unearthing the secrets of the sunderland strangler
One of England’s most notorious serial killers went to great lengths to avoid capture and evade justice, so why did Steven Grieveson drip- feed confessions to police after his incarceration?
This warped northern English serial killer went to extreme lengths to hide his homosexuality
After a gruelling two- week trial in 2013, 42- year- old
Steven Grieveson stood before the judge at Newcastle Crown Court and waited to hear his fate. For the last fortnight he had battled in an effort to convince the jury that the 1990 murder of 14- year- old Simon Martin had been an accident; the result of a mentally unwell individual struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality and combat the inner loathing he had experienced for so long. He had finally confessed because the weight of the crime on his conscience was too much to bear and he felt he couldn’t “move forward” if he didn’t attempt to wipe the slate clean. Unfortunately for him, it was an argument that the jury were not convinced gave him absolution for his crime. Not only had he killed a young, innocent boy for his own gratification, but he had left the family in limbo for more than two decades.
What’s more, Grieveson’s reputation as a callous murderer had been firmly solidified ever since he was given three life terms back in 1996 following the murders of 18- year- old Thomas Kelly and 15- year- olds David Hanson and David Grieff. Dubbed the ‘ Sunderland Strangler’ based on his deadly modus operandi, he was already, by definition, a serial killer. His chosen victims, naïve young boys who he groomed and then killed, had been treated with no more respect or mercy after they died than they had been in the final terrifying moments of their life. But why had it taken police so long to pinpoint Grieveson as the culprit, especially since he had been investigated 12 years previously for Simon’s murder? Why had Grieveson confessed to killing Simon when there was no chance of a reprieve for his earlier crimes? Could there still be more victims of Sunderland’s notorious slayer waiting for their day of justice?
Smeared In Blood
The discovery of Simon’s body in May 1990 revealed the first victim of a cruel and callous serial killer living in the Sunderland community. Discovered in a derelict, now long- gone building known then as Gillside House in Roker Terrace, a metropolitan borough in Tyne and Wear, England, Simon was naked from the waist down and lying on a mattress. Injuries to his skull showed he had been beaten with a blunt object, while his neck bore signs of strangulation. Blood splattered the walls of the smoked-
out shack. The last the child’s parents had seen of him had been the previous evening when he hurried out the door of their Amy Street home in Southwick at 5pm to play with his friends. He would never return.
After his body was found, police scoured every inch of the overgrown garden looking for clues. More than 70 detectives sifted through the long grass and the wayward weeds. Nothing of any use was discovered despite extensive fingertip searches through the scene as well as forensic examinations. The death of a child is hard for any family or close knit community to bear, but Simon’s was particularly hard to take. For Simon’s family, it was the third time their world had been shaken by tragedy. Only two years previously in 1988, Simon’s father Robert, a former soldier and active sportsman, was crippled following a climbing accident. Barely two months before the young boy’s death, Simon’s uncle had killed himself. On top of this, Simon was the third pupil from Monkwearmouth School to have perished in the last 12 months: an 11- year- old girl had been swept away by a large wave and drowned in Seaburn, and a 13- year- old boy had died in an explosion at a home in Roker.
The victim’s schoolmate, 16- year- old Alvin White, was arrested for the murder when forensic tests discovered the teenager’s fingerprints in a substance that they believed to be the victim’s blood at the abandoned house. In October 1990 the case against Alvin was dropped after a ‘ failure’ was discovered in the forensic tests – the substance that had been tested came back inconclusive, meaning there was no proof that it was Simon’s blood or even that it was blood at all. The local daily newspaper The Sunderland Echo highlighted the forensic tester’s incompetence when they later revealed that the substance had come from Alvin’s girlfriend at the time. Charges against Alvin were dropped. However, Alvin spent more than a decade under a cloud of suspicion, plagued by the stigma of being arrested for the murder of a child who had been bludgeoned and strangled to death. Police had no idea that the real killer was roaming the streets without fear of detection. He hadn’t even been a suspect in Simon’s murder. No one could have predicted the stream of victims that would follow in the footsteps of the schoolboy.
