The Stockwell Strangler – Part 1

“Obviously he is a desperate man and needs help” – Detective Chief Superintendent Ken Thompson (speaking in 1986)

Stockwell is a district in inner South London, situated in the London borough of Lambeth. It was for a time considered to be one of the poorer areas of London, but it has undergone a bit of an overhaul in recent years, and as it is in proximity to Central London and as a result has excellent transport links, it’s now and up and coming area. It does have its brushes with infamy in its history – most recently for example, Stockwell Underground Station was the scene of the high-profile wrongful killing of Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005 by armed officers of the London Metropolitan Police. He was wrongfully killed after being mistakenly thought to be a suspect in the attempted bombings of 21st July 2005 – the attacks that followed the horrific London bombings of 7/7.

But this killing is not the first high-profile crime to have put Stockwell on the map. A lesser known and often forgotten killer stalked the districts of South London over the summer of 1986, a killer who preyed on one of the most vulnerable groups of society, the elderly. Over a 17-week period of sickening crime, the killer was to claim the lives of at least seven pensioners in the most horrific and brutal fashion.

Seventy-eight year old retired schoolteacher Nancy Emms was typical of so many old people throughout not just London, but throughout the UK as a whole.

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Nancy Emms

She was a reclusive spinster who lived alone, sadly in near squalid conditions, in a run-down basement flat in West Hill Road, in the South West London suburb of Wandsworth. Nancy suffered from mild dementia, and as a result her home was often in near squalid conditions, so she had a council organised home help who would come in a couple of times each week to help clean up her flat, and cook a few meals for her. On the morning of 09 April 1986, the home help called in to visit Nancy for one of her weekly visits, but found Nancy lying dead in bed. There seemed to be nothing untoward, Nancy was found laid in bed with the covers tucked under her chin, and it seemed as though Nancy had passed away peacefully in her sleep some days earlier as is so often common with the elderly. The authorities and a doctor were called to the scene, and upon examination of her body, the doctor signed a death certificate to say that Nancy had indeed died of natural causes. And that was nearly that – the death duties were being discussed and a cremation was being planned and discussed there and then, when the home help noticed that Nancy’s portable TV set was missing from the cluttered flat.

This made alarm bells ring, as though it had suddenly occurred that this might not be as clear-cut a death as first thought, and could possibly have had more sinister overtones. Police were called to the scene, and a post-mortem was ordered to be carried out on Nancy. When the post-mortem was performed, it was to discover that these suspicions were right.

Nancy was found to have severe bruising to her upper and lower body, finger marks around her throat, cracked ribs – and had been sexually assaulted, as traces of semen were found on her body. In the opinion of the pathologist, Nancy had been attacked whilst asleep. Her killer had knelt on her chest, causing the cracked ribs and severe bruising, then clamped his left hand over her mouth and throttled her with his right hand. When sure she was dead, the killer had then turned her over, sexually assaulted her, then re-arranged the body almost tenderly and left her tucked up, looking almost at peace.

So police were dealing with a case of murder here – and it looked at first like a burglary gone wrong. There was no sign of forced entry to the flat, but a bedroom window was ajar. Nancy was known to have often slept with a window left open if it was hot, and as the spring and summer of 1986 brought with it a mini heat wave to the UK – the killer had had ample chance to gain access to her flat. But if it was a burglary – then what was the need to sexually assault and kill an elderly woman also? Nancy would not have been able to put up any sort of resistance against an intruder – what kind of monster does that on top of a burglary?

If the killer hadn’t taken something as obvious as Nancy’s television from the cluttered flat, then it is likely he would have gotten away with murder as Nancy’s death would have been deemed due to natural causes. Because he had drawn attention to his crime by doing so, forensic scientists were at the scene to examine it and whilst doing so found their first, albeit small clue. A short head hair, deemed later to have come from a male with Afro-Caribbean heritage, was found in Nancy’s bedding. The post-mortem also found a sample of the killer’s semen on her body. With no other leads available, remember in 1986 DNA and offender profiling were in their infancy in the UK, police began trawling through lists of burglars and sex offenders known to operate within the South London area to try to identify a list of potential suspects.

They were still trawling and working through the lists, when two months later and a couple of miles away, a second elderly lady was discovered dead.

Warwick House is a block of low-rise flats located on The Overton Road Estate in Stockwell, and it was just a few miles away from Nancy Emms basement flat. It was here on 09 June 1986, that the body of 67-year-old widow Janet Cockett was found in her flat on the first floor.

