Three decades ago a West Yorkshire lorry driver who killed 13 women and tried to murder seven others in a five-year terror campaign was given a life sentence at the Old Bailey.
Crime Reporter Bruce Smith recalls his days reporting on the Yorkshire Ripper’s crimes and the ensuing police manhunt.
No detective, let alone a reporter, could have predicted a single murder in the 1970s would herald one of the most infamous and long-lasting series of sadistic killings Britain has endured.
Nor could anyone have envisaged the fear engendered in northern women and their families by the man this newspaper first dubbed the “Leeds Jack the Ripper Killer”, or that he would remain free so long.
Over 36 years the murderous onslaught and afterlife of Peter Sutcliffe has filled miles of newsprint, numerous books, days of television and secured one of the most dubious places in criminal history.
But the vital statistics are human – the women he brutally murdered and the seven he failed to kill. Their lives and those of thousands of others, including dozens of children and hundreds of relatives and friends, were marred forever by his legacy.
He struck in a time unacquainted with serial killers. It was an era when police systems were incapable of interrogating masses of information. He chose strangers as victims and police inquiries were diverted by the tape and letter hoax confessions of so-called “Wearside Jack” John Humble.
Other unconnected murders and some non-fatal attacks by Sutcliffe also muddied the investigators’ view.
The truth is Sutcliffe was simply very lucky not to be caught in the act or identified through other links
I, like other reporters and photographers who covered Sutcliffe’s devastating crimes, carry a mental kaleidoscope of moments and words frozen in time.
We recall early mornings on parkland with bodies partially draped in tarpaulins, bodies in taped-off darkened back alleys where detectives huddled against chilly winter and autumn winds. We remember the sight of Task Force officers on all fours doing fingertip searches .
Sutcliffe already had two attempted killings in Keighley and Halifax under his belt by the date of my first memory snapshot – October 31 1975.
I see Prince Philip Playing Fields, Scott Hall, Leeds and, through the morning mist, a policeman erecting a screen around a partially-clothed young woman’s body – Sutcliffe’s first murder victim.
Prostitute and mother-of-four Wilma McCann, 28, has just been found brutally stabbed and mutilated 150 yards from her home in Scott Hall Avenue and a police photographer with tripod is making ready to photograph the body.
My second snapshot comes ten hours later outside a terrace house in East End Park, Leeds, the home of the father of Wilma’s children, waiting to find out her youngsters’ future. That morning Wilma’s elder son and daughter, aged six and seven, had gone looking for Wilma when she failed to return.
They had spotted the “bundle” on the fields not realising it was their mother and waited instead at a bus stop. After ten buses they went home.
Another morning 11 weeks later, I gazed towards a cordoned off grimy alley of Manor Street, Sheepscar, Leeds, where the body of another prostitute – 42-year-old Emily Jackson – had been found. She too had been brutally stabbed. It seemed a sickening end and a tawdry place in which to meet it.
Mrs Jackson, from Churwell, Morley, normally left her blue van in the Gaiety pub car park on Roundhay Road before soliciting men, and was last seen in nearby Spencer Place. Soon Leeds CID boss, Det Chief Supt Denis Hoban, linked both killings and the “girls” were warned off the streets and urged to come forward.
Police released an artist’s impression of a suspect not dissimilar to Sutcliffe – moustache but no beard – and ten days later information appeal posters featuring the victim were everywhere.
A year passed during which Sutcliffe stabbed and left for dead a 20-year-old Leeds woman – who survived – before February 7 1977 dawned and again reporters gazed across playing fields towards a covered body.
This victim was another 28-year-old, mother of two. She was called Irene Richardson and was a former chambermaid and would-be nanny. She was found stabbed and with her throat cut on Roundhay Park’s Soldiers’ Field.
Within hours I was knocking on doors at a Victorian mansion house converted into flats in Cowper Street, Chapeltown, where she had lived. It was a bright sunny morning as I asked questions alongside police making house-to-house inquiries. It was not a salubrious address, the bedsits were rundown and many tenants lived anonymous lives, but others knew Irene and were shocked to learn the latest body was their neighbour’s. Irene was estranged from her husband George in Blackpool who denied she was a prostitute. This time Mr Hoban’s successor DCS Jim Hobson led the inquiry.
