Page last updated Monday 19th February 2013 at 20,30
In May 1981 the man now universally known as the Yorkshire Ripper, 35 year old Peter William Sutcliffe, was convicted of murdering thirteen women and the attempted murder of seven others.
Bradford man Sutcliffe (pictured above right shaking hands with Frank Bruno), was a regular client of prostitutes in the Leeds area and also in his own city’s Manningham red light district. His obsession with killing ‘ladies of the night’ seems to have originated with an argument over payment to a prostitute, but he claimed, before and at trial, that he was being guided by the voice of God and that those voices originated from the headstone of a deceased Polish man, Bronisław Zapolski. His domineering and sexually cold wife, Polish-born Sonja, was also believed to have played a part in his mental deterioration.
The Yorkshire Ripper reign of terror lasted five years, in which the public were horrified by the brutal murders of some females who were plainly not prostitutes. The former gravedigger typically hit his victims over the head with a hammer, then stabbed or slashed them with a knife or sharpened screwdriver. When arrested in the Sheffield suburb of Broomhill, in January 1981, for driving with false number-plates Peter Sutcliffe was questioned about the killings. After only a short time he confessed that he was the Ripper.
Sergeant Robert Ring, a twenty-six year veteran of the now infamous South Yorkshire Police, and Probationer Constable Robert Hydes, had started their nightshift at the nearby Hammerton Road police station at 10:00 pm and made Melbourne Ave. Broomhill one of their first patrols. The driveway of the Light Trades Club was a known haunt of prostitutes. or men seeking them out. By the end of their shift Sgt Ring and PC Hydes had felt the collar of the man every police officer in the country was seeking. The same Robert Hydes, by then a Detective Constable but still based at Hammerton Rd, also had a minor role to play in the aftermath of the Hillsborough Disaster eight years later. Curiously, DC Hydes appears to have met none other than Chief Inspector Norman Bettison at the temporary mortuary at 1.00am and Bob Hydes’ witness evidence (see here) concerning that encounter appears to differ from that of Bettison’s (see here). No other statement found so far places Bettison at the ground at that time. It can be seen that Hydes was at the ground to hand Bettison CID forms which is odd for two reasons. Firstly, Bettison had an admin role in Soth Yorkshire Police at the time and, secondly, he is placed at the ground between 1.00am and 4.30am but no statement, including his own, says what he actually did. The gymnasium is approximately 75 metres from the locked police control box from where two crucial CCTV tapes were stolen yet Bettison heard or saw nothing. Another oddity.
Peter Sutcliffe was swiftly taken back to Dewsbury police station, amid jubilant scenes amongst West Yorkshire Police detectives. Despite the fact that he had actually been apprehended by a neighbouring Force and that they had played no role in his detection whatsoever. Quite the opposite, in actual fact.
Sutcliffe appeared before Dewsbury Magistrates Court three days later charged with murdering 20 year old university student, Jacqueline Hill. He was remanded in custody and has remained locked up ever since.
At the subsequent two week trial, transferred to Court One at the Old Bailey, Sutcliffe was defended by James Chadwin QC. He pleaded not guilty to murder on grounds of diminished responsibility, as he had been diagnosed whilst on remand with paranoid schizophrenia, but his plea was dismissed by trial judge, Justice Boreham, who said Sutcliffe was beyond redemption and he hoped the murderer would never leave prison. Much of the evidence presented by the prosecution team, led by the then Attorney General Sir Michael Havers QC, went uncontested which meant there were relatively few witnesses heard.
Havers drew controversy at the outset of the trial, when he said of the victims in his opening speech: “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.” In response to this remark, the English Collective of Prostitutes accused Havers of “condoning the murder of prostitutes” and women demonstrated outside the Old Bailey, with placards, in protest
Sutcliffe is serving twenty sentences of life imprisonment in Broadmoor High Security Hospital where he was befriended by another now notorious criminal, the country’s worst-ever serial paedophile and rapist, Jimmy Savile. Both men were born and bred in Yorkshire, less than 13 miles apart and they are pictured above with Frank Bruno. It is now clear that West Yorkshire detectives went to some lengths to find out if Savile was connected to the serial killing spree in the 1970s. Savile’s teeth were examined the year before Sutcliffe was convicted. Two of the Yorkshire Ripper’s victims were found very near to Savile’s home in Roundhay, Leeds (see picture top left). One of them less than 300 metres away. Sutcliffe even named Savile in police interviews. The depraved pair later appeared to have established a sick alliance, with the BBC’s number one TV and Radio star visiting the killer in jail and describing him as a ‘mate’. That makes the same police force’s inaction over 34 other cases of rape and paedophilia, allegedly committed by Savile. all the more startling.
John Stainthorpe, who worked for the West Yorkshire force for more than forty years, and who spent six of those years trying to catch the Yorkshire Ripper, told ITV’s Calendar News programme: “When the Ripper was really active one of the suspects put forward by members of the public was Jimmy Savile” He addedly chillingly: “Child abusers soon become child killers”.
The High Court dismissed an appeal by Sutcliffe in 2010, confirming that he would serve a whole life tariff and would never be released from prison. Which means he will die in jail, along with a small but exclusive club of three dozen or so other inmates.
There is a huge concern in some quarters that Peter Sutcliffe was convicted of nine murders he didn’t commit and that there were, in fact, two Rippers. Sutcliffe being a copycat of another murderous assailant who began the attacks on women some time before Sutcliffe claimed his own first victim. The arguments, facts and evidence supporting the copycat proposition are well rehearsed on Noel O’Gara‘s comprehensive Yorkshire Ripper website. Please click here to open Noel’s website in a separate browser window and make your own judgement.
