Peter William Sutcliffe (born 2 June 1946) is a British serial killer who was dubbed “The Yorkshire Ripper”. In 1981 Sutcliffe was convicted ofmurdering 13 women and attacking seven others. He is currently serving 20 sentences of life imprisonment in Broadmoor Hospital. After his conviction, Sutcliffe began using his mother’s maiden name and became known as Peter William Coonan. The High Court dismissed an appeal in 2010, confirming that he would serve a whole life tariff and would never be released from imprisonment.
Sutcliffe was born in Bingley, to a working-class Catholic family in West Riding of Yorkshire, a son of John Sutcliffe (11 December 1922 – June 2004) and Kathleen Frances Sutcliffe (née Coonan, 22 January 1919 – 1978). Reportedly a loner at school, he left at the age of 15 and took a series of menial jobs, including two stints as a gravedigger during the 1960s. Between November 1971 and April 1973 Sutcliffe worked at the factory of Baird Television Ltd, on the packaging line. He left when he was asked to go on the road as a salesman.
After leaving Baird, he worked nightshifts at the Britannia Works of Anderton International from April 1973. In February 1975 he took redundancy, used the pay-off to gain an HGV licence on 4 June 1975 and began working as a driver for a tyre firm on 29 September of that year. On 5 March 1976 he was dismissed for the theft of used tyres. He was unemployed until October 1976, when he found another job as an HGV driver for T & WH Clark (Holdings Ltd.) on the Canal Road Industrial Estate in Bradford. Sutcliffe frequently used prostitutes as a young man and it has been speculated that a bad experience with one during which he was believed to have been conned out of money, helped fuel his violent hatred of women.
He first met Sonia Szurma (who was of Czech and Ukrainian parentage) on 14 February 1967; they married on 10 August 1974. His wife suffered several miscarriages over the following few years and the couple were subsequently informed that she would not be able to have children. Shortly after this, she resumed a teacher training course. When she completed the course in 1977 and began teaching, the couple used the salary from her job to buy their first house in Heaton, Bradford, where they moved on 26 September 1977, and where they were still living at the time of Sutcliffe’s arrest.
Sutcliffe was convicted of murdering the following 13 victims:
||Name of victim
||Age at death
||Location on map
|30 October 1975
||Prince Phillip Playing Fields, Leeds
|20 January 1976
||Manor Street, Sheepscar, Leeds
|5 February 1977
||Roundhay Park, Leeds
|23 April 1977
||Flat 3, 9 Oak Avenue, Bradford
|26 June 1977
||Adventure playground, Reginald Street, Leeds
|1 October 1977
||Allotments next to Southern Cemetery, Manchester
|21 January 1978
||Under a discarded sofa on waste ground off Arthington Street, Bradford
|31 January 1978
||Timber yard in Great Northern Street, Huddersfield
|16 May 1978
||Grounds of Manchester Royal Infirmary
|4 April 1979
||Savile Park, Halifax
|2 September 1979
||Back of 13 Ash Grove, Bradford
|20 August 1980
||Garden of a house called “Claremont”, New Street, Farsley, Leeds
|17 November 1980
||Waste ground off Alma Road, Headingley, Leeds
Sutcliffe committed his first assault on an older prostitute whom he had met whilst searching for the woman who had previously tricked him out of money. He had left his friend’s mini-van and walked up Saint Pauls Road, Bradford, until he was out of sight. When he came back, he was out of breath, as if he had been running. He told his long-term friend Trevor Birdsall, who was the driver of the vehicle that he was in, to drive off quickly. Sutcliffe said that 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 stated, “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”.
When the police visited his home the next day, they informed him that the woman, who bore no resemblance to the prostitute who had tricked him out of £10, had noted down Birdsall’s mini-vanvehicle registration plate. Sutcliffe admitted that he had hit her over the head, but claimed that it was only with his hand. The police told him he was “very lucky” as the prostitute did not want anything more to do with the incident – she was a known prostitute and her common-law husband was serving a sentence for an 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-peen 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 emotionally traumatised by this 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, though this time above her buttocks. Again he was interrupted, and left his victim badly injured but still alive. Like Rogulskyj, Smelt suffered emotional scars from the attack, 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 in a country lane. Sutcliffe was not convicted of this attack, but confessed to it in 1992.
