The Yorkshire Ripper
Peter William Sutcliffe
2 June 1946
|Died||13 November 2020 (aged 74)|
(m. 1974; div. 1994)
|Criminal penalty||Life imprisonment (whole life order)|
|Victims||22 (13 murdered, 9 injured)|
Span of crimes
|2 January 1981 in Sheffield, South Yorkshire|
Peter William Sutcliffe (2 June 1946 – 13 November 2020), also known as Peter William Coonan, was an English serial killer who was dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper (an allusion to Jack the Ripper) by the press. On 22 May 1981, he was convicted of murdering thirteen women and attempting to murder seven others between 1975 and 1980. He was sentenced to twenty concurrent sentences of life imprisonment, which were converted to a whole life order in 2010. All except two of Sutcliffe's murders took place in West Yorkshire; the others were in Manchester.
Sutcliffe initially attacked women and girls in residential areas, but appeared to have moved to red-light districts because he was attracted by the vulnerability of prostitutes. He had allegedly regularly used the services of prostitutes in Leeds and Bradford. After his arrest in Sheffield by South Yorkshire Police for driving with false number plates in January 1981, Sutcliffe was transferred to West Yorkshire Police, who questioned him about the killings. He confessed to being the perpetrator, saying that the voice of God had sent him on a mission to kill prostitutes. At his trial, Sutcliffe pleaded not guilty to murder on grounds of diminished responsibility, but he was convicted of murder on a majority verdict. Following his conviction, Sutcliffe began using his mother's maiden name of Coonan.
West Yorkshire Police were criticised for their failure to catch Sutcliffe despite having interviewed him nine times in the course of their five-year investigation. Because of the sensational nature of the case, the police handled an exceptional amount of information, some of it misleading (including the Wearside Jack hoax recorded message and letters purporting to be from the "Ripper"). Following Sutcliffe's conviction, the government ordered a review of the investigation, conducted by the Inspector of Constabulary Lawrence Byford, known as the "Byford Report". The findings were made fully public in 2006 and confirmed the validity of the criticism against the force. The report led to changes to investigative procedures which were adopted across UK police forces. In 2019, The Guardian described the manhunt as "stunningly mishandled".
Sutcliffe was transferred from prison to a high-security psychiatric hospital in March 1984 after being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The High Court dismissed an appeal by Sutcliffe in 2010, confirming that he would serve a whole life order and never be released from custody. In August 2016, it was ruled that Sutcliffe was mentally fit to be returned to prison, and he was transferred that month to HM Prison Frankland in Durham. Sutcliffe died on 13 November 2020 at the age of 74.
Peter Sutcliffe was born in Bingley in the West Riding of Yorkshire to a working-class family. He was given a Catholic upbringing by his parents, John William Sutcliffe and his wife Kathleen Frances (née Coonan). Reportedly a loner, Sutcliffe left school aged fifteen and had a series of menial jobs, including two stints as a gravedigger in the 1960s. Between November 1971 and April 1973, he worked at the Baird Television factory on a packaging line. He left this position when he was asked to go on the road as a salesman.
After leaving Baird Television, Sutcliffe worked nightshifts at the Britannia Works of Anderton International from April 1973. In February 1975, he took redundancy and used half of the £400 pay-off to train as a heavy goods vehicle (HGV) driver. On 5 March 1976, Sutcliffe was dismissed for the theft of used tyres. He was unemployed until October 1976, when he found a job as an HGV driver for T.& W.H. Clark (Holdings) Ltd. on the Canal Road Industrial Estate in Bradford.
Sutcliffe, by some reports, used prostitutes as a young man, and it has been speculated that he had a bad experience during which he was conned out of money by a prostitute and her pimp. Other analyses of his actions have not found evidence that he actually sought the services of prostitutes, but note that he nonetheless developed an obsession with them, including "watching them soliciting on the streets of Leeds and Bradford".
Sutcliffe met Sonia Szurma on 14 February 1967; they married on 10 August 1974. Sonia suffered several miscarriages and they were informed that she would not be able to have children. She resumed a teacher training course, during which time she had an affair with an ice-cream van driver. When Sonia completed the course in 1977 and began teaching, she and Sutcliffe used her salary to buy a house at 6 Garden Lane in Heaton, into which they moved on 26 September 1977, and where they were living at the time of Sutcliffe's arrest.