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Janet Cockett

The two women were polar opposites – whereas Nancy had been a spinster and was a near recluse, Janet had been married three times and had four children from her previous marriages. She was a relatively recent widow, but was still an active pensioner who loved spending time with her family, was outgoing and who was even the chairperson of her local tenant’s group. Like Nancy, Janet was found lying in bed, and a cursory glance would have said that she too had died peacefully in her sleep. She too lay tucked up in bed with her bedclothes pulled under her chin.

But a longer look around showed that this wasn’t the case. Janet was found to be naked in her bed; with the nightdress that she normally wore found ripped from her body and on a chair near the bed – yet the killer had taken the time to fold it carefully before placing it there. She too was found to have been strangled with bare hands in the same way Nancy Emms had suffered – although unlike Nancy, Janet had not been sexually assaulted.

There was another odd feature to this crime scene. On a mantelpiece in Janet’s bedroom, several family photographs that adorned it had been placed either face down, or had been turned towards the wall. Was the killer ashamed of what he had done, and could not stand what he felt to be accusing eyes watching him as he committed his horrific crime? Again, a forensic examination bore more fruit. It seemed that Janet’s killer had taken absolutely no care or mindset to conceal his identity, as a palm print was found on the bathroom window, and another partial one on a flowerpot on the mantelpiece. A search of palm print records of offenders that police held on file for a match to these prints began immediately.

So two elderly ladies had been killed in a near identical fashion, two months and only a few miles apart. At the time, each investigation was run separately from different police stations, although detectives investigating both cases did exchange information with one another as cursory. It was decided at that stage, however, that there was nothing concrete to link both crimes. Five miles of metropolitan London separated both crime scenes, with a population of over one million people in those five miles. It seems to me quite unbelievable that they weren’t immediately linked – five miles in London is only a mere few stops on the Underground after all. And within that distance, regardless of however many people there were, it seemed really unlikely that there were two killers, working independently with no knowledge of each other, targeting the same choice of victim and killing in an identical manner.

Just over two weeks after Janet’s murder, however, Police were forced to rethink this possibility of the crimes not being committed by the same person. The man who became known as The Stockwell Strangler attacked again – but this time, his victim was to survive, and to give police their first description and insight into the mind of the killer.

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Fred Prentice – the Strangler’s surviving victim

Fred Prentice was a retired 73-year-old pensioner who lived in an old people’s home called Bradmead, on Cedars Road, Clapham. At about 3:00 in the morning of the 27th June 1986, he was awoken from his sleep by the sound of footsteps in the passage outside his room in the home. Sitting up, he saw a shadow cross the frosted glass of his door. The unlocked door opened, and a stranger, a young man dressed all in dark clothing, entered the room. As frail Mr Prentice fumbled to turn on his bedside light, the young man put his finger to his lips to indicate “hush”, and then ran and jumped upon Mr Prentice before he could shout out. He then gripped the old man’s throat and began to squeeze his windpipe in a powerful grip – but then relaxed it. In a horrific and chilling act, the attacker seemed to be playing with his victim as though it was a game, as he repeated this terrifying action four times. All the while, he had a deranged grin on his face and kept hissing just one word, over and over

“KILL…..KILL….KILL.”

Although he was unable to cry out, Mr Prentice struggled wildly, and using his last remaining strength managed to hit a panic button situated on the wall above his bed. As he did so, the attacker threw Mr Prentice against the wall, and was then off the bed and out of the room in a flash. By the time a warden came into the room to respond to the panic alarm just about a minute later, the man had gone. He was found to have gained access through a window in the complex that had been left open because of the sweltering heat.

Fred Prentice was later to describe his horrific and frightening ordeal. He said:

“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”

Had the killer of Nancy and Janet struck again, just two and a half weeks after he had last attacked?

Detectives investigating the attempted murder of Fred Prentice considered if this was linked to the two earlier murders, but were puzzled in the change of preference of victim – would a killer attack both women and men? In this case, however, detectives had from Mr Prentice a description of the man they were hunting, albeit a bit of an understandably vague one. He was described as being young, in his late teens to mid 20’s, dark-haired, and suntanned. They theorised that he was an already experienced burglar – but one that had for some reason turned his back on burglary as a priority and to focus more upon committing murder instead. From the way he had toyed with Mr Prentice, he clearly enjoyed killing and needed to be caught and stopped before he committed more carnage.

And any remaining doubts that detectives had that a serial killer was operating around South London were dispelled the very next night – when the Strangler struck not once, but twice in the same night.

