Plumber Dennis Nilsen pulled out “pieces of flesh the size of his fist”

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On what was an extremely cold and miserable night, plumber Michael Cattran was called to 23 Cranley Gardens to clean a blocked drain. It was a seemingly routine job for the 29-year-old.“When he lifted the manhole cover, he opened a door to horror,” the Daily Mirror reported on February 11, 1983.

“As Mike sank deeper into the drain, he came across pieces of ash. Further investigation confirmed the gruesome discovery as evidence of mass murder.

It was the extraordinary moment when the gruesome murders of Dennis Nilsen had finally caught up with him. Our reporting was featured in ITV’s three-part drama Des, starring David Tennant as the serial killer, which drew six million viewers this week.

In the first episode, Mike, played by Tony Way, alerted the Mirror to the story because the police “didn’t believe him”.



Dyna-Rod agent Mike Cattran who discovered the drain filled with a flesh-like substance at the Dennis Nilsen apartment at 23 Cranley Gardens, Muswell Hill

DCI lead investigator Peter Jay, played by Daniel Mays, then angrily waved a copy of the Mirror in the police station when our story broke. Known as the “nice killer,” Nilsen was a public servant and a former police officer.

More than five years from 1978, he murdered vulnerable boys and young men he had found on the streets of Soho.

He befriended his victims, who often needed food or shelter, brought them back to his apartment in Muswell Hill, north London, and then strangled them.

On February 8, 1983, Mike visited the property and made the macabre discovery. This led to Nilsen’s arrest the next day and his confession that he had killed up to 15 people, before continuing to dismember and dispose of their bodies.



DCI Peter Jay, played by Daniel Mays, then furiously waved a copy of Mirror in Des



The Daily Mirror front page detailing what happened

Mike shared his incredible story with the Mirror in an exclusive interview with our team in the field. It was horrible in its details.

“I could tell it was full so the blockage was between that and the manhole cover,” Mike told reporters.

“There was a terrible stench when I lifted the manhole cover and descended 12 feet to the bottom. When I got there, I couldn’t believe it. I pulled out pieces of flesh the size of my fist and strips of flesh that looked like they had been cut into one arm.

“I came back down with a piston. As I pushed it down towards the sector, everything shifted and my bottle was gone.

“There were a few with hair on it. The flesh was so white and there was so much of it.

“I was trying to think of what kind of animal that could be. As I walked around I thought it obviously wasn’t a dog, there was no fur. It’s not a chicken – not so much.

“Everything was bruised and I ended up thinking it must have been a body.



Outside 23 Cranley Gardens, a house in Muswell Hill where three bodies were found in the drain, which were patrolling by police in this photo

Stunned, Mike called his boss, Gary Wheeler, and told him he thought he had found a body in the sewers.

They returned the next morning, thinking it was best to come back in broad daylight.

But all the evidence was swept away overnight.

Nilsen had been spotted by neighbors during the night.

“I was determined not to be wrong about what I saw, so I went downstairs to look for more,” Mike continued.

“I took the pipe down and there was more there –
pieces of what might be fingers and strips of flesh.

“I aligned the fingers with mine and thought they could be this piece from the palm to the first joint and other pieces to the second joint.

“Then one of the girls who live there came out of her dressing gown, her face white, her hands shaking, and offered to call the police.



Betty Scott, mother of murderer Dennis Nilsen in June 1988

After being warned by Mike, the Mirror tracked down Nilsen’s mother, Betty Scott, at her home in Aberdeenshire. We had the first interview with her as well as some childhood photos of her son.

From her home in the village of Strichen, near where Nilsen grew up, she recounted how he was once a promising art student.

“He was a lovely baby and I loved him right away,” she says.

“I raised three children without the help of a husband.

“He was rarely there and when he was there were only problems.

“Everyone thought art was what they would do, but one day he came home from school and said, ‘Mom, I want to join the army.’

“He passed all of his exams and I was proud of him.

“Until then, he had been like my other children and didn’t stand out.



Dennis Nilsen was convicted of his murders

In a subsequent interview with the BBC, when Nilsen was convicted of six of the murders, she said: “He must just be sick or something. This isn’t the Dennis I knew doing this.

An ITV documentary tonight, The Real ‘Des’: The Dennis Nilsen Story, features spooky footage of the killer, which has not been seen for over 30 years.

It also shows the relatives of the victims speaking for the first time.

Nilsen died at the age of 72 in 2018 after falling ill in prison.

Des concludes tonight on ITV.

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