Reign of terror compounded by tragic blunders: How newlywed grave digger Peter Sutcliffe’s barbaric rampage hung a dark cloud over the North… made worse by police incompetence at catching him
- Serial killer died at University Hospital of North Durham after refusing treatment for coronavirus
- His lungs failed overnight and he was pronounced dead at 1.10am, with no visitors by his bedside
- Signed ‘do not resuscitate’ forms – while friends said he astonishingly vowed he’d go to heaven
Within the annals of 20th-century serial killers, one name – and one moniker – represents a particularly disturbing chapter.
The fear wrought by Peter Sutcliffe’s barbaric and bloody attacks on young women were compounded by the police incompetence that let him slip the net for so long.
Sutcliffe was the newly-married former grave digger whose brutal reign of terror instilled unshakeable worry in the North of England as police failed to pick up the clues in their pursuit of the notorious murderer known as the Yorkshire Ripper.
The fear wrought by Peter Sutcliffe’s barbaric and bloody attacks on young women were compounded by the police incompetence that let him slip the net for so long
Police digging outside the Ripper’s house at Heaton in 1981, after his killing spree which saw 13 women murdered
Sutcliffe was the newly-married former grave digger whose brutal reign of terror instilled unshakeable worry in the North of England as police failed to pick up the clues in their pursuit of the notorious murderer known as the Yorkshire Ripper
Sutcliffe’s unexpected confession to police in 1981 was followed by his decision to contest the charges – leading to an Old Bailey trial during which he claimed he was on a mission from God to kill prostitutes
A newspaper clipping from October 1975 describes a ‘savage and sadistic sex attack on Leeds mother in fear’ Wilma McCann
For five years, Sutcliffe stabbed, twisted and butchered the flesh of his victims.
They were teenage girls, shop assistants, prostitutes, clerks. They were mothers, daughters, sisters, wives. And the broad spectrum of victims from various walks of life meant that no woman was safe with Sutcliffe at large.
In all, 13 were killed and seven more were viciously attacked, although police remain convinced the Yorkshire Ripper’s grim roll call of female victims remains higher – not least because a red herring and copious missed opportunities gave Sutcliffe the chance to continue his murderous rampage.
Sutcliffe’s unexpected confession to police in 1981 was followed by his decision to contest the charges – leading to an Old Bailey trial during which he claimed he was on a mission from God to kill prostitutes.
He died on Friday November 13, aged 74, after close to four decades in custody. His killing spree, which began before he turned 30, remains among the most sickening murder investigations of the last century.
Peter William Sutcliffe was born on June 2 1946 in Bingley, West Yorkshire.
‘We don’t worry about the Ripper’, said surviving victim’s husband
Olive Smelt was attacked by the Yorkshire Ripper as she walked home in Halifax on a summer evening in 1975
One of Peter Sutcliffe’s surviving victims rarely thought about the man who left her in need of brain surgery, her husband said in 2010.
Olive Smelt was attacked by the Yorkshire Ripper as she walked home in Halifax on a summer evening in 1975.
She was hit twice on the head with a hammer and needed brain surgery to overcome her injuries, but later made a full recovery.
She went on marry and have three children.
Her husband, Harry, aged 85 when the High Court ruled Sutcliffe would spend the rest of his life behind bars, said it was the correct decision for Sutcliffe’s own good.
‘I think it’s as well for him that he does have to remain in,’ Mr Smelt said.
‘There’s a kind of ranking in among prisoners – the more notorious they can be the better it is for them.
‘Think of what would happen if one of the prisoners outside got to him and could say ‘I’m the one who got Peter Sutcliffe’. He could live off that for the rest of his life.’
Mr Smelt said then that neither he nor his wife worried about what would have happened had Sutcliffe been released, and their priorities had changed.
He said in 2010: ‘We don’t worry about it.
‘Olive is very severely disabled now and wheelchair-bound – the last thing she worries about is Peter Sutcliffe.’
Olive Smelt died in 2011.
A relative loner at school, he left education aged 15 and took on a series of menial jobs. His work as a grave digger was said to have nurtured an awkward and macabre sense of humour.
On August 10 1974, Sutcliffe married Sonia. Less than a year later, the lorry driver picked up a hammer and began attacking women, two in Keighley and one in Halifax.
All three survived and police did not notice the similarities between the attacks.
