2 – The Yorkshire Ripper
If New York in 1977 was falling to pieces, then over the Atlantic in the United Kingdom, things weren’t going much better. The country was near paralyzed by strikes and the nation’s manufacturing industry was crumbling, while the civil war in the North of Ireland raged away in the background. When the Sex Pistols sang of “No Future”, there were many that agreed with that sentiment wholeheartedly. It was into this depressed and grey landscape that the Yorkshire Ripper strode.
There had been attacks in the lead up to 1977 that had acted as a precursor, and indeed, the culprit would not be captured until 1981, but it was 1977 that was the Ripper’s most active and in which he entered the public consciousness. The killer’s modus operandi was similar to the famed Jack the Ripper of Victorian London – hence the name – and he targeted the same section of society as well: he would attack women working as prostitutes and single women walking home alone and often brutalized them with knives. He would often strike from behind with a blunt object and then stab them repeatedly.
All of the attacks took place around West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester and the first death, in 1975, would be that of Wilma McCann in Leeds. She died in October, followed by Emily Jackson in January 1976, both hit over the head with a hammer and then stabbed. Another Leeds prostitute, Irene Richardson, was killed with a hammer in February 1977, then a Bradford sex worker, Tina Atkinson, was murdered in April. It was clear that a man was targeting sex workers in West Yorkshire, but the police were unable to produce a suspect.
It would be the next attack that launched one of the largest investigations in British history. Jayne MacDonald, a 16-year-old and, crucially, not a prostitute, was killed in the same area of Leeds as McCann and Richardson. The outcry was huge and thousands of statements were taken, but with no result. Another, non-fatal, attacked occurred in Bradford in July and then a Manchester prostitute, Jean Jordan, was murdered in October.
As 1978 came around, the Ripper would kill another three women, all sex workers, and another two in 1979 and 1980, all in the West Yorkshire area, before he was caught on January 2, 1981. Peter Sutcliffe was arrested with a prostitute in Sheffield on charges of driving with false number plates and later confessed to the crimes. He had been picked up in connection with the murder of Jean Jordan but discounted after providing an alibi. When he was arrested, it was discovered that he was wearing a V-neck sweated upside down with the sleeves along his legs and his genitals exposed through the neck – presumably to protect his legs as he leaned over his victims. Police later found a hammer, rope and a knife in the vicinity of where Sutcliffe had been arrested. The Ripper claimed that a grave had told him to kill prostitutes and that it was the voice of God.
The time that it took to catch the Ripper was a national scandal. West Yorkshire Police had interviewed Sutcliffe nine times, but often were unable to check their previous interviews due to poor storage of documents. They had also been distracted by a hoaxer that had made them suspect that the Ripper was from Sunderland, a city a hundred miles north of West Yorkshire. Sutcliffe was neglected in favour of the hoaxer, despite the forensic evidence indicating that he was a far better fit as a suspect. Peter Sutcliffe remains in prison to this day.