Who Was Peter Sutcliffe?
In 1981, Peter Sutcliffe was identified as the serial killer that the British press had dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper. From 1975 through 1980, Sutcliffe committed at least 13 murders and seven other brutal assaults on women in northern England. Terror spread through the area as the attacks continued, spurring a years-long manhunt that incorporated an estimated 2.5 million police hours. However, the search for Sutcliffe was derailed by problems that included police being unable to process information they'd collected, disrespect for the many victims who were sex workers and a hoax that misdirected the investigation. After he was captured and behind bars, Sutcliffe began using his mother's maiden name and going by Peter William Coonan. The Yorkshire Ripper has attracted continued interest over the years, with his story being told in a true-crime podcast and in the 2020 documentary The Ripper.
Early Life and Career
Sutcliffe was born on June 2, 1946, in Bingley, West Yorkshire, England, to John and Kathleen Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe grew up with five younger siblings, two brothers and three sisters, in a working-class Catholic family. As a teenager he was said to be a loner with voyeuristic tendencies. He left school in 1961, when he was 15.
After leaving school Sutcliffe took on several different jobs, including at a factory and a mill. He became a grave digger in 1964, which led to a part-time job at a local morgue. He bragged to friends about robbing bodies at the morgue.
In 1976, Sutcliffe found a job as a truck driver. He became a trusted employee and remained in the position during his killing spree.
The first woman Sutcliffe is known to have killed was 28-year-old Wilma McCann in October 1975. McCann was a sex worker, and Sutcliffe later confessed to the police, "After that first time, I developed and played up a hatred for prostitutes in order to justify within myself a reason why I had attacked and killed Wilma McCann." He killed another sex worker, Emily Jackson, 42, in January 1976.
In 1977, Sutcliffe took the lives of four women: 28-year-old Irene Richardson in February; 32-year-old Patricia Atkinson in April; 16-year-old Jayne MacDonald in June; and 21-year-old Jean Jordan in October. Of these victims, MacDonald had not engaged in sex work. This change in victim profile resulted in national press attention, and soon the media was using the name the "Yorkshire Ripper" to describe the killer.
Sutcliffe killed three more people in 1978: sex workers Yvonne Pearson, 22, and Helen Rytka, 18, were murdered in separate attacks in January. Sutcliffe took the life of 40-year-old Vera Millward, who was also a sex worker, in May.
In April 1979, Sutcliffe killed Josephine Whittaker, a 19-year-old bank clerk. According to one police detective, "mass hysteria" ensued because more women felt threatened; Whittaker, who'd been killed while walking home, was seen as a "respectable" woman. Fears also heightened following the death of 20-year-old student Barbara Leach in September 1979.
Sutcliffe took two more lives in 1980: civil servant Marguerite Walls, 47, in August and 20-year-old Jacqueline Hill, a student, in November.
Sutcliffe was arrested in the city of Sheffield on January 2, 1981. He was sitting in a car with a sex worker, Olivia Reivers, when police spotted his fake license plates. After he was taken into custody, police discovered screwdrivers in Sutcliffe's car, which resulted in a search that uncovered a hammer and knife stashed near the scene of his arrest (he'd gotten a private moment by telling officers he needed to relieve himself). During his interrogation, Sutcliffe confessed to the crimes, saying, "It's all right, I know what you're leading up to. The Yorkshire Ripper. It's me. I killed all those women."
Sutcliffe was convicted in 1981 of murdering 13 women in Yorkshire and Manchester between 1975 and 1980. In these brutal crimes victims were often battered with a hammer, as well as being stabbed and mutilated with a knife or sharpened screwdriver. At his 1981 trial Sutcliffe was also found guilty of attacking seven other women in the 1975 to 1980 time period. These victims survived, though with lasting trauma and severe injuries.
Sutcliffe has one other confirmed victim — in 1969 he used a sock with a stone in it to strike a woman; she survived but declined to press charges. In addition, a 1982 government inquiry noted, "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." In 2017, police admitted to reviewing unsolved cases for ties to Sutcliffe. In 1992, he reportedly confessed to striking a 14-year-old girl with a hammer in August 1975. However, no additional charges were ever filed against Sutcliffe.