West Yorkshire Police was criticised after the completion of the Ripper trial for being inadequately prepared for an investigation on this scale. It was one of the largest investigations ever undertaken by a British police force and pre-dated the use of computers. Information on suspects was stored on handwritten index cards. Aside from difficulties in storing and accessing the paperwork (the floor of the incident room was reinforced to cope with the weight of the paper), it was difficult for officers to overcome the information overload of such a large manual system. Sutcliffe was interviewed nine times, but all information the police had about the case was stored in paper form, making cross-referencing difficult and then further compounded by newspaper, television and radio appeals for information which generated thousands more documents.
Assistant Chief Constable (Crime), George Oldfield, was criticised for being too focused on the “I’m Jack” Wearside tape and letters. The investigation used them as a point of elimination rather than a line of enquiry and allowed Sutcliffe to avoid scrutiny, as he did not fit the profile of the sender of the tape or letters. The “Wearside Jack” hoaxer was given unusual credibility when analysis of saliva on the envelopes he sent showed he had the same blood group as the Yorkshire Ripper had left at crime scenes, a type shared by only 6% of the population. The hoaxer appeared to know details of the murders which had not been released to the press but which he had acquired from his local newspaper and pub gossip. The official response to the criticisms led to the implementation of the forerunner of HOLMES , the Major Incident Computer Application (MICA), developed by ISIS Computer Services.
Oldfield, a heavy drinker, was also largely responsible for the bungled investigation that led to the wrongful jailing of Judith Ward in connection with the M62 bombings at Hartshead Moor, Brighouse in 1974.
HM Inspector of Constabulary Sir Lawrence Byford‘s 1981 report of an official inquiry into the Ripper case was not released by the Home Office until 1 June 2006. Part of the document entitled “Description of suspects, photofits and other assaults” remains censored by the Home Office. Also partly censored was a section on Sutcliffe’s “immediate associates”. It is highly feasible that Jimmy Savile was on that list as Sutcliffe was a loner with few, if any, friends.
Referring to the period between 1969, when Sutcliffe first came to the attention of police, and 1975, the year of the murder of Wilma McCann, the report states: “There is a curious and unexplained lull in Sutcliffe’s criminal activities and there is the possibility that he carried out other attacks on prostitutes and unaccompanied women during that period.” In 1969 Sutcliffe, described in the Byford Report as an “otherwise unremarkable young man“, came to the notice of police on two occasions in connection with incidents involving prostitutes. The report said that it was clear he had on at least one occasion attacked a Bradford prostitute with a blackjack. Also in 1969 he was arrested in Manningham in possession of a hammer. Rather than believing Sutcliffe might use the hammer as an offensive weapon, the arresting officers assumed he was a burglar and he was charged with “going equipped for stealing.”
Byford’s report states: “We feel it is highly improbable that the crimes in respect of which Sutcliffe has been charged and convicted are the only ones attributable to him. This feeling is reinforced by examining the details of a number of assaults on women since 1969 which, in some ways, clearly fall into the established pattern of Sutcliffe’s overall modus operandi. I hasten to add that I feel sure that the senior police officers in the areas concerned are also mindful of this possibility but, in order to ensure full account is taken of all the information available, I have arranged for an effective liaison to take place.”
Police identified a number of other attacks which matched Sutcliffe’s modus operandi and future Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, Keith Hellawell, tried to question the killer on a number of occasions, but he was never charged with any other crimes.
The Byford Report’s major findings were contained in a summary published by the Home Secretary: The first time precise details of the bungled police investigation had been disclosed. Sir Lawrence described delays in following up vital tip-offs from Trevor Birdsall, an associate of Sutcliffe since 1966. On 25 November 1980, Birdsall sent an anonymous letter to police, the text of which ran as follows: I have good reason to know the man you are looking for in the Ripper case. This man has dealings with prostitutes and always had a thing about them… His name and address is Peter Sutcliffe, 6 Garden Lane, Heaton, Bradford. Works for Clarke’s Transport, Shipley.
This letter was marked “Priority No 1”. An index card was created on the basis of the letter and a policewoman found Sutcliffe already had three existing index cards in the records. But “for some inexplicable reason“, said the Byford Report, the papers remained in a filing tray in the incident room until the murderer’s arrest on 2 January the following year.
Mr Birdsall visited Bradford Police Station, the day after sending the letter, to repeat his misgivings about Sutcliffe. He added that he was with him when Sutcliffe got out of a car to pursue a woman following a bar room dispute with her in Halifax on 16 August 1975. This was the date and place of the Olive Smelt attack. A report compiled on the visit was lost, despite a “comprehensive search” which took place after Sutcliffe’s arrest, according to the report. Byford said: The failure to take advantage of Birdsall’s anonymous letter and his visit to the police station was, yet again, a stark illustration of the progressive decline in the overall efficiency of the Major Incident Room. It resulted in Sutcliffe being at liberty for more than a month when he might conceivably have been in custody. Thankfully, there is no reason to think he committed any further murderous assaults within that period.
Another sorry and shameful chapter in the chequered history of West Yorkshire Police and an enquiry remembered at its close, by many, for the inappropriate jocularity of ‘The Laughing Policemen’ Chief Constable, Ron Gregory, pictured above flanked by Oldfield on the left and Detective Chief Supt Jim Hobson on his right. They should, in fact, have been hanging their heads in shame. Faced with the biggest criminal inquiry in British history, Gregory had repeatedly refused to call in Scotland Yard, even as the failings of his hard-pressed officers had become all too clear. His so-called elite Ripper Squad was completely overwhelmed and outwitted.
Ronald Gregory, a Lancastrian, still holds the record as West Yorkshire Police’s longest-serving Chief Constable having been in post for 14 years commencing in 1969 until his retirement in 1983. He passed away in 2010 aged 88 never having been awarded the knighthood he coveted so much.