"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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.