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For half a decade, the Yorkshire Ripper terrorised northern England, attacking and murdering at least twenty women. In the fourth of this five-part miniseries, increasingly disillusioned with the investigation, one of the linguists speaks out, leading to a dramatic fall from grace. But was he right? En clair is a podcast about forensic linguistics, literary detection, and language mysteries from past to present. Below you will find data, audio credits, further reading, and a transcript of the podcast.
Credits, sources, and more
ITN News (13th murder report)
BBC News (Peter Sutcliffe’s arrest)
This is a strong content warning. All parts of this extended, multi-part episode contain strong language and/or descriptions of violent murders. Teachers, guardians, parents, and caregivers should listen to every part of this episode first, and then make their own judgement call about whether this content is suitable for younger or more sensitive audiences.
Case S01E10 – The Yorkshire Ripper, part four of five.
It is the 25th of September, 1979. Around a week has passed since Ellis and Windsor Lewis submitted their reports, and around two weeks has passed since the Chief Constable’s list has been circulated. This list involves eliminating suspects on the basis of age, ethnicity, shoe size, blood group, accent, or handwriting. Quietly, behind the scenes, there is a hint that the perspectives of the linguists are being taken into account, though Ellis and Windsor Lewis will not find this out for years. Detective Chief Superintendent Peter Gilrain does not agree with the decision to eliminate suspects on the basis of accent alone, and he changes the official policy, adding that some other factor must be required for the purposes of elimination. This policy change is made known to senior detectives and officers responsible for eliminating suspects, but despite this, the letters and tape continue to exert a substantial influence on the inquiry, as we will see.
The following day, Gilrain also changes the official policy regarding the elimination of suspects on the basis of blood group. For those who have an extraordinary memory, you might remember that the DNA on the letters showed that the person who licked the envelopes was a rare blood group B secretor, and that this same blood group was found on the Preston ’75 victim in the semen. However, the Preston ’75 victim was also the only one in the Yorkshire Ripper series who was raped and her murder differed in several other key factors.
Welcome to en clair, an archive of forensic linguistics, literary detection, and language mysteries. You can find case notes about this episode, including credits, acknowledgements, and links to further reading at the blog. The web address is given at the end of this episode. And, if you get a moment, leave us a rating wherever you get your podcasts from.
In late September, Ellis and Windsor Lewis are invited to a police conference in Bradford to discuss the contents of their respective reports. Ellis writes about that conference thus:
Certain incidents are very clear in my memory. One is the emphatic way in which Dick Holland outlined his ‘cross-referencing’ of the statements in the letters to the facts of the murders. He himself was obviously convinced of the link, urging that only the murderer, or possibly a policeman, could have had sufficient knowledge of internal happenings that were unknown generally. I did not find this convincing. There were certain matters quite unconnected with my own part of the case where even I could see discrepancies. In fact, a New Statesman reporter, Rob Rohrer, showed clearly in a later article that all the incidents in the murder stories were widely published before the letters or tape were received and could have been known to anyone who had closely followed the published material. In other words, neither the recording nor the letters betrayed ‘inside’, non-publicly available knowledge of the crimes. Another memory, a very personal one, is of a brief visit by the Chief Constable, Ronald Gregory, to the room where we were meeting. His gaze passed over us dismissively. His famous newspaper article criticizing us was published much later. After that meeting, but still within the precincts of the police station, we were approached by several senior officers who agreed with our view that the cases should be treated as two separate enquiries, a hoaxer and a murderer, but they accepted that in the absence of anything else they must follow up this lead, and a ‘line’ had to be taken.
Windsor Lewis is no less firm in his conviction that the opinions of the linguists, and of the commanding officers, has begun to drift very far apart:
The police officers directing the investigations had not only been unwilling to acknowledge publicly our very strong conviction that they were dealing with a hoaxer but even made it clear that we were not to consider ourselves free to speak our minds on the matter in public. We were given to understand that we should have been regarded as ‘breaking ranks’ had we done so. That had been their invariable line from the time when they first released the tape to the public, as ex-Chief Constable Ronald Gregory acknowledged in his notorious series of articles in the Mail on Sunday newspaper in the summer of 1983 under the title ‘The Ripper file’ (Gregory 1983). On page 32 of the issue of that newspaper of 3 July 1983 he stated that “a meeting of senior officers from the six forces involved … agreed that our public front would be to stress our total conviction that they were authentic”, meaning of course the tape and the letters.
