Kenneth Erskine: The Stockwell Strangler

Sex killer Kenneth Erskine murdered seven helpless pensioners for his own warped pleasure.

The man known as ‘The Stockwell Strangler’ was 24 when he struck terror into the hearts of London’s elderly in the spring and summer of 1986.

James Crespi, prosecuting, told the jury: ‘This was a killer who liked killing. In our submission, the intent was to kill, to gratify his sexual inclinations.’

Five of the strangler’s victims were sodomised by Erskine, who killed two victims on the same night.

A number of factors linked a single killer to the murders – all the victims, four men and three women, were elderly, aged between 67 and 94.

All of them lived alone and were murdered in their homes in London – four in Stockwell, two in Putney, and one in Islington.

In each case the killer climbed in through a window to strangle each of the victims with his bare hands.

In most cases he knelt on his victim in bed and strangled him with one hand while covering his mouth with the other.

He then would tidy the bedclothes, pulling them up to the victim’s chin in an attempt to make it look as if his victim had died of natural causes.

Mr Crespi said: ‘In our submission, when you put all these factors together, there is not only a pattern, but a striking one.’

He added that there was direct evidence linking Erskine with three of the victims, but the same murderer was responsible for all seven deaths.

Fred Prentice, a retired engineer, survived when Erskine tried to strangle him as he lay in bed. The terrified victim had a miraculous escape when the intruder fled for some reason before killing him.

Erskine, of no fixed address, denied seven charges of murder and one of

  Kenneth Erskine

attempted murder between 7 April 1986 and 23 July 1986.

He whispered: ‘Not guilty, sir’ as each charge was put to him.

Mr Crespi told the jury: ‘This is a painful and unpleasant case and there is nothing we can do to avoid the investigation of matters which you may find distasteful. In each case the killing was wanton.

‘It was not done for the kind of reason which might, in ordinary circumstances induce a burglar to kill.’

The first victim was reclusive 78-year-old Eileen Emms, who was found dead in her bedroom in West Hill Road, Putney on April 7, 1986.

The carer who discovered her body thought she was asleep and at first it was not thought that Miss Emms had been murdered – both the police and a doctor who examined her thought she had died of natural causes.

But later it was spotted that her television set was missing and a pathologist found she had been strangled together with clear evidence of sexual abuse.

Mrs Janet Cockett, 67, who lived on the Overton Estate in Stockwell, was the next pensioner to be attacked.

Mr Crespi said: ‘Mrs Cockett was a very lively lady. She led an active life. She was chairwoman of the local tenant’s association and was extremely houseproud.

She was found dead in her by a caretaker on 9th June. Her nightdress had been cut or torn off and then neatly folded.
Mrs Cockett died of manual strangulation and had injuries which suggested the killer knelt on her chest with his hands round her throat.

A lock of hair was found in her bedroom which could have come from Erskine. His palm print was found on the bathroom window and his thumb print on a plant pot.

Eileen Emms

On 27 June Mr Prentice was confronted by the strangler in his bedroom at Broadmead Old People’s Home in Clapham.

The pensioner woke up to find a man by his bed and told him to ‘get out.’

The intruder knelt on Mr Prentice’s chest and put his hands round his throat.

He hissed the word ‘kill’ as he repeatedly squeezed his victim’s windpipe, but for some reason the intruder fled before killing him.

Staff at the home found Mr Prentice frightened and shaking.

At first they thought he may have imagined the attack, but an elderly lady spotted a man running away from Mr Prentice’s  bedroom in the early hours and a heel mark was found on the flat roof.

The very next night Erskine broke into another old people’s home, in Stockwell Park Road, and murdered two male residents.

Valentine Gleim, 84 and Zbigniew Strabrava, 94, were each strangled in their separate bedrooms in quick succession.

Two female night staff became aware of a male intruder in the home and one of them heard him using Mr Strabrava’s electric shaver in his en suite bathroom at about 4am.

The two women armed themselves with sticks and called the police, but by the time they arrived the two men were dead.