The first fatality was Wilma McCann. The 28-year-old sex worker and mother-of-four was battered to death in the early hours of October 30 1975.
She was struck with a hammer and stabbed in the neck, chest and stomach after Sutcliffe picked her up in Leeds.
He was later to tell police: ‘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.’
But life continued as normal for the Sutcliffes.
His next victim – 42-year-old Emily Jackson from Leeds – was murdered in similarly bloody circumstances in January the following year.
He would apparently wait more than a year before striking again. It was his fifth murder, that of 16-year-old Jayne MacDonald in April 1977, that saw the national press wake up to the fact a serial killer was on the loose.
Dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper, the assailant’s identity went unknown for years – in fact police were totally misled by a hoax which took detectives to Sunderland, allowing Sutcliffe to keep on killing.
In 1979, a tape was sent to police by a man calling himself Jack the Ripper. He had already sent a series of hand-written letters from Sunderland and police believed they were on to the killer, discounting all those without a Wearside accent on their substantial database of suspects – Sutcliffe included.
By the summer of that year, Sutcliffe had been interviewed five times. He also bore a significant resemblance to a widely-circulated image of the prime suspect while a banknote discovered near one victim’s body was traced to Sutcliffe’s employer at the time.
However, the fact his accent and handwriting did not match those of the hoaxer meant Sutcliffe remained a free man.
He was finally caught in January 1981 when police ran a check on his car to discover the number plates were stolen.
His passenger was 24-year-old street worker Olivia Reivers – detectives later discovered a hammer and a knife nearby. Their search was over.
Despite a 24-hour-long confession to the killings, Sutcliffe entered not-guilty pleas when indicted at court.
In May 1981, he was jailed for 20 life terms at the Old Bailey, the judge recommending a minimum sentence of 30 years.
He was transferred from Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight to Broadmoor secure hospital in Berkshire in 1984 after he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
More than two decades later, a secret report revealed that Sutcliffe probably committed more crimes than the 13 murders and seven attempted murders for which he was convicted.
He left Broadmoor and moved back into mainstream prison in 2016, serving at Frankland Prison, Durham.
He was taken to hospital in October 2020 after suffering a suspected heart attack and returned to the University Hospital of North Durham a fortnight later having contracted coronavirus.
Sutcliffe, who had reportedly refused treatment for Covid-19 and was also suffering from underlying health conditions, insisted on being addressed by his mother’s maiden name of Coonan, but will be forever known as the Ripper.
Crowds gathered outside Dewsbury court in England after the Yorkshire Ripper was caught and appeared there to be charged with the murder of Jacqueline Hill
A policeman stands guard outside Sutcliffe’s home in Heaton, West Yorkshire, after he had eventually been apprehended
Bobbies and blunders: Police mistakes that allowed him to slip the net
The hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper became the biggest manhunt Britain had ever known.
But despite the 2.5 million police man hours expended on catching him, Peter Sutcliffe was allowed to continue his murderous spree for more than five years.
During the police inquiry he was interviewed nine times, but was only caught when picked up by chance with a prostitute in his car. He eventually attacked 20 women, killing 13 of them, between 1975 and 1980.
A series of spectacular police blunders left even Sutcliffe amazed that he had not been caught before.
George Oldfield (Assistant Chief Constable of West Yorkshire), Ronald Gregory (Chief Constable of West Yorkshire) and Jim Hobson (acting Chief Constable of West Yorkshire)- pictured at a press conference shortly after Sutcliffe’s arrest
At his Old Bailey trial he said: ‘It was just a miracle they did not apprehend me earlier – they had all the facts.’
The Ripper incident room at Millgarth police station used a card index system which was overwhelmed with information and not properly cross-referenced, leading to evidence against Sutcliffe getting lost in the system.
Crucial similarities between him and the suspect, like the gap in his teeth and his size seven feet, were not picked up.
As early as 1976, when Marcella Claxton was hit over the head with a hammer near her home in Leeds, potentially vital evidence was overlooked.
She survived the attack and was able to help police produce a photofit – which later proved to be accurate – but she was discounted as a Ripper victim because she was not a prostitute.
On one occasion Sutcliffe was interviewed by officers who showed him a picture of the Ripper’s bootprint near a body – they failed to notice that Sutcliffe was wearing the exact same pair of boots.
