Mail)

Kenneth Erskine was born in Hammersmith on the July 1, 1962, as the eldest of four children to his English-born mother Margaret, and his Antiguan-born father Charles. The Erskine family lived in a council flat in Putney, and the household was not a happy one. Kenneth and his three younger brothers would spent several periods of their childhood in care homes or placed with foster families.

His parents divorced in the mid-1970’s, and the young Kenneth was known to his neighbours as a happy and cheerful boy, who would often be found reading from the bible, and claimed to embrace ideals of love and peace. However, his behaviour soon grew darker after his parents divorce, and he became a difficult child to control. He started to take out his frustrations on younger children, often bullying the smaller and weaker kids, attacking them for no reason and tying them up.

Because of his difficult behaviour, he received schooling at a series of schools for maladjusted children, and his time at these institutions were typified by numerous violent attacks against both the teaching staff and other pupils. During one such incident, he stabbed a teacher through the hand with a pair of scissors, and in another he took a psychiatric nurse hostage when she tried to examine him, by holding a pair of scissors to her throat.

His behaviour was often erratic and unpredictable, and one time he started a fire that caused considerable damage to one of the special schools, and purposely pushed a fellow pupil off a moving bus. This quite alarming behaviour was now bordering on homicidal tendencies, and this was most evident when he attempted to drown several other school children on a trip to a swimming pool by holding their heads underwater until the staff intervened.

It was becoming increasingly impossible to discipline him and when staff tried different approaches, like showing understanding or affection towards the boy, he would try his hardest to shock them by rubbing against them in a sexual manner, or by exposing himself and masturbating. His home life was equally fraught with his outrageous and violent behaviour. Erskine was eventually cast out by his family at the age of 16, after several instances at home which caused great alarm for his family.

It was alleged that he had twice tried to hang one of his younger brothers, John, and when he attempted to give this same brother cannabis, it was the last straw. He was kicked out and disowned by his family, and would never have anything more to do with any of them again. His only alternative now was to lead a transient existence in London’s “Cardboard City”, and spent his time living in various squats in the Stockwell and Brixton areas.

He soon began drinking and using hard drugs, and turned to burglary to fund his habits. He seemed content in life to be a small-time crook, and would often commit burglaries and petty crimes such as breaking open electricity meters. This never netted much of a haul, except for a few pounds. He often resorted to stealing larger items, such as antiques, television sets, a camera or piece of jewellery, which he would sell to pawn dealers or black market traders for a fraction of the actual value so he could get money to buy food and his drugs.
He soon became an experience burglar, but proved to be an incompetent one and was arrested by the police several times over the years, which led to a term of imprisonment in Feltham Young Offenders Institution in Hounslow, West London. During his incarceration, Erskine spent most of his time painting and drawing, often displaying the pictures on the wall of his cell, which he shared with James Doel, another experience burglar. These paintings offered a glimpse into Erskine’s twisted mind, and often depicted elderly people dying in horrendous ways, or dead in their beds, either stabbed to death, gagged, burned alive or decapitated with blood spraying from their bodies.
Chillingly Erskine was obsessed with murder, and his former cellmate, James Doel remembered his morbid fascination, “He was always talking of killing people. He once boasted that he had murdered an old person in Enfield, and hinted that he had killed others. When he was taunted by other prisoners for whatever reasons, he’d fly into a rage. He would get really mad, and then when they were least expecting it he’d pick up a chair and hit them over the head.”
In 1982, Erskine was released against the advice of doctors at the Institution, and almost immediately went back to his old ways of taking drugs and committing petty crimes on the streets. Because of his anti-social ways, he found it difficult to fit into any group of even make friends. When police attempted to locate anyone who knew Erskine, they were unable to find a single friend or acquaintance.
Kenneth Erskine never owned any possessions either, except the clothes he was wearing when arrested, and a collection of building society paying in books. He lived this bleak existence over the next four years, until he began his killing spree, claiming the lives of at least seven elderly pensioners. Despite having no job and no obvious means of income except his unemployment benefit, Erskine had amassed over £3,000 during the months of the murders, a substantial sum in 1986, which were the proceeds of his criminal looting.
He had opened around ten bank accounts into which he attempted to launder the money that he had stolen from this victims. The process of interrogating Erskine was described as difficult, not least because of his bizarre behaviour. Psychiatrists would later diagnose him with having the mental age of a pre-teen, and he would spend many hours during questioning behaving in an odd manner, either giggling, staring out of the window or day-dreaming. He never confessed to the murders, but did admit to burgling the victim’s homes, claiming that someone else must have followed him in after he had left and they committed the murders.
He told detectives he “didn’t remember killing anyone, but may have done it without knowing it.” A psychologist interviewed Erskine at great length, and described how he lived in a world of his own and at times was unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality. He came to the conclusion that Erskine had the mental age of an eleven-year-old, and was extremely impressionable and open to suggestion, that at times he would believe a story being read to him was about him personally. He would claim he wanted to be famous and exhibited confusing traits, such as nodding his head when he meant yes and shaking his head when he intended to say yes.
The first image of Erskine released by police

