Peter William Sutcliffe is an English serial killer who was dubbed the “Yorkshire Ripper” by the press. In 1981, Sutcliffe was convicted of murdering 13 women and attempting to murder seven others.
Sutcliffe was born 2 June 1946 in Bingley in the West Riding of Yorkshire to a working-class family, He was born prematurely and doctors were unsure of his survival at first. He was given a Catholic upbringing by his parents, John William Sutcliffe and his wife Kathleen Frances (née Coonan) His father was a known alcoholic and despite being a staunch Catholic, he did not respect his wife. The oldest of six children, Peter loved his mother. However, he could not take a stand for her, as he was afraid of getting beaten up by the father.
It is said that he preferred to be alone, in order to save himself from the bullying that he faced throughout his school years. He never discussed his issues with his parents, or with the few friends that he had. This turned him into a shy loner. He did not continue his education after the age of 15. Reportedly a loner, he left school aged fifteen and had a series of menial jobs, including two stints as a gravedigger in the 1960s. Whilst working at the Bingley Cemetery he apparently showed immense passion for the job. It is said he enjoyed watching the corpses and even worked extra hours. He would later get excited while telling his friends about how he had the best job in the world and how much he enjoyed the sight of the corpses.
Between November 1971 and April 1973, Sutcliffe worked at the Baird Television factory on a packaging line. He left when he was asked to go on the road as a salesman. In 1970, his father accused his wife of cheating on him and insulted her in front of the entire family. This particular incident had a very serious impact on Peter’s psyche. He had always thought of his mother as the perfect woman, and this event made him believe that all women cheat.
After leaving Baird Television, he worked nightshifts at the Britannia Works of Anderton International from April 1973. In February 1975, he took redundancy and used the pay-off to train as a heavy goods vehicle (HGV) driver and qualified on 4 June 1975. He began work as a driver for a tyre firm on 29 September. On 5 March 1976, he was dismissed for the theft of used tyres. He was unemployed until October 1976, when he found a job as an HGV driver for T.& W.H. Clark (Holdings) Ltd. on the Canal Road Industrial Estate in Bradford.
Sutcliffe, by some reports, used prostitutes as a young man, and it has been speculated that he had a bad experience during which he was conned out of money. Other analyses of his actions have not found evidence that he actually sought their services although he clearly expressed unusual behaviour before the killings.
He met Sonia Szurma on 14 February 1967; they married on 10 August 1974. She suffered several miscarriages and they were informed that she would not be able to have children. She resumed a teacher training course, during which time she had an affair with an ice-cream van driver. When she completed the course in 1977 and began teaching, she and Sutcliffe used her salary to buy a house in Heaton, Bradford, which they moved into on 26 September 1977, and where they lived at the time of Sutcliffe’s arrest.
Through his childhood and his early adolescence, Sutcliffe showed no signs of abnormality. Later, in part related to his occupation as a gravedigger, he developed an unhealthy, macabre sense of humour. In his late adolescence, he developed a growing obsession with voyeurism and spent much time spying on prostitutes and the men seeking their services.
Sutcliffe assaulted a prostitute he had met whilst searching for a woman who had tricked him out of money. He left his friend’s minivan and walked up St Paul’s Road in Bradford until he was out of sight. When he returned, he was out of breath, as if he had been running. He told his friend Trevor Birdsall to drive off quickly. Sutcliffe said he had followed a prostitute into a garage and hit her over the head with a stone in a sock. According to his statement, Sutcliffe said, “I got out of the car, went across the road and hit her. The force of the impact tore the toe off the sock and whatever was in it came out. I went back to the car and got in it”.
