Is a ‘gay slayer’ stalking Manchester’s canals?

Daniel Wren

Following an article in The Daily Star, Twitter and Facebook users have sparked conjecture over whether a ‘gay slayer’ nicknamed #thepusher is killing men around Manchester’s canals.

After The Daily Star published its article, in which Professor Craig Jackson said numerous deaths in Manchester’s canals might be due to a serial killer, social media users have responded to share their own stories, conspiracy theories and urban legends.

Speaking of the 61 deaths that have occurred in Manchester’s canals over the last six years, Prof Jackson, head of psychology at Birmingham City University, said, ‘It is extremely unlikely that such an alarming number of bodies found in the canals is the result of accidents or suicides.

‘Canals are not popular suicide spots, especially for men. They are, however, popular dumping sites.

‘And water can be a sure way to erase DNA evidence.’

Cruising ground danger

Manchester’s canals are known as a popular cruising ground for gay and bisexual men – particularly near Canal Street and the Piccadilly Basin. In recent years, police have discussed closing the towpath alongside the canal in this area to prevent crimes – including men being pushed into the river following muggings.

Manchester Evening News reported in 2013 on a gang who pushed two men into the canal on the same night. One of the men was pulled to safety but another drowned in the early hours of 5 June 2013.

The man who died was Simon Brass, 40, a Salford resident who, apparently aware of the high crime rate around the area, had hidden his phone in his sock before visiting the cruising spot. When the gang – identified as Paul Creedy, Kieron Murray, Leah Garner, Jack Smith and a 15-year-old boy – were unable to find Brass’ phone, they pushed him into the river. Just an hour and a half earlier, the attackers had pushed another man into the canal, but he had been rescued by three men.

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Just two minutes after Brass’ death, the gang was caught on CCTV walking around the gay village and nearby area, attempting to sell the phone in takeaways.

A year prior to this, the BBC ran a report of another man who was found dead by Canal Street after an assault and a robbery in the same area on 4 June 2012. Although the two incidents occur almost exactly a year apart, Greater Manchester Police has not linked them.

Rising anti-LGBT+ crime

There have also been a number of anti-LGBT+ crimes in the area, including one where a group of drag queens and trans women were followed home by an ‘angry’ man who threw a sandwich at them. As a result of this, and what some in the community consider the increasing commercialisation of the Gay Village, members of the local scene have tried to inject a new community spirit into the area with arts activities and a mural.

Speaking more of the strange deaths, Prof Jackson said, ‘I think the fact several of these discoveries were made in Manchester’s Gay Village could also be significant.

‘Do we have another “gay slayer” like Colin Ireland on the loose? You couldn’t rule it out.’

61 fatalities

From August 2010 to August 2011, 18 fatalities occurred in Manchester’s waterways – comprising a third of the 59 incidents recorded nationwide.

Prof Jackson went on: ‘The police say none of the 61 corpses found got there under suspicious circumstances. Not one? I find that very hard to believe.

‘The other odd fact here is that the majority of the bodies have not been identified or even given a gender on official police records.

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‘Were the corpses so decomposed as to be unidentifiable? Again, I find that inconceivable and a pathologist would tell you the same.’

Profile of a potential serial killer

When asked what the hypothetical serial killer’s profile might be, Prof Jackson added, ‘If we are talking about a killer here then we are talking about someone who obviously gets some sort of thrill from their victims being found.

‘But also someone who is taking a risk by dumping bodies in a canal.

‘Perhaps we are talking about a canal killer who has a barge or works in an industry that involves canals.

‘Some of the most effective and elusive killers combine their jobs with murder. It gives them an alibi and an element of expertise.

‘I work in Birmingham where there are more canals than Venice. You very rarely hear of bodies of young men being washed up in the city’s water ways.

‘To have so many in Manchester is a big concern and there is every chance foul play is at hand here.’

In 27 of the 61 cases, the bodies had been so damaged by the water that police were unable to even identify their biological sex.

Social media responses

Many social media users and users of various news websites have passed comment on the news.

‘At last, someone speaks with intelligence and common sense. ‘So does the gay community have to wait for another 61 murders before something is done about it?’ said Marcus Dummigan.

A commenter on the Daily Star Online’s Facebook page said, ‘About time been saying it for a long while now!’

Michael Bidgood said, ‘I still think that while there have been accidents, somebody out there is pushing people in or disposing of bodies in the water.’

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Over at Gay Star News, reader Donald Perry wrote, ‘Before we panic, that is a lot of murders for one man or even a group. Surely the authorities are examining all the forensic evidence to see which deaths have a common pattern which is certainly not the majority. Let’s face it. If five murders is the current record of homophobic deaths, even 10 percent of the 61 would be an abominable record.’

Police inspector Phil Spurgeon said, ‘The reality is when you have a busy city, a vibrant night-time economy, you’ve 500 licensed premises in 2.2 square miles, you put a big canal system through the middle of that and you are going to end up with fatalities, which is dreadful.’

As well as 61 bodies discovered in Manchester’s canals, over 20 more have been found in local rivers. However, Prof Jackson has based his theories on his professional opinion only, and does not seem to have any new evidence beyond what is already known.

Local bartender Stephen Faulkner told The Independent that #thepusher may actually be an opportunistic street robber: ‘You get people who’ve been drinking and if someone wants their wallet, they’ll get pushed in. I do believe people are being pushed in to the water.’

Worrying patterns

Suki Deen, a research scientist who has looked at the case, said, ‘There are worrying patterns with regard to the age groups, how the bodies are disposed of and what the missing men had been doing.

‘Those listed as committing suicide had picked things up earlier the same day, like shoes or money or had bought meals to eat when they got home – strange behaviour if you are planning to kill yourself.’

On a web forum, Warrington resident Mark Bowden wrote, ‘Are we really to believe young men in Manchester are just phenomenally clumsy compared to the rest of the country? It all seems very strange.’

About Daniel Wren

Vada Magazine staff writer. Interested in travel, news, politics and dating.