Wearside Jack and the hoaxes that derailed the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper
January 4th 2011, covered in DG #2, marked 30 years since Peter Sutcliffe had admitted to murdering 13 women over a period of five years. In the issue, Michael Bilton, a reporter who was following the Yorkshire Ripper case at the time, looked back at the story through the tragic wild goose chase of ‘Wearside Jack’ — the hoaxer whose letters and tape recordings led the investigation astray for a year
4th January 2011 (Taken from: #2)
Police officer: “Do you know the names of all your victims?”
Peter Sutcliffe: “Yes, I know them all.”
Police officer: “Do you keep any press cuttings of them or make any records?”
Peter Sutcliffe: “No, they are all in my brain, reminding me of the beast I am.”
4th January 1981. Detectives from the “Yorkshire Ripper” special homicide investigation team had been hunting Britain’s most infamous serial killer for five agonising years. Until late in the afternoon on this extraordinary day, the public were still completely unaware of the news that was about to break. Even the prime minister was in the dark. In Downing Street seven weeks previously, after the latest Ripper murder, of a 21-year-old Leeds University student, Margaret Thatcher had angrily thumped the table and demanded action from the Home Secretary, William Whitelaw.
As a result of a chance arrest by two uniformed officers in Sheffield, the Yorkshire Ripper was now banged up in a police cell in Dewsbury, near Leeds, on suicide watch, knowing the game was up and his trail of slaughter finally over.
The bodies of his victims had been found with sadistic stab and slash wounds, his attacks laden with sexual overtones. News of the murders had made headlines around the world as the death toll increased. Thirteen women had died – officially seven others survived his attacks but it is believed he assaulted many more – and 26 children had lost their mothers. A culture of fear gripped the north of England, and lives were dramatically changed as women avoided venturing out at night.
In a covert surveillance operation, five million cars had been logged passing through known prostitute pick-up areas in six major towns; a quarter of a million people had been questioned; 157,000 cars had been examined; 26,000 statements taken, tens of thousands of men were called upon to provide alibis for various murders and a single, brand new £5 note left with a slain prostitute in Manchester had been traced to one of a handful of firms in West Yorkshire in a brilliant piece of detective work. All to no avail.
Then, suddenly, here he was, this seedy little lorry driver with his great mop of dark curly hair and neatly trimmed beard, protesting his innocence for all he was worth. But the Ripper squad knew they had finally got their man. Sutcliffe had been arrested shortly before midnight on 2nd January. A random police check on a Rover saloon parked in Sheffield’s red-light area had turned up a 34-year-old man driving a car with false number plates from a scrapped Skoda. They did not match the index number on the Rover’s tax disk. Sutcliffe gave a false name, and then started lying about the woman sitting coyly next to him.
Officer: “Who’s she?”
Sutcliffe: “My girlfriend.”
Officer: “What’s her name?”
Sutcliffe: “I don’t know, I haven’t known her that long.”
The woman identified herself and a quick radio check revealed she was a convicted prostitute on a suspended sentence: it was enough to arrest them both. As the officers escorted the pair to their patrol car, Sutcliffe asked to take a pee. Unbeknown to the policemen he managed to dump his weapons – a hammer and a knife – behind a low wall.
When one of the arresting officers came back on duty 24 hours later to hear that Sutcliffe was still being held by the Ripper squad in Dewsbury he returned to search the area where Sutcliffe had been arrested. Armed with a torch, he soon found the abandoned weapons.
By then, Ripper squad detective Des O’Boyle had been interrogating Sutcliffe for hours about his background. In the vast filing index for the five-year investigation they discovered notes of previous routine interviews with Sutcliffe going back several years. Always keeping calm enough to slip the net, Sutcliffe had provided alibis which were believed. He consistently denied picking up prostitutes, claiming he was loyal to his wife, Sonia. Yet he was caught red handed in Sheffield with a streetwalker in his car. During a break in the interrogation came the news that the critical hammer and knife had been found.
“Bingo,” O’Boyle said to himself, “we’ve got him.”
On the afternoon of 4th January 1981, Peter Sutcliffe put his hands up and began describing his crimes in astonishing detail, listing the women he had killed one by one. He only denied involvement in one case, the murder of Joan Harrison in Preston in 1975.