It is already clear at this stage that Ellis and Windsor Lewis are not alone in their opinion, but there is a problem, and a significant one. They are outsiders. Linguists. They have been brought in as experts to analyse samples of language, not as criminologists to analyse possible obstruction of justice, and certainly not matters of murder. Commenting on the authenticity of the letters and tape, rather than simply restricting themselves to sociolinguistic profiling – that is, trying to divine Wearside Jack’s age, education, origins, and so forth – could be seen as teetering on the very edge, if not straying fully outside of their remit. It would have been easy, then, for the commanding officers to see any commentary that Ellis or Windsor Lewis gave on the provenance of the Wearside Jack communications as the linguists inappropriately overstepping their place in the investigation, of presuming too much, and quite frankly, becoming troublesome. Perhaps even more trouble than they were worth.
The voices of consternation and dissent, however, are growing. Detective Inspector Dave Zackrisson from Sunderland Police undertakes his own analysis of the letters and is the first to spot the error in the body count. The first and second letters, sent after the murder of Yvonne Pearson, but before the discovery of her body, each boast the wrong number of victims. As mentioned previously, had these letters really been written by the killer, this seems like a fact that he simply could not have helped but gloat over as a sign of police incompetence. Zackrisson also spots an article in a newspaper that notes the likeness between the Wearside Jack letters and the letters supposedly authored by Jack the Ripper, the infamous Victorian London murderer. Zackrisson writes up a nine-page report entitled, “Notes on the letters and tape” and he sends it on to West Yorkshire Police. This report seems to suffer a similar fate to that of Ellis’ and Windsor Lewis’.
But the dissent does not stop here. Another external, but arguably more powerful voice is that of Robert Ressler, a US profiling expert. He happens to be in the UK at the relevant time and, upon becoming acquainted with the letters and tape, immediately describes them as an obvious hoax.
Other police forces, too, by sometimes gentler and sometimes louder means, attempt to encourage the West Yorkshire Police to remove the prominence of the letters and tapes from the inquiry.
Even survivors of the attacks try to convince the police that this is an error. The head of the Ripper inquiry, Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield, goes to see Tracy Browne, taking a copy of the tape with him. This is the fourteen-year-old who was attacked at her farm gate, and spent years insisting that her attacker matched the photofit provided by other Yorkshire Ripper victims. In her own words, Tracy says,
George Oldfield came round and asked me to listen to the Geordie tape. I said: “Look, he’s not a Geordie. He’s a Yorkshireman. I can tell the difference between a Yorkshire accent and a Geordie accent.” But it was like banging my head against a brick wall. I felt, I don’t know whether I’m coming or going. So do the police know whether they’re coming or going?
In spite of all of this – the changes in policy by the Chief Superintendent, the hints from other forces, the outright statements from external security experts, the descriptions from victims, the opinion of the linguists – still, a cluster of the commanding officers at West Yorkshire Police determine that they are right, that the letters and tape are real, and that Wearside Jack and the Yorkshire Ripper are one and the same person.
In fact, their conviction is such that, far from cautiously rethinking the place of these communications in the inquiry, on the 02nd of October 1979, they launch a £1 million publicity campaign funded largely by local industry, with a small contribution from the Police Authority. This involves putting up huge posters with samples of Wearside Jack’s handwriting on them, and broadcasting the tape as widely as possible throughout the North West and North East of England.
The response to this media blitz crushes the Millgarth incident room, and they frantically take down the names of potential suspects. After all, some people treat such rewards-based calls like a lottery, handing in a name just on the principle that if they guess correctly, they’ll get a handsome reward. And some suggest people they have grudges against, in the hopes of making their lives hard – a sort of primitive form of SWATing. And some people just like to waste police time. Whatever the motivations of any given caller, within a month, the suspect list has exploded to over 17,000 names, and yet, in the months afterwards, the Ripper inquiry press officer will describe the influx of tips and calls as “100% rubbish”.