In time, Roker healed from the devastation that had struck that spring. The sudden and untimely death of 18- year- old Thomas Kelly three years later, on 26 November 1993, was in itself a tragedy, but it wasn’t initially connected to Simon, who had been four years younger than Thomas and who bore strong indicators that he had been murdered. Thomas’ body was discovered in an abandoned allotment shed behind Monkwearmouth Hospital, in the affluent area of Fulwell, Sunderland that had been set alight.
Within three months two more boys had been killed. On 8 February 1994 David Hanson’s body was found in a Roker Terrace building on the seafront. Fishermen had seen that a blaze was burning inside the house and raised the alarm. Fire fighters found the young boy’s charred remains inside just as they had done with Thomas. Exactly three weeks later, another boy of the same age and with the same name had suffered the same fate as the other boys – David Grieff ’s body was only dumped 45 metres from where Thomas had been found three months earlier.
With each new murder came the opportunity for police to put out fresh enquiries as to who was targeting the residents
Now a convicted serial killer, prosecutors commented that he had also been connected to the attempted murder of a 14- year- old boy
of Sunderland. Each time they interviewed 24- year- old Grieveson. Sitting before police, he didn’t appear to be of any great threat. There was no reason for them to suspect him. He had been ferried through the care system from a young age until he was 18 and had racked up 38 convictions for stealing since the age of 12. Grieveson was trouble, but he didn’t seem capable of murder.
No Progress Like Slow Progress
The Roker area where the killings had occurred was predominantly middle class, not known to be rough around the edges or socially fragmented. The victims were from decent homes with loving families, and all three of them were students at a good school in Monkwearmouth Academy, so the fact that a serial killer had targeted them all was a starting point for the police division chasing down the suspect.
Pathology and forensic tests progressed slowly, sciences that were still in their relative infancy. Grieveson’s modus operandi didn’t help either; he had strangled his victims in such a way that it left virtually no signs of injury. He then set fire to the scene in an attempt to destroy any evidence. Initial post- mortem examinations could therefore not provide a cause of death.
It was this that led people to suspect initially that the deaths were self- inflicted and potentially the result of solvent abuse, although Detective Superintendant David Wilson of Northumbria Police insisted that at no stage had the deaths of the young men been scaled down to a status on police files that indicated misadventure as a cause of death.
As all of the victims had been from the same school it meant that the institution’s otherwise good reputation was soiled by not only the murders of the young boys but with the rumours that its pupils were drug takers. Pupils at the school, some of which had been good friends of the victims, felt the effects of the deaths as their parents kept a closer eye on them. With the investigation at a standstill, the theory of solvent abuse left the pathway for the real killer wide open. It wasn’t until several months later that a breakthrough in the case came when two of the country’s top pathologists determined that the three of them had been strangled.
Further suspicion fell on Grieveson the following month when he was arrested and charged with an attempted burglary at the Roker Terrace household where the charred body of the second victim had been found. Investigations into Grieveson, who had continuously popped up in their search for the Sunderland serial killer, resulted in his arrest. He was charged with the three murders in November 1995. When questioned, Grieveson denied that he had been responsible for the deaths of the young men.
At Leeds Crown Court, Justice Holland oversaw Grieveson’s six- week trial, which commenced on 26 January 1996. Here, the alleged triple killer offered an explanation for the murders: he had killed the young men after engaging
The public gallery erupted into cheers and sobs as Grieveson was found guilty of murder
in sexual relations with them, but their deaths had been an accident. Warning them not to tell anyone that he was a homosexual, he then strangled them.
Grieveson did not take the stand in his own defence. Prosecutor John Millford’s opening arguments were that Grieveson killed the youths for two reasons: one was “to prevent them from revealing that he had demonstrated his sexual preference to them”. The other was “simply because he enjoyed killing them and firing their bodies”.
