Skip to main content

40 years on: Catching the Yorkshire Ripper

Peter Sutcliffe
Image Credit: Mike Walker / Alamy Stock Photo | Above: Peter Sutcliffe leaves the Isle of Wight Crown Court in Newport after giving evidence against James Costello who was accused of attacking him in Parkhurst Prison in 1983

This year marks forty-one years since Peter Sutcliffe dubbed the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ stood trial at Dewsbury Crown Court for the murder of thirteen women and the attempted murder of seven more. By sheer fluke and what could be considered plain traditional ‘bobby on the beat’ police work, the maniac’s cowardly and murderous spree was brought to an end due to chance. The five-year hunt for Sutcliffe involved 30,000 statements and quarter of a million names being collected along with millions car number plates, but not a single computer to log the mountains of paperwork for analysis. Computers were still basic and not part of policing.

West Yorkshire Police - the fourth-largest force in the country - spent five years trying to apprehend the most wanted man in the country. Despite the time and effort, West Yorkshire Police put into the investigation, Sutcliffe was eventually caught after a routine check of his car registration number.

On 2nd January 1981, Sutcliffe picked up 24-year-old street worker Olivia Reivers and drove into the driveway of Light Trades House in the Broomhill area of Sheffield. Sergeants Bob Ring and Constable Robert Hydes who were patrolling the red light area of Sheffield had seen Reivers get in Sutcliffe’s car and decided to investigate.

Ten minutes later the officers approached Sutcliffe’s vehicle and questioned the man who - having no idea at the time - turned out was the notorious serial killer. After conducting a PNC check on the car’s registration number it was discovered Sutcliffe was driving with false number plates. He was arrested on what was a minor offence and taken to Dewsbury police station for further questioning and locked up for the night. This routine encounter led to Sergeant Bob Ring eventually going back to the scene of Sutcliffe’s arrest a day after the incident where he unearthed the killer’s deadly tools of his murderous trade. Shortly afterwards while still in custody at Dewsbury station, a knife Sutcliffe had hidden in the police toilet’s cistern was discovered. Later that day Peter Sutcliffe admitted to being the Yorkshire Ripper.

Looking back on four decades when Sutcliffe was at the peak of his killing spree, attitudes towards sex workers was as cliché-ridden and socially ignorant as a 70s sitcom, or an episode of The Sweeny. The term ‘misogynist’ was an alien concept, certainly to the police, who at the time of the investigation couldn’t grasp the idea that a man could hate women, to the extent that he’d deliberately go out to harm them. A profound lack of social and sexual awareness at a time when ‘sexism’ was an unconscious reality of everyday life meant those police officers could only see Sutcliffe as a man with a single-minded mission, to kill prostitutes, for reasons unknown.

Misconceptions about the identity of such a maniac fed into the confusion about who he was and how he lived. As Sutcliffe was interviewed at least nine times with very little suspicion being raised, it is a disturbing fact that criminal profiling at the time was hampered by a lack of expertise in psychology. If the police found it difficult to think beyond narrow parameters about the identity and possible background of a serial killer of women, the public at large was equally baffled. The official line from the police was that the ‘Ripper’ hated prostitutes and his focus was on them. Any other ‘innocent’ woman was safe. It was a theory that was to prove disastrous in two ways, one that narrowed the police investigation’s view of what kind of man could commit such heinous acts and two, reinforced in the public mind that women who weren’t sex workers were safe. The reality was that Peter Sutcliffe hated all women and took any opportunity to kill them whatever their age and background.

Ripper myths

Despite Sutcliffe preying on unsuspecting victims in such a random manner there persisted a naive misconception that women generally were of no interest to the Ripper, apart from prostitutes. Whether this prejudicial belief grew out of a desperate need to rationalise the brutality of such crimes is not clear, but it may have encouraged a more risk-taking attitude amongst the public which gave Sutcliffe opportunity to attack women unconnected with prostitution or with the red lights districts in towns and cities. Theresa Toth, a rare survivor of Sutcliffe said in a BBC interview after she had been brutally attacked by him near her home, ‘I was sixteen-year-old and you don’t think anybody’s going to go out and hurt you and at the time he was just going out after prostitutes'.

