The pain lives on: Ripper’s final victims
The children of the women murdered by Peter Sutcliffe still live with the consequences of his evil deeds, 25 years after he was jailed. Malcolm Macalister Hall hears how they cope
Peter Sutcliffe has just celebrated his 60th birthday. How he marked the occasion in Broadmoor secure hospital is unknown. The NHS never gives out information about patients detained there. The most infamous British serial killer of modern times, he has spent most of his time in Broadmoor since being given 20 life sentences in 1981 for murdering 13 women and attempting to murder seven more. But the full extent of his crimes is a secret known only to himself
Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Home Office has now released a 1981 report into the Yorkshire Ripper investigation. “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,” noted the report’s author, former inspector of constabulary Sir Lawrence Byford.
The judge recommended that Sutcliffe should serve at least 30 years. He has now served 25, first in Parkhurst, and, since 1984, in Broadmoor. There, fellow inmates have slashed his face, attempted to strangle him, and stabbed him in the eyes with a pen. He is now partially blind.
The Yorkshire Ripper still exerts a terrible hold. In the quarter-century of his incarceration, the flow of books and television programmes has never stopped.
Richard McCann is used to all this now. He was one week short of his sixth birthday when his mother, Wilma, was murdered by Sutcliffe. After a night in the pubs and clubs of the Chapeltown area of Leeds on 29 October 1975, she unsteadily tried to thumb a lift home at around 1am. Sutcliffe pulled up in his lime green Ford Capri GT.
Later that day her body was found 100 yards from her home. She had been hit twice on the head with a hammer, and stabbed 14 times in the chest and abdomen. She was the first known murder victim of the man to become known as the Yorkshire Ripper.
As one of the often overlooked victims of Sutcliffe – the children of his victims – Mr McCann says that having his mother’s killer back on the front pages is something he simply has to live with.
“I don’t like to see his picture in the paper. It’s just a reminder of ‘that’s the man that took my Mum’s life’,” says Mr McCann, now studying social policy at Leeds University, and the author of two acclaimed books recounting his struggle to overcome the tragedy.
Sutcliffe had attacked at least two women already that year. And for the next five years, in a succession of cars, he scoured the red-light districts and back streets of Leeds, Bradford, Halifax, Huddersfield and Manchester searching for victims, all the while appearing to live a quiet and blameless married life in Heaton, Bradford, and working as a lorry driver. He almost always used the same terrible methods to attack his victims as those he used on Wilma McCann.
He would later tell police that “voices from God” had told him to rid the streets of women he believed were prostitutes. His hatred seemed to stem from his inability to have sex with the women he picked up – and, perhaps even more, from an early incident when a woman who asked him for £5 for sex cheated him out of the change from the £10 note he had given her. She then humiliated him by joking with others about his sexual inadequacy.
As he carried out ever more murders, West Yorkshire Police struggled, in the days before computerisation, to control the colossal card index system generated by the biggest manhunt in British history. Nearly a quarter of a million people were spoken to; 31,000 statements taken; 34,000 house-to-house inquiries made; 5.4 million vehicles logged in red-light areas all across the region; and 158,000 cars checked. But, as the recently released report into the Ripper case shows, the investigation was overwhelmed by the information it generated.
Sutcliffe was interviewed nine times by police. Officers were often unaware that he had already been interviewed, and even logged as suspicious, by colleagues. He was discounted because he didn’t have the Geordie accent, or the handwriting, of the notorious “Wearside Jack”, recently identified by a DNA match on a scrap of envelope as John Humble, a jobless alcoholic jailed for eight years in March this year for his hoax letters and taped message.
Thorough, standard police work finally trapped Sutcliffe. On 2 January 1981, two Sheffield patrol officers saw a Rover parked in a secluded drive. In this red-light area of the city, they guessed why it was there. Sutcliffe was in the car with a woman to whom he had paid £10 for what had proved to be a futile attempt at sex. He gave the name Peter Williams to the policemen, and then made an uncharacteristic mistake. He said the woman was his girlfriend, but didn’t know her name.
The officers found the car’s plates were false. Before being taken to the police station for their theft, Sutcliffe, “bursting for a pee”, walked out of sight and hid his hammer and knife among some leaves. During questioning the following day, Sutcliffe appeared at one point likely to be released, as usual. But after Ripper Squad detectives asked to see him, and suspicion grew, one of the arresting officers returned to the scene. Concealed among the leaves, he found the hammer and the knife. Britain’s biggest manhunt was over.
Last summer, at Richard McCann’s instigation, a group of five people whose mothers had been victims of Sutcliffe met for the first time. He says that it has taken so long for any such meeting to take place mainly because of the stigma surrounding the murders, arising mostly from the fact that so many of Sutcliffe’s victims were bluntly described by police and the media as prostitutes.
“People are really ashamed of the way that their mothers have been portrayed, and how Sutcliffe claimed he was ‘clearing the streets of prostitutes’. The press didn’t really take much notice until the murder of Jayne McDonald [a 16-year-old shop assistant, killed by Sutcliffe in 1977].”
McCann says the meeting last summer has now developed into an informal support network, conducted over telephone calls, emails, cups of coffee. The encounters, he adds, have been anything but traumatic. “They’ve been great; in fact, at them, we’ve laughed,” he says. “After all these years, there’s something very special about sitting down and just being yourself, where you know that the other person understands just how it’s affected you.”
He doesn’t believe Sutcliffe will ever be released. “If he were, we would be in uproar. He’s up for parole in five years, but one of the things I understand is that people have to show remorse.
“I wrote to Peter Sutcliffe last year. It wasn’t a bitter letter: it was just explaining who I was and asking him whether or not he could explain his actions, and giving him some opportunity to show remorse because I could have taken some comfort from that. I sent him a copy of my book to show him what he’d done, hopefully trying to trigger something. I’ve not heard from him. I’ve had nothing back.”