He was clearly a very disturbed individual, but he did still possess some measure of control and decision making. Despite the police having sufficient evidence, in the form of Erskine’s prints and hair samples, linking him to two of the crime scenes, DCS Thompson wanted to amass a water-tight case against him that would positively link Erskine to all of the murders, as well as the attempted murder of Frederick Prentice.

In an attempt the find more witnesses or leads that could assist with their inquiry, the police took the unusual step of issuing two photographs of Erskine to the media on 11 August 1986. The first was from a police mugshot taken when Erskine spent a period of his life sporting Rastafarian dreadlocks.

The other was his police mugshot taken after his arrest for the Stockwell Strangler crimes, which depicted Ernskine with shorter hair along with revealed his penetrating stare. The release of these photographs resulted in dozen of calls, which mostly consisted of residents of Brixton, who recognised Erskine because he was a familiar character throughout the area.

But one call proved to be an extremely important sighting which had occurred on the evening the Strangler killed his final victim. Investigators were contacted by Denise Keena, a 25-year-old businesswoman who told them of an encounter she had with a man on Putney Bridge at around 11:30pm on the evening of July 23.

The police mugshot released of Erskine

This witness recalled how she had been so terrified and disturbed by the behaviour of this individual she saw in the street, who was apparently being sick, that she called the police, who arrived just after the man had vanished into the night. She gave them a chilling description; “He had this sort of terrible grin on his face. He looked as if he was out of control. It was a horrible, awful, disgusting expression. He had wide, staring eyes and his mouth was open. All the muscles and tendons in his face were standing out, drawn tight against the bones.”

She said she recognised the man as Erskine when she saw his photograph, and said the encounter took place just 200 yards from the floor flat of Florence Tisdall, and would have occurred less than 30 minutes after she had been murdered by the Stockwell Strangler. When both Mr. Prentice and Ms. Keena attended a police line-up, they both picked out Erskine as the man they had terrifying encounters with. Denise said he was the man she saw after the last murder acting strangely, and Mr. Prentice did not hesitate to identify him as the man who attempted to murder him.

Kenneth Erskine was charged with the murders of Janet Cockett and William Downes, as well as the attempted murder of Frederick Prentice and remanded in custody. Whilst he was awaiting trial, more charges were added, including the murders of Nancy Emms, Valentine Gleim, Zbigniew Stabrava, William Carmen, and Florence Tisdall. One death that was suspected but never definitively linked was that of Trevor Thomas, because the forensic evidence was unusable for the crown prosecution to file murder charges against Erskine.

Three other deaths were also linked to the Stockwell Strangler, those of Charles Quarell, Wilfred Parkes and John Jordan, all of whom were found dead in similar circumstances but without sufficient evidence to prove Erskine’s involvement. Erskine’s trial began at the Old Bailey on January 12, 1988, and he was now charged with seven counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. He pleaded not guilty to all the charges, but appeared quite indifferent to his surroundings, unaware of what was really going on around him.