Unearthing Grieveson’s True Tally
After four hours of deliberation the jury returned with their verdict. They saw no evidence to suggest that Grieveson wasn’t the man responsible for the string of murders in Sunderland, Tyne and Wear. The public gallery erupted into cheers and sobs as Grieveson was found guilty of murder. Described by the judge as “plain evil”, he was given three life tariffs. The judge commented that he would implore to the Home Secretary that his successors think “long and hard” as to whether Grieveson was still a risk to the public before releasing him in the future. Speaking after the trial, Thomas’ father described the killer’s sentence as “a great relief. This monster is off the streets so no other family will have to go through what we faced”.
Now a convicted serial killer, prosecutors commented that he had also been connected to the attempted murder of another 14- year- old boy. But in view of the verdict it was decided there would be “no profit” in trying that case and instead it was recommended that the case remain on file.
In 2000, semen taken from underneath Simon’s body was sent for testing after police announced a review of the case. One witness claimed to have seen Grieveson walking from a nearby park with the victim back in 1990. The DNA sample was a positive match for the incarcerated Sunderland Strangler. Still serving out his life sentences at HMP Full Sutton, police rearrested him and interviewed him about the two- decade- old cold case. In the end, the Crown Prosecution Service declined the opportunity to charge him due to ‘ insufficient evidence’. In 2002, 12 years after he was named a person of interest, Alvin’s treatment as a suspect in Simon’s murder led him to receiving a five- figure payout from the Home Office.
In the summer of 2004, Grieveson wrote a letter to the Victim Liaison Services admitting he had murdered the three victims the jury had convicted him of killing. Although continuing to omit his involvement in Simon’s death, Grieveson offered up apologies to each of the families who he had devastated through his abhorrent acts. However, police were not convinced that his crimes had totalled three, and in November 2012 came the opportunity to charge the serial killer with the murder of young Simon.
Before the trial could commence in February 2013, Grieveson admitted that he had killed the young lad but denied that it had been premeditated. He pleaded not guilty on the grounds of diminished responsibility, claiming that at the time of Simon’s killing he had been a glue sniffer for around a decade. He said he realised he couldn’t “move forward” until he got the crime off his chest. Regardless of his pleas, the jury found him guilty. Although Grieveson will have to serve a minimum of 35 years behind bars before he can be considered for parole, police still think he may have more to offer to a number of unsolved cases.
below Steven Grieveson will be in his late 70s when he is finally eligible for parole, but he may well die behind bars for becoming Sunderland’s most notorious serial slayerthe For more than tw o decades , death of 14- y ear- old Simon Martinere was a cold case , until police w able to link DN A from the scene of his murder to Gr ieveson The oldest of Gr ieveson’svictims , 18- year- old Thomas K elly’sremains were f ound in a b lazingallotment shed behind Monkw earmouth Hospital in Ful well David Greif f w as onl y 15 wheny Grieveson, who had killed barel three w eeks bef ore in ear ly 1994, groomed him bef ore murder ing him in cold b lood
above Today home to over 250,000 residents, Sunderland suffered a tragic spate of loss during the 1990s. Nobody could have known that a serial killer was stalking the city’s streets
the 15- year- old Da vid Hanson w as. F ire second of Gr ieveson’s victimsin fighters disco vered his remainsker an a bandoned building on Roc sea frontabove- Right Three victims of the Sunderland Strangler were pupils at Monkwearmouth Academy. A plaque in their memory was erected after their murders, which occurred in quick succession between 1993 and 1994below In April 2018 police arrested a new suspect in the search for Nikki Allan’s killer during a raid on a property in the Stockton area of Teesside. He was released under investigationbelow- Right Appearing at Newcastle Crown Court in 2013, Grieveson tried to convince the jury that he was mentally ill when he had killed his first victim, but the jury didn’t believe him and found him guilty