It was again at an old people’s home, this time in the council run Somerville Hastings House in Stockwell Park Crescent. In the early hours of the 28th June 1986, the bodies of 84-year-old Valentine Gleim, a former British Army officer, and 94-year-old Polish born Zbrigniev Stabrava were found in their adjoining rooms at the home. Both men had been strangled by a killer who had again used his bare hands, and Valentine Gleim had also been sexually assaulted. Shortly before the bodies were discovered, night duty staff at the home had become suspicious when at about 4:00am they heard the unmistakable sound of someone using an electric razor, and had actually seen the shadow of the intruder creeping about through the corridors. They had armed themselves with sticks and had contacted police, but the man had vanished by the time they arrived. He had gained access once again through an open window, and chillingly, had taken the time to have a wash and a shave after committing double murder – as a freshly used flannel was found in a basin in the en-suite bathroom of Mr Stabrava, as was a plugged in electric razor. The description given of the man staff had seen matched the description given by Mr Prentice.

By this time, the deranged killer had claimed four victims over an eleven week period, and police had finally been forced to conclude that London had another serial killer operating within it. This intensified efforts to catch him, and dozens of plain clothed police officers were placed to carry out night-time covert surveillance at dozens of old people’s homes throughout South London. The killer must have learned of this, because he struck again just over a week after the double murder in the Sommerville Hastings home – but this time, he struck away from the Stockwell area.

This time, the Strangler crossed the River Thames and went to the Greater London home of 82-year-old widower William Carmen.

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William Carmen

Here, he broke in to his flat at Sybil Thorndike House on Islington’s Marquess estate in the early hours sometime between the 6th and the 9th July. This was another low-rise block and so entering the flat proved no problem for the experienced burglar who had now turned experienced killer. Mr Carmen, who lived alone, was found dead in his bed on the morning of 9th July – with his body arranged as was the killer’s Modus Operandi. He had been strangled in the now familiar fashion, had also been sexually assaulted, and this time there were clear signs of robbery. Some £400-500 that Mr Carmen had saved and had hidden in the flat had been taken, and the place had been ransacked – although police still believed that robbery had by now become a secondary motive.

Three days after Mr Carmen was found, on 12th July and back over the south side of the Thames, another elderly man was found dead. 75-year-old widower Trevor Thomas was found dead in his bath at his home in Barton Court, Jeffreys Road, Clapham. He had been dead for some time, possibly for a number of weeks. As a result, much of the forensic evidence found with the body was so deteriorated that it was beyond usable.  It was impossible to determine whether he had been strangled or sexually assaulted, and so for this reason, Mr Thomas was not initially included in the Strangler’s list of victims – but police were 90 per cent certain that they were looking at the sixth victim of The Stockwell Strangler.

They had no such doubts just eight days later, when the body of 74-year-old William Downes was discovered at his home on the Overton Estate – the scene of the Strangler’s second murder, that of Janet Cockett.

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William Downes

Mr Downes was a reclusive pensioner who lived alone and who rarely left the small studio flat that he lived in, in a block known as Hollies House, which was again a low-rise block of flats of the type that the Strangler favoured. On the morning of the 20th July 1986, Mr Downes son found him dead in bed, having been strangled and assaulted in the now canonical Stockwell Strangler fashion. Mr Downes son was later to say that he had warned his father about the dangers posed by the killer on the loose, saying:

“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”

Sadly, it was this slightly ajar window that was all the chance that the Stockwell Strangler needed.

Detective Chief Superintendent Ken Thompson of the Metropolitan Police had by been now placed in overall charge of the case, and in late July he held a media conference which was packed by journalists and television reporters – who by this time had been linking the murders as being part of a series and had coined the moniker “The Stockwell Strangler”. Here, DCS Thompson told the packed out room all that police knew about the killer that they were hunting.

All but two of the murders had taken place in the Stockwell district, and all of the murders had taken place in the early hours of the morning. The killer favoured low-rise housing or blocks of flats as they were easier to enter, and police believed he picked out properties where it was apparent that elderly people lived – for example, properties that had clearly visible railings attached to the outer wall. The description gleaned from the Strangler’s surviving victim Fred Prentice and the staff at the Somerville Hastings House, was of a young-looking white male with short dark hair and a sun-tanned face, who had a terrible, frightening grin. They believed that the killer was local to or was familiar with the Stockwell area as he seemed to know his way around the network of estates and residential areas. They theorised that the Strangler could possibly have been someone who, if employed, whose employment gave them regular access to old people’s homes, such as a postman or milkman, and he was using his employment to pick out potential targets. The theory was that the man they were hunting was an experienced burglar, although one who was quite careless and showed little forensic awareness, as he had left trace evidence and palm prints at a number of the murder sites. They also recognized that the killer was mentally unstable and sexually disturbed, with the consensus being that he was a gerontophile. They knew he was extremely dangerous and that he needed to be stopped quickly. A police psychologist had been brought in to try to profile the killer, to try to determine the reason for the killer’s choice of victim, and to see whether the way the victims were found was the killer attempting to cover his tracks and disguise his murders as natural deaths, or perhaps part of some bizarre psychological ritual that was important to him.

