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Where the Story Began: the Washington Sniper Incident


I make no secret of the fact that it was the Washington Sniper incident from 2002 that gave me the original idea behind my new standalone crime thriller, DANCING ON THE GRAVE. But, although I was aware of the story, I didn’t research it in detail because I knew from the start that my take on it was going to be very different.

It’s only recently, therefore, that I’ve gone back over the events. They make horrifying reading. The basic facts are that between February and October 2002, the partnership of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo killed a total of seventeen people across the States, injuring a further ten. Events culminated in the incidents that became known as the Washington Sniper or the Beltway or D.C. Sniper in October of that year.


Lee Boyd Malvo (l) and John Allen Muhammad

Malvo was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1985. His mother, Una Sceon James, met Muhammad in Antigua and Barbuda around 1999, and he and the young Malvo formed a strong bond. James left her son with Muhammad when she came to the States, and the two followed in 2001.

Both mother and son detained by Border Patrol in December of that year, and in fact Malvo had just been released on a bond in January of the following year, just before the killings began. It’s hard to define the exact relationship between Muhammad and Malvo. The certainly stayed together for over a year. At one point Muhammad enrolled the boy in school claiming to be his father. Malvo later claimed that he’d been brainwashed and sexually abused.


Muhammad was born John Allen Williams in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His mother died when he was three and his father left him in the care of his grandfather and an aunt. He served in the National Guard and the US Army, serving in the Gulf War, and was a noted expert shot. He mustered out in 1991 with the rank of sergeant, after seventeen years’ service, during which, in 1987, he converted to Islam. He changed his last name in 2001.

It was initially claimed that Muhammad’s motive for the killings was that he wanted to kill his ex-wife and regain custody of his three children, but there was insufficient evidence to prove this. He had indeed kidnapped his children in 1999 and taken them to Antigua, which was when he met Malvo.

Read more of this blog over on Murder Is Everywhere.

The Thorpe Affair—Back When English Scandals Led the World

Tonight (Sunday) is the final episode of a three-part BBC drama written by the excellent Russell T Davies, called A Very English Scandal, starring Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw, about the Thorpe Affair of the late 1960s/early 1970s. As I write this, I have so far watched only the opening instalment, but will certainly be catching up on the rest.

Jeremy Thorpe Is Mobbed By The Press

Jeremy Thorpe mobbed by the Press Photo by Clive Limpkin

For a start, Hugh Grant’s performance as Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal Party politician embroiled in a scandal of sex and politics, is a revelation. Gone are the foppish tics and verbal fumbling that have (let’s be honest) characterised just about Grant’s entire career to date. In their place is an acting tour de force of sleazy intensity.

Jeremy Thorpe-Hugh Grant

Jeremy Thorpe (l) played by Hugh Grant (r)

Maybe Grant had no choice but to up his game, appearing as he does opposite the excellent Ben Whishaw—an actor whose previous credits include Q in the Daniel Craig Bond movies, and the voice of Paddington Bear. Whishaw plays Thorpe’s gay lover, Norman Josiffe, who became better known as Norman Scott.

Ben Wishes-Norman Scott

Ben Whishaw (l) as Norman Scott (r)

Much of their affair was conducted at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain, but it was Thorpe’s alleged attempt to have his inconvenient and troublesome ex done away with that led to them both appearing at the Old Bailey in May 1979.

Jeremy Thorpe joined the Liberal Party whilst he was studying law at Oxford and was later adopted as a prospective candidate, successfully being elected to Parliament in 1959 as one of a handful of Liberal MPs.

He met Norman Josiffe, as he was then, while Josiffe was working as a groom at stables owned by Norman Vater, a friend of Thorpe’s. When Thorpe came to visit in 1961 the two met and Thorpe told the young man to contact him if ever he needed to.

After Josiffe lost his job with Vater, had a mental breakdown and spent some time in psychiatric care, he visited Thorpe at the House of Commons, homeless and seeking help. Thorpe took Josiffe and his dog to the home of Thorpe’s mother, Ursula, for the night and, it’s alleged, there began the affair.

