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Crime News Serial Killers

Was Serial Killer Dennis Nilsen The British John Wayne Gacy? A Criminologist Answers.

The year serial killer John Wayne Gacy was arrested for killing young men and boys, many of which were dismissed as runaways when they vanished, Dennis Nilsen began targeting similar victims in London.

By Gina Tron
Dennis Nilsen John Wayne Gacy G

The year that serial killer John Wayne Gacy was nabbed by law enforcement, was the same year that a serial killer in the U.K. began targeting victims in an eerily similar manner. 

Gacy was convicted of murdering 33 young men and boys and disposing of many of their bodies in the crawl space under his home. His five-year killing spree seemingly stopped after he killed a beloved honors student in his Chicago suburb community.

Before that, many of his victims were simply dismissed by police and social services as runaways when they vanished. He targeted boyswhose families shunned them, often because they were gay. As Peacock’s 2021 docuseries "John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise" pointed out, institutionalized homophobia was rampant at that time.

Dr. Sherry Hamby, a research professor of psychology at the University of the South, told Oxygen.com earlier this year that Gacy was well aware that such individuals often fall through the cracks and aren't always properly investigated when they go off the radar.

Dennis Nilsen, a Scottish serial killer, also targeted gay men and boys as well as male sex workers, drug users and homeless individuals during his killing spree in London. When he was arrested in 1983, he claimed to have killed 15 males over a five-year period. Like Gacy, investigators found multiple human remains on his property. Nilsen flushed some of the dismembered remains down his toilet and scattered others in his backyard.

Men and boys who did survive his attacks either felt dismissed by police because they were gay or were afraid to report because of institutionalized homophobia, Netflix’s new docuseries “Memories Of A Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes” points out.

Scottish criminologist David Wilson, who spent years visiting Nilsen behind bars and corresponding with him through writing, told Oxygen.com that Nilsen “absolutely” intentionally targeted marginalized people.

“Serial killers can only kill within groups that are marginalized in some way and are not likely to be missed if they disappear,” he said. “That's one of the reasons that the elderly are so regularly the targets - we expect older people to die and therefore don't question it when they do. It is no coincidence that there have been no serial killers who have targeted dentists, or lawyers, or professors.”

He said that both Gacy and Nilsen killed at a time dominated by structural and societal homophobia and that “both sought ways to realize their sexual fantasies.” He added that Nilsen wanted to "feel powerful" by exerting "domination over younger men."

“Their victims were similar, boys and some men who would not be missed,” he said.

A 2020 UCLA study showed that LGBT people are still nearly four times more likely than non-LGBT people to be victims of violent crime. While Hamby told Oxygen.com that there has been some progress over the years of how we value victims of crimes, she said we still have a long way to go. She said victim-focused narratives can help encourage people to not dismiss possible victims based on lifestyle, gender identity, sexuality, or socioeconomic status.