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 —