A vile and inhuman piece of graffiti scrawled on a sidewall of a shopping arcade in Huddersfield. ‘Give the Ripper a medal,’ callously displayed the level of contempt for a vulnerable group of women and also reinforced the misconception that Sutcliffe was a man with a hatred of sex workers, which possibly narrowed the police investigation’s scope. The fact that earlier attacks on non-prostitutes Anna Rogulskyj and Olive Smelt weren’t even linked with other Yorkshire Ripper murders, illustrates the limits of the investigation team’s detective work, in what was a pre-digital and paperwork orientated system, relying on handwritten index-cards for cross-referencing thousands of enquiries.

As early as January 1976, after the second fatal attack on victim Emily Jackson, who had only resorted to selling sex out of financial desperation in a red light area, the police assumed they were looking for a latter-day ‘Jack the Ripper’. But Sutcliffe’s first victim in 1975, mother of two, Wilma McCann, had no connections to the world of prostitution.

Flawed police investigation

The hub of the investigation into the Ripper attacks by the West Yorkshire Police was operated from Millgarth police station in the centre of Leeds. Formed in 1974 the WYP amalgamated the Leeds City Police and Bradford City Police. The investigation team was to be headed by a senior Chief Constable who at the time had gained a respectable reputation after his overseeing of the horrendous M62 bombing of a coach carrying military personnel by the IRA. Only a year later after Sutcliffe’s conviction for killing 13 women, the investigation team was heavily criticised for its policing practices that suggested it had wasted valuable time and resources identifying the killer.

The 1982 Byford Report into the investigation of the Yorkshire Ripper concluded: 'The ineffectiveness of the major incident room was a serious handicap to the Ripper investigation. While it should have been the effective nerve centre of the whole police operation, the backlog of unprocessed information failed to connect vital pieces of related information'.

The reasons for these failings were manifold but the most obvious impediment to the ongoing investigation was the fact the West Yorkshire police force was overburdened by so much information from public calls after television news reports, to interviews and on the beat reports having to be dealt with by a manual system. There was so much paperwork the floor of the incident room in Leeds had to be reinforced to cope with the weight of paper.

This colossal weight was partly caused by a manual system that relied on cross-referencing index cards to be stored in files. It was a laborious task and prone to mistakes and missed vital connections such as how many times Sutcliffe’s car registration had been spotted by police in red light areas. Vital information was lost amongst the mountains of paperwork as the only system available for filing a quarter of a million names for cross-referencing.

The Byford report concluded with the view that 'this serious fault in the central index system allowed Peter Sutcliffe to continually slip through the net'.

Police personnel

The initial choice for a detective to lead the investigation was based on his age and rank. This was to be a calamitous decision when Detective Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield, a veteran policeman nurtured in a ‘boys own’ culture of chauvinism – like many of his officers – was chosen to head the West Yorkshire police team in the biggest manhunt in the country. Oldfield ignored the eye witness testimonies of Sutcliffe’s surviving victims, and worse, was blindsided by a hoax tape recording of a man with a ‘Wearside’ accent, that was given too much credibility and wasted valuable police resources and time. Despite surviving victims stating that the killer had a ‘Yorkshire accent’, Oldfield and members of his team persisted with the notion that the Ripper was a ‘Mackem’, preferring to believe the fake claims of the hoaxer John Humble.

Oldfield not only dismissed the advice of eminent specialists and voice analysts who were sceptical about the validity of the tape claiming to be the voice of the Ripper but those he ignored even included the FBI. Two aspects about ‘Wearside Jack’ had encouraged Oldfield and his team to believe that the tape was genuine, the main one being that the saliva examined from the envelope it and other letters were sent, showed the same blood type found at the crime scenes. But the hoaxer’s knowledge of details about the killings actually came from local newspapers and pub gossip.

Profiling of the Ripper

Sutcliffe’s brutal murders represented unchartered waters for a regional police force unused to the kind of serial killing scenarios more evident in the US. Expert advice aside it was for the West Yorkshire investigation team a guessing game based on supposition and prejudicial attitudes. One problem was that the killer had been likened to the infamous Whitechapel murderer of hundred years earlier ‘Jack the Ripper’, but who in reality was a bogeyman, his identity and motive unknown and a character more associated with myth and legend than fact. It didn’t help the police or the public at large to imagine the man responsible for the latest attacks to be some kind of grotesque creature with horns. The reality was that Sutcliffe was very ordinary and blended seamlessly in everyday life and society.

Could it be that inherent disbelief amongst police investigators that such a disturbed maniac could be married, or a family man, explain why Sutcliffe was interviewed nine times and still wasn’t placed on the of the suspect's list?