Police visited his home the next day, as the woman he had attacked had noted Birdsall’s vehicle registration plate. Sutcliffe admitted he had hit her, but claimed it was with his hand. The police told him he was “very lucky” as the woman did not want anything more to do with the incident – she was a known prostitute, and her husband was serving a jail term for assault. Sutcliffe committed his second assault on the night of 5 July 1975 in Keighley. He attacked Anna Rogulskyj, who was walking alone, striking her unconscious with a ball-pein hammer and slashing her stomach with a knife. Disturbed by a neighbour, he left without killing her. Rogulskyj survived after extensive medical intervention but was psychologically traumatised by the attack.
Sutcliffe attacked Olive Smelt in Halifax in August. Employing the same modus operandi, he struck her from behind and used a knife to slash her, this time above her buttocks. Again he was interrupted, and left his victim badly injured but alive. Like Rogulskyj, Smelt suffered emotional scars, including clinical depression. On 27 August, Sutcliffe attacked 14-year-old Tracy Browne in Silsden. He struck her from behind and hit her on the head five times while she was walking along a country lane. He ran off when he saw the lights of a passing car, leaving his victim requiring brain surgery. Sutcliffe was not convicted of the attack, but confessed to it in 1992.
The first victim to lose her life in a Sutcliffe attack was Wilma McCann on 30 October. McCann, from Chapeltown in Leeds, was a mother of four. Sutcliffe struck her twice with a hammer before stabbing her 15 times in the neck, chest and abdomen. An extensive inquiry, involving 150 police officers and 11,000 interviews, failed to find the culprit. One of McCann’s daughters died by suicide in December 2007, reportedly after suffering years of depression over her mother’s death.
Sutcliffe committed his next murder in Leeds in January 1976, when he stabbed 42-year-old Emily Jackson 52 times. In dire financial straits, Jackson had been using the family van to exchange sexual favours for money. Sutcliffe picked up Jackson who was soliciting outside the Gaiety pub on Roundhay Road, he then drove about half a mile to some derelict buildings on Enfield Terrace in the Manor Industrial Estate. Sutcliffe hit her on the head with a hammer, and then dragged her body into a rubbish strewn yard and used a sharpened screwdriver to stab her in the neck, chest and abdomen. Sutcliffe stamped on her thigh, leaving behind an impression of his boot.
Sutcliffe attacked 20-year-old Marcella Claxton in Roundhay Park, Leeds, on 9 May. Walking home from a party, she accepted an offer of a lift from Sutcliffe. When she got out of the car to urinate, Sutcliffe hit her from behind with a hammer. She was left alive and testified against Sutcliffe at his trial. At the time of this attack, Claxton had been four months pregnant, and subsequently suffered a miscarriage. On 5 February Sutcliffe attacked Irene Richardson, a Chapeltown prostitute, in Roundhay Park. Richardson was bludgeoned to death with a hammer. Once she was dead, he mutilated her corpse with a knife. Tyre tracks left near the murder scene resulted in a long list of possible suspect vehicles.
Two months later, on 23 April, Sutcliffe killed Patricia “Tina” Atkinson, a prostitute from Bradford, in her flat, where police found a bootprint on the bedclothes. Two months later on 26 June, he murdered 16-year-old Jayne MacDonald in Chapeltown. She was not a prostitute and, in the public perception, showed that all women were potential victims. Sutcliffe seriously assaulted Maureen Long in Bradford in July. He was interrupted and left her for dead. A witness misidentified the make of his car. More than 300 police officers collected 12,500 statements and checked thousands of cars, without success. On 1 October 1977 Sutcliffe murdered Jean Jordan, a prostitute from Manchester. Her body was found 10 days later and had been moved several days after her death. In a confession, Sutcliffe said he had realised the new £5 note he had given her was traceable. After hosting a family party at his new home, he returned to the wasteland behind Manchester’s Southern Cemetery, where he had left the body, to retrieve the note. Unable to find it, he mutilated Jordan’s corpse and moved it.
The following morning, Jordan’s body was discovered by a local dairy worker, Bruce Jones, who had an allotment on land adjoining the site where the body was found and was searching for house bricks when he made the discovery. The £5 note, hidden in a secret compartment in Jordan’s handbag, was traced to branches of the Midland Bank in Shipley and Bingley. Police analysis of bank operations allowed them to narrow their field of inquiry to 8,000 employees who could have received it in their wage packet.