Through his childhood and his early adolescence, Sutcliffe showed no signs of abnormality. Later, in part related to his occupation as a gravedigger, he developed a macabre sense of humour. In his late adolescence, Sutcliffe developed a growing obsession with voyeurism and spent much time spying on prostitutes and the men seeking their services.
Sutcliffe's thirteen known murder victims were Wilma McCann (1975), Emily Jackson (1976), Irene Richardson (1977), Patricia "Tina" Atkinson (1977), Jayne MacDonald (1977), Jean Jordan (1977), Yvonne Pearson (1978), Helen Rytka (1978), Vera Millward (1978), Josephine Whitaker (1979), Barbara Leach (1979), Marguerite Walls (1980) and Jacqueline Hill (1980). He is also known to have attacked at least nine other women: an unnamed woman (1969), Anna Rogulskyj (1975), Olive Smelt (1975), Tracy Browne (1975), Marcella Claxton (1976), Marilyn Moore (1977), Upadhya Bandara (1980), Maureen (or Mo) Lea (1980) and Theresa Sykes (1980). Claxton was four months pregnant when she was attacked, and lost the baby she was carrying.
Sutcliffe's first documented assault was of a woman who worked as a prostitute, whom he had met while searching for another woman who had tricked him out of money. He left his friend Trevor Birdsall's minivan, and walked up St Paul's Road in Bradford until he was out of sight. When Sutcliffe returned, he was out of breath, as if he had been running. He told Birdsall to drive off quickly. Sutcliffe said he had followed a prostitute into a garage and hit her over the head with a stone in a sock. According to his statement, Sutcliffe said, "I got out of the car, went across the road and hit her. The force of the impact tore the toe off the sock and whatever was in it came out. I went back to the car and got in it".
Police visited Sutcliffe's home the next day, as the woman he had attacked had noted Birdsall's vehicle registration plate. He admitted he had hit her, but claimed it was with his hand. The police told him he was "very lucky", as the woman did not want anything more to do with the incident – she was a known prostitute, and her husband was serving a jail term for assault.
Sutcliffe committed his second assault on the night of 5 July 1975 in Keighley. He attacked Anna Rogulskyj, who was walking alone, striking her unconscious with a ball-peen hammer and slashing her stomach with a knife. Disturbed by a neighbour, he left without killing her. Ms Rogulskyj survived after neurological surgery at Leeds General Infirmary but was psychologically traumatised by the attack. She said later: "I've been afraid to go out much because I feel people are staring and pointing at me. The whole thing is making my life a misery. I sometimes wish I had died in the attack."
On the night of August 15, Sutcliffe attacked Olive Smelt in Halifax. Employing the same modus operandi, he briefly engaged Mrs Smelt with a commonplace pleasantry about the weather before striking hammer blows to her skull from behind. He then disarranged her clothing and slashed her lower back with a knife. Again he was interrupted, and left his victim badly injured but alive. Like Ms Rogulskyj, Mrs Smelt subsequently suffered severe emotional and mental trauma. She had told interviewing officer Dept. Supt. Dick Holland (later the Ripper Squad's second in command) that her attacker had a Yorkshire accent, but this information was ignored, as was the fact that neither her nor Ms Rogulskij were in towns with a red light area. On 27 August, Sutcliffe attacked 14-year-old Tracy Browne in Silsden. He struck her from behind and hit her on the head five times while she was walking along a country lane. He ran off when he saw the lights of a passing car, leaving his victim requiring brain surgery. Sutcliffe was not convicted of the attack, but confessed to it in 1992.
The first victim to be killed by Sutcliffe was Wilma McCann on 30 October. McCann, from Scott Hall in Leeds, was a mother of four. Sutcliffe struck her twice with a hammer before stabbing her fifteen times in the neck, chest and abdomen. An extensive inquiry, involving 150 officers of the West Yorkshire Police and 11,000 interviews, failed to find the culprit. One of McCann's daughters died by suicide in December 2007, reportedly after suffering years of depression over her mother's death.
