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The Stockwell Strangler – Part 2

“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” – James Doel (Erskine’s former cellmate)

The palm prints that could tie the Strangler to two of the murder scenes belonged to Kenneth Erskine, a 24-year-old known burglar and homeless drifter who was known to live a transient lifestyle between a number of squats in the Brixton and Stockwell areas. Erskine’s last known address, one of these squats in Brixton, was staked out by police – but he was found to have left there some months ago, and it was unknown where he was currently staying. However, enquiries revealed that Erskine regularly collected unemployment benefit every Monday at Keyworth House, a Social Security Department Office in South London – which he had done since 1984 and where he was quite well-known by the staff there – who knew him as “The Whisperer”, on account of his very quiet and timid voice.

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Keyworth House – The scene of Erskine’s arrest.

Teams of officers staked out the building, and Erskine was arrested when he went to sign on on the 28 July 1986. Erskine meekly offered no resistance or any sort of struggle when placed in handcuffs, and was taken to Clapham police station for questioning.

 

So police had their man – but who was Kenneth Erskine?

Kenneth Erskine was the eldest of four children of his English-born mother Margaret, and his Antiguan born father Charles, and was born in Hammersmith on 01 July 1962. The Erskine household, a council flat in Putney, was not a happy or stable one, and Erskine and his three younger brothers were to spend several periods of their childhood in care homes or with foster parents. Charles and Margaret Erskine divorced in the mid 1970’s and where neighbours of the young Erskine remember him to be a cheerful, chubby boy who could often be found reading the bible, and claiming to believe in love and peace, his behaviour soon seemed to take a turn for the worse after his parent’s divorce. He became a difficult child to control, and like so many children from a broken home, became a bully to smaller and weaker children, often attacking them for no reason and tying them up. Erskine was to receive schooling at a series of schools for maladjusted children, and his time at these was punctuated by several violent attacks on the teaching staff and other pupils. These included stabbing a teacher through the hand with scissors, and taking hostage a psychiatric nurse who tried to examine him by holding a pair of scissors at her throat, pushing a fellow pupil off a moving bus, and starting a fire that caused considerable damage to one of the special schools.

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Kenneth Erskine

If it wasn’t already clear by now that this was a kid who had already homicidal tendencies within him, perhaps it was when he tried to drown several other school children on a trip to a swimming pool by holding their heads underwater until staff intervened that would swing it. Discipline didn’t seem to work with him, and whenever staff tried a different approach such as understanding or trying to show the boy some affection, he would try his hardest to shock them by rubbing himself against them in a sexual manner, or by exposing himself to them and masturbating.

Erskine was cast out by his family at aged 16, after several episodes at home proved too much for his family. It is reported that twice he tried to hang one of his younger brothers, John, and when he tried to give the same brother cannabis then that was the final straw. Disowned by his family, he was kicked out and was to never have anything to do with any of them ever again. Instead, he descended into the world of London’s “Cardboard City”, and became one of its drifters, living in various squats mainly within the Brixton and Stockwell area.

He began drinking and using hard drugs, and turned to burglary as a means to fund his habits, seeming to have no ambition in life but to be a small-time crook. He carried out several burglaries and petty crimes such as breaking open gas or electric meters, but this never amounted to more of a haul than anything except a few pounds. When he did occasionally take an item of larger value, such as a television, a camera, or pieces of jewellery or antiques, he would sell these to back-street dealers for a fraction of what they were worth, all to get money to buy food and to fund his next drug fix.

Although Erskine became an experienced burglar, he was also an incompetent one. He was arrested by the police several times over the years, and this led to a term of imprisonment in Feltham Young Offenders Institution in Hounslow, West London. Whilst Erskine was imprisoned there, he spent lots of his time drawing and painting, and these pictures were displayed on the wall of the cell he shared with his cellmate, another experienced burglar named James Doel. The pictures were alarming and gave a glimpse into Erskine’s disturbed mind – they always seemed to be pictures of elderly people dying in horrific ways. Chillingly, they were often depicted laying in bed and either gagged, stabbed to death, burned alive – or having been decapitated and with blood spurting from their necks.