The first victim to lose her life was Wilma McCann, on 30 October. McCann was a mother of four from the Chapeltown district of Leeds. Sutcliffe struck her twice with a hammer before stabbing her 15 times in the neck, chest and abdomen. Traces of semen were found on the back of her underwear. An extensive inquiry, involving 150 police officers and 11,000 interviews, failed to uncover the culprit. One of McCann’s daughters committed suicide in December 2007, reportedly after suffering years of torment over her mother’s death.
Sutcliffe committed his next murder in January 1976, when he stabbed Emily Jackson 51 times in Leeds. In dire financial straits, Jackson had been using the family van to exchange sexual favours for money, a fact which shocked family and neighbours when it was revealed after the murder. Sutcliffe hit her on the head with a hammer and then used a sharpened screwdriver to stab her in the neck, chest, and abdomen. Sutcliffe also stamped on her thigh, leaving behind an impression of his boot.
Sutcliffe attacked Marcella Claxton in Roundhay Park, Leeds, on 9 May. Walking home from a party, she was given a lift by Sutcliffe. When she later got out of the car to urinate, Sutcliffe hit her from behind with a hammer. She was left alive and was able to testify against Sutcliffe at his trial.
On 5 February 1977 he 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 1977, Sutcliffe killed Bradford prostitute Patricia “Tina” Atkinson in her flat, where police found a bootprint on the bedclothes. Two months later Sutcliffe committed another murder in Chapeltown, claiming his youngest victim, 16-year-old Jayne MacDonald, on 26 June. She was not a prostitute. In the public perception, her death showed that every woman was a potential victim. 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 working the case amassed 12,500 statements and checked thousands of cars, without success. On 1 October 1977 Sutcliffe murdered Manchester prostitute Jean Jordan. Her body was found ten days later and had obviously been moved several days after death. In a later confession, Sutcliffe stated he had realised that 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 left the body, to retrieve the note. Unable to do so he mutilated Jordan’s corpse and moved the location of the body.
The following morning, Jordan was discovered by actor Bruce Jones, who at that time was a local dairy worker. He had an allotment on the land adjoining the site where the body was found and was searching for disused house bricks when he made the discovery. The £5 note, hidden inside a secret compartment in Jordan’s handbag, offered a valuable piece of evidence. The note was new, allowing it to be 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 local employees who could have received it in their wagepacket. Over three months the police interviewed 5,000 men, including Sutcliffe, whom they did not connect to the crime.
On 14 December Sutcliffe attacked another Leeds prostitute, Marilyn Moore. Moore 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 the £5 note, he was not investigated further (he would ultimately be contacted, and disregarded, by the Ripper Squad on several further occasions). That month, Sutcliffe killed again. His victim was 21-year-old Bradford prostitute, Yvonne Pearson. Sutcliffe hid her body under a discarded sofa and it was not found until March. He killed 18-year-old Huddersfield prostitute Helen Rytka, on the night of 31 January. Her body was found three days later. On 16 May, Sutcliffe killed again after a three-month hiatus. The victim was Vera Millward whom he killed during an attack in the car park of Manchester Royal Infirmary.
Almost a year passed before Sutcliffe attacked again. During this period, in November 1978, his mother Kathleen died, aged 59.
On 4 April 1979 Sutcliffe killed a 19-year-old building society clerk, Josephine Whitaker. He attacked her on Saville Park Moor, Halifax, as she was walking home. Despite new forensic evidence, police efforts were diverted for several months following receipt of a taped message purporting to be from the murderer. The message taunted Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield who was leading the investigation. The tape contained a man’s voice saying “I’m Jack. I see you’re having no luck catching me. I have the greatest respect for you, George, but Lord, you’re no nearer catching me now than four years ago when I started.”