But there was one horrendous sting in the tale for the West Yorkshire Police: since the summer of 1979 the world had been told that the Yorkshire Ripper was from Sunderland and that he spoke with a Wearside accent. The senior detectives leading the murder hunt had been completely taken in by letters and a tape recording purporting to come from the killer. Believing the voice on the tape was the Ripper proved a calamitous mistake – it had taken the police off in the wrong direction and since its arrival three more women had been killed and two more attacked.
Letter dated March 1978:
Chief Constable George Oldfield,
Central Police Station, Leeds, West Yorkshire.
I am sorry I cannot give my name for obvious reasons I am the ripper. I’ve been dubbed a maniac by the press but not by you. You call me clever and I am. You and your mates havent a clue. That photo in the paper gave me fits and that lot about killing myself no chance Ive got things to do, My purpose to rid the streets of them sluts. my one regret his that young lassie Macdonald did not know cause changed routine that nite, Up to number 8 now you say 7 but remember Preston 75, Get about you know, you were right I travel a bit. You probably look for me in Sunderland don’t bother I am not daft just posted letter there on one of my trips. Not a bad place compared with Chapeltown and Manningham and other places.
Warn whores to keep of streets cause I feel it coming on again. Sorry about young lassie.
Jack the Ripper
Might write again later I not sure last one really deserved it. Whores getting younger each time. Old slut next time I hope, Huddersfield never again too small close call last one.
On Monday 11th May 1981 at the Old Bailey in London, Sutcliffe again admitted killing his victims but denied murdering them on the grounds of diminished responsibility, claiming he had heard voices from God, channelled through the headstone of Bronislaw Zapolski, a dead Polish man, telling him to rid the world of prostitutes. Found guilty of 13 murders and seven attempted murders after a three-week trial, he was given 20 life sentences.
Sitting in Court No 1 in early May 1981, I heard Sutcliffe speak for the first time while giving evidence. By now we all knew Sutcliffe was from Bradford and not the voice on the “I’m Jack” tape. But hearing his soft Yorkshire accent responding to questions from his barrister brought home starkly what a shocking mistake the Wearside “connection” had been for the way it had so disastrously sidetracked the investigation. Played and replayed over and over again in pubs, clubs, bars, shops, factories and on radio and TV, the “I’m Jack” voice had been drilled deep into the subconscious memory of millions of people across the North of England. I had spent two years there covering the Ripper case as a reporter for The Sunday Times and the tragedy of the ‘Wearside Jack’ hoax had added significance for me because it led to an important scoop for my paper.
Just before the trial a contact told me that his colleagues in West Yorkshire Police were sitting on a dreadful secret – 18 months before his capture, Peter Sutcliffe had been named as a prime Ripper suspect by one of their young officers. Detective Constable Andrew Laptew had conducted what was meant to be a routine interview with Sutcliffe which led him to send in a written report stating clearly that there was good evidence this man was the killer.
Laptew had ignored the “I’m Jack” voice, aware there had been a hoax tape recording during the infamous Black Panther murder inquiry several years earlier. He was struck by the fact that Sutcliffe’s face closely matched a photofit provided by a victim called Marilyn Moore who had survived a Ripper attack; he was a lorry driver and he had a gap in his teeth – a clue derived from a bite mark on one of his victims. Laptew’s report was not only tragically ignored by superiors, but he was also dressed down and humiliated.
Sutcliffe’s ultimate arrest gave Laptew no personal satisfaction. Feeling guilty about the needless deaths of the additional Ripper victims, the young detective feared his career was about to be destroyed because he had failed to press his argument with more vigour 18 months earlier.
“I’m long retired from the police but there’s hardly a day that goes by that I don’t think about the Ripper inquiry and my interview with Sutcliffe,” says Laptew today. “Could I have done a bit more – been a bit braver in arguing my case? It is as if you can never escape from it.”
Letter dated 23rd March 1979:
Sorry I havn’t written, about a year to be exact but I havn’t been up North for quite a while. I was’nt kidding last time I wrote saying the whore would be older this time and maybe I’d strike in Manchester for a change. You should have took heed. That bit about her being in hospital, funny the lady mentioned something about being in the same hospital before I stopped her whoring ways. The lady wont worry about hospitals now will she I bet you are wondering how come I hav’nt been to work for ages, well I would have been if it hadnt been for your curserred coppers I had the lady just where I wanted her and was about to strike when one of your cursen police cars stopped right outside the land, he must have been a dumn copper cause he didn’t say anything, he didnt know how close he was to catching me. Tell you the truth I thought I was collared, the lady said dont worry about coppers, little did she know that bloody copper saved her neck. That was last month, so I don’t know know when I will get back on the job but I know it wont be Chapeltown too bloody hot there maybe Bradfords Manningham. Might write again if up North.