His disturbing behaviour was now witnessed by the court, and he was admonished on at least one occasion for apparently falling asleep. At one point, he caused indignation when he was caught masturbating during the proceedings. The court was told of the horrific crimes and how each of the elderly and frail victims had been brutally murdered and sexually assaulted, as well as the strange habits and idiosyncrasies of the perpetrator, such as photographs at the scene being turned away or placed face down.
The Pathologists presented their finding to the court how the killer had gained access through an open window whilst the victims slept, kneeling on their chests, placing his left hand over their mouths whilst he used his right to grip their throats and strangle them to death. It was believed after death the killer performed the sexual assaults and then would attempt to make it appear they had died in their sleep, which was a common feature in most of the crimes.
The prosecution then revealed the defendants background, with his troubled schooling, repeat offending along with his history of drug abuse and violence, to present to the jury the type of deranged individual who was responsible for these crimes. The forensic evidence presented showed Erskine’s palm prints found at two of the crime scenes, as well as the shoe imprints which were discovered at the scene of both the double murder and the attempted murder of Mr. Prentice, which were later matched to shoes found in Erskine’s possession.
Of his meagre possessions, the Building Society Book would prove to be significant in connecting him with some of the murders. They showed several transactions which could be linked to corresponding times following the burglary of a victim. One such transaction proved to be an important piece of circumstantial evidence, that showed Erskine paid £350 into his building society account the day after the murder of William Carmen, the fifth victim, who had his £500 savings stolen.
Several witnesses were called to give evidence, including Alice McPherson, who was a member of staff on duty at the Somerville Hastings Care Home, who spotted the intruder on the night of the double murder. Denise Keena was also called to recount her encounter with the man she identified as Kenneth Erskine. She now pointed to the defendant sat in court and claimed he was the man she saw on the evening of Florence Tisdall’s murder.
The most damning evidence came from the Strangler’s surviving victim, Fred Prentice, who entered the courtroom in his mobility scooter and took the stand to re-tell of his horrific ordeal at the hands of the man he identified as the accused. “I was absolutely terrified, but there was nothing I could do. He was sitting on my chest with his fingers clutching at my neck… I thought I was a goner.”
“I kept pleading with him to let me go and take whatever he wanted and leave. But he took nothing, and took no notice of me. It was a nightmare. He then chucked my head against a wall and ran off. The blow almost knocked me unconscious, and I slumped to the floor too petrified to move. I suppose he thought he must have killed me, because he ran out leaving me for dead. I was too frightened even to watch him go. I shall always have his face in my memory, his terrible grin. He ruined my life.”
Erskine himself would never take the stand in his defence, nor would he allow himself to be cross-examined, which was his legal right. The tapes from his interviews with the police were played to the jury, which showed the full extent of his deranged mind. He claimed a woman’s whispering voice would haunt him constantly, “It tries to think for me. It says it will kill me if it can get me. It blanks things from my mind, I can’t fight it”, and said it came out of doors and walls, resulting in dizzy spells whenever he heard it.
The tapes also revealed Erskine admitting to burgling each of the victim’s homes, but astonishingly claimed that some other person must have entered afterwards and committed each of the murders. The jury did not accept this outlandish story, and on January 29, 1988, they returned a unanimous verdict of guilty on all counts. As he stood before Mr. Justice Rose, Kenneth Erskine was sentenced to life imprisonment for each charge.
The Judge told him, “I have no doubt that the horrific nature and number of your crimes requires that I should recommend a minimum sentence which you must serve. In all the charges except the attempted murder, I recommend to the Secretary of State that you serve a minimum of 40 years. I waste no further words in cataloguing the chilling horror of what you did.”
“It is clear from the medical reports that from a very young age you treated others sadistically, and that your behaviour sexually and in other ways was grossly abnormal.” At the time, it was the longest sentence ever handed down by a Judge in an English court. Erskine appeared close to tears when he heard the sentence, but regained his composure and was taken away by the bailiffs.
Once imprisoned, Erskine accepted his fate and reportedly told a prison officer, “I’m nice and cosy inside, and I don’t give a damn if I ever come out”. Detectives had long suspected Erskine was possibly responsible for more murders than initially thought. But the issue was difficult to resolve, not least because Erskine himself was almost impossible to question and officers never secured a coherent confession out of him.
It was thought he may have started killing long before they originally thought, however due to Erskine’s mental age, appalling memory and transient existence, it was impossible to gain a sufficient timeline of his movements. One senior detective said, “There is simply no way of knowing just how many defenceless old folk he has killed, it could be dozens. This man must be from another planet. He simply just does not have any regard for human life at all.”
He was suspected in as many as four other murders, those of 57-year-old John Jordan on 4 February 1985, 73-year-old Charles Quarrell on May 6, 1986, 70-year-old Wilfred Parkes on May 28, 1986 and 75-year-old Trevor Thomas on July 12, 1986. Following Erksine’s conviction, the police closed the files on these murders, confident that the likely perpetrator had been sentenced to many years behind bars.
There was also the possibility that Erskine was responsible for many more deaths, but they were mistakenly ruled as having died from natural causes. This was the case with his first confirmed victim, Nancy Emms. Erskine has never admitted to any other killings, but because of his diminished mental capacity, police were never able to ascertain his involvement without concrete evidence. Erskine himself would admit on his taped interviews that he had no memory of killing anyone, but said he may have done without being fully aware.
Erskine had been committing burglaries for most of his adult life in order to fund his drug habit, spending time in Feltham, and may very well have targeted numerous old peoples homes and old age pensioners living on their own as they made easier targets. Despite his long criminal record as an experienced thief, there were never any instances where he committed any sexual offences. A psychologist who examined the crimes before Erskine’s arrest put forward the theory that the killer was possibly a gerontophile, because of the Strangler’s victim choice.
Indeed, Erskine committed sodomy against both his elderly male and female victims, which was evident in almost every case. Psychologists who spoke with Erskine in prison believed he chose to defile his elderly victims because he may have held some deep-seated resentment against an older figure in his life, possibly an abusive parent or grandparent. Although his home life was far from a happy one, there was no indication he suffered from any form of sexual abuse at the hands of another.
It was likely Erskine was bi-sexual, with an emphasis on him leaning towards a homosexual inclination. Indeed, there is evidence of his involvement in a homosexual relationship at age 18 in which he stabbed and slashed the young man. Conversely there are no records of Erskine ever being involved in a heterosexual relationship, but cannot be discounted because the details of his life on the streets are largely unknown because wanderer lifestyle.
Because Erskine was found to be suffering from a mental disorder, he spent the majority of his sentence at Broadmoor Hospital, a high-security psychiatric hospital in Crowthorne, Berkshire. Broadmoor would be home to some of the most high-profile offenders in British criminal history, including Peter Sutcliffe the Yorkshire Ripper, gangster Ronnie Kray, poisoner Graham Young and Cannibal killer Robert Maudsley.

