While many are fascinated by serial killers, their states of mind, motives and behaviours, few actually want to be one. The case of Stuart Harling in Essex, England is an unusual one. A teenage boy who had rejected the real world and became introverted and absorbed in his video games, virtual life and internal fantasies of violence. He was a text-book example of a teen at risk of anti-social behaviours and potential harm to others.
In his private world this 19-year-old became obsessed with serial killers. He’d spend his days on the internet researching which killers were the most famous and why. He wanted that fame and he desired the same type of infamy some of these individuals he had come to admire had achieved through their abhorrent acts of violence against others.
He was inspired by the Columbine High School mass shooting and dreamed of taking his own violent revenge on those who had bullied him at high school. He checked whether there was already a serial killer associated with his local towns of Rainham and Hornchurch. His final decision was to carry out a series of murders and he spent months preparing and planning how he would take someone’s life and achieve the attention and fame he craved.
“He seemed to want infamy. He wanted media attention where he was portrayed as the victim. I can’t think of a more dangerous teenager in the country.”
Stuart Harling lived in Rainham, just five miles from Hornchurch, with his parents and younger sister who battled continuously with him to come out of his room and interact with his family. At 11-years-old he had shown promise as a good pupil in school. He was attentive and eager to learn and his teachers at Campion Grammer School in Hornchurch were impressed with him. Academically, Harling had a bright future, but there were notes of caution about him. He didn’t interact with other students well. He seemed introverted and disinterested in the activities and communications going on amongst his peers. By the time Harling reached his early teens he had lost interest in his school work preferring to stay home and play computer games, isolating himself.
He left school at 16-years-old and briefly enrolled in an accountancy course at college but soon that too was abandoned in favour of his online world and private fantasies. Somewhere in amongst his gaming, his attentions turned to serial killers, their acts of murder and the attention they received for it. He researched well-known UK killers, Dennis Nilsen and Colin Ireland. He took a special interest in the US case of ‘Night Stalker’ Richard Ramirez, reading article after article on his crimes, his capture and his sentence to death row.
In early 2006, Harling began gathering together the tools he would use to carry out his first kill. He purchased a wig, sunglasses, gloves and a hunting knife and took long walks in and around Hornchurch looking for the perfect spot, getting familiar with different areas so he could make his getaway.
On 6 April 2006, Harling carried out his evil plan. Walking around Hornchurch with his ‘murder kit’ in a backpack he spotted 33-year-old nurse Cheryl Moss in the grounds of St George’s Hospital as she stood having a cigarette break. Donning his disguise and taking out his knife, Stuart Harling approached Cheryl and stabbed her over 70 times in a violent frenzy before dumping his backpack and running off.
He returned home and immediately began searching the internet for news reports on what he had just done. Harling had carried out his brutal attack with the primary aim of becoming famous. The most important thing about his actions for him was the media attention he was about to generate. A dog walker stumbled across the body of Cheryl Moss who died on the ground where she lay, unable to survive such extensive and vicious wounds.
Police discovered Harling’s backpack that he had discarded immediately after the stabbing and inside they found his address on an envelope leading them straight to Stuart Harling’s door. When arrested, Harling claimed he was mentally ill and this was why he had attacked Cheryl Moss. He admitted manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility but denied the charge of murder. At his trial, prosecutors told the court, “He was just a cold-blooded killer who acted out his fantasy.”
The prosecution was able to show through the internet search history on Harling’s home computer his obsession with serial killers and mass murderers and how he had researched combat methods. It also showed that within one hour of stabbing Cheryl, Harling was searching the internet for news of the attack. Stuart Harling consistently disrupted his own trial, shouting threats at the prosecution team and the judge and throwing his court papers out from the dock. All actions, claimed the prosecution, had been engineered by Harling in an attempt to support his claims of mental illness.
In Harling’s defence, a number of psychiatrists were called to the stand who testified Harling most likely suffered with a form of autism or a personality disorder, stating, “the suggestion of him pretending to be mad is completely opposed to what he is trying to do – to appear to be a normal person.” Harling did testify in his own defence telling the court he didn’t know why he had stabbed Cheryl Moss before going on to describe the attack;
“She noticed me and she said ‘oh no’. I was still running. I started stabbing her in the back.”
He also stated that his intention was to get hold of her car keys as he had a plan to overthrow an African government in conjunction with 150 other people. When questioned how he felt about the attack he told the court he ‘felt nothing’.
With no previous history of mental illness and clear evidence showing the planning he put into the attack, the jury was not persuaded by the idea that Harling was mentally ill and therefore not criminally responsible for the murder of Cheryl Moss.
Stuart Harling was found guilty of murder on 28 June 2007 and sentenced to life behind bars to serve a minimum of 20 years. At his sentencing, the judge told him, “You have demonstrated to us that your destructive and deadly actions appear to have meant little to you. Cheryl Moss had the misfortune to stumble across your path.”