Sutcliffe committed his next murder in Leeds in January 1976, when he stabbed 42-year-old Emily Jackson 52 times. In dire financial straits, Jackson had been using the family van (with her husband's agreement and support) to exchange sexual favours for money. Sutcliffe picked up Jackson, who was soliciting outside the Gaiety pub on Roundhay Road, then drove about half a mile to some derelict buildings on Enfield Terrace in the Manor Industrial Estate. Sutcliffe hit her on the head with a hammer, dragged her body into a rubbish strewn yard, then used a sharpened screwdriver to stab her in the neck, chest and abdomen. He stomped on her thigh, leaving behind an impression of his boot.
Sutcliffe attacked 20-year-old Marcella Claxton in Roundhay Park, Leeds, on 9 May. Walking home from a party, she accepted an offer of a lift from Sutcliffe. When she got out of the car to urinate, he hit her from behind with a hammer. Claxton was left alive and testified against Sutcliffe at his trial. At the time of this attack, Claxton had been four months pregnant, and subsequently miscarried her baby. She required extensive, multiple brain operations and suffered from intermittent blackouts and chronic depression.
On 5 February Sutcliffe attacked Irene Richardson, a Chapeltown prostitute, in Roundhay Park. Richardson was bludgeoned to death with a hammer. Once she was dead, Sutcliffe mutilated her corpse with a knife. Tyre tracks left near the murder scene resulted in a long list of possible suspect vehicles.
Two months later, on 23 April, Sutcliffe killed Patricia "Tina" Atkinson, a prostitute from Bradford, in her flat, where police found a bootprint on the bedclothes. Another two months later, on 26 June, he murdered 16-year-old Jayne MacDonald in Chapeltown. She was not a sex worker and, in the public perception, showed that all women were potential victims. The police described her as the first "innocent" victim. Sutcliffe seriously assaulted Maureen Long in Bradford in July. He was interrupted and fled, leaving her for dead. She was suffering from hypothermia when found and was in hospital for nine weeks. A witness misidentified the make of his car, resulting in more than 300 police officers checking thousands of cars without success.
On 1 October 1977 Sutcliffe murdered Jean Jordan, a prostitute from Manchester. In a confession, Sutcliffe said he had realised the new £5 note he had given her was traceable. After hosting a family party at his new home, he returned to the wasteland behind Manchester's Southern Cemetery, where he had left the body, to retrieve the note. Unable to find it, he mutilated Jordan's corpse and moved it.
On 9 October, Jordan's body was discovered by local dairy worker and future actor Bruce Jones, who had an allotment on land adjoining the site where the body was found and was searching for house bricks when he made the discovery. The £5 note, hidden in a secret compartment in Jordan's handbag, was traced to branches of the Midland Bank in Shipley and Bingley. Police analysis of bank operations allowed them to narrow their field of inquiry to 8,000 employees who could have received it in their wage packet. Over three months the police interviewed 5,000 men, including Sutcliffe. The police found that the alibi given for Sutcliffe's whereabouts was credible; he had indeed spent much of the evening of the killing at a family party. Weeks of intense investigations pertaining to the origins of the £5 note led to nothing, leaving police officers frustrated that they collected an important clue but had been unable to trace the actual firm (or employee within the firm) to which the note had been issued.
On 14 December, Sutcliffe attacked Marilyn Moore, another prostitute from Leeds. She survived and provided police with a description of her attacker. Tyre tracks found at the scene matched those from an earlier attack. Her photofit bore a strong resemblance to Sutcliffe, like other survivors, and she provided a good description of his car, which had been seen in red light districts. Sutcliffe had been interviewed on this issue.
The police discontinued the search for the person who received the £5 note in January 1978. Although Sutcliffe was interviewed about it, he was not investigated further (he was contacted and disregarded by the Ripper Squad on several further occasions). That month, Sutcliffe killed again. His victim was Yvonne Pearson, a 21-year-old prostitute from Bradford. He repeatedly bludgeoned her about the head with a ball-peen hammer then jumped on her chest before stuffing horse-hair into her mouth from a discarded sofa under which he hid her body near Lumb Lane.
Ten days later, he killed Helen Rytka, an 18-year-old prostitute from Huddersfield. He struck Rytka on the head five times as she exited his vehicle, before stripping most of the clothes from her body (although her bra and polo-neck jumper were positioned above her breasts) and repeatedly stabbing her in the chest. Her body was found three days later beneath railway arches in Garrards timber-yard to which he had driven her. Sutcliffe said of Rytka while in police custody in 1981: "I had the urge to kill any woman. The urge inside me to kill girls was now practically uncontrollable."
