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22 August 2006
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Case Closed: Infamous Criminals

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Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper

Through the late 1970s and early 80s, women in the north of England lived in fear of a killer known both as the Yorkshire Ripper and Wearside Jack.

Fuelled by media and police investigation, the public remained concerned for friends and family for over five years. That was until January 1981 and the arrest of Olivia Reivers and her client. Olivia was supposed to have been the Yorkshire Ripper's 14th victim.

But she was lucky ...

Peter Sutcliffe - the Yorkshire Ripper

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The 24-year-old prostitute was plying her trade in Sheffield's red light district when a punter pulled up in a brown Rover. They agreed a price, she got into the car and the man drove half a mile to a secluded spot in Melbourne Avenue. Ten minutes later, after a fumbled attempt at sex, a police car turned into the drive where they were parked.

Sergeant Robert Ring and Constable Robert Hydes approached the parked car and the man gave his name as Peter Williams and told them she was his girlfriend, but when asked what her name was he said: "I don't know, I haven't known her that long". The two officers were naturally suspicious and when they checked the car's number plates over the radio with the police national computer they found they belonged to a Skoda and not the brown Rover that they were looking at.

Olivia and her client were arrested, but the two police officers allowed him to wander off and relieve himself behind a nearby storage tank. They were taken to a Sheffield police station and Williams admitted his real name was Peter Sutcliffe. He went to sleep in a cell, confident he would be charged with no more than stealing the number plates, worth about 50p, from a Dewsbury scrapyard.

Acting on instincts

Peter Sutcliffe covered up

But Sgt Ring decided, on a hunch, to return to the scene of the arrest and have another look around. Behind the storage tank he discovered a ball-pein hammer and a knife. It was 11pm on 3 January 1981. The hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper was over.

Convinced Sutcliffe was the man he had been looking for, Detective Inspector John Boyle of the Ripper Squad, said: "I think you are in serious trouble."

Sutcliffe replied: "I think you have been leading up to it."

"Leading up to what?" asked Boyle.

"The Yorkshire Ripper," said Sutcliffe.

"What about the Yorkshire Ripper?" asked the detective.

"Well, it's me. I'm glad it is all over. I would have killed that girl in Sheffield if I hadn't been caught. But I want to tell my wife myself. It is her I'm thinking about - and my family. I am not bothered about myself."

Over the next 15 hours Sutcliffe gave a detailed statement about his life as the Ripper.

For the past five years the Ripper had spread a reign of terror over much of northern England and forced thousands of women to live in fear. It is not known what sparked his attacks. Sutcliffe claimed at his trial that he had heard "voices from God" telling him to go on a mission to rid the streets of prostitutes.

There is no doubt the quietly spoken Yorkshireman hated streetwalkers, probably stemming from an incident when he was ripped off by one in Bradford's notorious Manningham Lane red light district. He began attacking women in the summer of 1975: two in Keighley and one in Halifax. All three survived and police did not notice the similarities between the attacks.

The first fatality ...

In the early hours of 30 October 1975 Sutcliffe's attacks turned fatal. Wilma McCann, a 28-year-old prostitute from the run-down Chapeltown district of Leeds, kissed her four young children goodnight and went out for a night on the town. She spent the night drinking in various Leeds pubs and clubs and by 1am was touting for business not far from her Chapeltown home.

Sutcliffe picked her up in his lime green Ford Capri and took her to the nearby Prince Phillip playing fields. He suggested they have sex on the grass. Sutcliffe stated in his confession that she got out, unfastened her trousers and snapped: "Come on, get it over with." "Don't worry, I will," Sutcliffe mumbled as he reached for his hidden hammer and began battering Wilma.

As she lay prone on the grass, he stabbed her in the neck, chest and abdomen to "make sure she was dead." Afterwards he drove home to his wife, Sonia, who was a schoolteacher. Sutcliffe later told police: "I carried on as normal, living with my wife. After that first time I developed and played up a hatred for prostitutes in order to justify within myself a reason why I had attacked and killed Wilma McCann."

More to come...

It wouldn't take long for the Ripper to continue his killing spree.

Four months later Emily Jackson from Leeds, was battered with a hammer and stabbed 52 times with a screwdriver.

Sutcliffe did not strike again until February 1977, when he killed Irene Richardson, another Leeds hooker. Two months later he struck for the first time in his hometown, Bradford, killing 32-year-old Patricia Atkinson.

The case only came to the attention of the national press in June 1977 when Sutcliffe claimed the life of Jayne MacDonald, a 16-year-old shop assistant. After a night out in Leeds city centre with some friends she was walking home along Chapeltown Road. At 2am she stopped and chatted to two prostitutes.

She was probably asking the time, or seeking directions, but the conversation convinced the prowling Sutcliffe that she too was a street girl. He followed her and attacked her with a hammer and a kitchen knife, before dumping her in an adventure playground. The murder, and the fact that a serial killer was on the loose in Yorkshire, shocked the whole country.

The assailant was dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper by the press and West Yorkshire's Chief Constable Ronald Gregory appointed his most senior detective, Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield, to investigate the murders.

Sutcliffe, alarmed by the sudden increase in police action in Yorkshire, chose Manchester for his next attack. Jean Jordan, 20, was murdered in October 1977. Her body was mutilated (Sutcliffe tried to cut off her head) and dumped on allotments. Before killing her Sutcliffe paid her £5, which she put in her handbag. After killing her, he threw her bag into shrubs nearly 200 feet from her body.

