Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 30 May 2017
The Yorkshire Ripper is not a criminal mastermind. Peter Sutcliffe, who is now 70 and serving life at HMP Frankland, was convicted of 13 murders and seven attempted murders in 1981. At the time, police believed he had only begun attacking women in 1975 – but now a different picture may be emerging.
Officers from Operation Painthall have recently interviewed him about offences stretching back to 1964, including seven unsolved attacks on women and girls. This weekend, it emerged that he is also reportedly being investigated about the murders of two women in Sweden, in 1980.
These revelations don’t tell us that Sutcliffe hid his tracks brilliantly. It’s a stark reminder of how badly police mishandled the original case – and how long some of his victims have had to wait for justice.
I covered the case as a young reporter. It never seemed plausible to me that the so-called Ripper suddenly attacked several women within six months in 1975, having never done anything like it before.
But what is jaw-dropping, in retrospect, is how inept Sutcliffe was. He made mistakes, left behind evidence and didn’t care about being repeatedly spotted in red light districts, which were crawling with squad cars. He was interviewed about the Ripper murders on nine occasions, yet West Yorkshire police didn’t even search his house and garage.
At the time, I didn’t know any of this. But it didn’t take long for me to get the feeling that something was very wrong. ‘They’re never going to get him,’ I thought despairingly as I trudged from one police press conference to another. I was very nearly right – Sutcliffe was finally caught when he was stopped for a traffic offence by officers from another force, who had no idea who he was.
Detectives told the press they were looking for a man motivated by a deep loathing of prostitutes, but that theory didn’t even fit the facts of the case. I interviewed two of Sutcliffe’s earliest known victims, Anna Rogulskyj, who was 37 and lived in Keighley, and Olive Smelt, 46, who was assaulted near her home in Halifax. Neither of them had links with prostitution and both of them survived, albeit with terrible injuries. Ms Rogulskyj seized my hand and placed it on her head, where I could feel the damage to her skull caused by Sutcliffe’s hammer.
It’s been known for years that there was almost certainly a third victim during that summer of 1975: 14-year-old Tracey Browne from the small town of Silsden, near Keighley. She gave police a description of a man who looked just like Sutcliffe but she was the ‘wrong’ sort of victim – too young, and still at school – and she never even made it onto the ‘official’ list of victims.
After three ‘failed’ attacks against women, the killer moved to Leeds to commit his first known murder in October 1975. Wilma McCann was 28 and had no convictions for prostitution, but she had a chaotic lifestyle and Chapeltown was a red light district.
And so the theory of a prostitute killer was born, with catastrophic effects. The police excluded evidence from attacks on women who weren’t connected with the sex trade, even if they shared characteristics with the Ripper murders. And they relied on forensic evidence from the murder of a prostitute in Preston, which hadn’t been committed by Sutcliffe.
I watched this disaster unfold. I was at a press conference in 1979 – the only woman in the room, which wasn’t unusual in those days – when the police played a tape made by a man with a strong Wearside accent who claimed to be the Yorkshire Ripper.
Misogyny, not some half-baked ‘mission’ to kill prostitutes, was always at the heart of this case
I could see that the contents spoke to the police’s prejudices, taunting the senior officer on the case and confirming his idea that the killer craved publicity. We were told that it could only have come from the murderer because the tape and letters from the same man contained information that wasn’t in the public domain.
I’d read enough to know that wasn’t true and said so, making myself very unpopular. But who was going to listen to me?
The entire Ripper inquiry than hared off in search of ‘Wearside Jack’, a hoaxer who convinced them that the killer wasn’t from Yorkshire. Olive Smelt told me (and the police) that her attacker said something about the weather in a strong Yorkshire accent before striking her head with his hammer. She told me another crucial detail, saying that the same man had made a crude and deeply misogynist remark to her in a pub in Halifax earlier in the evening. But the police didn’t listen to her, either.
Misogyny, not some half-baked ‘mission’ to kill prostitutes, was always at the heart of this case. The oldest unsolved incident being examined by officers from Operation Painthall happened in 1964, when a 12-year-old girl was attacked on two occasions. Sutcliffe has denied it, saying he would never have targeted such a young victim, but he had no scruples about targeting Tracey Browne when she was only 14. He has already admitted that he may have been responsible for an unsolved attack in 1969.
Forensic science has improved out of all recognition since those days, and computer analysis means it is unlikely that such an obvious suspect as Sutcliffe would go undetected for so many years.
But the fact remains that the original investigation was a fiasco, and women died as a result. Every woman who was attacked by Sutcliffe has a right to know what happened to her, and why the cases weren’t connected at the time. Until that happens, the tragedy of the Yorkshire Ripper case won’t have reached its final act.