Janet Cockett

Mr Gleim had been sexually assaulted.

William Carman, 82, was the next victim.
His body was found by his daughter at his flat on the Marquess Estate, Islington.

Mr Carman had been sexually assaulted and had suffered rib fractures.

Photographs in his bedroom had been turned to face the wall during the attack by Erskine, who grabbed more than £300 of Mr Carman’s savings.

Erskine’s building society book showed he paid in £350 on 8 July – the day Mr Carman was found. .

The next day William Downes, 74, was found dead in his bedsit on the Overton Estate in Stockwell – the same estate where Mrs Cockett had been murdered.

He was naked in his bed with the sheets pulled up to his chin and had been sexually assaulted.

Erskine’s palm print was found on the garden gate and on a wall at the bedsit. It matched the palm print found in Mrs Cockett’s home and Erskine’s semen stains were found on Mr Downes’ bedsheets.

The final victim was disabled, 80-year-old, Mrs Florence Tisdall, who was murdered at her home in Putney after watching the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of York on television.

She had left the window of her ground floor flat open to let her cats in and out of her ground floor flat.

Mrs Tisdall was found lying in bed, the covers pulled up to her chin to hide the savage murder and sex attack which had taken place.

Valentine Gleim

She had bruising around her throat, and two broken ribs from where the killer had knelt on her chest whilst strangling her.

Police sifted through thousands of prints manually to match Erskine to the palm prints found at two of the victim’s homes.

He collected his unemployment benefit every Monday at a Keyworth House, a social security office in south London.

Erskine had been going there to claim dole since 1984 and was well-known to staff who called him ‘The Whisperer.’

On July 28, 1986, teams of officers staked out the building and Erskine was arrested when he arrived.

The court heard Erskine was a rootless ‘loner’ who had not seen his family for years.

Detective chief superintendent Bryan Jackson told the court he had been estranged from his relatives since he was 16 and no friends or relations had visited him in the 18 months since his arrest

‘Erskine does not seem to have any friends. He has had no visits other than from his legal representatives and doctors,’ said the officer.

Zbigniew Strabrava

Throughout his investigations, Spt Jackson could not locate an address for Erskine, despite releasing his name and photograph to the media.

Erskine slept in squats and hostels and lived off the proceeds of ‘persistent burglary.’

He had a number of convictions for burglary, but the only violent incident occurred when he hit a prison officer after appearing in court.

Ms Dede Olabisi, a stockbroking firm telegraphist, identified Erskine from a photograph published in a newspaper as the man who visited her home at Stockwell close to the scene of one killings.

He had asked her if she knew if there were any old people living in the area.

Adrian Baker, a hairdresser from the Mahogany Salon in Brixton, also who identified Erskine from a newspaper photograph.
He visited their salon four times asking to have his hair dyed.

‘As far as I can remember each time before we coloured his hair, he used our scissors and cut little bits of hair off,’ she said.

Erskine had explained to her that he needed to colour his hair because he was ‘in the entertainment business.’

He said Erskine also wanted his pubic hair dyed.

Mr Prentice told the court Erskine ‘had black glaring eyes and a terrible grin.’

The 73-year-old, who walked with the aid of two crutches, was helped into court by a policeman and a court officials and sat in a chair in front of the witness box

William Carman

He was had gone to bed at 9pm at the home in Cedars Road, Clapham on June 26, 1986.

‘The first thing I knew was hearing footsteps in the passage outside,’ he told the jury.

He heard doors banging and then saw the shadow of a man through the glass panel of his bedroom door.

‘I shouted at him to get out and asked him what he was doing here. He put his fingers to his lips as if to tell me to be quiet.

‘Then he ran to the bed and jumped on top of me.

‘I was screaming. I was making a noise.’

Mr Crespi asked him: ‘Did he say anything?’

‘No,’ Mr Prentice replied

‘I didn’t recognise him. I had never seen him before in my life. I could feel his hands on my neck. I could feel him pinching my neck. I was screaming all the time.