When a £5 note was found in the pocket of 28-year-old Jean Jordan, in Manchester in 1977, police again failed to connect Sutcliffe.
Detective Chief Superintendent Hobson replaced Oldfield in November 1980. He immediately downgraded the importance of the Wearside Jack tape and letters
The note was traced to one of six companies, including Clark Transport, which employed Sutcliffe as a lorry driver.
He was interviewed but was given an alibi by his wife and mother, which was accepted.
Police also overlooked Sutcliffe’s arrest in 1969 for carrying a hammer in a red light district, and attempts by his friend Trevor Birdsall to point the finger at him in a anonymous letter.
But the worst blunder came in 1979, when Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield of West Yorkshire Police , who was in overall command of the hunt, was hoodwinked by a hoax tape and two letters sent from Sunderland, which purported to be from the Ripper.
There were warnings of a hoax from voice experts and other detectives, but Oldfield pressed on, convinced this was his man.
Because the voice on the tape had a North East accent, Sutcliffe, who was from Bradford, was not in the frame.
Oldfield’s mistake has been described as one of the biggest in British criminal history, but he was widely regarded as a ‘top notch copper’.
An ‘old school’ policeman with three decades experience, he was a hard drinking, dedicated man who developed a deep personal obsession with nailing the Ripper.
He worked 18-hour days and made a personal pledge to the parents of the sixth victim, Jayne MacDonald, that he would catch the killer.
His 200-strong ripper squad eventually carried out more than 130,000 interviews, visited more than 23,000 homes and checked 150,000 cars.
When the tape arrived it was a personal message to Oldfield, which said: ‘Lord, you are no nearer catching me now than four years ago when I started.
‘I reckon your boys are letting you down George. You can’t be much good can ya?’
Later the same year Oldfield had a heart attack at the age of 57, and was subsequently moved off the case.
He has been described by friends as ‘the Ripper’s 14th victim’.
With attention focused on suspects with a North East accent, the Ripper continued his killing spree and claimed his 13th and last murder victim, 21-year-old student Jacqueline Hill, late in 1980.
At that time police had a league table of suspects.
There were 26 in Division One – at the top was a completely innocent taxi driver who they tailed for months.
Some 200 names were in Division Two and 1,000 – including Sutcliffe – were in Division Three.
Then, in January 1981, police finally got some luck when Sutcliffe was arrested by officers in Sheffield, who stopped him with a prostitute in his brown Rover car.
The car had false number plates and Sutcliffe’s name was passed on to the Ripper squad, where it came up on their index cards.
When a £5 note was found in the pocket of 28-year-old Jean Jordan, in Manchester in 1977, police again failed to connect Sutcliffe. The note was traced to one of six companies, including Clark Transport, which employed Sutcliffe as a lorry driver
He had always denied any involvement with prostitutes in his previous interviews, and they decided to talk to him again.
The officers who went to Dewsbury police station to interview him looked at the car and found screwdrivers in the glove compartment.
The Sheffield officers, meanwhile, hearing Sutcliffe was a Ripper suspect, went back to the scene of his arrest and found a hammer and knife 50ft from where his car had been.
Sutcliffe had dumped the weapons when they allowed him to go to the toilet at the side of a building.
Police also visited Sutcliffe’s wife Sonia, who admitted he had not got home until 10pm on Bonfire Night, when a 16-year-old girl was attacked.
As the net closed, Sutcliffe suddenly and unexpectedly confessed.
He calmly told Detective Inspector John Boyle, who was interviewing him : ‘It’s all right, I know what you’re leading up to. The Yorkshire Ripper. It’s me. I killed all those women.’
He then began a detailed confession lasting 24 hours, and asked for Sonia to be brought in so he could tell her personally that he was the Ripper.
Sutcliffe went on trial at the Old Bailey in May 1981, where he claimed he had been directed by God to kill prostitutes.
The jury had to decide whether, at the time of the killings, he believed he was carrying out a divine mission.
After lengthy deliberations they returned a 10-2 majority verdict of guilty and was jailed for life.
The case remains one of the most notorious of the last 100 years and the assessment of what went wrong in the investigation is still having an impact on major police inquiries to this day.
The Wearside Jack messages were finally, conclusively proved to be hoax nearly 30 years after they were sent when Sunderland alcoholic John Humble admitted perverting the course of justice and was jailed for eight years in 2006.
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