Vital clues

Peter Sutcliffe in his lorry

The bag was not found by the police's initial search and Sutcliffe actually returned to the scene of the crime looking for it, because he feared the £5 note, which was brand new and was fresh out of his pay packet, could be traced back to him. He did not find it but the police eventually did and then realised the importance of the note. They traced the serial number back to the payroll of several Yorkshire firms.

One of them was road hauliers T and W H Clark. One of their employees was a Peter Sutcliffe.

A simple mistake

Sutcliffe was interviewed by police at the time but provided what seemed like a perfectly good alibi, he and his wife had been hosting a housewarming party. Later it became clear that Sutcliffe had driven to Manchester after the party.

Emboldened by his escape from arrest, Sutcliffe stepped up his attacks. Three prostitutes, Yvonne Pearson, Helen Rytka and Vera Millward, were killed in the space of four months in early 1978 in Bradford, Huddersfield and Manchester.

Desperate for results, Mr Oldfield set up a Ripper Squad and was given large numbers of officers and resources. But, weighed down with vast amounts of filing and paperwork and without computers to assist them, they were not getting anywhere.

Women in Yorkshire, Manchester and other parts of the north of England lived in fear throughout 1978, 1979 and 1980. Few would venture out alone after dark. Sutcliffe had even warned his own sister of the dangers of going out alone at night and would often give her a lift.

e-fit of Peter Sutcliffe

In some cities, groups of volunteers and vigilantes roamed the street to "protect our women". On occasion men fitting one of the photofits issued by police were attacked. Shortly after the Ripper struck again: Halifax Building Society clerk Josephine Whitaker was killed in the town in April 1979, Oldfield made a tragic strategic mistake.

Oldfield decided that a series of handwritten letters, posted in Sunderland, were the work of the Ripper. In them the author, dubbing himself Jack The Ripper, bragged about his handiwork and taunted Oldfield for failing to catch him.

The wrong suspect

In June 1979, the letter writer upped the ante, by sending the police an audio cassette in which he continued to boast and goad Oldfield. Certain aspects of the letter led Oldfield to believe the author had to be the Ripper, but it was a disastrous mistake.

Wearside Jack, as he became known, had a distinctive voice. Softly spoken, with a pronounced lisp, his accent was pinpointed by experts to the Castletown district of Sunderland. Oldfield gambled his whole career on the authenticity of the letters and tape.

He set up Dial-the-Ripper phonelines where the public could ring in and listen to the tape and devoted a large proportion of his officers to the task of identifying Wearside Jack. It was drilled into detectives that they could discount suspects if they did not have a Wearside accent.

In July 1979, Sutcliffe was interviewed for the fifth time. Detective Constables Andrew Laptew and Graham Greenwood were suspicious but their report was simply marked "to file" because his voice and handwriting did not fit the bill.

In September 1979 the Ripper struck again, in Bradford, the victim was Barbara Leach.

A month earlier Oldfield had suffered a heart attack and the following year he was finally forced to retire after the Ripper claimed two more victims: Marguerite Walls and Jacqueline Hill. Detective Chief Superintendent James Hobson replaced Oldfield in November 1980. He downgraded the importance of the Wearside Jack tape and letters, although he never publicly refuted the link.

It was only in January 1981 when the real Ripper was caught, quite by accident, that West Yorkshire Police were forced to admit that he did not have a Wearside accent. They had been wrong all along.

Imprisoned at last

In May 1981, only five months after his arrest but five years and thirteen murders later, Sutcliffe was jailed for life at the Old Bailey. The judge recommending a minimum sentence of thirty years.

Sutcliffe was sent to Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight, but was later transferred to Broadmoor secure hospital in Berkshire in 1984 after a fellow inmate at Parkhurst jail slashed him with a broken coffee jar.

Broadmoor Prison

During his time in prison, Sutcliffe has been attacked a number of times. In 1997, he was attacked by a fellow patient at Broadmoor, Ian Kay, who stabbed him in both eyes with a pen. Sutcliffe lost the sight in his left eye as a result of the attack.

Sutcliffe remains at Broadmoor secure hospital.

The Ripper's victims

  • 30 Oct 1975: Wilma McCann, 28, Leeds

  • 20 Jan 1976: Emily Jackson, 42, Leeds

  • 5 Feb 1977: Irene Richardson, 28, Leeds

  • 23 Apr 1977: Patricia Atkinson, 32, Bradford

  • 26 Jun 1977: Jayne MacDonald, 16, Leeds

  • 1 Oct 1977: Jean Jordan, 20, Manchester

  • 21 Jan 1978: Yvonne Pearson, 21, Bradford

  • 31 Jan 1978: Helen Rytka, 18, Huddersfield

  • 16 May 1978: Vera Millward, 40, Manchester

  • 4 Apr 1979: Josephine Whitaker, 19, Halifax

  • 2 Sep 1979: Barbara Leach, 20, Bradford

  • 20 Aug 1980: Marguerite Walls, 47, Leeds

  • 17 Nov 1980: Jacqueline Hill, 20, Leeds

This profile of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, was written by BBC News Online's Chris Summers.

Update on the Wearside Hoaxer

In October 2005 John Humble, a former builder, was arrested and charged with being the Yorkshire Ripper hoaxer known as Wearside Jack.

He is accused of perverting the cause of justice by sending two letters and a tape recording to police hunting the killer between 1 March 1978 and 30 June 1979. He is also accused of sending a third letter to the Daily Mirror newspaper.

A provisional trial date has been set for 20 February 2006.

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