‘It stopped for three or four seconds and then began again. This happened three times. The last time he bumped my head on the wall and ran off.’

Mr Prentice managed to press an alarm button and nurses came to his aid. He later he picked out Erskine on an identification parade.

‘I recognised him by his hair, the top of his face, and his eyes,’ he said.

Asked by Roy Amlot, defending, to describe the man who had attacked him, Mr Prentice said: ‘I could see his head and his glaring eyes. He got in the door and he had a terrible grin.

‘I could see his blackish hair and sort of black staring eyes. It was terrible when I saw his face.’

William Downes

When he had finished giving evidence Mr Justice Rose told him: ‘You can go now. It’s is someone else’s turn.’

Mr Prentice replied: ‘Thank you very much for helping me get that man.’

A smiling Mr Justice Rose replied: ‘Mind how you go now, thank you very much.’

A psychologist told the court Erskine ‘lived in a world of his own.’
Dr Gisli Gudjohnsson, senior lecturer in clinical psychology at London University, said at Erskine ‘cannot distinguish between reality and fantasy.’

‘I have been a clinical psychologist for more than ten years and I have never met anyone who showed such inappropriate behaviour during assessment,’ he said.

Erskine was ‘giggling, smiling, and looking out of the window and at the ceiling, when serious matters were being discussed.’

He said Erskine has a mental age of 10 or 11 and his reading ability is that of a seven year old.

Eskine’s intellectual capacity is in the bottom three per cent of the population and he performed ‘extremely badly’ in memory tests.

Dr Gudjohnson said: ‘His concentration is one of his major weaknesses and he is easily distracted.’

The trial had to be halted at one stage when Erskine was seen masturbating in the dock.

He did not give evidence and his entire defence case lasted less than 40 minutes.

But he told detectives he was responsible for the burglaries – but not for the murders or sexual assaults.

Florence Tisdall

‘I wanted to be famous. I thought I would never get caught,’ he said.

‘I have not hurt anyone at all. I don’t remember killing anyone. I don’t think I could have killed anyone – not deliberately. Maybe without knowing I’d done it.

Speaking in a high-pitched whisper, he told detectives he had been living rough in Brixton and burgling flats to get money.

Asked if he wanted to be famous, Erskine replied: ‘Yes.’

‘I used to do some acting. I used to work on the stage. I was a chef at the Great Global Theatre which used to be an opera house.’

Erskine said he stole hundreds of pounds from the homes he burgled and he would pick the lock, force the door, or climb in through a window.

‘I didn’t think I was in trouble. I didn’t know the police were after me. There are many people in the world.’

When told that a pensioner had been found dead in a flat he had burgled Erskine said: ‘I’m shocked.’

He added: ‘The old lady must have been murdered after I left the flat or something. The door was not too safe. I had to break it in.’

‘What proof is there that I may have murdered anybody? I don’t believe it. It’s stupid. I’ve got no convictions for violent offences or any sexual offences. ‘I’ve done a few burglaries in my time but I have not hurt anyone.’

Erskine said he grew up in Clapham and went to an all boys school. He left at 15.

He said he was not gay and ignored men’s advances in prison, adding that he considered himself good looking and girls found him attractive.

Erskine was found guilty of seven murders sentenced to life imprisonment with a recommended minimum term of 40 years, which at that time was one of longest sentences passed in British legal history.

Mr Justice Rose 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.’

Police suspected Erskine of four other murders – Wilfred Parkes, 81, in Stockwell, on 2 June 1986, Trevor Thomas, 75, in Lambeth, on 21 July 1986, 57-year-old John Jordan on 4 February 1985 in Brixton and 73-year-old Charles Quarrell in Southwark on May 6, 1986, but there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him.

There was also the possibility that Erskine was responsible for many more deaths which had been mistakenly ruled as having died from natural causes.

In 1988 Erskine was found to be mentally ill and was transferred security Broadmoor Hospital. He has been held there ever since.