Sexism and misogyny

Two unforgivable aspects of the investigation that impeded the search for the worst serial killer the country had known had little to do with technology. The first being, the narrow-minded attitudes fostered in society through ignorance. Sex-workers were generally viewed with contempt, the assumption was that they were subhuman or less worthy of other members of society. This disregarding of them as ‘people’ with their own problems and circumstance engendered a less empathetic attitude about their lives, both from certain areas of the police force, the press and also the public.

One senior West Yorkshire detective hosting a televised press conference in October 1979, addressed the killer personally. He was shamelessly unaware of the toxicity of his words, suggesting some people in society were less deserving of compassion.

'He (the Ripper) has made it clear that he hates prostitutes. Many people do. But the Ripper is now killing innocent girls. That indicates your mental state and that you are in urgent need of medical attention. You have made your point. Give yourself up before another innocent woman dies.'

Such views, broadcast by an officer with authority and part of the investigation reinforced one thing: prostitutes weren’t ‘innocent’. Furthermore, the man responsible for brutally bludgeoning and knifing them was only seen as being clinically disturbed when he attacked ‘respectable’ women. What these broadcasts and press coverage did to undermine the confidence of women working in the sex industry to provide vital information, is unknown. Some surviving victims of Sutcliffe never came forward because of the stigma associated with their trade.

Secondly, view that women were ‘asking for it’ if they strayed from the strict social expectations of conformity impacted the investigation, be that the clothes they wore or where they went at night, made women feel guilt or shame for not censoring themselves because of the threat of attack. It is no accident that at this time and height of fear of the Ripper, feminist groups took to the street to protest against a culture of male violence that appeared to be acceptable in society. One 18-year old student in Leeds, who survived an attack by Sutcliffe and woke up in the hospital with a severe head injury recalled that the attitude of the staff was ‘What have you done to deserve this?’ making her feel ashamed for having been out alone at night.

The English Collective of Prostitutes protested outside the Old Bailey during Sutcliffe’s trial in January 1981 when the attorney general at the time, Sir Michael Havers, said of the victims: 'Some were prostitutes, but perhaps the saddest part of the case is that some were not. The last six attacks were on totally respectable women'. Nina Lopez of the group recalled the fury women felt at the time. 'We were so absolutely outraged because that was why it took them so long to arrest him. It really showed how when sex workers are not safe, no woman is safe.'

Ignored letters

The story of catching the Yorkshire Ripper is littered with police errors and missed opportunities to bring the killer to justice. It didn’t help matters when rumour, supposition or a hoax tape put investigators off the trail. One eager crime author with an eye on the till even wrote a book naming the wrong man before Sutcliffe was arrested and convicted.

However, the one person who guessed the Ripper’s identity correctly and who contacted the police wasn’t even interviewed at the time. Trevor Birdsall, a friend of Sutcliffe who occasionally accompanied him on excursions around red-light districts in the 70s, eventually informed the police about his suspicions, only for his letter which had been marked ‘Priority 1’ to get lost amongst the mountains of paperwork. Neither was Birdsall’s visit to Bradford police station to express his misgivings about Sutcliffe ever followed up by the police. The actual report made out detailing his visit was misplaced. The text of the letter ran as follows:

‘I have good reason to now (sic) the man you are looking for in the Ripper case. This man as (sic) dealings with prostitutes and always had a thing about them... His name and address is Peter Sutcliffe, 5 (sic) Garden Lane, Heaton, Bradford’

Vital missed opportunities and mistakes

A series of spectacular police blunders left even Sutcliffe amazed that he had not been caught before, as he admitted during his trial at the Old Bailey: 'It was just a miracle they did not apprehend me earlier – they had all the facts.'

Those ‘facts’ included being interviewed nine times, at least once at his home in Heaton, Bradford, but also back in the 60’s when he first visited prostitutes, sometimes with his friend Trevor Birdsall. On one occasion in 1969 Sutcliffe came to the notice of the police while in possession of a hammer, after an incident with a street-worker, and arrested for carrying an offensive weapon. Despite having actually coshed the woman during a revenge attack for her supposedly cheating him out of £5, he was let off with a caution when the investigating officers believed he was 'going equipped for stealing' and assumed he was a potential burglar.

