For those of you reading this in the UK, you may have seen the three-part drama on ITV called Des, which followed the serial killing career of Dennis Nilsen. An horrific and macabre story and yet somehow frighteningly captivating. As scary as serial killers are, they represent a minuscule proportion of the population and so the chances of ever coming into contact with one are equally minuscule. Once however, I got disturbingly close.
In the late 1980s I worked for a Manchester-based company that made scientific analytical instruments called mass spectrometers. Crude versions of these instruments were first developed by Francis Aston as part of the effort to decipher the internal workings of the atom in the early 1900s. Over the years which followed, mass spectrometers evolved into probably the most important analytical instrument of modern science. Put simply, mass spectrometers are molecule weighing machines. They smash molecules into fragments by bombarding them with charged atoms or electrons, then separate the fragments according to their molecular mass in electromagnetic fields. My job title was “Applications Chemist” which essentially entailed traveling the world helping develop analytical methods for the company’s customers (it also meant a lot of sales support, but we’ll move on from those memories as quickly as possible). On one occasion, they dispatched me to a forensic laboratory in Sacramento, California.
These were the days before satellite navigation and I got lost several times on my drive from San Fransisco to my Sacramento destination. I eventually arrived at the crime lab with some relief and several hours late. There, before a burley security guard allowed me to enter the building, I had to surrender my passport and sign some legal documents detailing long-term prison sentences which would be imposed if I didn’t adhere to the rules. My host – whose name I sadly cannot remember – explained that they were trying to develop an analytical method to detect drugs in hair. This was nothing particularly new and I had worked on something similar previously. An innocuous request did not prepare me for what was about to come. In the laboratory were a series of little plastic bags containing dark brown – perhaps reddish – matted hair samples. My host allowed me to pick one up, and I commented the hair didn’t look particularly fresh. I was then told the story of their origin.
At first sight Dorothea Puente looked like a sweet grandmother, unassuming with round spectacles and snow-like hair. She had however, earned the nickname of “Death House Landlady.” She murdered at least six elderly boarders, some with mental disabilities, the bodies of whom she disposed around her property. The nature of the murders was a little sketchy but she seemed to have drugged her victims with a tranquilliser called flurazepam. My objective was to help the forensic scientists analyse hair samples obtained from exhumed victims to see if we could detect the drug.
It took around two weeks on two separate trips before we had the beginnings of an analytical method. At her trial it was stated the drug was found in all her victims, but whether this resulted from the analytical method I helped develop or not, I don’t know. Even though I worked on the periphery however, it’s an experience I’m unlikely to forget. I was several stages removed from the murder investigation but to be faced with samples of her murder victims – pieces of hair that once grew on the heads of human beings before being slaughtered by a deranged old lady, was disturbing enough to disrupt my sleep for weeks. There are, of course, those who get much closer to serial killers than I ever did and I honestly don’t know how they cope coming face to face with the homicidal lunatic fringe of our species. Leading the case against Dennis Nilsen, was Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay who became a chain smoker and left the police force two years after the investigation closed. The impact of serial killers it seems, go far beyond those who they kill.