Over three months the police interviewed 5,000 men, including Sutcliffe. The police found that the alibi given for Sutcliffe’s whereabouts was credible; he had indeed spent much of the evening of the killing at a family party. Weeks of intense investigations pertaining to the origins of the £5 note led to nothing, leaving police officers frustrated that they collected an important clue, but had been unable to trace the actual firm (or employee within the firm) to which the note had been issued.
On 14 December, Sutcliffe attacked Marilyn Moore, another prostitute from Leeds. She survived and provided police with a description of her attacker. Tyre tracks found at the scene matched those from an earlier attack. The police discontinued the search for the person who received the £5 note in January 1978. Although Sutcliffe was interviewed about it, he was not investigated further (he was contacted and disregarded by the Ripper Squad on several further occasions). That month, Sutcliffe killed again. His victim was Yvonne Pearson, a 21-year-old prostitute from Bradford. He repeatedly bludgeoned her about the head with a ball-pein hammer then jumped on her chest before stuffing horse-hair into her mouth from a discarded sofa under which he hid her body near Lumb Lane. Her body was not found until 26 March.
Ten days later, he killed Helen Rytka, an 18-year-old prostitute from Huddersfield. He struck Rytka on the head five times as she exited his vehicle, before stripping many of her clothes from her body (although her bra and polo-neck jumper were positioned above her breasts), before repeatedly stabbing her in the chest. Her body was found beneath railway arches in the timber-yard to which he had driven her three days later. On 16 May, Sutcliffe killed Vera Millward in an attack in the car park of Manchester Royal Infirmary.
Over the next day, Sutcliffe calmly described his many attacks. Weeks later he claimed God had told him to murder the women. He displayed emotion only when telling of the killing of his youngest victim, Jayne MacDonald, and when questioned about the murder of Joan Harrison, which he vehemently denied committing. Harrison’s murder had been linked to the Ripper killings by the “Wearside Jack” claim, and in 2011, DNA evidence proved it had been committed by convicted sex offender Christopher Smith, who had died in 2008. Sutcliffe was charged at Dewsbury on 5 January. At his trial, he pleaded not guilty to 13 charges of murder, but guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. The basis of his defence was he claimed to be the tool of God’s will. Sutcliffe claimed to have heard voices that ordered him to kill prostitutes while working as a gravedigger. He said the voices originated from a headstone of a Polish man, Bronisław Zapolski, and that the voices were that of God.
He pleaded guilty to seven charges of attempted murder. The prosecution intended to accept Sutcliffe’s plea after four psychiatrists diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia but the trial judge, Mr Justice Boreham, demanded an unusually detailed explanation of the prosecution reasoning. After a two-hour representation by the Attorney-General Sir Michael Havers, a 90-minute lunch break and another 40 minutes of legal discussion, the judge rejected the diminished responsibility plea and the expert testimonies of the psychiatrists, insisting that the case should be dealt with by a jury. The trial proper was set to commence on 5 May 1981.
The trial lasted two weeks and despite the efforts of his counsel James Chadwin QC, Sutcliffe was found guilty of murder on all counts and was sentenced to 20 concurrent sentences of life imprisonment. The trial judge said Sutcliffe was beyond redemption, and hoped he would never leave prison. He recommended a minimum term of 30 years to be served before parole could be considered meaning Sutcliffe would have been unlikely to be freed until at least 2011. On 16 July 2010, the High Court issued Sutcliffe with a whole life tariff, meaning he is unlikely ever to be released. The whole life tariff was introduced by the government in 1983, and over the next 20 years it was reported that Sutcliffe was among the small group of prisoners to have been issued with a whole life tariff.
