Few people cast a more baleful shadow over postwar Britain than Peter Sutcliffe, the “Yorkshire Ripper”, who has died aged 74. He killed and mutilated at least 13 women and attacked many others over a five-year period before being caught and jailed for life in 1981.
Sutcliffe escaped justice for so long owing to a mixture of bad luck and incompetent policing, with many early clues missed. A total of 40,000 interviews were conducted during the hunt, and Sutcliffe was interviewed at least five times by the police. But he lied his way out of trouble each time.
He was also helped by a hoaxer with a Sunderland accent who called himself “Wearside Jack” and who, in 1978, taunted the police on a tape recording, sending them off on the wrong track by telling them: “I’m Jack, I see you are still having no luck finding me.” This led the police to discount Sutcliffe as a suspect because he had a Yorkshire accent; he went on to kill a further three women. The hoaxer, an alcoholic called John Humble, was not tracked down until 2005, when he was jailed for eight years. He died last year.
Eventually one of Sutcliffe’s friends became so suspicious of him that he told the police he believed he was “the Ripper”. But the information was never followed up. Doris Stokes, a psychic, was even brought in to help the police, issuing a hopelessly inaccurate description of him. Sutcliffe was finally caught in January 1981, when he was found in a car with a woman in a red-light area in Sheffield and a routine police check showed that the number plates were stolen.
After his arrest and confession, he claimed he felt he was on a “divine mission” to eliminate sex workers and that “everything was in God’s hands”. He told his brother Carl: “I were just cleaning up the streets.”
Born in Bingley in West Yorkshire, the oldest of six children of John, a merchant seaman, and Kathleen (nee Coonan), Sutcliffe was a small child who was bullied at school. His father was disappointed that the young Peter took no interest in football or the outdoors, and it became something of a joke in the Sutcliffe house that he liked to spend more time in the bathroom than all the women in the family put together.
Leaving school at 15 in 1961 with no qualifications, his first job was as an apprentice fitter in Bingley. In 1964 he changed jobs and became a gravedigger, also working part-time at an undertaker’s. There he would open coffins and go through the belongings of the dead, stealing rings from some of them. He was a poor timekeeper and was eventually sacked, so he retrained to become a heavy-goods-vehicle driver and was employed by an engineering transport firm, a job that allowed him greater opportunities to travel around the local area.
His first proper girlfriend was Sonia Szurma, a trainee teacher, who was four years younger than him. They married in 1974, by which time Sutcliffe had already become obsessed with Bradford’s red-light district and its sex workers. He claimed that one had run off with £5 he had given her before they had sex and, to extract his revenge, he carried out his first attack on another sex worker, striking her on the back of the head with a stone hidden in a sock. Although he was identified, no charge was brought as the woman did not want to pursue the case.
He would regularly cruise through the area making disparaging remarks about the women who offered their services.
By 1975, Sutcliffe’s attacks were becoming even more violent and frequent, and on 30 October Wilma McCann became his first murder victim, in Chapeltown, Leeds. He went on to kill at least another dozen women, striking them on the head with a hammer and then stabbing them with a knife or screwdriver, inflicting terrible injuries.
While many of his early victims were sex workers, in 1977 Jayne MacDonald was described by police as his first “innocent” victim, provoking widespread anger. It became clear that Sutcliffe made little distinction as to whom he targeted as long as she was a woman; sex workers were just the easiest targets because they would willingly get into his car. The attacks and the failure to catch the killer created an atmosphere of fear and dismay throughout Yorkshire, and provoked grim taunts to the police at Leeds United football matches such as “Ripper 10, Police nil” as the number of his victims mounted.
When he was finally arrested, Sutcliffe hoped that by claiming to be deranged he would be convicted of manslaughter rather than murder, and therefore sent to hospital and perhaps released after 10 years. But the Old Bailey jury did not accept his claims and he was convicted of 13 murders and seven attempted murders by a 10-2 majority verdict. He was sentenced to 20 life sentences with a recommendation that he serve a minimum of 30 years.
In 1984 he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and transferred to Broadmoor secure hospital. There, for some years, he could often be seen in the visiting room still wearing the double-breasted velvet suit in which he used to go drinking in Yorkshire pubs. One fellow inmate, Ron Kray, would instruct Sutcliffe to move away from the vicinity if Kray was being visited by a woman.
In 2009, the high court ruled that Sutcliffe should never be released, and the decision was confirmed by the court of appeal the following year. He was refused permission to challenge that judgment in the supreme court.
In Broadmoor, Sutcliffe was a keen reader, showed an interest in ceramics, and was befriended by visiting Jehovah’s Witnesses, who claimed he had become remorseful. He was beaten on a number of occasions by other inmates, with one attack leading to the loss of sight in his right eye.
Various tales of his life inside, some true, some fictional, emerged. The hoaxer Rocky Ryan persuaded the Sun to run a bogus story in 1986 that Sutcliffe was permitted to attend barn dances, discos and bingo sessions outside Broadmoor, but it was true that he was allowed out on an escorted visit to see where his father’s ashes were scattered in the Lake District.
In 2015, grey-bearded and overweight, Sutcliffe was escorted to a hospital for treatment for his failing sight. The following year, having been deemed mentally fit to return to the prison system, he was transferred to Frankland prison in County Durham. Already suffering from diabetes, when he became ill in late October he was treated at the University Hospital of North Durham and later diagnosed with Covid-19.
Sutcliffe and Sonia were divorced in 1994, 13 years after his conviction. He is survived by two brothers and two sisters.
• Peter Sutcliffe, serial killer, born 2 June 1946; died 13 November 2020