Against the advice of doctors at the Institution, Erskine was released in 1982 and immediately went back to his cycle of living on the streets, drug taking and committing petty crime. He had never seemed to fit into anywhere or with any group, no friends of his were found, and no one claimed to have even known him in the years he spent on the street. His life seemed to be so empty and void of anything, friends or direction, that after his arrest, detectives were unable to find even a single possession of his except the clothes he stood up in, and a collection of building society books. This existence continued until four years later, when he embarked on his killing spree and claimed the lives of at least seven old age pensioners.

So police finally had The Stockwell Strangler under arrest, but questioning him proved nearly as difficult as it had been to find him. Erskine, who psychiatrists were later to diagnose as having the mental age of a pre-teen, spent many hours of being questioned behaving in a bizarre manner. He was either giggling, day-dreaming or staring out of the window. He never confessed to any of the murders, but did admit burgling the old people’s homes, and claimed at first that someone must have followed him in after he had left each time and committed the murders. He then claimed that he didn’t remember killing anyone, but that he may have done it without knowing it.

A psychologist who was to interview Erskine at great length said that Erskine lived in a world of his own, and at times could not distinguish between fantasy and reality. He was so open to suggestion that at times, after being read a story, he believed that the story was about him. He would claim that he wanted to be famous, and had developed a trait of nodding his head when he meant no, and shaking his head when he meant yes. In the opinion of the psychologist, Erskine had a mental age of eleven.

Yet although clearly a very disturbed individual, he wasn’t completely out of control.

When he was arrested, the only meagre possessions Erskine had were details of 10 bank and building society accounts that he had opened as a means to store the proceeds gleaned from his burglaries, and throughout the Strangler’s reign of terror it was noted that he had paid in nearly £3,000 between these – a substantial sum of money in 1986. This was despite having no job and claiming unemployment benefit.

The prints that Police had found at two of the crime scenes belonging to Erskine were concrete evidence against him, but DCS Thompson wanted more evidence that would positively link him to all of the murders, and the attempted murder of Mr Prentice.

The Two photographs of Erskine that were issued to the media

Therefore, the unusual step of issuing Erskine’s photograph to the media was carried out in an attempt to find any witnesses or leads that could assist in this, and on 11th August 1986 two photographs of Erskine were issued to the media. One was a police mugshot taken when Erskine had spent a period of his life as a dreadlocked Rastafarian, and the other was his police mugshot after his arrest for the Stockwell Strangler murders, depicting Erskine with shorter hair. As a result, police received dozens of calls, but these mostly only amounted to coming from shopkeepers and residents in Brixton, who recognised Erskine because he was a familiar character around the area.

But it also brought details of an extremely important sighting that had occurred on the evening that the Strangler claimed his final victim. A 25-year-old businesswoman, Denise Keena, came forward and told police of an encounter that she had had with a man on Putney Bridge at about 11:30pm. Denise had been disturbed and terrified so much by an individual – who was apparently being sick – that she had actually called police, although the man had vanished by the time they arrived: She described him as follows:

“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”

Denise had recognised Erskine as this man – and this encounter took place just 200 yards away from the ground floor flat of Florence Tisdall. It must have occurred less than an hour after the Strangler had killed Florence.

Both Denise and Mr Prentice attended a police line up, and unhesitatingly picked out Erskine as the man Denise had seen, and the man who had attempted to murder Mr Prentice. Erskine was initially charged with two murders, those of Janet Cockett and William Downes, and the attempted murder of Mr Prentice – and was remanded in custody, although more murder charges were added whilst Erskine was awaiting trial. These amounted to the murders of Nancy Emms, Zbigniew Stabrava, Valentine Gleim, William Carmen, and Florence Tisdall. The only death that he was not charged with was that of Trevor Thomas, due to the forensic evidence from that scene being unusable to ascertain definite charges of murder.