Although it was relatively short-lived, all this took place before homosexuality was legalised in 1967, and would have spelt the end of Thorpe’s political career. He was the Liberal Party’s leader from 1967 until 1976.

Thorpe Liberal leader 1967

Jeremy Thorpe became leader of the Liberal Party in 1967

For a short while, Thorpe put Josiffe up in a flat and bought him clothing, introducing him to friends. Josiffe had various jobs working with horses but always seemed to end up out of a job. He was prone to bouts of depression and attempted suicide.

One recurring problem, which also features in the dramatisation, was that Josiffe had mislaid his National Insurance card, which he needed in order to claim any state benefits, and a replacement card appears to have been withheld by Thorpe.

Josiffe changed his last name to Scott in 1967. By this time he had been through a variety of horse-related jobs, as well as periods of depression and mental illness. Throughout this period, he continued to contact Thorpe on occasion. The higher Thorpe’s political kudos rose, the more of a threat Scott became to his ambitions, until in 1969 Thorpe called two colleagues into his office and apparently first began to suggest the idea of having Scott killed.

This continued, waxing and waning according to how much of a nuisance Thorpe and his people believed Scott had become. After a promising showing in the 1974 General Election (when it looked for a time that the Liberals might hold the balance of power in a coalition) this became an even more sensitive issue.

With the threat of Scott’s embarrassing re-emergence once again on the horizon, a large amount of cash was supposedly siphoned off from a political donor and used to pay an airline pilot called Andrew Newton to kill Norman Scott.

Andrew Newton

Airline pilot turned would-be hitman, Andrew Newton. Photo credit: PA/PA Archive.

Scott botched the job, only succeeding in shooting dead Scott’s Great Dane, Rinka. Newton was caught and claimed Scott had been blackmailing him. A piece in the December 1975 issue of Private Eye by Auberon Waugh ended: “My only hope is that sorrow over his friend’s dog will not cause Mr Thorpe’s premature retirement from public life.” It would seem that most of the newspapers had heard the rumours concerning Thorpe and Scott, but were wary of being sued for libel.

Scott continued to contest that his life had been ruined by his relationship with Thorpe, even doing so in court during the case against Newton. Thorpe was finally convinced to resign from his position as Liberal leader, although he claimed to have done nothing wrong. Newton was convicted of destruction of property (Rinka) and sentenced to two years in prison.

In May 1979, Thorpe and his co-conspirators were put on trial, during which Thorpe elected not to give testimony. After the Not Guilty verdict, satirist Peter Cook performed a version of the somewhat controversial summing-up as stand-up at The Secret Policeman’s Ball.

Despite being acquitted, Thorpe’s reputation was beyond redemption. He resigned and remained on the sidelines. An attempt to appoint him to a high profile position with Amnesty International in the early 1980s was met with such public outcry, the job offer was rescinded. Jeremy Thorpe withdrew almost entirely from public life after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He died in 2014.

Jeremy Thorpe 1999

Jeremy Thorpe Liberal Democrats 1999 Book Signing. Photo by Jeff Overs/BBC News

Now, it has just been announced that the police are reinvestigating the case. Apparently, it was incorrectly assumed that Andrew Newton was dead, and there are various other factors that could lead to a rather different verdict this time around. It may have been a long time coming, but Norman Scott might get his vindication after all.

Norman Scott

Norman Scott

This week’s Word of the Week is cacoethes, meaning the urge to do something inadvisable. It dates back to the mid 16th century and comes via Latin from Greek, kakoēthes, meaning ill-disposed, from kakos, bad, and ēthos, disposition.

No events on the horizon, but I do have a new book coming up at the beginning of July. Dancing On The Grave is a standalone crime thriller featuring CSI Grace McColl and DC Nick Weston. It’s my take on the Washington Sniper incident, but set in the English Lake District, and is now available for preorder.


Dennis Nilsen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer

May 12th 2018 saw the death in prison of notorious British serial killer, Dennis Nilsen.

Dennis Nilsen 1993

Dennis Nilsen in 1993

For those of you who don’t know the story, Nilsen was arrested in February 1983 and eventually convicted of killing six men between December 1978 and January 1983. It is thought he actually murdered as many as fifteen, mostly homeless young homosexuals, who he lured back to his home and strangled, drowned or hanged.