On 4 April 1979, Sutcliffe killed Josephine Whitaker, a 19-year-old building society clerk whom he attacked on Savile Park Moor in Halifax as she was walking home. Despite forensic evidence, police efforts were diverted for several months following receipt of the taped message purporting to be from the murderer taunting Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield of the West Yorkshire Police, who was leading the investigation. The tape contained a man's voice saying, "I'm Jack. I see you're having no luck catching me. I have the greatest respect for you, George, but Lord, you're no nearer catching me now than four years ago when I started."
Based on the recorded message, police began searching for a man with a Wearside accent, which linguists narrowed down to the Castletown area of Sunderland, Tyne and Wear. The hoaxer, dubbed "Wearside Jack", sent two letters to police and the Daily Mirror in March 1978 boasting of his crimes. The letters, signed "Jack the Ripper", claimed responsibility for the murder of 26-year-old Joan Harrison in Preston in November 1975. At the time, police mistakenly believed that the Preston murder was not public knowledge.
The hoaxer case was re-opened in 2005, and DNA taken from envelopes was entered into the national database, in which it matched that of John Samuel Humble, an unemployed alcoholic and long-time resident of the Ford Estate in Sunderland – a few miles from Castletown – whose DNA had been taken following a drunk and disorderly offence in 2001. On 20 October 2005, Humble was charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice for sending the hoax letters and tape. Humble was remanded in custody and on 21 March 2006 was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison. Humble died on 30 July 2019, aged 63.
On 1 September, Sutcliffe murdered 20-year-old Barbara Leach, a Bradford University student. Her body was dumped at the rear of 13 Ashgrove under a pile of bricks, close to the university and her lodgings. It was his sixteenth attack. The murder of a woman who was not a sex worker again alarmed the public and prompted an expensive publicity campaign emphasising the Wearside connection. Despite the false lead, Sutcliffe was interviewed on at least two other occasions in 1979. Despite matching several forensic clues and being on the list of 300 names in connection with the £5 note, he was not strongly suspected. Sutcliffe was interviewed by police nine times in total.
In April 1980, Sutcliffe was arrested for drunk driving. While awaiting trial, he killed two more women. Sutcliffe murdered 47-year-old Marguerite Walls on the night of 20 August 1980, and 20-year-old Jacqueline Hill, a student at Leeds University, on the night of 17 November 1980. Hill's body was found on wasteland near the Arndale Centre. He also attacked three other women, who survived: Uphadya Bandara in Leeds on 24 September 1980; Maureen Lea (known as Mo), an art student attacked in the grounds of Leeds University on 25 October 1980; and 16-year-old Theresa Sykes, attacked in Huddersfield on the night of 5 November 1980. Needing to feel safe, Sykes placed a wardrobe and dressing table against her bedroom door and slept with a knife hidden under her pillow. On 25 November 1980, Trevor Birdsall, an associate of Sutcliffe, reported him to the police as a suspect, but the information vanished into the paperwork already accumulated.
On 2 January 1981, Sutcliffe was stopped by the police with 24-year-old prostitute Olivia Reivers in the driveway of Light Trades House in Melbourne Avenue, Broomhill, Sheffield. A police check by probationary constable Robert Hydes revealed Sutcliffe's car had false number plates and he was arrested and transferred to Dewsbury Police Station. At Dewsbury he was questioned in relation to the Yorkshire Ripper case as he matched many of the known physical characteristics. The next day police returned to the scene of the arrest and discovered a knife, hammer and rope he had discarded when he briefly slipped away from the police after telling them he was "bursting for a pee". Sutcliffe hid a second knife in the toilet cistern at the police station when he was permitted to use the toilet. The police obtained a search warrant for his home in Heaton and brought his wife in for questioning.