His trial began at London’s Old Bailey court on 12 January 1988, where he was charged with the seven murders and the attempted murder of Mr Prentice. Erskine pleaded not guilty to all charges, and appeared a pathetic and disturbed figure when he appeared in court. It was as though he didn’t seem to be aware of what was going on really, and had to be chided for falling asleep at least once during the trial. At another point, he caused uproar by appearing to be masturbating during proceedings.

The jury heard the horrific stories of how each victim had been brutally murdered and then sexually assaulted, and learned the idiosyncrasies that were apparent throughout each of the crime scenes and that had become the killer’s calling card – such as the photographs at the scenes that had been turned face down or facing away. Erskine’s background and record of schooling and offending were revealed at the trial, which gave the jury an insight into what a deranged mind the defendant had. The forensic evidence against Erskine detailed the palm prints found at two of the scenes, and shoe prints that were found at the scene of the double murder and at the attempted murder of Mr Prentice that were a match to shoes found in Erskine’s possession. His building society records were also discussed, and they showed several transactions that could be tied into corresponding times following a burglary – where money taken would then be deposited into an account. One of these accounts yielded an important piece of circumstantial evidence – as Erskine was shown to have had £350 to pay into a building society account the day after William Carmen, the Strangler’s fifth victim, was murdered and his savings of £500 were taken.

Several witnesses gave evidence at the trial, including Denise Keena who recounted the sighting of the man she identified again in court as Erskine on the evening of Florence Tisdall’s murder, and Alice Mcpherson, the member of staff on duty who had spotted the intruder in the Somerville Hastings home on the night of the double murder. But perhaps the most powerful witness at the trial was Fred Prentice, who despite his limited mobility, took the stand and told the courtroom of his horrific ordeal at the hands of the man he identified as the accused.

Erskine was never to take the stand and speak, nor to allow any cross-examination of himself as was his legal right. But tapes of Erskine’s interviews with police were played that showed the extent of how disturbed Erskine’s mind was, as within these tapes he claimed that a woman’s whispering voice haunted him constantly. He claimed that it came out of walls and doors and gave him dizzy spells whenever he heard it, claiming:

“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”

Erskine was also heard on the tapes admitting to burgling each of the victim’s homes – but claimed that another person must have gone in after he had left and committed each murder. The jury didn’t buy any of this, and on 29th January 1988 he was found guilty on all counts by a unanimous verdict. Standing before Mr Justice Rose, Erskine was sentenced to a life sentence for each charge, with Mr Justice Rose telling 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, this was longest sentence of its kind ever imposed by a judge in an English court. Upon hearing the sentence, Erskine appeared close to tears, but then steeled himself and was taken away to begin his sentence. Very soon afterwards he had soon accepted his fate, as he was reported to have told a prison officer:

“I’m nice and cosy inside, and I don’t give a damn if I ever come out”

It is not known for certain that the murders that Erskine committed were his only killings. There were at least four other deaths that police thought were the work of the Strangler. These were the deaths of 57-year-old John Jordan, who was found strangled in his flat in Brixton on 4th February 1986; 73-year-old Charles Quarrell, who was found suffocated at his home in Southwark on 6th May 1986; 70-year-old Wilfred Parkes, who was found strangled in the bedroom of his flat in Stockwell Park Estate on 28th May 1986; and the murder of Trevor Thomas, whose body was found in an advanced state of decomposition in his home in Clapham, on 12th July 1986. Following Erskine’s conviction, police closed the files on these deaths – satisfied in the belief that the likely killer had been taken off the streets already, and was facing many years behind bars.

