Cats supposedly have nine lives, as the phrase goes, and so too did Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, who died in November last year from COVID aged 74, whilst serving 20 life terms at Frankland prison in County Durham.
I’ve just finishing watching the excellent four-part Netflix documentary ‘The Ripper’ which examines the series of horrifying murders committed by Sutcliffe, and the bungled attempts by the West Yorkshire police to capture him.
Incredibly, Sutcliffe, a married lorry driver from Bradford, was interviewed nine times by detectives, after his name came up in various lines of inquiry as a possible suspect. However, he was let go each time, despite some lower-ranking detectives and police officers reporting their suspicions.
So often did police show up at his place of work to question him, that Sutcliffe earned the nickname ‘The Ripper’ among his truck-driving colleagues at Clark Transport – an irony, that would have seemed unbelievable were it included in the plotline of a crime novel.
As explained by Joan Smith, one of the few female journalists to report on the case, the all male senior detectives leading the investigation, blinded by their own sexist attitudes and sucked in by a hoax audio tape, dismissed Sutcliffe because he was recently married, had the wrong accent to the Geordie accent on the hoax tape and did not fit the supposed picture of a modern day Jack The Ripper maniac hunting down and slaying prostitutes.
As a result police also neglected to investigate other attacks on young woman at the time because they were not prostitutes or women of “loose morals”, and who because they survived these assaults, could have provided valuable information about their attacker and led to Sutcliffe’s capture many years earlier, saving the lives of many who later crossed his path.
Recalled retired West Yorkshire detective Andrew Laptew, one of the “stars” of the documentary with quiet fury: “I got the report typed up [about boots belonging to Sutcliffe that appeared to match footprints left at one of the crime scenes] and explained all the things that were bugging me. And the most startling thing was the Marilyn Moore photofit [based on an accurate description by Marilyn Moore who survived an attack by Sutcliffe]. It was a dead ringer for him
“Is he a Georgie,” Laptew was asked by his superior officer. “I said no. He’s from Bradford. But it’s an uncanny resemblance.
“Does he have a Geordie accent [to match the one on the audio tape]? I said no. He started effing and geffing. He said anyone who mentions effing photofits to me again will be doing traffic for the rest of their service.”
In the end it was only by sheer luck – Sutcliffe was arrested in January 1981 because he was driving a car that did not match its number plate – that led to his capture, confession and life imprisonment.
As with so many great true crime documentaries created by the streaming giants – ‘The Ripper’ was commissioned by Netflix – it takes viewers back in time through grainy, archival footage to Leeds, Manchester and Bradford of the mid-1970s where unemployment was rising as the great big factories were shut down, and as Margaret Thatcher became the first female British prime minister.
This footage is contrasted with crisp, present day interviews of families of victims, the now grey haired detectives who were on The Ripper taskforce and journalists like Joan Smith, as they look back on those terrible times, when an unknown killer terrorised the streets.
I found it compulsive viewing, so fascinating, seeing how a serial killer investigation back then relied on thousands of hand written index cards – so many in fact that the floor of the taskforce headquarters had to be reinforced to prevent it from collapsing – to create a database of suspects and evidence.
And yet for all the information gathering, and the many clues that should have pointed the way to a much earlier solving of the mystery, it was the bungling alpha male chief inspectors and their bureaucratic overlords, who made the key wrong assumptions about the case, that had the Ripper laughing in their faces for many years.
John Humble, who sent police the hoax letters claiming to be the Ripper (Humble mimicked phrases used in letters supposedly written to police in the 1880s by Jack the Ripper) and an infamous hoax audio tape was unmasked in 2005 and jailed in 2006 for perverting the course of justice.
“I remember listening to it and being incredibly puzzled because there was nothing on the tape that actually suggested it was genuine,” said Smith in November 2020, when Peter Sutcliffe died.
Julie Bindel, a feminist campaigner who was 18 and living in Leeds when Sutcliffe killed his 13th and final victim- Jacqueline Hill, a 20-year-old student – recalled how police denigrated the victims, some of whom were prostitutes, as being “fair game” despite many of them only doing what they did to support their families.
Bindel told The Guardian last year she remembered George Oldfield, who led the investigation, addressed the murderer on TV in 1979 saying: “There may be more pawns in this war before I catch you, but I will catch you.”
“That’s what women were to these detectives, said Bindel: disposable pawns.
But, says Smith, the Ripper investigation did force woman, who felt unsafe, to realise it was up to them to look after themselves, “because the police weren’t actually going to do it for us”.
“That was the beginning of women pushing back and say, No. Why shouldn’t we walk around at night at 2am without worrying that someone will attack us? So I think it changed women’s perception of how we live in this culture and it had a incredible radicalising effect on a whole generation of women.” Smith says.
The 13 women Sutcliffe was convicted of murdering were:
Wilma McCann, 28, from Chapeltown, Leeds, who was killed in October 1975.
Emily Jackson, 42, from Morley, Leeds. Killed on 20 January 1976.
Irene Richardson, 28, from Chapeltown, Leeds. Killed on 6 February 1977.
Patricia Atkinson, 32, from Manningham, Bradford. Killed on 24 April 1977.
Jayne MacDonald, 16, from Leeds. Killed on 26 June 1977.
Jean Jordan, 21, from Manchester, who died between 30 September and 11 October 1977.
Yvonne Pearson, 22, from Bradford. Killed between 20 January and 26 March 1978.
Helen Rytka, 18, from Huddersfield. Killed on 31 January 1978.
Vera Millward, 40, from Manchester. Killed on 16 May 1978.
Josephine Whitaker, 19, from Halifax. Killed on 4 April 1979.
Barbara Leach, 20. Killed while walking in Bradford on 1 September 1979.
Marguerite Walls, 47, from Leeds. Killed on 20 August 1980.
Jacqueline Hill, 20. Killed at Headingley on 16 November 1980.