Problems in the Yorkshire Ripper Investigation
Sutcliffe himself said at his trial, "It was just a miracle they did not apprehend me earlier — they had all the facts." But multiple investigatory missteps kept police from capturing Sutcliffe. One issue with the investigation was the sheer quantity of information. So many index cards were filled in that the rooms holding these cards needed reinforced floors. And at the time there were no computers to process the facts on these cards.
Investigators missed other opportunities to stop a killer. Sutcliffe was interviewed by the police nine times prior to his arrest. In one encounter, no one spotted that he was wearing a pair of boots that matched a print left at the scene of one of his crimes. No action was taken when a friend sent the police an anonymous letter denouncing Sutcliffe. And a five-pound banknote discovered on one victim was traced to Sutcliffe's employer, but police accepted Sutcliffe's alibi that he had been at a party.
In 1979, police fell for a hoax tape and letters purportedly from the Yorkshire Ripper, a mistake that had deadly consequences. The accent on the hoax recording led to authorities searching for suspects outside of Yorkshire (Sutcliffe had a Yorkshire accent). Police bought into the hoax even as some survivors informed authorities that their assailant had spoken with a Yorkshire accent. Sutcliffe killed three additional victims between the hoax tape investigatory detour and his arrest.
Police also dismissed some victims who didn't fit into their "prostitute killer" profile. This meant that when Marcella Claxton, who was not a sex worker, survived an assault in May 1976, her testimony was ignored, along with the accurate sketch she'd helped create. In addition, police believed that the women Sutcliffe targeted had engaged in behavior — such as sex work, being out late at night or drinking alone — that had attracted his attention, and counseled women to either stay home at night or only go out with a trusted male escort.
When investigators finally accepted that the killer was not solely targeting sex workers, one detective said Sutcliffe was now pursuing "innocent" victims. This attitude was also on display during Sutcliffe's trial, when a prosecutor said of the victims, "Some were prostitutes, but perhaps the saddest part of the case is that some were not. The last six attacks were on totally respectable women." Following Sutcliffe's death in 2020, a police constable issued an apology "for the additional distress and anxiety caused to all relatives by the language, tone and terminology used by senior officers at the time in relation to Peter Sutcliffe's victims."
Trial and Sentence
Sutcliffe's trial began on May 4, 1981. Though he'd confessed to being the Yorkshire Ripper after his January arrest, in court he pleaded guilty to manslaughter but not guilty to murder, claiming diminished responsibility (akin to a plea of temporary insanity in the United States). Sutcliffe shared that he'd killed sex workers due to his belief that he was on a "divine mission."
Yet Sutcliffe's plea of diminished responsibility, which could have resulted in a lighter sentence, wasn't successful. On May 22, 1981, he was found guilty of 13 murders and seven counts of attempted murder. The judge sentenced him to 20 life terms and recommended a minimum sentence of 30 years. (The death penalty was not an option, having been abolished in 1965.)
In 1984, a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia saw Sutcliffe removed from prison and sent to Broadmoor Hospital, a secure psychiatric facility. While in custody Sutcliffe applied for the right to parole, but a 2010 ruling said that he would never be released from prison. He was declared mentally able to leave the secure hospital and be sent to a maximum-security prison in 2016.
Sutcliffe experienced numerous assaults while in custody. In 1997, an inmate stabbed Sutcliffe's eyes with a pen, and he subsequently lost vision in his left eye.
Sutcliffe died at the age of 74 on November 13, 2020, in the University Hospital of North Durham, near the prison where he'd been serving his sentence.
At the end of October Sutcliffe had been treated for a suspected heart attack at the same hospital where he later died. Following his hospital stay he reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 but refused treatment.
Sutcliffe met Sonia Szurma, whose parents were refugees from Poland and Ukraine, in 1966. The two married on August 10, 1974. They had no children.
Though Sonia no longer lives in the house she and Sutcliffe moved into in 1977, she has not sold the home. Despite the divorce, Sutcliffe named Sonia as his next of kin. She is thought to have planned his funeral.
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