Pensioners in South London were left terrified at this time, as the national newspapers had gone big on the story by now – after all, murder is sensational and makes news and sells papers, and many old folk who lived alone in South London were left in fear that they could be the next victim of the killer. Their fear was built up by descriptions of the actions in the sensational press stories of the Stockwell Strangler, and how he was a “faceless monster” that was stalking the elderly. A particularly chilling artist’s impression often accompanied these stories, made chilling because of its vagueness. But this press coverage didn’t just serve to frighten pensioners – it also at least got the knowledge across that there was a killer out there. The Metropolitan police issued extra warnings to the elderly to be extra vigilant and to keep their windows and doors fastened at night, and for people who had elderly neighbours and family members living alone to check up on them regularly. The charity Help the Aged set up a special telephone link for elderly people to contact who were left in fear by the spate of killings, police patrols were stepped up throughout the area, and teams of plainclothes detectives continued to man the established nightly observation points, hoping to catch the Strangler in the act. Meanwhile, the search of police records for a match to the killer’s palm print continued.

Recovered from the scene of the previous murder, that of Mr Downes, police were able to again find the killer’s palm prints. They had been left on a garden gate and on the kitchen wall of Mr Downes studio flat. They proved to be an exact match with the palm print that had been removed from the home of Janet Cockett, the Strangler’s second victim that had been killed weeks earlier on the same estate. But a match still hadn’t been found. The reason why? Well, back in 1986, fingerprint records were in the transitional stage of being computerised from those held as physical copies. So although hundreds of thousands of fingerprint records had already been transferred to computer disk, the work of transferring palm prints had not even begun yet! So this meant that the matching prints that detectives had from the two murder scenes had to be checked manually against records held on file by a small team, and it must have been a very daunting task because they had no less than four million files to work through. But they had managed to narrow the pool down to a manageable size by concentrating on known South London burglars and petty criminals, and surely, a match would be found soon. The pressure on the team was immense, because there was no way to know exactly when the Strangler would strike again – and they needed that match before he did.

But sadly, a match came just too late to prevent the Strangler from claiming what would turn out to be his final victim.

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Florence Tisdall – the Strangler’s final victim

Eighty year old Florence Tisdall lived alone in a ground floor flat in an apartment block at Ranelagh Gardens, Hurlingham, close to the River Thames in Putney Bridge which had been her home for sixty years and all of her adult life. Florence was partly deaf and blind, and could only move around with the aid of a walking frame so she wasn’t able to get about much. Like many old ladies, Florence loved cats and they were her company, and aside from the three of her own that she had, she would regularly entertain and feed the various neighbourhood stray cats for some more company in her life. She would regularly leave a window open for them to come and go as they pleased.

On the day of the 23 July 1986, Florence had managed a rare trip out to have her hair done especially for the occasion of the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of York, which was being broadcast on television that day. A staunch Royalist, she had watched the wedding on television whilst having a glass of sherry in celebration. Afterwards, it was another hot night, and as usual, Florence had left a window open to let her cats come and go and some fresh air in before retiring to bed quite early in the evening.

The Strangler, finding his way in, took his final victim. But this time, he struck earlier in the evening than he usually had.

Florence was found the next day by the apartment block caretaker Terry Bristow who often looked in on her, lying in her bed in the all too familiar pose. She had been savagely sexually assaulted, she had the signature bruising to the throat – and also had two broken ribs where the Strangler had knelt upon her chest whilst strangling her. A post-mortem determined that she had been killed less than 12 hours earlier, which meant that the Strangler had struck at an earlier time of night than he usually had – when people may have even been around. Yet tragically, even if defenceless Florence had managed to cry out, her screams would have been drowned out by the noise coming from a disco that was happening in celebration of the Royal Wedding that evening in the Eight Bells pub opposite her home.

The death of such a defencless pensioner particularly shocked police and the public, and the Metropolitan police came under fire due to their perceived failure to capture the Strangler. Yet suddenly, the breakthrough that police needed came. Detectives pouring through the thousands of prints on file for a match to the palm prints that the Strangler had left at two of the crime scenes found a match in police files – and the Strangler suddenly had a face, and a name…..

 

To be continued…..

 

The True Crime Enthusiast

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