Based on the recorded message police began searching for a man with a Wearside accent, which was narrowed down to the Castletown area of Sunderland. The message was much later revealed to be a hoax. The hoaxer, dubbed “Wearside Jack“, sent two letters to police in 1978, that boasted of his crimes. The letters, signed “Jack The Ripper“, claimed responsibility for the murder of 26-year-old Joan Harrison in Preston in November 1975. (On 20 October 2005, John Samuel Humble, an unemployed alcoholic and long-time resident of the Ford Estate area of Sunderland – a mile from Castletown – was charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice for sending the hoax letters and tape. He was remanded in custody. On 21 March 2006 Humble was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison.)
On 1 September Sutcliffe murdered 20-year-old Barbara Leach. Leach was a Bradford University student killed and her body dumped at the rear of 13 Ash Grove, under a pile of bricks, close to the university and her lodgings. It was his sixteenth attack. The murder of a woman who was not a prostitute again alarmed the public and prompted an expensive publicity campaign, which emphasised the Wearside connection. Despite the false Wearside lead, Sutcliffe was interviewed on at least two further occasions in 1979. Despite matching several forensic clues and being on the list of 300 names in connection with the £5 note, he was not strongly suspected. In total, Sutcliffe was interviewed by the police on nine occasions.
In April 1980 Sutcliffe was arrested for drunk driving. While awaiting trial on this charge, he killed two more women. He murdered 37-year-old Marguerite Walls on the night of 20 August, and 20-year-old Jacqueline Hill, a student at the University of Leeds, on the night of 17 November. He also attacked two other women who survived. They were Dr. Uphadya Bandara, attacked in Leeds on 24 September, and 16-year-old Theresa Sykes, attacked in Huddersfield on the night of 5 November. On 25 November, Trevor Birdsall, an associate of Sutcliffe reported him to the police as a suspect. This information vanished into the enormous amount of paperwork already created.
1981 arrest and trial
Millgarth Police Station in Leeds city centre, where the Yorkshire Ripper police investigation was conducted.
On 2 January 1981, Sutcliffe was stopped by the police with 24-year-old prostitute Olivia Reivers in the driveway of Light Trades House, Melbourne Avenue, Broomhill, Sheffield, in South Yorkshire. A police check revealed the car was fitted with false number plates and Sutcliffe was arrested for this offence and transferred to Dewsbury Police Station, West Yorkshire. At Dewsbury he was questioned in relation to the Yorkshire Ripper case as he matched so many of the physical characteristics known. The next day police returned to the scene of the arrest and discovered a knife, hammer and rope he had discarded when he briefly slipped away from the police after telling them he was “bursting for a pee”. Sutcliffe had hidden a second knife in the toilet cistern at the police station when he was permitted to use the toilet. The police obtained a search warrant for his home at 6 Garden Lane in theHeaton district of Bradford and brought his wife in for questioning.
When Sutcliffe was stripped of his clothing at the police station he was wearing a V-neck sweater under his trousers. The sleeves had been pulled over his legs and the V-neck exposed his genital area. The front of the elbows were padded to protect his knees as, presumably, he knelt over his victims’ corpses. The sexual implications of this outfit were held to be obvious, but it was not communicated to the public until the 2003 book, Wicked Beyond Belief: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, written by Michael Bilton. After two days of intensive questioning, on the afternoon of 4 January 1981 Sutcliffe suddenly declared he was the Ripper. 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 murder of his youngest victim, Jayne MacDonald, and when he was questioned about the murder of Joan Harrison, which he vehemently denied. He was charged at Dewsbury on 5 January.
At his trial, Sutcliffe pleaded not guilty to 13 counts of murder, but guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. The basis of this defence was his claim that he was the tool of God’s will. Sutcliffe first claimed to have heard voices while working as a gravedigger, that ultimately ordered him to kill prostitutes. He claimed that the voices originated from a headstone of a deceased Polish man, Bronisław Zapolski, and that the voices were that of God.