A Saturday 11 weeks later – April 25 1977 – saw me at another downmarket converted house, this time on Oak Avenue, Manningham, in Bradford’s red-light district. A prostitute, Patricia Atkinson, 33, had just been found battered in her bedsit and another top police officer, Det Chief Supt John Domaille, was hunting her killer.
This was the pattern. New victims, frequently not prostitutes, and new detectives and their squads, hunting the same killer.
A call on a sunny Sunday nine weeks later – June 26 1977 – sent me back to Chapeltown where 16-year-old supermarket worker Jayne Michelle McDonald had been found bludgeoned to death in a children’s adventure playground off Reginald Terrace – grabbed on her way home to Scott Hall Avenue after a night out with friends.
At a press conference the man then in overall charge of the Ripper Inquiry, Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield, revealed his mounting frustration. When replying to a tricky question, he asked the reporter: “What is about me you don’t like?”. Some considerable time later I stood in Harehills Cemetery in Leeds and watched as her devastated family laid their beloved Jayne to rest. Two years later her heartbroken father Wilf joined her.
There were so many shocking moments and images. I recall watching spellbound faces in a working men’s’ club as the so-called “Ripper Tape” was played by police to drinkers during the ill-fated £1m publicity campaign mounted by a local agency to help police put a name to the voice.
There was the darkened timberyard in industrial Great Northern Street, Huddersfield where a prostitute and twin Helen Rytka was found naked and the face of building society clerk Josephine Whitaker, 19, – Sutcliffe’s 11th victim – just visible from beneath the sheet covering her body where it lay on Saville Park,Halifax, on April 5 1979.
After a tip about a body found in Bradford late on September 4 1979, I remember calling a police press officer to ask whether we had “another Ripper victim” and him discreetly replying: “Well, I can’t tell you to go home”. It was the 12th victim, talented student Barbara Leach found in a back garden on Ash Grove near a popular student pub.
There was the shocking picture we would never use taken of the face of the Ripper’s final victim, Leeds University student Jacqueline Hill, 20, found on waste land behind Headingley’s Arndale Centre on November 19 1980.
There was a lengthy period early in the run of murders and assaults when police did not openly link the crimes. When, with the murder of teenager Jayne MacDonald, George Oldfield finally did publicly acknowledge her killer was probably responsible for other murders, it inevitably heightened the pressure to catch the killer.
Various specialist detective groups were formed, including the team immediately dubbed the Ripper Squad in 1978.
The Squad evolved over three years as the murders mounted and public and Home Office pressure grew to catch the Ripper. That pressure took its toll on officers of all ranks and their families. In particular the impact on Mr Oldfield, whose almost duel-like stance towards the mocking “I’m Jack” tape – not yet unmasked as a hoax – was marked by his heart attack in August 1979 and ultimate replacement by Acting Assistant Chief Constable, Jim Hobson, following the final killing of Jacqueline Hill in November 1980.
Rewards were offered, including one by this newspaper, but all to no avail.
By then the eyes of the world’s media were focused on West Yorkshire and writers from across the globe attended press conferences alongside British regional and national press.
Though perhaps inconceivable to today’s young people, ordinary women and young girls were frightened to go out alone and prostitutes made it a duty to keep a watchful eye on colleagues, checking punters’ faces and recording registration plates.
I remember hearing of a breakthrough, arguably the best chance to catch the killer. A traceable £5 note had been found with Jean Royle’s body and checks were launched to find others from the same bank wads which had been distributed in payrolls.
Sutcliffe was interviewed, but his alibis once again helped him escape detection.
As the years passed and detective work failed to identify the killer, reporters including myself speculated the Ripper would be unmasked in some innocent spot-check and, though not innocent, so it proved.
When PCs Robert Ring and Bob Hydes moved in on prostitute Olivia Reivers as she sat inside Sutcliffe’s car on Sheffield’s tree-lined Melbourne Avenue on the evening of January 2 1981 they were simply anticipating a vice arrest and saw her punter merely as a witness for the prosecution – not Britain’s most wanted man.