(Collage: Marta Parszeniew. Stefano Brizzi picture: Met Police; phone picture: Asimzb, via; acid photo via wiki)
When the smell of rotting human flesh became too much for the residents of Block E to take, the caretaker on The Peabody Estate first tried to mask it with bubblegum-scented air spray. When that didn't work, somebody eventually decided to call the police.
That was on Thursday the 7th of April last year. Almost a week earlier, on the night of Friday the 1st, a man who would later be identified in court only as "CD" found himself lost on the estate while looking for a chemsex party he'd been invited to by someone named "Domination London" on "gay fetish app" Recon. The Peabody Estate, which originally opened in 1876, lies a few minutes south of the Thames, between London Bridge and the Tate Modern. Its desirable location means a one-bed studio apartment there will set you back £1,300 a month in rent, but its various blocks can be difficult to navigate for the uninitiated.
Eventually, CD found the right door and rang the buzzer. There was no answer, so he rang it again. And again.
Eventually a man's voice answered. It said: "Hello, sorry, we are having kind of a situation here."
CD didn't know what the voice meant by "a situation", so he asked what was going on. The voice explained that somebody was feeling ill, but said not to worry because they were taking care of it. CD asked if there was anything he could do to help, and the voice said no, everything was under control, but the party was cancelled. The voice, CD would later testify, "sounded concerned, a little bit upset. He did not sound too worried." As he walked away, CD thought to himself that perhaps somebody was throwing up on the carpet.
The voice on the other end of the intercom belonged to a 49-year-old Italian named Stefano Brizzi. He later told police why he hadn't let CD in; he'd invited a few men to join his party, he explained, "but they didn't arrive, and when one did arrive I was right in the middle of strangling Gordon".
PC Gordon Semple had been the first guest to arrive at Brizzi's flat that night. A 59-year-old Scot, originally from Inverness, he was now living in Dartford, Kent and had been working for the Metropolitan Police for 30 years. He had been with his partner, Gary Meeks, for 25 years, but their relationship was open. So it wasn't that unusual that, earlier that Friday, while still on duty, Semple had contacted Brizzi on Grindr. Brizzi's Grindr nickname was Dom SE1, and his profile said he was "free now for hot dirty sleazy session". After Brizzi invited him round, Semple travelled via Blackfriars and arrived at the flat a few hours before CD would makes his unsuccessful attempt to join them.
Both Brizzi and Semple spent the intervening hours sending out messages via Grindr and Recon inviting people to join them for a chemsex party. With the exception of CD, they ended up being left alone. Brizzi maintained in court that Semple's death by strangulation was an accident, a bondage game gone too far. However, this is not what he had told police when they first arrived at his flat in response to his neighbour's call about "the smell of death". When they asked what had happened, he told them calmly: "I killed him last week. I met him on Grindr and I killed him. Satan told me to."
Stefano Brizzi was born on the 26th of June, 1966 in the small Italian town of San Marcello de Pistoiese in Tuscany. He was the youngest of three children born to a civil servant father and a mother who worked in child health care. His family were devout Catholics, and his uncle became a priest.
Around the age of 15, Brizzi realised he was gay. He found the realisation impossible to reconcile with his family's strict Catholic beliefs. A childhood friend told the Italian newspaper Il Terreno: "Thirty years ago, it was not easy to live freely without being judged [for] homosexuality. I remember Stefano [was] a very sensitive boy, who could not find peace within himself. He is tormented."
Another friend, Mauro Vaiani, said: "Like all homosexuals in my generation, he has faced a bumpy ride to gain acceptance."
When he was old enough, Brizzi moved to university in the nearest big Italian city, Florence. He stayed on afterwards, working as a computer programmer throughout his twenties and thirties. In 2008, while in his early forties, Brizzi was diagnosed with HIV and hepatitis C.
He referred to the diagnosis as "a death sentence", but treatment kept him healthy, and in 2012 he was offered the chance to move to London to become a senior web developer for investment bank Morgan Stanley, on a £70,000-a-year salary. His uncle would later tell Italy's La Nazione newspaper: "Stefano has spent a life studying. He took his degree in Florence and started to work here as a programmer, but complained because they paid little, had no prospects of employment and [he] dreamed of going abroad. As soon as you have it done he went [to] London. He was very happy about this opportunity."