He also pleaded guilty to seven counts of attempted murder. The prosecution intended to accept Sutcliffe’s plea after four psychiatrists diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia. However, 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 a further 40 minutes of legal discussion, he rejected the diminished responsibility plea and the expert testimonies of the four 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 sentenced to life imprisonment. The trial judge said that Sutcliffe was beyond redemption, and that he hoped that he would never leave prison. He recommended a minimum term of 30 years to be served before parole is considered. This recommendation meant that Sutcliffe would have been unlikely to be freed until at least 2011, at the age of 65. On 16 July 2010 this sentence was extended to a full life term, meaning that Sutcliffe will not leave prison alive, barring any judicial developments to the contrary.
After his trial, Sutcliffe admitted two further attacks to detectives. It was decided at the time that prosecution for these offences was “not in the public interest”. West Yorkshire Police have made it clear that the female victims wish to remain anonymous.
Criticism of West Yorkshire Police
West Yorkshire Police were criticised for being inadequately prepared for an investigation on this scale. The case was one of the largest ever investigations by a British police force and pre-dated the use of computers in criminal cases. The information on suspects was stored on handwritten index cards. Aside from difficulties in storing and accessing such a bulk of paperwork (the floor of the incident room had to be reinforced to cope with the weight of the paper), it was difficult for officers to overcome the information overload of such a large manual system. Sutcliffe was interviewed nine times, but all information the police had about the case was stored in paper form, making cross referencing a difficult task. This fact was compounded by the television appeal for information, which generated thousands more documents to process.
The Assistant Chief Constable (Crime), George Oldfield, was criticised for being too focused on the “I’m Jack” Wearside tape and letters. The original investigation used them as a point of elimination rather than a line of enquiry. This angle allowed Sutcliffe to avoid scrutiny, as he did not fit the profile of the sender of the tape or letters. The Wearside Jack hoaxer was given unusual credibility as analysis of his saliva on the envelopes he sent showed he had the same blood group as the Yorkshire Ripper had left at the crime scenes, a type only shared by 6% of the population. He also appeared to know details of the murders which had not been released to the press but which he’d actually gained from his local newspaper and pub gossip. The official response to these criticisms led to the implementation of the forerunner of the Home Office Large Major Enquiry System, firstly through the development of MICA (Major Incident Computer Application), which was developed between West Yorkshire Police and ISIS Computer Services. In 1988, the mother of the last victim argued in 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 Police 1988. The House of Lords held that the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire did not owe a duty of care to the mother.
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. Part of the document entitled“Description of suspects, photofits and other assaults” remains censored by the Home Office. Also partly censored was a section on Sutcliffe’s “immediate associates”.
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 there is the possibility that he carried out other attacks on prostitutes and unaccompanied women during that period.” In 1969 Sutcliffe, described in the Byford Report as an “otherwise unremarkable young man”, came to the notice of police on two occasions in connection with incidents involving prostitutes. The report said that it was clear he had on at least one occasion attacked a Bradford prostitute with a blackjack. Also in 1969 he was arrested in the red light district of the city in possession of a hammer. However, rather than believing Sutcliffe might use the hammer as an offensive weapon, the arresting officers assumed he was a burglar and he was charged with “going equipped for stealing.”
Byford’s report states: “We feel it is highly improbable that the crimes in respect of which Sutcliffe has been charged and convicted are the only ones attributable to him. This feeling is reinforced by examining the details of a number of assaults on women since 1969 which, in some ways, clearly fall into the established pattern of Sutcliffe’s overall modus operandi. I hasten to add that I feel sure that the senior police officers in the areas concerned are also mindful of this possibility but, in order to ensure full account is taken of all the information available, I have arranged for an effective liaison to take place.” 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 then Home Secretary, William Whitelaw, but this is 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:
||I have good reason to now [sic] the man you are looking for in the Ripper case. This man as [sic] dealings with prostitutes and always had a thing about them… His name and address is Peter Sutcliffe, 6 Garden Lane, Heaton, Bradford. Works for Clarke’s Transport, Shipley.
