Police offer 'heartfelt apology' to families of Peter Sutcliffe victims

West Yorkshire chief constable apologises for failings in serial killer investigation

Composite picture of 12 of the 13 victims of Peter Sutcliffe. Top row (left to right): Wilma McCann, Emily Jackson, Irene Richardson, Patricia Atkinson, Jayne McDonald and Jean Jordan. Bottom row: Yvonne Pearson, Helen Rytka, Vera Millward, Josephine Whitaker, Barbara Leach and Jacqueline Hill. PA photo.
Composite picture of 12 of the 13 victims of Peter Sutcliffe. Top row (left to right): Wilma McCann, Emily Jackson, Irene Richardson, Patricia Atkinson, Jayne McDonald and Jean Jordan. Bottom row: Yvonne Pearson, Helen Rytka, Vera Millward, Josephine Whitaker, Barbara Leach and Jacqueline Hill. PA photo. Photograph: PA
Composite picture of 12 of the 13 victims of Peter Sutcliffe. Top row (left to right): Wilma McCann, Emily Jackson, Irene Richardson, Patricia Atkinson, Jayne McDonald and Jean Jordan. Bottom row: Yvonne Pearson, Helen Rytka, Vera Millward, Josephine Whitaker, Barbara Leach and Jacqueline Hill. PA photo. Photograph: PA

Last modified on Fri 13 Nov 2020 23.36 EST

West Yorkshire police has offered a “heartfelt apology” to the surviving victims and families of Peter Sutcliffe, the serial killer known as the Yorkshire Ripper, who has died.

Sutcliffe, once one of the most feared criminals in the country, died aged 74 after reportedly refusing treatment for coronavirus. His killing rampage across Yorkshire and Manchester from 1975 to 1980 terrified northern England and sparked a huge manhunt and a botched police inquiry.

John Robins, the chief constable of West Yorkshire police, apologised on Friday for failings and mistakes in the investigation, during which Sutcliffe was spoken to nine times by the police in the years before his eventual arrest.

Robins also apologised for the “additional distress and anxiety caused to all relatives by the language, tone and terminology used by senior officers at the time in relation to Peter Sutcliffe’s victims.”

He said: “Such language and attitudes may have reflected wider societal attitudes of the day, but it was as wrong then as it is now.”

Detectives leading the investigation repeatedly disparaged the sex workers killed by Sutcliffe, differentiating between them and the “innocent women” he murdered.

Richard McCann, whose mother Wilma was Sutcliffe’s first known victim in 1975, was one of a number of surviving relatives who had been waiting for an apology.

He said that when 16-year-old Jayne MacDonald was killed in 1977, officers referred to her as the first “innocent” victim.

Peter Sutcliffe
Peter Sutcliffe died on Friday aged 74 after reportedly refusing treatment for coronavirus. Photograph: Andrew Varley/Rex/Shutterstock

McCann said he wanted the force to apologise “once and for all”, telling Sky News: “My mum was completely innocent and deserved to live.”

Sutcliffe, 74, was serving 20 life terms at Frankland prison in County Durham for murdering 13 women and attempting to kill seven more in the late 1970s.

It is understood Sutcliffe died on Friday at University hospital of North Durham, three miles from the prison, after being sent there with Covid-19. He was in ill-health, was obese and had diabetes, but reportedly refused treatment.

His admission to the hospital came two weeks after he had been treated there for a suspected heart attack.

Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said it was “right” that Sutcliffe had died behind bars. He said: “The prime minister’s thoughts today are with those who lost their lives, the survivors and with the families and the friends of Sutcliffe’s victims.”

Sutcliffe used hammers and screwdrivers to murder his victims, targeting women from all walks of life – the youngest was 16, the oldest 42 – sparking a reign of terror that meant no woman in the region felt safe. In some areas, police warned women not to go out alone at night.

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.

Marguerite Walls, the 12th murder victim of Peter Sutcliffe
Marguerite Walls, the 12th murder victim of Peter Sutcliffe. Photograph: PA

Despite the 2.5m police hours expended on catching Sutcliffe, a mishandled investigation meant he remained at large for six years. He was interviewed – and released – nine times in connection with the killings, with officers repeatedly missing clues that could have led to an earlier conviction.

In a statement on Friday, Robins said: “A huge number of officers worked to identify and bring Peter Sutcliffe to justice and it is a shame that their hard work was overshadowed by the language of senior officers used at the time, the effect of which is still felt today by surviving relatives.

“Thankfully those attitudes are consigned to history and our approach today is wholly victim focused, putting them at the centre of everything we do … I offer this heartfelt apology today as the chief constable of West Yorkshire police.”

During Sutcliffe’s 1981 trial at the Old Bailey, Sir Michael Havers, the attorney general who was prosecuting, said of the victims: “Some were prostitutes, but perhaps the saddest part of the case is that some were not. The last six attacks were on totally respectable women.”

In 1976, Marcella Claxton, 20, was hit over the head with a hammer near her home in Leeds; she survived and produced an accurate photofit but was discounted as a Ripper victim because police said she must have been attacked by a black man, according to the English Collective of Prostitutes. Police overlooked that Sutcliffe had been arrested in 1969 for carrying a hammer in a red light district, and an anonymous letter sent by his friend Trevor Birdsall to try to expose him.

For a significant period, George Oldfield, West Yorkshire police’s assistant chief constable, was put off the track by a tape purporting to be from the killer that later turned out to be a hoax.

At his Old Bailey trial, Sutcliffe said: “It was just a miracle they did not apprehend me earlier – they had all the facts.”

Eventually, in January 1981, Sutcliffe was stopped with a sex worker. When officers found screwdrivers in the glove compartment of his vehicle, others went back to the scene of the arrest and found a hammer and knife 15 metres (50ft) from where the vehicle had been.

As the net closed, Sutcliffe unexpectedly confessed, and calmly told Det Insp John Boyle: “It’s all right, I know what you’re leading up to. The Yorkshire Ripper. It’s me. I killed all those women.”