Colin Ireland spent as much time at the cinema as his £45 a week unemployment benefit would allow and often that meant skimping on food and cutting down heavily on cigarettes. But for 39-year-old Ireland it was an easy choice: the warmth and escapism of the cinema shut out the cold hard world in which he lived. At the movies, everything was possible and all his dreams came true.
"I imagine I am the people in the films and for a couple of hours everything's wonderful," he would say later. "It fills me full of ambition to do what they did."
So it was unfortunate to say the least that Colin Ireland's favourite film in the winter of l993 was The Silence Of The Lambs. He saw it six times in various south London cinemas and became obsessed with its main character, Dr Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins. Lecter was a psychopath and a serial killer and the performance so deeply impressed Colin Ireland that he decided to become a serial killer, too.
In March 1993 he was as good as his word. Dressed in army camouflage clothing, his hair cropped short, the twice-divorced loner who seemed unable to hold down any job, began to lurk outside The Queens, a pub in Yorkshire Street, off London's Old Brompton Road, frequented by gay men. "I despised them," he was to say later. "I regarded them as the scum of the earth. I felt it was my duty to get rid of them."
Which is what he began to do. Following his victims at night he would track them to their homes, wait until they were asleep, break into the houses, pounce upon the helpless victims, gag, torture and finally strangle them. Between March and June, five gay men, all of whom lived alone, were murdered in this way and police confessed that they had no major clues as to the killer's identity.
"This is a very dangerous man," said Detective Superintendent Bob Young, leading the inquiry. "He needs to be caught quickly." But suddenly police found they had cooperation from an unexpected quarter: the killer himself. On June 20, five days after the fifth murder, Ireland phoned police headquarters to say that as he had now amassed five victims he was entitled to be called a serial killer. He told Young: "I hope you will use this terminology when referring to me in future. And you can be certain that I have not finished killing yet... And he added ominously: "I am now planning to kill at least one a week. I am on the roller-coaster of death ... and loving every minute of it."
In reply 40 extra detectives were brought on to the case. A fingerprint had been left on the fourth victim — the other crime scenes had been studiously wiped clean of evidence — and forensic scientists were working around the clock to find its owner.
Meanwhile detectives working on the case of the last victim — 22-year-old John Francis, an unemployed waiter — had a massive stroke of luck. A trace of his movements on the day of his death discovered that Francis had been recorded on security cameras at London's Charing Cross railway terminus. Francis was later found dead at his flat in Peckham, South London. When the tapes were viewed, Francis was seen being followed by a tall man with close-cropped hair. The pictures were widely publicised and recognised by a cinema cashier in Fulham as a man who spent several afternoons a week at the pictures.
At the same time, the fingerprint on the fourth victim was finally identified. It belonged to Colin Ireland. He already had a bulky criminal dossier and detectives quickly recognised it as a classic profile for a serial killer. He was an illegitimate child, often bullied at school, who turned into a troublesome and often violent teenager.
At 18 he was sent to prison for a string of offences including blackmail, assault and robbery. By now he had an obsession with military uniforms and on his release tried to join the French Foreign Legion but was rejected. . By now he was obsessed with the power of evil and became increasingly violent — both his wives left him after being brutally attacked — and was unable to hold down a job for more than a few days.
His heroes, apart from Hannibal Lecter, were murderers like Moors killer Ian Brady and mass-poisoner Graham Young, all found in a rogues' gallery of photographs in his seedy south London bed-sitter. A notebook found under his bed explained his current ambition.
"I made a New Year's resolution to join the ranks of the serial killers," Ireland wrote. "My victims will be homosexual men who are easy targets for the torture, humiliation and death that they richly deserve."
Clearly such a man couldn't be allowed to roam free and a major police hunt now stretched from Britain to Europe. Acting on the theory that he had returned to the wild, police did a massive sweep of Essex marshes and did in fact find a makeshift tent and the remains of a meal. But of Colin Ireland there was no sign.
Next day, Superintendent Young appeared on TV appealing to Ireland to give himself up. "Things can only get worse for you the longer you are at liberty," he said. "By giving yourself up you can get the help you need." The appeal obviously had some effect. Two days later, Ireland, accompanied by a solicitor, walked into the south London murder headquarters and announced: "I am the person you want. I am the serial killer."
When Ireland was arrested and questioned, detectives were amazed by his hard matter-of-fact descriptions of the acts he had committed. He told them: "I have only got a little bit of bad in me — but what I have is very, very bad."
It was a confession that was to form the basis of his defence when Colin Ireland appeared at London's Old Bailey in December 1993, accused of five murders. He was, argued his defence counsel, insane and unfit to plead, He might appear normal, but in fact he was a prime example of a twisted mentality being masked by an apparently rational exterior. As John Carmichael, defending, told the court: "No one in his right mind has serial killing as his main ambition. Here is a man who allowed a cinema character to take over his life and his personality to the extent that he went out and committed a series of cold-blooded murders. Clearly such a person cannot be categorised as normal."
But after a day of legal and medical argument, the court decided that Ireland knew what he was doing and was fit to stand trial.
The prosecution's case, based largely on Ireland's confession was brief: Ireland had decided that his life was a failure and that the only way he was to achieve recognition was to kill people — apparently as many as possible. It took the jury only 30 minutes to decide that Colin Ireland was every bit as bad as he claimed to be. "You expressed a desire to be regarded as a serial killer," Justice Watson told him. "That must be matched by your detention for life." Ireland was given five life sentences and told he would never be released from prison. Since then he became reconciled to a life behind bars and was regarded as a model prisoner. He died early this year.