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. Birdsall added that he had been with Sutcliffe when Sutcliffe 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 this visit was lost, despite a “comprehensive search” which took place after Sutcliffe’s arrest, according to the report. Byford said:
||The failure to take advantage of Birdsall’s anonymous letter and his visit to the police station was yet again a stark illustration of the progressive decline in the overall efficiency of the major incident room. It resulted in Sutcliffe being at liberty for more than a month when he might conceivably have been in custody. Thankfully, there is no reason to think he committed any further murderous assaults within that period.
Prison and Broadmoor Hospital
Following his conviction and incarceration, Sutcliffe choose to go by the name Peter Coonan, which had been his mother’s maiden name. Sutcliffe began his sentence at HMP Parkhurst on 22 May 1981. Despite being found sane at his trial, he was soon diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia. Attempts to send him to a secure psychiatric unit though were initially blocked. During his time at Parkhurst he was seriously assaulted for the first time. The attack was carried out by James Costello, a 35-year-old career criminal from Glasgow with several convictions for violence. On 10 January 1983, he followed Sutcliffe into the recess of F2, the hospital wing at Parkhurst Prison. He plunged a broken coffee jar twice into the left side of Sutcliffe’s face, creating four separate wounds requiring a total of 30 stitches. In March 1984 Sutcliffe was finally sent to Broadmoor Hospital, under section 47 of the Mental Health Act 1983.
His wife Sonia obtained a separation from him in 1982 and a divorce in April 1994. On 23 February 1996, Sutcliffe was attacked in his private room in the Henley Ward of Broadmoor Hospital. 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 (the “Stockwell Strangler”) and Jamie Devitt, intervened upon hearing Sutcliffe’s screams.
After an attack by fellow inmate Ian Kay on 10 March 1997 with a pen, Sutcliffe lost vision in his left eye, and his right eye was severely damaged. Kay admitted he had tried to kill Sutcliffe, and was ordered to be detained in a secure mental hospital without a time limit.
In 2003, reports surfaced 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 later ratified by Charles Clarke when he took over the role of 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 still the focus of front-page tabloid headlines.
On 22 December 2007, Sutcliffe was attacked again. Fellow inmate Patrick Sureda lunged at him with a metal cutlery knife. Sutcliffe flung himself backwards and the blade missed his right eye, instead stabbing him in the cheek.
On 17 February 2009, it was reported that Sutcliffe was “fit to leave Broadmoor”. On 23 March 2010, the Secretary of State for Justice, then Jack Straw, was questioned by Julie Kirkbride, Conservative MP for Bromsgrove, in the House of Commons. Kirkbride was seeking reassurance for one of her constituents, a victim of Sutcliffe, that he would remain in prison. Straw responded, stating that whilst the matter of Sutcliffe’s release was a parole board matter, “that all the evidence that I have seen on this case, and it’s a great deal, suggests to me that there are no circumstances in which this man will be released”.
2010 appeal and High Court decision
An application by Sutcliffe for a minimum term to be set (offering the possibility of parole after that date if it’s thought safe to release him) was heard by the High Court of Justice on 16 July 2010. The High Court decided that Peter Sutcliffe will never be released. Mr Justice Mitting stated:
“This was a campaign of murder which terrorised the population of a large part of Yorkshire for several years. The only explanation for it, on the jury’s verdict, was anger, hatred and obsession. Apart from a terrorist outrage, it is difficult to conceive of circumstances in which one man could account for so many victims.”
Various psychological reports, describing the mental state of Sutcliffe were taken into consideration, as well as the severity of his crimes. Barring any 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 Coonan had initiated his appeal against the latest decision.
The hearing for his appeal against this ruling began on 30 November 2010 at the Court of Appeal. This appeal 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.