Jack the Ripper.
PS Did you get letter I sent to Daily Mirror in Manchester.
A total of three letters and a tape had arrived postmarked Sunderland and claiming to be from the Ripper. Dialect expert Stanley Ellis identified the voice as coming from Castletown on Wearside. Where Laptew had looked beyond the Wearside voice on the tape, the head of the Ripper inquiry – West Yorkshire’s CID chief George Oldfield – had been convinced it was the killer’s voice.
Oldfield was no fool, but when the tape turned up in June 1979 he clutched at a collection of forensic straws and persuaded himself that the killer had made an enormous mistake and that they were bound to get their man soon. By the time the tape arrived Oldfield had worked himself into the ground and wheezed furiously when climbing stairs. He lived on a diet of whisky and cough mixture. He took the tape very personally.
It became the official line that the Yorkshire Ripper spoke with a Wearside accent and a massive publicity campaign was launched. Sutcliffe was eliminated from the investigation several times because he was from Bradford.
Transcript of tape, delivered June 1979:
“I’m Jack. I see you are still having no luck catching me. I have the greatest respect for you, George, but Lord, you are no nearer to catching me now than four years ago when I started. I reckon your boys are letting you down, George; ya can’t be much good, can ya? The only time they came near catching me was a few months back in Chapeltown when I was disturbed. Even then it was a uniform copper, not a detective.
“I warned you in March that I’d strike again, sorry it wasn’t Bradford. I did promise you that but I couldn’t get there. I’m not sure when I will strike again but it will definitely be some time this year, maybe September or October, even sooner if I get the chance. I’m not sure where. Maybe Manchester; I like there, there’s plenty of them knocking about. They never learn, do they, George. I bet you’ve warned them, but they never listen. At the rate I’m going I should be in the book of records, I think it’s 11 up to now, isn’t it? Well, I’ll keep on going for quite a while yet. I can’t see myself being nicked just yet. Even if you do get near, I’ll probably top myself first.
“Well it’s been nice chatting to you, George. Yours, Jack the Ripper.
“No good looking for fingerprints, you should know by now it’s clean as a whistle. See you soon. Bye. Hope you like the catchy tune at the end. Ha. Ha!”
A complex tapestry of forensic and circumstantial evidence appeared to link the letters to the murders. They contained references to victim Vera Millward’s medical history, predictions about where he would strike next, and a claim that he was responsible for a murder in Preston in 1975. This was a reference to the killing of a 26-year-old alcoholic called Joan Harrison, a once-proud mother who had fallen on hard times, was living in a hostel and was addicted to cough remedies containing small doses of morphine. Forensic scientists discovered semen traces at the murder scene from several men, including one with a B blood grouping. Men who secrete B-group blood cells in their semen and saliva make up only six per cent of the male population. And when forensic tests were conducted on the gum of the letters they revealed saliva traces from a person with a B blood type.
For Oldfield and several of his colleagues this was the clincher. The Ripper and the man on the tape were one and the same. So a massive new investigation was launched which saw the Ripper squad eliminating men whose handwriting and voice did not match the letters and tape. A Sunderland officer, Detective Inspector David Zackrisson, two voice experts and a senior detective from Scotland Yard had all urged caution, warning the Ripper squad not to eliminate men who could not have sent the letters and tape. Zackrisson deduced that the information in the letters about Harrison and Millward could have come from newspaper reports. So desperate had the Ripper squad become that they ploughed on regardless for another 18 months, with the most tragic consequences.
It could not happen today. DNA analysis alone would have got Sutcliffe, but it wasn’t until 1984 that Alec Jeffreys, a geneticist at Leicester University, discovered how each individual’s DNA was different. It led to the creation of a DNA database: anyone arrested for a criminal offence is now swabbed and added. This breakthrough revolutionised crime detection and led to many cases being solved years after they took place. It also led to the unmasking of Wearside Jack, albeit over two decades too late.