When Sutcliffe was stripped at the police station he was wearing an inverted V-neck sweater under his trousers. The sleeves had been pulled over his legs and the V-neck exposed his genital area. The front of the elbows were padded to protect his knees as, presumably, he knelt over his victims' corpses. The sexual implications of this outfit were considered obvious, but it was not made public until the 2003 publication of the book, Wicked Beyond Belief: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, by Michael Bilton. After two days of intensive questioning, on the afternoon of 4 January 1981, Sutcliffe suddenly declared he was the Ripper. Over the next day, he calmly described his many attacks. Weeks later he claimed God had told him to murder the women. "The women I killed were filth", he told police. "Bastard prostitutes who were littering the streets. I was just cleaning up the place a bit". Sutcliffe displayed regret only when talking of his youngest murder victim, Jayne MacDonald, and when questioned about the killing of Joan Harrison, he vehemently denied responsibility. Harrison's murder had been linked to the Ripper killings by the "Wearside Jack" claim, but in 2011, DNA evidence revealed the crime had actually been committed by convicted sex offender Christopher Smith, who had died in 2008.
Sutcliffe was charged on 5 January 1981. At his trial, he pleaded not guilty to thirteen charges of murder, but guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. The basis of his defence was that he claimed to be the tool of God's will. Sutcliffe said he had heard voices that ordered him to kill prostitutes while working as a gravedigger, which he claimed originated from the headstone of a Polish man, Bronisław Zapolski, and that the voices were that of God.
Sutcliffe pleaded guilty to seven charges of attempted murder. The prosecution intended to accept Sutcliffe's plea after four psychiatrists diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia, but the trial judge, Justice Sir Leslie Boreham, demanded an unusually detailed explanation of the prosecution reasoning. After a two-hour representation by the Attorney-General Sir Michael Havers, a ninety-minute lunch break, and another forty minutes of legal discussion, the judge rejected the diminished responsibility plea and the expert testimonies of the psychiatrists, insisting that the case should be dealt with by a jury. The trial proper was set to commence on 5 May 1981.
The trial lasted two weeks, and despite the efforts of his counsel James Chadwin QC, Sutcliffe was found guilty of murder on all counts and was sentenced to twenty concurrent sentences of life imprisonment. The jury rejected the evidence of four psychiatrists that Sutcliffe had paranoid schizophrenia, possibly influenced by the evidence of a prison officer who heard him say to his wife that if he convinced people he was mad then he might get ten years in a "loony bin".
The trial judge said Sutcliffe was beyond redemption and hoped he would never leave prison. He recommended a minimum term of thirty years to be served before parole could be considered, meaning Sutcliffe would have been unlikely to be freed until at least 2011. On 16 July 2010, the High Court issued Sutcliffe with a whole life tariff, meaning he was never to be released. After his trial, Sutcliffe admitted two other attacks. It was decided that prosecution for these offences was "not in the public interest". West Yorkshire Police made it clear that the victims wished to remain anonymous.
West Yorkshire Police were criticised for being inadequately prepared for an investigation on this scale. It was one of the largest investigations by a British police force and predated 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, compounded by television appeals for information which generated thousands more documents. The 1982 Byford Report into the investigation 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 resulted in the failure to connect vital pieces of related information. This serious fault in the central index system allowed Peter Sutcliffe to continually slip through the net".
The choice of Oldfield to lead the inquiry was criticised by Byford: "The temptation to appoint a 'senior man' on age or service grounds should be resisted. What is needed is an officer of sound professional competence who will inspire confidence and loyalty". He found wanting Oldfield's focus on the hoax confessional tape that seemed to indicate a perpetrator with a Wearside background, and his ignoring advice from survivors of Sutcliffe's attacks and several eminent specialists, including from the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the US, along with dialect analysts such as Stanley Ellis and Jack Windsor Lewis, whom he had also consulted throughout the manhunt, that "Wearside Jack" was a hoaxer.[n 1] The investigation used it 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 Sutcliffe 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 in fact he had acquired from his local newspaper and pub gossip.
In response to the police reaction to the murders, the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group organised a number of 'Reclaim the Night' marches. The group and other feminists had criticised the police for victim-blaming, especially the suggestion that women should remain indoors at night. Eleven marches in various towns across the United Kingdom took place on the night of 12 November 1977. They made the point that women should be able to walk anywhere without restriction and that they should not be blamed for men's violence.
In 1988, the mother of Sutcliffe's last victim, Jacqueline Hill, during action for damages on behalf of her daughter's estate, argued in the High Court that the police had failed to use reasonable care in apprehending Sutcliffe in Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire. The House of Lords held that the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire did not owe a duty of care to the victim due to the lack of proximity and therefore failing on the second limb of the Caparo test. After Sutcliffe's death in November 2020, West Yorkshire Police issued an apology for the "language, tone and terminology" used by the force at the time of the criminal investigation.
