It was the start of the darkest chapter in Leeds’s history. A mum of four, murdered while her children slept. Her body, abandoned in playing fields yards from her home.
Wilma McCann was the Yorkshire Ripper’s first victim. Her death sparked a ripple of fear, which swelled to terror in the years that followed as 12 more women were murdered.
But for her young boy, five-year-old Richard McCann who had wandered the streets with his sister looking for Wilma when she didn’t come home, it was the start of a lifelong struggle. To come to terms with the loss of his mother, of the home he had known. Of neighbours’ sly glances and whispered words, of the torment of not knowing, and of always feeling inferior.
He has lived in the shadow of the Yorkshire Ripper all his life, and his sister Sonia took her own life at the age of 37. Now, as a 47-year-old father of three, he is determined to take strength from what he has been through. And, he says, while he will always carry the scars of a turbulent childhood, he has learned to face his fears.
“It’s always been a part of my life,” he said. “Even now, walking down the street, I feel different to everybody else. Even though we’re all made of the same stuff.
“It has left a scar. I’ve stopped trying to eradicate ‘this thing’. I’ve got a wound that will always be there. I’m OK with that. It’s about finding ways to cope and manage that.”
Mrs McCann was 28 when she was killed by Peter Sutcliffe on October 30, 1975, on playing fields close to the family’s council home in Scott Hall Avenue. Her two oldest children, Richard and seven-year-old Sonia, waking early to find her gone, had walked unseeing past her body as they went to look for her in the dark fog at 5.30am.
“We lost mum all those years ago,” said Mr McCann. “But it was a night and a morning that I will never forget. Being woken up by my sister, leaving the house.
“We walked down the field at the back, as mum had always told us to. It was really early morning, still dark. Had it been at this time of year, and light, our lives would have been absolutely obliterated.”
As it was, their lives were devastated. There was the glare of the world’s media, time in care, before being brought up by their hard-drinking and often violent father who, Mr McCann says, while he loved the children, struggled as a parent. It all took its toll.
“Because of mum dying, because of the way she died, and the media interest that came afterwards, I felt like I was the one that was damaged,” he said. “I felt inferior to everybody else. It really messed me up as a kid. I felt I was really looked down on, by neighbours, by society. Even in the media, the first woman that was killed was treated differently to some of the others. I heard neighbours, when others were killed, saying they deserved everything they got.
“It wasn’t the impact of mum’s death, or the case, that stayed with me. It was the impact of society, and how they looked down at these women, and at us.”
Mr McCann, in his own words, went off the rails. On leaving the Army, he started taking drugs and was sent to prison for drug dealing.
“I did it to put on a front, that I was OK, when I wasn’t,” he said. “It was a slippery slope. I didn’t anticipate what a hold it would take on me.
“Prison was a real shock to the system. But I knew I would get through it. I needed to get through it day by day. I wanted to sort myself out.”
It was public speaking that gave Mr McCann the voice, and the platform, to take back control. From prison, he had always been able to see the white tower at Leeds University, and on his release he enrolled, focusing his efforts on studying social policy.
He misses his father now, and talks about him every day with his own children. And he no longer feels anger towards Peter Sutcliffe, he says.
“I decided I had to let it go,” he said. “I’m the person that feels the anger - he doesn’t. Sonia and I once concocted a plan, to befriend him as a pen-pal. She was going to visit him, and kill him. That was in the early 90s.
“I used to hate it when the YEP put a picture of him on the front page. I no longer feel that way. I let it go.
“I was called a while ago by a national newspaper, because he’d had a heart attack. ‘How did I feel?’, they asked. I said I was sorry to hear that.
“He’s got a family that would be devastated if he passed away. I would still be sorry to hear it.”
Mr McCann’s life was changed when he was asked to give his first motivational speech. He has now given more than 2,000 talks, and runs iCan academy on motivational speaking. He is a bestselling author, and there is a now a movie in the making, Just a Boy. A screenplay has been written, loosely based on his books, and a producer has been appointed.
“I’m thrilled for this to happen,” he said. “It’s a good film - only about 15 per cent accurate - but it’s a great thing to be happening. It’s like the books, and when I speak, it impacts on people. It means my mum’s death wasn’t in vain.”
For Mr McCann, he says, facing his fears head on is how he deals with the dice he’s been thrown. And he’s determined to do what he can, with the right attitude, to challenge himself not to live in fear.
“People ask how I can speak openly, or write about what happened,” he said. “Nothing can be as bad as losing my mum to Peter Sutcliffe. What she went through inspires me. It puts it all in perspective.”
Challenged to do 44 motivational talks in one day, Richard McCann, who lives in Roundhay in Leeds, hosted a series of speeches at dozens of locations in the city last week, raising thousands for charity.
From the YEP offices to Leeds market, he delivered five minute speeches on his life and story and the inspiration he has found along the way. The event, on August 3, saw him racing around the city to visit dozens of sites.
So far he has raised £2,700 towards his £4,444 target for the Samaritans.