Brizzi lasted less than three years at Morgan Stanley. After moving to London he tried drugs like GHB, ketamine and crystal meth for the first time, and his eventual addiction to meth became so bad he was asked to leave his job in February of 2015. The following year he joined Crystal Meth Anonymous and saw a psychologist. Later, he told the police that none of these interventions helped him. They had found a copy of the Satanic Bible on his computer and a notebook of handwritten notes addressed to the devil. "The problem with that is the psychologist says crystal meth caused psychosis," Brizzi explained. "I was raised Catholic, being gay was evil. And the devil… so I've been into Satan."
It wasn't until four days after Semple's death, on Tuesday the 5th of April, that Brizzi made the very short walk – 240 steps – from the Peabody Estate to the Leyland Specialist Decorators' Merchants on Southwark Street. The journey takes about three minutes, or a little longer if you're weighed down with the sort of equipment Brizzi bought for himself: a three-in-one saw set, metal sheets and plastic buckets, as well as bottles of acid and cleaning products.
CCTV captured Brizzi placing one of the buckets over his own head, apparently to make sure it would be big enough to hold a human skull. After this footage was shown in court, prosecuting QC Crispin Aylett asked Brizzi if he had been inspired by the Breaking Bad episode where Walt and Jessie attempt to dissolve a body in hydrofluoric acid. "Do you accept that you were living out an episode of Breaking Bad?" asked Aylett.
"I accept I considered without any rationality at all," replied Brizzi. "If I had thought about it – if I was some kind of criminal mind – I would have done things in a much more organised way. I think I was inspired by the idea. I took whatever was there, thinking maybe I can dissolve him."
That is not, however, the only way that Brizzi attempted to get rid of PC Semple's body. The court heard that he had "grated his victim's flesh from his bones before eating some with chopsticks". PC Semple's DNA was found inside the oven, on chopsticks, on a chopping board and inside a cooking pot, while there was also a bite mark left on one of his ribs.
One of PC Semple's feet washed up on the south side of the Thames, where it was found by a member of the public.
When the police arrived at Brizzi's flat that Thursday they were met by the overpowering smell of cleaning chemicals mixed with rotting flesh. They found Brizzi in his pants, surrounded by bin liners containing chunks of flesh, a pelvis bone, a hand and part of a spine. His bathtub was full of a blue-green liquid with globules of fat floating in it. This turned out to be caustic soda and spirit of salt containing hydrofluoric acid, although he had failed to dissolve the body as he had been unable to heat the chemicals to the required 300 degrees.
After telling officers that Satan had told him to kill Semple, he elaborated: "I spoke to Satan and he was telling me to kill, kill, kill, and I agreed at the first opportunity."
As Aylett later recounted in court: "That led the officer to ask him if he had any problems with his mental health. The defendant said he used a lot of crystal meth, but there was nothing apart from that."
The case went to trial last October. Brizzi denied murdering PC Semple, claiming that his death had been an accident during a sex game, but pleading guilty to the crime of obstructing a coroner by attempting to destroy a body. A few weeks later, on the 13th of November, Brizzi was convicted of both crimes.
He was sentenced to a life term, but on Sunday the 5th of February this year he died in his cell at HMP Belmarsh. While some newspapers reported the death as a suicide, the Prison Service themselves would only issue a statement to confirm the bare minimum of facts: "HMP Belmarsh prisoner Stefano Brizzi (dob 26/06/66) died in custody on Sunday 5 February. As with all deaths in custody there will be an independent investigation by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman."
That investigation will probably take around 22 weeks, but its findings won't be made public until after the inquest, which will be carried out by HM Coroner for Inner South London. Typically, inquests of deaths in police custody and prisons can take a year to report their findings.
Shortly after Brizzi's conviction, serial killer Stephen Port was also sentenced to life for murdering a series of men he'd met on Grindr. The proximity of the two cases led some tabloids to start publishing scare stories about the app and others like it. However, Monty Moncrieff, chief executive of London Friend – a health and well-being charity for London's LGBT community - told The Guardian: "What role the apps have been playing to facilitate that is that it's just been the medium through which he's met them and the intention's been there. He hasn't done it as a result of the apps, the apps haven't made him do that."
Speaking specifically about the effect of crystal meth in the Brizzi case, London Friend said in a statement: "A case like this is a rare and extreme example, but the impact of crystal meth on the mental health of our service users is not. We strongly advise anyone who experiences any difficulties through using it, or other drugs or alcohol, to seek support as early as possible."
They offer support for anyone who wants help stopping or controlling their use of drugs for chemsex, and while they point out "PC Semple's death could not have been prevented in this case", they do also offer advice on staying safe while using dating apps.
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