On 1st October 1977, Sutcliffe attacked 20-year-old prostitute Jean Jordan in Manchester. Before he hit her with a hammer eleven times and dragged her body into an allotment, he threw away her handbag that contained a brand new £5 note he had given her. Police found the handbag and traced the serial number of the note back to the payroll of haulier company T & W H Clark, Sutcliffe’s employers, where he worked as a driver. His colleagues even joked he was the ‘Ripper’.

When questioned by the police Sutcliffe provided an alibi that he was at a party.

Detective Constable Andy Laptew raised the alarm about his suspicions about Sutcliffe after interviewing the killer (along with his wife) at his home in Heaton, Bradford on 29 July 1979. Sutcliffe had by then killed ten women and Laptew who was brought into the investigations in 1976 interviewed Sutcliffe as a suspect after his car had been spotted in three different red light areas. In his notebook at the time of the interview, Laptew wrote ‘Peter William Sutcliffe, interviewed, not satisfied’. His suspicions were raised by certain clues he noticed during the interview.

Some of those clues were about the shoes Sutcliffe was wearing and their possible links to tracks left behind at the crime scenes, but it was Sutcliffe’s uncanny resemblance to a photo-fit by a survivor that convinced Laptew he had been dealing with the Ripper. Laptew typed up a two-page report which was dismissed on the basis that the police, led by Det George Oldfield believed the perpetrator was from the North East and had a ‘Wearside’ twang when Sutcliffe spoke with a West Yorkshire accent. The document was binned and Sutcliffe went on to kill three more women before being arrested. Andy Laptew sadly died last year at 68 from pancreatic cancer, but not before contributing to a Netflix documentary about the case filmed in 2019.

Detective George Oldfield’s unshaken belief the ‘Ripper’ was a man from the North East possessing a ‘Geordie’ accent wasted valuable police time and resources searching for a man who fitted a profile matching the hoax recordings and letters that had been sent to Oldfield at the investigation headquarters in Leeds. Television broadcasts in June 1979 showing Oldfield and his team listening to the recording and making press announcements to the public to identify the voice led the investigation team down a false trail for 18 months. The man responsible for the hoax tape and letter, John Humble, was caught through DNA evidence decades later and sentenced to eight years in prison. His actions were most likely responsible for the murders of more women. The theory of ‘Wearside Jack’ was only dropped after Oldfield was replaced as the chief investigating detective due to ill health.

Public billboards and press conferences including news reports focusing on the fake ‘Jack’ letters mislead the public into believing that they were written by the ‘Ripper’.

But the gravest of mistakes by the police investigation from the start was to assume that the killer was motivated by a hatred of sex workers where the focus on prostitutes not only hampered the search by limiting its scope but also misled the public to believe the distinctive handwriting was by the Ripper. Peter Sutcliffe never made the recordings or sent any letters to the police.

Five-year hunt ends

The press conference following Sutcliffe’s arrest in January 1981 shows detectives beaming and congratulating themselves on the capture of the country’s most wanted man. The irony is that the worst serial killer since Jack the Ripper had been caught, not by astute detective work but by traffic officers, from a different police force in Sheffield, who just happened to be out on patrol on the night Sutcliffe picked up his final and thankfully surviving passenger. With hindsight looking back from today’s world of instant communication, digital technology, mobile phones and DNA profiling it could be assumed that a deranged killer like Sutcliffe would be caught sooner. But there is no denying that even at a time when technology restricted the investigation that attitudes towards women and detective work carried out through a prism of male chauvinism, impeded capturing a mad man until he had caused so much damage.

Police identified several attacks which matched Sutcliffe's modus operandi and tried to question the killer, but he was never charged with other crimes. It is generally assumed that he may have attacked other women apart from those documented and some attacks may have taken place in the 60s.

Tragic legacy

What is often forgotten is the fact Sutcliffe attacked 25 women over a five-year period between 1975 and 1981. Fatalities would have been higher, stretching into their mid-20s if his surviving victims hadn’t been so lucky. Two attacks, later revealed by Sutcliffe while serving his time in prison were never investigated after the women decided to remain anonymous. Thirteen of his brutal attacks resulted in death for those tragic women and young girls, but Sutcliffe’s wanted to kill all of those he took a hammer to. By chance 12 victims survived, even if their lives were changed due to physical and psychological scars still felt today four decades on. Sutcliffe’s barbaric, cowardly attacks left countless children orphaned such as the children of Sutcliffe’s first victim Wilma McCann.