Politicians were stripped of their powers to set minimum terms for life sentence prisoners in November 2002, and the final say on how long a life sentence prisoner can serve has since rested with the High Court. After his trial, Sutcliffe admitted two other attacks. It was decided that prosecution for these offences was “not in the public interest”. West Yorkshire Police made it clear that the victims wished to remain anonymous.
In response to the police reaction to the murders, the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group organised a number of ‘Reclaim the Night’ marches. The group and other feminists had criticised the police for victim-blaming, especially the suggestion that women should remain indoors at night. Eleven marches in various towns across the United Kingdom took place on the night of 12 November 1977. They made the point that women should be able to walk anywhere without restriction and that they should not be blamed for men’s violence. In 1988, the mother of Sutcliffe’s last victim, Jacqueline Hill, during action for damages on behalf of her daughter’s estate, argued in the High Court that the police had failed to use reasonable care in apprehending the murderer of her daughter in Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire. The House of Lords held that the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire did not owe a duty of care to the victim due to the lack of proximity and therefore failing on the second limb of the Caparo test.
The Inspector of Constabulary Sir Lawrence Byford’s 1981 report of an official inquiry into the Ripper case was not released by the Home Office until 1 June 2006. The sections “Description of suspects, photofits and other assaults” and parts of the section on Sutcliffe’s “immediate associates” were not disclosed by the Home Office. Referring to the period between 1969, when Sutcliffe first came to the attention of police, and 1975, the year of the murder of Wilma McCann, the report states: “There is a curious and unexplained lull in Sutcliffe’s criminal activities” and “it is my firm conclusion that between 1969 and 1980 Sutcliffe was probably responsible for many attacks on unaccompanied women, which he has not yet admitted, not only in the West Yorkshire and Manchester areas but also in other parts of the country”. In 1969 Sutcliffe, described in the Byford Report as an “otherwise unremarkable young man”, came to the notice of police on two occasions over incidents with prostitutes.
Later that year, in September, he was also arrested in Bradford’s red light district for being in possession of a hammer, an offensive weapon, but he was charged with “going equipped for stealing” as it was assumed he was a potential burglar. The report said that it was clear he had on at least one occasion attacked a Bradford prostitute with a cosh. Byford’s report states:
Police identified a number of attacks which matched Sutcliffe’s modus operandi and tried to question the killer, but he was never charged with other crimes. The Byford Report’s major findings were contained in a summary published by the Home Secretary, William Whitelaw, the first time precise details of the bungled police investigation had been disclosed. Sir Lawrence described delays in following up vital tip-offs from Trevor Birdsall, an associate of Sutcliffe since 1966. On 25 November 1980, Birdsall sent an anonymous letter to police, the text of which ran as follows:
This letter was marked “Priority No 1”. An index card was created on the basis of the letter and a policewoman found Sutcliffe already had three existing index cards in the records. But “for some inexplicable reason”, said the Byford Report, the papers remained in a filing tray in the incident room until the murderer’s arrest on 2 January the following year.
Birdsall visited Bradford Police Station the day after sending the letter to repeat his misgivings about Sutcliffe. He added that he was with Sutcliffe when he got out of a car to pursue a woman with whom he had had a bar room dispute in Halifax on 16 August 1975. This was the date and place of the Olive Smelt attack. A report compiled on the visit was lost, despite a “comprehensive search” which took place after Sutcliffe’s arrest, according to the report. Byford said:
Following his conviction and incarceration, Sutcliffe chose to use the name Coonan, his mother’s maiden name. He began his sentence at HMP Parkhurst on 22 May 1981. Despite being found sane at his trial, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Attempts to send him to a secure psychiatric unit were blocked. While at Parkhurst he was seriously assaulted by James Costello, a 35-year-old career criminal with several convictions for violence. On 10 January 1983, he followed Sutcliffe into the recess of F2, the hospital wing at Parkhurst Prison and plunged a broken coffee jar twice into the left side of Sutcliffe’s face, creating four wounds requiring 30 stitches. In March 1984 Sutcliffe was sent to Broadmoor Hospital, under Section 47 of the Mental Health Act 1983.