West Yorkshire Police reflected Sutcliffe's own misogyny and sexist attitudes, according to multiple sources. Jim Hobson, a senior West Yorkshire detective, told a press conference in October 1979 the perpetrator
"has made it clear that he hates prostitutes. Many people do. We, as a police force, will continue to arrest prostitutes. 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".
The Attorney General, Sir Michael Havers QC, at the trial in 1981 said of Sutcliffe's victims in his opening statement: "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". This drew condemnation from the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), who protested outside the Old Bailey. Nina Lopez, who was one of the ECP protestors in 1981, told The Independent forty years later, Sir Michael's comments were "an indictment of the whole way in which the police and the establishment were dealing with the Yorkshire Ripper case".
The Inspector of Constabulary Lawrence Byford's 1981 report of an official inquiry into the Ripper case was not released by the Home Office until 1 June 2006. The sections "Description of suspects, photofits and other assaults" and parts of the section on Sutcliffe's "immediate associates" were not disclosed by the Home Office.
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 "it is my firm conclusion that between 1969 and 1980 Sutcliffe was probably responsible for many attacks on unaccompanied women, which he has not yet admitted, not only in the West Yorkshire and Manchester areas but also in other parts of the country". In 1969, Sutcliffe, described in the Byford Report as an "otherwise unremarkable young man", came to the notice of police on two occasions over incidents with prostitutes. Later that year, in September 1969, he was also arrested in Bradford's red light district for being in possession of a hammer, an offensive weapon, but he was charged with "going equipped for stealing" as it was assumed he was a potential burglar. The report said that it was clear Sutcliffe had on at least one occasion attacked a Bradford sex worker with a cosh.
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 attacks which matched Sutcliffe's modus operandi and tried to question the killer, but he was never charged with other crimes. The Byford Report's major findings were contained in a summary published by the Home Secretary, William Whitelaw, the first time precise details of the bungled police investigation had been disclosed. Byford 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 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 Clarkes [sic] Trans. 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.
Birdsall visited Bradford police station the day after sending the letter to repeat his misgivings about Sutcliffe. He added that he was with Sutcliffe when he got out of a car to pursue a woman with whom he had had a bar room dispute 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.
Following his conviction and incarceration, Sutcliffe chose to use the name Coonan, his mother's maiden name. He began his sentence at HM Prison Parkhurst on 22 May 1981. Despite being found sane at his trial, Sutcliffe was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Attempts to send him to a secure psychiatric unit were blocked. While at Parkhurst he was seriously assaulted by James Costello, a 35-year-old career criminal with several convictions for violence. On 10 January 1983, he followed Sutcliffe into the recess of F2, the hospital wing at Parkhurst, and plunged a broken coffee jar twice into the left side of Sutcliffe's face, creating four wounds requiring thirty stitches. In March 1984, Sutcliffe was sent to Broadmoor Hospital, under Section 47 of the Mental Health Act 1983.
Sutcliffe's wife obtained a separation from him around 1989 and a divorce in July 1994. On 23 February 1996, he was attacked in his room in Broadmoor's Henley Ward. Paul Wilson, a convicted robber, asked to borrow a videotape before attempting to strangle Sutcliffe with the cable from a pair of stereo headphones. Two other convicted murderers, Kenneth Erskine and Jamie Devitt, intervened on hearing screams.
After an attack with a pen by fellow inmate Ian Kay on 10 March 1997, Sutcliffe lost the vision in his left eye, and his right eye was severely damaged. Kay admitted trying to kill Sutcliffe and was ordered to be detained in a secure mental hospital without limit of time. In 2003, it was reported that Sutcliffe had developed diabetes.
Sutcliffe's father died in 2004 and was cremated. On 17 January 2005, Sutcliffe was allowed to visit Grange-over-Sands where the ashes had been scattered. The decision to allow the temporary release was initiated by David Blunkett and ratified by Charles Clarke when he became Home Secretary. Sutcliffe was accompanied by four members of the hospital staff. The visit led to front-page tabloid headlines.
On 22 December 2007, Sutcliffe was attacked by fellow inmate Patrick Sureda, who lunged at him with a metal cutlery knife while shouting, "You fucking raping, murdering bastard, I'll blind your fucking other one!" Sutcliffe flung himself backwards and the blade missed his right eye, stabbing him in the cheek.
