Spoilers are ahead. The underlying tragedy of Netflix's true crime documentary Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes is that so many people needlessly died due to a culture of intolerance. Convicted serial killer Dennis Nilsen preyed on young men — often gay men, sex workers, or homeless youths. He would lure them home with the promise of food and shelter and then he would kill them. And as an ex-cop, he likely knew that their disappearances wouldn't be addressed immediately due to the culture of shame surrounding the LGBTQ+ community in 1980s London. At that time, young gay people often ran away or were forced out of their homes, so many parents wouldn't have even known if they'd gone missing. And, if they did, many parents at the time were afraid of opening a police report and having to talk about the situation because institutions like the police and press were also historically homophobic.
As seen in the documentary, Nilsen confessed to as many as 16 murders, but only eight of his victims were ever identified. He killed unabated from 1978 to 1983, even when some of his would-be victims escaped. Investigators in the documentary revealed that one of Nilsen's earliest would-be victims managed to escape his attacker by flinging himself through a window. But he declined to press charges after the attack. And Martyn, who is only identified by a first name in the documentary, said he didn't go to the police after Nilsen's alleged attempt on his life, because he didn't want to be met with homophobia. Then there was Carl Stotter, who was nearly strangled and drowned to death in 1981. But when Nilsen inexplicably let him go, Stotter went to the police. As seen in the documentary, he claimed the police didn't believe his story.
Even when Nilsen went to trial after his arrest in 1983, it was difficult for the prosecution to get witnesses to testify. Doing so would mean expressing intimate details about their life in a trial that was heavily covered by the press. It would also mean opening themselves up to notoriously brutal cross examination. As seen in the documentary, a couple of people did come forward though and helped the prosecution make their case, including Stotter. In October 1983, Nilsen was convicted and sentenced to a minimum of 25 years in prison for six counts of murder and two counts of attempted murder. His sentence was later upgraded to life in prison.
In 2018, he died while at HM Prison Full Sutton in Yorkshire, England. According to the BBC, he underwent an operation for abdominal pain but then suffered a blood clot. His cause of death was a pulmonary embolism due to an abdominal aortic aneurysm that had ruptured. He was 72.
Even after his death, the impact of Nilsen's crimes linger on. While it could be argued that today so many young gay men couldn’t go missing without people raising the alarm, there are still marginalized groups who fall prey to the same type of behaviour Nilsen showed when he picked his victims. In the 2000s, several sex workers were murdered by the still unidentified Long Island Serial Killer, and their remains weren't discovered or identified for years. Last year was the deadliest one recorded for trans people in the United States: 45 trans men and women were murdered in 2020. And on reservations, complicated boundaries between federal, state, and tribal law often leads to a breakdown in investigations into missing or murdered indigenous women, for which homicide is the third leading cause of death.
So long as our society continues to effectively treat groups of people as expendable, so will killers. Nilsen's urge to kill couldn't be changed, but there's no reason he should have gotten away with it for as long as he did. He could have been stopped years before he made his final kill if people hadn't feared coming forward or if police had taken missing person reports seriously. But Nilsen hasn’t been and won’t be the last dangerous person to take advantage marginalized groups. It’s up to the police, press, and the rest of us to keep these people from being easy targets by empowering them to speak up and actually believing them when they come forward.