Born in Fraserburgh in November 1945, from all accounts Nilsen had a relatively happy and stable childhood. The son of an Aberdeenshire woman and a Norwegian soldier who had travelled to Scotland to fight with the Free Norwegian Forces.

Nilsen, together with his older brother and younger sister, saw little of his father during his childhood. The couple divorced when he was three, but the young Dennis had a close relationship with his maternal grandfather and was apparently devastated when the old man died of while out on his trawler in 1951, when Nilsen was only six.

At puberty, he claims he began to realise his homosexuality and was mocked by his older brother. His mother remarried and had another four children with her second husband, but it is reported that, after a rocky start, Nilsen got on well with his stepfather.

He joined the army in 1961 as a member of the catering corps. During his military service, he was posted overseas to West Germany, Cyprus, Norway and South Yemen. While in Aden, he witnessed the deaths of fellow soldiers in ambushes and was kidnapped by a local taxi driver, who beat him unconscious and put him in the boot of the car. Nilsen fought back and survived the attack.

Nilsen during his time in the army catering corps

It was in Aden that Nilsen claimed to have had his first sexual relationship, with an Arab youth. He also stated that he began to fantasise about having sex with a partner who was either unconscious or dead. He experimented with female prostitutes while serving in Berlin but apparently was not impressed by the experience.

Nilsen left the army in 1972 and lived back at home with his family briefly, before deciding to join the Metropolitan Police. He moved to London to begin training and was posted to Willesden Green station the following year. When his father died, leaving him a small legacy, Nilsen decided to resign from the police and became a civil servant in May 1974. He worked at two employment centres, where his main task was to find employment for unskilled labourers.

In November 1975, Nilsen helped prevent a 20-year-old man, David Gallichan, being beaten up outside a pub and took him back to his room in Cricklewood, where Nilsen learned that Gallichan was gay and unemployed. The two decided to look for a flat together almost at once, and moved into the ground floor of a property in Melrose Avenue in Cricklewood, where they also had exclusive use of the garden.

Melrose Avenue and Cranley Gardens

The two London properties where Nilsen carried out the killings. Melrose Avenue (l) and Cranley Gardens

The pair redecorated the property, with Gallichan doing much of the work while Nilsen was the breadwinner. For a while the couple appeared contented, but the relationship began to show signs of strain, and in 1977 Gallichan moved out.

Nilsen admitted to loneliness and excessive drinking. On December 30th 1978, he encountered 14-year-old Stephen Holmes in a local pub, where the youngster had been attempting to buy alcohol. Nilsen invited him back to Melrose Avenue, where the two drank heavily. The following morning, Nilsen woke to find Holmes asleep on his bed and claimed he was frightened the youth would leave him alone over New Year. He strangled Holmes unconscious and drowned him in a bucket of water, then hid him under the floorboards for eight months. Eventually, Nilsen burned the body on a bonfire in the garden in August 1979.

In October 1979, Nilsen attempted to strangle a Hong Kong student named Andrew Ho, who had gone back to Nilsen’s flat for sex. Ho managed to escape and Nilsen was questioned by the police, but Ho did not press charges.

In December 1979, Nilsen met Canadian student Kenneth Ockenden in another pub. The Student was on a tour of England, and Nilsen offered to show him the sights before inviting him back to Melrose Avenue. Nilsen claimed he did not remember exactly when he strangled Ockenden, using the wire from a pair of headphones while Ockenden listened to music. Afterwards, he photographed the body in various poses before bagging it up and hiding it under the floorboards.

Several times over the next few weeks, Nilsen retrieved Ockenden’s corpse and sat next to it watching TV and drinking.

In May 1980, Nilsen met 16-year-old Martyn Duffey, a catering student who was sleeping rough near Euston Station after hitchhiking to London from Birkenhead. Duffey was tempted back to Nilsen’s flat by the offer of food and a bed for the night, at which point Nilsen strangled him with a ligature while sitting on his chest, and then drowned him in the kitchen sink. He bathed with the body, moved it around the house, and then kept it in a cupboard before stowing it, yet again, under the floorboards.