“I thought I was doing them a favour, the coppers”
In 2000 a dishevelled chronic alcoholic from Sunderland was arrested for being drunk and disorderly, and was added to the DNA database. John Humble had lost his father when he was eight and had spent his life on the Ford Estate in Sunderland, just across the River Wear from Castleton. Five years after Humble’s run-in with the law, West Yorkshire police opened a serious cold-case review in an effort to find the man now dubbed “Wearside Jack”, who had fooled them years earlier.
The forensic evidence from the letters and tape were feared lost – but a massive trawl located them and complex low copy-number DNA analysis yielded a positive result. John Humble was Wearside Jack. Police arrived to arrest him in October 2005. He was too drunk to be interviewed, his home was a complete mess and he had not worked for years. He pleaded guilty at Leeds Crown Court in March 2006 to four separate charges of perverting the course of justice and served half his sentence before he was paroled.
In a series of interviews with West Yorkshire Police he revealed he had sent the letters in the belief that the Ripper squad had made a mess of the inquiry and they “didn’t give a toss about prostitutes”. He had had a grudge against the police dating back to when he was 16 and had served three months’ detention for a vicious assault on an off-duty policeman he had kicked in the head outside a Sunderland ballroom in 1975.
“I thought I was doing them a favour, the coppers – ‘Look harder’ – and they did, they caught him,” he said. “So in a way I thought I was doing the police a favour because it made them look even harder then. I took it for granted that they didn’t give a toss about prostitutes.”
He’d got a book about Jack the Ripper out of the library and cribbed some of the passages from a letter the original 19th-century serial killer sent to Scotland Yard. Humble was played the “I’m Jack” tape and was asked if it was him: “Aye, it was me… it was my voice… was eerie like, wasn’t it? Must have been mad. I feel crap.”
“Why do you feel crap?” he was asked. “For putting the coppers off in a way. I did have respect for George, like, you know, George Oldfield. I said that on the tape, didn’t I? I did have respect for him, anyway, and he was turning older by the day. I shouldn’t have done it like. I know that… because it’s evil, it sounds evil… I just didn’t realise about my accent, that’s what misled the police. My accent.”
But the sad story wasn’t over just yet. In January 2011, 30 years after the Yorkshire Ripper was caught, came an extraordinary development. Further highly complex DNA analysis on forensic evidence found at the scene of Joan Harrison’s 1975 murder finally pointed police in the direction of her killer. It led them to the family home in Bolton of Christopher Smith, who had been arrested for drink driving in 2008.
His customary DNA sample had been put on the national database. However at that time, previous attempts to get DNA from available material in the Harrison killing had all failed.
When police arrived at his home in 2011 to arrest him for the murder they discovered that he had died of cancer shortly after his drink-driving arrest in 2008. At Smith’s home they were shown a scrawled message he had hastily written to his family referring to something he had done 20 years earlier.
“I can’t go on with the guilt,” he wrote. It never specified that he had killed Joan Harrison, but, armed with the new DNA evidence, detectives concluded it was a deathbed confession referring to her murder. Smith had had a history of shocking violence. He had been jailed in 1981 for attempted rape. Two years later he was given a suspended sentence for the manslaughter of his first wife, claiming she had “fallen” on a knife during a domestic fight.
It was enough for the Crown Prosecution Service to say that if he had been alive today Smith would have been charged with Harrison’s murder and they would expect a jury to convict him.
Thirty years on, the Yorkshire Ripper file on the most notorious and prolonged murder hunt in British criminal history can finally be closed. For my part, I was never interested in the killer – the man who turned out to be Peter Sutcliffe. I knew he would be exactly what he was revealed to be: a sick individual who wanted power over women. I was more interested in the police and why they could not catch him.
This was an incredibly dramatic chain of events, not just for the families of his victims but for the millions of people affected by the case, especially women: it’s hard to understand if you did not live in the North at the time just how much it dominated people’s lives.
Part of the reason the Ripper case was such an extraordinary piece of social history was that it came at the tail end of the time in which the police had next to no technology – just card indexes and paper statements. They were mired in paperwork and the wasted time and energies caused by the “I’m Jack” tape and letters were a disaster which could not have happened today. The whole case caused the police to examine their techniques and they brought in computers and new methods of tackling serious crime involving more than one police area.
Michael Bilton is the author of ‘Wicked Beyond Belief: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper’, published by Harper Perennial.
Slow Journalism in your inbox, plus infographics, offers and more: sign up for the free DG newsletter. Sign me up
Thanks for signing up.