THE VOICE ON THE PHONE WAS CHILLINGLY matter-of-fact. "I've killed another man," the caller told police. "Haven't you found him yet?" After giving an address in a rundown neighborhood—where detectives would discover a nude corpse, strangled like the four victims before him—the man continued, "I will go on killing. You can't catch me. I'll kill one a week."

The scene played like a sequel to Silence of the Lambs—but it was all too real. As Scotland Yard revealed during a dramatic press conference last month, there's a serial killer stalking London's gay community. Since early March, five men have been murdered in their homes throughout the city. During the same period, police received a number of calls from a man they believe to be the killer, based on the "accurate and intimate" details he volunteered about the slayings. The caller coolly explained how he picked up his victims in gay bars, then choked the life out of them during sadomasochistic sex sessions.

Scotland Yard, which generally doesn't disclose details of ongoing investigations, took the extraordinary step of going public just hours after the fifth body was found on June 15. "We feel we owe this to the gay community," explained Detective Chief Superintendent Ken John, who is coordinating the investigation. After warning gays of the danger of picking up strangers, John appealed to the murderer "to contact us again as a matter of urgency."

News of the killer—who was predictably compared to Jack the Ripper—sent shock waves through the city. Surprisingly, reaction seemed muted among the gay community, which was gearing up for the massive annual Lesbian and Gay Pride Parade on June 19. In a response typical of patrons at gay clubs around town, Jonathan Lisseman, a 20-year-old student, said, "Gay people take a lot of risks anyway, and it just seems like another one to look out for." A few gay Londoners even began jokingly referring to the strangler as the "queerial killer."

Some of the gallows humor may stem from cynicism among gays about the British justice system. That distrust has worsened since a recent court ruling upheld prison terms for sadomasochistic acts between consenting adults. Or perhaps other threats put the deaths in perspective. "After living 10 years under the shadow of AIDS," said Michael Mason, publisher of London's Capital Gay newspaper, "suddenly people are wondering if we're quaking with fear because five people have been murdered, as terrible as that is."

From the start, the killer has shown a sense of macabre theatrics. His first known victim, Peter Walker, a 44-year-old director and choreographer, was discovered in the bedroom of his flat in Battersea, South London, on March 10 with a condom stretched over his head and two teddy bears nestled next to his body. The former dancer's wrists bore rope burns, and he had been gagged with knotted condoms before being strangled. The gruesome crime had not yet been made public when a man called the Sun newspaper expressing concern about Walker's two dogs. He is then reported to have said, almost as an afterthought, "I tied him up and killed him.... It was my New Year's resolution to murder a human being."

Walker, a native of Liverpool, had just been hired as assistant director of the West End musical City of Angels. Friends say he had appeared lonely in the weeks before the murder. Since he found out he was HIV positive, Walker's closest companions seemed to be his white Alsatian, Sammy, and his black Labrador, Bessie. But last spring he started spending more time at gay bars like the Coleherne, a West London pub with a reputation for attracting a leather crowd, where police theorize he may have met his killer. "I think he was throwing caution to the wind," said one of Walker's friends. "He didn't want to go home to an empty flat."

Initially police didn't link Walker's murder to the body discovered May 30 in the Victorian cottage with a flourishing garden in northwest London. Unaware that they were dealing with a serial killer, authorities assumed that Christopher Dunn, 37—by day a bespectacled, sober-suited librarian—had accidentally asphyxiated during the S&M session suggested by the black-leather harness and studded belt his bound corpse was wearing. But then the mystery caller asked police why he hadn't seen press reports of Dunn's killing and advised them to look more closely at the body. When they did, they detected signs of strangulation.

The third victim seemed something of a departure. For one thing, tall, blond and handsome Perry Bradley III, 35, international sales director for adhesives manufacturer J-B Weld Co., was an American. For another, he didn't lead an overtly gay life. In fact, friends back home in Sulphur Springs, Tex., a close-knit community 80 miles east of Dallas, dismissed even the possibility. "He loved beautiful women," says Wanda Lair, a hairstylist who had known Bradley since childhood. "I think he was in the wrong place at the wrong time." However, London police say that the circumstances of Bradley's death—his strangled body was found nude and bound on June 7 at his flat in fashionable South Kensington—leave them with "an open mind" about his sexual orientation.

Financially comfortable even before his own successes in real estate and construction, "Little Perry"—son of the late Democratic Party fundraiser Perry Bradley Jr.—was legendary in Sulphur Springs for his generosity. He thought nothing of picking up the dinner tab for 22 friends—or shopping for just the right gifts for residents of a local nursing home. Says Gene Gordon, pastor of the Sulphur Springs Methodist church Bradley and his family attended: "The tragedy is that this is a person who made life so much better for so many people."

So did the killer's fourth victim, Andrew Collier, 33, the well-liked live-in caretaker at an East London apartment complex for the elderly. "We all knew he was 'the other way,' but nobody minded that," says one resident. "He looked after us very well." On June 9, Collier's body was discovered in his apartment. Like the other victims, he had been strangled—as had his pet cat, Millie, whose corpse had been positioned next to his in an obscene tableau. After Collier's death, the killer reportedly told police, "I am not giving myself up. But the clues are there. I have read the FBI manual on serial killers. I will be in touch about the fifth."

Days later he was. The victim—whom police had yet to find—was Emanuel Spiteri, 42, a Maltese catering assistant. A short man who liked to wear leather pants and motorcycle boots, Spiteri frequented gay bars but generally, says the barmaid at one, was "the classic wallflower." The night he died he visited the Coleherne.

At the press conference following the discovery of Spiteri's body, police declined to discuss their caller's accent, perhaps for fear of copycats. As it turned out, communication from the suspect stopped. (At press time, apparently so had the killings.) Scotland Yard initially received few tips from the gay community, despite handing out 10,000 leaflets appealing for help at the gay pride parade. Many gays were leery of coming forward, said a gay police officer, because they feared that "what they say [about sadomasochistic activities] could be used against them in the future."

However, calls picked up following Scotland Yard's release on June 26 of its sketch of a man spotted with Spiteri the night of his death. Many claimed to have seen this prime suspect, who was described as white, age 30-40, over 6' and full-faced with discolored teeth. The night of Spiteri's murder. the suspect was casually dressed in jeans and a bomber jacket and carried a small purse.

While the investigation continued, the press and public theorized about the murderer and his possible motives. One particularly popular hypothesis, bolstered by the fact that three victims—Walker, Dunn and Collier—were HIV positive, was that the killer might be taking vengeance on the gay community after contracting AIDS. Others guessed he might be a closet homosexual, or a power freak who enjoyed playing God with his victims.

Robert K. Ressler, the now retired FBI agent who coined the term "serial killer" and who has written three hooks discussing serial homicides, says he's seen the type before. Ressler suspects the London killer—who reportedly has said he is using one of the hooks to give him a jump on police procedure—is "a person who is trying to conquer their inadequacies by doing something important. Challenging the police—setting up scenarios where they're the center of manhunts—communicating with the media, is just nothing more than attention-seeking at a very, very bizarre level."

Still, "profiles per se do not solve cases," Ressler observes. What does, he says, is solid investigative work—and from what he sees, the outlook in London is good. "When you get five victims who are all more or less at this social level, somebody, somewhere must have seen something," Ressler says. "I think this guy is going to get caught."

PAM LAMBERT
TERRY SMITH and LAURA SANDERSON HEALY in London, JOSEPH HARMES and COLLEEN O'CONNOR in Sulphur Springs

  • Contributors:
  • Terry Smith,
  • Laura Sanderson Healy,
  • Joseph Harmes,
  • Colleen O'Connor.