On 17 February 2009, it was reported that Sutcliffe was "fit to leave Broadmoor". On 23 March 2010, the Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw, was questioned by Julie Kirkbride, Conservative MP for Bromsgrove, in the House of Commons seeking reassurance for a constituent, a victim of Sutcliffe, that he would remain in prison. Straw responded that whilst the matter of Sutcliffe's release was a parole board matter, "that all the evidence that I have seen on this case, and it's a great deal, suggests to me that there are no circumstances in which this man will be released".
An application by Sutcliffe for a minimum term to be set, offering the possibility of parole after that date if it is thought safe to release him, was heard by the High Court of Justice on 16 July 2010. The High Court decided that Sutcliffe would never be released. Mr Justice Mitting stated:
This was a campaign of murder which terrorised the population of a large part of Yorkshire for several years. The only explanation for it, on the jury's verdict, was anger, hatred and obsession. Apart from a terrorist outrage, it is difficult to conceive of circumstances in which one man could account for so many victims.
Psychological reports describing Sutcliffe's mental state were taken into consideration, as was the severity of his crimes. Sutcliffe spent the rest of his life in custody. On 4 August 2010, a spokeswoman for the Judicial Communications Office confirmed that Sutcliffe had initiated an appeal against the decision. The hearing for Sutcliffe's appeal against the ruling began on 30 November 2010 at the Court of Appeal. The appeal was rejected on 14 January 2011. On 9 March 2011, the Court of Appeal rejected Sutcliffe's application for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court.
In December 2015, Sutcliffe was assessed as being "no longer mentally ill". In August 2016, a medical tribunal ruled that he no longer required clinical treatment for his mental condition, and could be returned to prison. Sutcliffe was reported to have been transferred from Broadmoor to HM Prison Frankland in Durham, County Durham, in August 2016.
In 2017, West Yorkshire Police launched Operation Painthall to determine if Sutcliffe was guilty of unsolved crimes dating back to 1964. This inquiry also looked at the killings of two sex workers in southern Sweden in 1980. As Sutcliffe was a lorry driver, it was theorised that he had been in Denmark and Sweden, making use of the ferry across the Oresund Strait. West Yorkshire Police later stated that they were "absolutely certain" that Sutcliffe had never been in Sweden.
Sutcliffe died in University Hospital of North Durham on 13 November 2020, aged 74, where it is rumoured he refused treatment for COVID-19 after having previously returned to HMP Frankland following treatment for a suspected heart attack at the same hospital two weeks prior. Sutcliffe also had a number of other underlying health problems.
This Is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, a British television crime drama miniseries, first shown on ITV from 26 January to 2 February 2000 is a dramatisation of the real-life investigation into the murders, showing the effect that it had on the health and career of Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield (Alun Armstrong). The series also starred Richard Ridings and James Laurenson as DSI Dick Holland and Chief Constable Ronald Gregory, respectively. Although broadcast over two weeks, two episodes were shown consecutively each week. The series was nominated for the British Academy Television Award for Best Drama Serial at the 2001 awards.
On 26 August 2016, the police investigation was the subject of BBC Radio 4's The Reunion. Sue MacGregor discussed the investigation with John Domaille, who later became assistant chief constable of West Yorkshire Police; Andy Laptew, who was a junior detective who interviewed Sutcliffe; Elaine Benson, who worked in the incident room and interviewed suspects; David Zackrisson, who investigated the "Wearside Jack" tape and letters in Sunderland; and Christa Ackroyd, a local journalist in Halifax.
A three part series of one hour episodes, The Yorkshire Ripper Files: A Very British Crime Story aired on BBC Four in March 2019. This included interviews with some of the victims, their family, police and journalists who covered the case by filmmaker Liza Williams. In the series she questions whether the attitude of both the police and society towards women prevented Sutcliffe from being caught sooner. On 31 July 2020, the series won the BAFTA prize for Specialist Factual TV programming.
A play written by Olivia Hirst and David Byrne, The Incident Room, premiered at Pleasance as part of the 2019 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The play focuses on the police force hunting the Sutcliffe. The play was produced by New Diorama. The third book (and second episodic television adaptation) in David Peace's Red Riding series is set against the backdrop of the Ripper investigation.
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