But police were left with a haunting thought. They could never get a coherent confession out of Erskine – his mental age and appalling memory saw to that – but what if he had started long before? One senior detective who had been in court to see Erskine put away, summed up police feeling, saying:

“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”

So it is suspected as being possible that Erskine could have been responsible for many more murders of the elderly, but their deaths were mistakenly ruled as being due to natural causes – as was nearly the case with his first known victim, Nancy Emms. Erskine himself has never admitted to any other killings, but due to his mental age it is possible that he had genuinely forgotten others. He was to say on taped interviews that he had no memory of killing anybody, but admitted that he may have done so without being aware.

A psychologist examining the Strangler’s crimes before Erskine’s arrest theorised that the killer was possibly a gerontophile – there is no record of Erskine, although he had a long criminal record and was an experienced thief, having ever committed any sexual offences before the Stockwell Strangler killings. It is likely that he was bisexual, with the emphasis leaning towards of the homosexual persuasion – there is evidence of him at age 18 stabbing and slashing a fellow youth that he was involved in a homosexual relationship with. There are no records of Erskine ever being involved in a heterosexual relationship – although this shouldn’t be discounted as so many details of Erskine’s years on the streets are largely unknown due to his nomadic lifestyle. Yet he didn’t just commit sodomy against men – he also committed buggery against elderly women also. The Strangler’s sexual assaults always took the form of this. Psychologists theorised that the Strangler chose to sexually defile the elderly because of some deep-seated grudge against an older figure – perhaps an abusive parent or grandparent. Now it is known that Erskine’s home life was far from idyllic – but why the sexual excitement towards the elderly? Had at some point in his life he been exposed to something that occurred at a crucial point in defining, and so affected his sexual makeup?

Erskine has spent the majority of his sentence in Broadmoor Hospital in Berkshire, after he was found to be suffering from a mental disorder. Broadmoor has of course been home over time to some of the most high-profile names in British criminal history, such as Ronnie Kray or The Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe, but Erskine has largely stayed out of the headlines in the years that he has been incarcerated, only coming to the public’s attention a minor number of times. In 1996, he was reported as having helped save the life of Peter Sutcliffe by raising the alarm when Sutcliffe was half strangled by another inmate, Paul Wilson, who had attacked the Ripper with the flex from a pair of stereo headphones.

He did not resurface in the public eye until 2005, when it was reported that he was being prepared for a move to a medium security facility, as a Mental Health Tribunal believed that he was no longer a danger to the public. Unbelievably, it was reported that Erskine was being recommended for a move to Lambeth Hospital – which is located in Stockwell! Unsurprisingly, news of this caused uproar, 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”.

In July 2009, an appeal against his murder convictions got them reduced to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility in a decision announced by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, and two other judges, at the Court of Appeal in London.

Fresh medical evidence had been given at the appeal by psychiatrist Dr Andrew Horne, a consultant at Broadmoor Hospital who had been one of Erskine’s doctors for 20 years, said that the clinical schizophrenia Erskine was accepted as having suffered from since 1980 would have diminished his responsibility for his actions to a “massive degree”, and Erskine’s QC, Mr Edward Fitzgerald, told the judges that Erskine was suffering from a chronic, incurable condition which would require life-long treatment and that the basis on which Erskine would ever be released, if possible, will be when detention is no longer necessary for the protection of the public.

Giving the 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 saying that, in the “interests of public safety”, the order was for an indefinite period. He was returned to Broadmoor hospital, where he had spent many years already, but Erskine’s risk status was downgraded in 2016, and he was moved to Thornford Park Hospital in Thatcham, Berkshire, which is a medium secure hospital unit. It is thought that Erskine’s release may be approved in just a few years, and he may be back on the streets again…..

Why Erskine made the jump from prolific burglar to serial killer has never been fully established, and it would be too convenient to lay responsibility for his crimes at the door of schizophrenia – the vast majority of people with schizophrenia never go on to commit such atrocities as Erskine did. The accounts from his schooling show that he had a tendency towards violence, and perhaps this just grew and grew within him until he could no longer control it – and then found that he liked it?

Has this been successfully treated then, and is Erskine by now safe to be allowed back on the streets?

 

The True Crime Enthusiast

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