Erkine would stay largely out of the headlines, only coming to the attention of the British press a handful of times. During an incident in 1996, Erskine reportedly saved the life of Peter Sutcliffe when he raised the alarm when Sutcliffe was attacked by another inmate, Paul Wilson, who half strangled the Ripper with the flex from a pair of stereo headphones.

He did not come under scrutiny again until 2005, when it was reported by the British tabloids that he was being prepared for a moved to a medium security facility. His case was reviewed by a Mental Health Tribunal, who believed he was no longer a danger to the public. In a move that would cause considerable criticism, it was reported that Erskine was being recommended for a transfer to Lambeth Hospital, which was located in Stockwell.
This decision generated particular fury from the British public, with one Broadmoor source quoted as saying, “Medical staff and psychiatrists now believe he is a low risk. If he is allowed to go back home it will be an insult to all those old people he killed. The public may accept him being moved to a low security unit but putting him in South London is a step too far”. Erskine’s lawyers made a fresh appeal against his murder convictions in July 2009 at the Court of Appeal in London.
Erskine’s QC, Mr. Edward Fitzgerald told the Judges that Erskine had been suffering from a chronic, incurable condition, which would require life-long treatment and that the basis on which Erskine would be subject to release, would be when his detention is no longer necessary for the protection of the British public. A report had been given by psychiatrist Dr. Andrew Horne, dated March 17, 2006, which contained an assessment of Erskine from September 2004.
Horne, who had been a consultant at Broadmoor Hospital and one of Erskine’s doctor for over 20 years, presented new medical evidence in his report which states that the clinical schizophrenia Erskine had been diagnosed with suffering from since 1980, would have diminished his responsibility for his actions to a “massive degree.” In a decision announced by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge and two other Judges, Erskine’s convictions were reduced to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility.
In giving his reasons for quashing the murder convictions, Lord Judge said, “This is a straightforward case. It is overwhelmingly clear that, at the time when the appellant appeared at trial, there was unequivocal contemporaneous evidence that his mental responsibility for his actions at the time of the killing was substantially impaired. We are satisfied that the convictions for murder were unsafe.” The judges imposed a hospital order in Erskine’s case, with Lord Judge commenting that in the “interests of public safety”, the order was handed down for an indefinite period.
Erskine was promptly returned to Broadmoor Hospital, where he had served most of his sentence already. His risk status was downgraded in 2016, and he was moved to a medium secure hospital unit at Thornford Park Hospital in Thatcham, Berkshire. Many have speculated that Kenneth Erksine’s release could be approved within the next few years, and if his treatment is deemed successful, he would be back on the streets once more.

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