His wife obtained a separation from him in 1982 and a divorce in April 1994. On 23 February 1996, Sutcliffe was attacked in his room in Broadmoor Hospital’s Henley Ward. Paul Wilson, a convicted robber, asked to borrow a videotape before attempting to strangle him with the cable from a pair of stereo headphones. Two other convicted murderers, Kenneth Erskine and Jamie Devitt, intervened on hearing screams. After an attack with a pen by fellow inmate Ian Kay on 10 March 1997, Sutcliffe lost the vision in his left eye, and his right eye was severely damaged. Kay admitted trying to kill Sutcliffe, and was ordered to be detained in a secure mental hospital without limit of time. In 2003 it was reported that Sutcliffe had developed diabetes.
Sutcliffe’s father died in 2004 and was cremated. On 17 January 2005 Sutcliffe was allowed to visit Grange-over-Sands where the ashes had been scattered. The decision to allow the temporary release was initiated by David Blunkett and ratified by Charles Clarke when he became Home Secretary. Sutcliffe was accompanied by four members of the hospital staff. Despite the passage of 25 years since the Ripper murders, Sutcliffe’s visit was the focus of front-page tabloid headlines. On 22 December 2007, Sutcliffe was attacked by fellow inmate Patrick Sureda, who lunged at him with a metal cutlery knife while shouting “You fucking raping, murdering bastard, I’ll blind your fucking other one”. Sutcliffe flung himself backwards and the blade missed his right eye, stabbing him in the cheek.
An application by Sutcliffe for a minimum term to be set, offering the possibility of parole after that date if it is thought safe to release him, was heard by the High Court of Justice on 16 July 2010. The High Court decided that Sutcliffe will never be released. Mr Justice Mitting stated:
Psychological reports describing his mental state were taken into consideration, as was the severity of his crimes. Barring judicial decisions to the contrary, Sutcliffe will spend the rest of his life in Broadmoor Hospital. On 4 August 2010, a spokeswoman for the Judicial Communications Office confirmed that Sutcliffe had initiated an appeal against the decision.
The hearing for Sutcliffe’s appeal against the ruling began on 30 November 2010 at the Court of Appeal. It was rejected on 14 January 2011. On 9 March 2011, the Court of Appeal rejected Sutcliffe’s application for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court. In December 2015 Sutcliffe was assessed as being “no longer mentally ill”. In August 2016, a medical tribunal ruled that he no longer required clinical treatment for his mental condition, and could be returned to prison. Sutcliffe is reported to have been transferred from Broadmoor to Frankland Prison in Durham in August 2016.
On 26 August 2016 the police investigation was the subject of BBC Radio 4’s The Reunion. Sue MacGregor discussed the investigation with John Domaille, who later became assistant chief constable of West Yorkshire Police; Andy Laptew, who was a junior detective who interviewed Sutcliffe; Elaine Benson, who worked in the incident room and interviewed suspects; David Zackrisson, who investigated the “Wearside Jack” tape and letters in Sunderland and Christa Ackroyd, a local journalist in Halifax. In 2017, West Yorkshire Police launched Operation Painthall to determine if Sutcliffe was guilty of unsolved crimes dating back to 1964. This inquiry also looked at the killings of two sex workers in southern Sweden in 1980. As Sutcliffe was a lorry driver, it was theorised that he had been in Denmark and Sweden, making use of the ferry across the Oresund Strait. West Yorkshire Police later stated that they were “absolutely certain” that Sutcliffe had never been in Sweden.
Aged 72, he has now lost the vision in his right eye after an injection supposed to clear the blurriness caused by diabetes went wrong. He is now totally blind, often uses a wheelchair and requires a ‘jail buddy’ to help him get around the prison. Since 24 August 2016, he has been held in HM Prison Frankland, in Durham.