Dennis Nilsen evidence

Some of the police evidence against Dennis Nilsen, including knives, ligatures, and the cooking pot he used to deflesh the heads of his victims

Nilsen killed again in August, and again every month until February 1981, although only one of these victims was identified—26-year-old William Sutherland. Using some of the butchery skills Nilsen had learned during his army catering career, began dissecting the bodies and disposing of the parts on regular bonfires in the garden, adding old car tyres to try to disguise the smell of burning flesh. Indeed, the flat itself was starting to smell by this point, and Nilsen reportedly had to spray constantly to try to get rid of the insect infestation caused by the decomposing bodies.

In September 1981 Nilsen found 23-year-old Malcolm Barlow slumped against a wall outside Melrose Avenue. He called an ambulance for Barlow, who was released from hospital the following day and called round to thank him. After plying Barlow with food and drink, Nilsen manually strangled him and hid the body under the kitchen sink—presumably, there was no more room under the floorboards.

In mid-1981, Nilsen’s landlord required him to move out so renovations could be carried out on the property. The day before, Nilsen got rid of the parts of his last five victims on his final bonfire, again topped with car tyres.

Melrose Ave back garden

Police searching the back garden at Melrose Avenue for evidence

Nilsen moved to a top-floor flat at Cranley Gardens in Muswell Hill in September 1981. Here, he had no under-floor hiding space and no garden access, so for two months he tried not to kill any of his visitors. Then in November 1981 he attempted to strangle 19-year-old student, Paul Nobbs, but did not kill him.

In March 1982, he brought 23-year-old John Howlett back to the flat and, when Howlett fell asleep on Nilsen’s bed and could not be roused, Nilsen attempted to strangle him with an upholstery strap. This caused a huge struggle, during which Howlett almost succeeded in strangling Nilsen before being overpowered himself, although not killed. Nilsen later finished Howlett off in a bath full of water.

He tried to kill 21-year-old Carl Stottor by strangling and drowning him, but Stottor survived. Nilsen convinced the youth that he had become entangled in the zip of his sleeping bag during a nightmare, and that Nilsen had revived him.

In September 1982, Nilsen met 27-year-old Graham Allen while hailing a taxi. Invited back to Muswell Hill for a meal, Nilsen strangled Allen while he was eating an omelette Nilsen had prepared for him, then stored his body in the bath for three days before dissecting him on the kitchen floor.

Nilsen’s final victim was 20-year-old Stephen Sinclair, strangled with a tie-and-rope ligature when he fell asleep listening to rock opera in Nilsen’s flat after heavy drinking in January 1983. Nilsen slept alongside the body before dissecting it, storing various parts in plastic bags about the flat. As with the previous victims at this address, he tried to dispose of some bits by flushing them down the toilet, even boiling the hands and heads to remove the flesh.

Inevitably, this method of disposal played havoc with the drains. In February 1983 Nilsen wrote to the letting agent to complain that the drains at Cranley Gardens were blocked. When Dyno-Rod were called in, they discovered human flesh and small bones. The police were called in and the remains traced to the pipes leading from the top-floor flat. One of the small pieces of skin recovered revealed evidence of a ligature mark.

Dennis Nilsen under arrest in 1983

Nilsen was quickly arrested after body parts were discovered still in plastic bags in his flat. He confessed to the killings and was initially charged with the murder of Stephen Sinclair. Other charges followed—another five counts of murder and two of attempted murder. Nilsen was convicted at the Old Bailey in November 1983 and sentenced to a minimum of 25 years. This was replaced by a whole-life tariff by the Home Secretary in 1994, a punishment Nilsen apparently accepted.

He died in HMP Full Sutton in Yorkshire, aged 72.

This week’s Word of the Week is sanguinary, meaning involving or causing much bloodshed, bloodthirsty, or flowing or stained with blood. From the Latin sanguinarius, meaning bloody, from which we get exsanguination, a severe loss of blood. Not to be confused with sanguine, meaning cheerfully optimistic, hopeful or confident.