In addition to this, the force undertakes a huge inquiry in Castletown, investigating accents and handwriting, to the extent that it seems every inhabitant is eventually questioned, but Southwick, Ellis’ other suggested possible location, is left entirely untouched. Instead, in Ellis’ words,
The police became so nervous that, whenever calls came in from clearly disturbed hoaxers claiming to be ready to carry out further murders, they deemed it necessary to ask one or other of us, and indeed many other phoneticians from all over Britain, to examine the tapes. They would ask me to travel to Leeds early on Sunday mornings to listen to messages left over Saturday night on the telephone recorders of national newspapers. I remember driving the fourteen miles to Leeds from home to listen to an obviously wildly drunken Irishman threatening mayhem and claiming to be ‘the Ripper’. The lack of confidence in their own judgement became most marked. Squads of police, three or four at a time, would call at my home or at the university, bringing other comparison recordings. Almost all of these could be dismissed with very little analysis as completely unlike the original. ‘Geordies’ originating from all over the Sunderland area, and indeed from all over north-east England, were being recorded with little justification and the tapes forwarded to us for comment. The amount of time I spent examining these recordings was enormous.
On the one hand, Ellis seems almost indispensable to an increasingly jittery, nerve-wracked investigation, and yet, perversely, on the other hand, despite his unfailing willingness to help and the sacrifice of so many hours to help, a handful of commanding officers seem resentful of taking Ellis’ painstaking and thoroughly considered expertise onboard. Instead, almost arbitrarily, they pick and choose which bits to agree with and which bits to entirely ignore, leaving Ellis and Windsor Lewis sometimes perplexed, and other times, dismayed and frustrated.
The one that got away, again, and again, and again
October brings with it another attempted murder. A man wielding a hammer attacks an unnamed 21 year-old woman on a railway footbridge in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, but he is disturbed by a passerby and the victim survives. The description she is able to give closely matches Sutcliffe’s appearance: swarthy complexion, bearded, with dark hair. The officer in charge, and many members of his staff, believe that the attack is part of the series, but senior officers disagree and instruct them to investigate the attack as a “non-Ripper” crime. It is possible that there were, indeed, key differences, but it is also possible that the senior officers were simply floundering under pressure, and did not want to give the media or senior government figures any further reason to voice yet more displeasure. Sutcliffe has also never admitted to this attack, but it should be borne in mind that he also did not admit to other attacks, sometimes for years, before finally acknowledging them as his, so there is no way of knowing now whether this was a part of the series or not.
Whatever the case, on the 23rd of that same month, October, Sutcliffe is interviewed again. A previous alibi he has given has been deemed inadequate, and they now wish to check his whereabouts during the murder of Barbara Leach. These officers do not know about the previous interview by Laptew and Greenwood, nor about the subsequent report that they submitted recommending a follow-up. Under questioning, Sutcliffe claims he was working on home improvements on the night of Barbara Leach’s murder, and his wife corroborates this. Another handwriting sample is obtained, and again, Sutcliffe is eliminated from the inquiry on the basis of this sample not matching the Wearside Jack letters.
Three months later, on the 13th of January, 1980, Sutcliffe is interviewed yet again. The officers this time are unaware of most of Sutcliffe’s previous interviews until Sutcliffe himself volunteers this information. The two detectives search his garage, car, footwear, and tools, but they fail to find the pair of wellington boots hidden in a wardrobe that have been used in previous murders. They later return to check the information about the vehicle, but some documents are missing. Whilst the officers know that Sutcliffe has twice been eliminated because of his handwriting, they are suspicious and they recommend that he is interviewed again. Accordingly, two weeks later, on the 30th of January, Sutcliffe is interviewed at his place of work by a Detective Sergeant from Manchester and a Detective Constable from West Yorkshire. Both officers are satisfied with his responses.
Eight days later, on the 07th of February, Sutcliffe is interviewed yet again. They, too, are unaware of many of the previous interviews Sutcliffe has already undertaken, and of the report by Laptew and Greenwood. One of the officers, Detective Constable Jackson, decides that he is unable to eliminate Sutcliffe until he has had a conversation with his senior officers. In that conversation he is told that Sutcliffe has been alibied by his wife and mother on 01st and 09th of October 1977. Sutcliffe is yet again eliminated as a suspect.
Four months later, on the 25th of June, Sutcliffe is arrested in Manningham – a red-light district in Bradford – in connection with a drink-driving offence. Given the location, the arresting officers pass his details onto the main incident room at Millgarth and they are told in response that Sutcliffe has been eliminated from the inquiry.
After possibly being unnerved the first few times, it seems impossible that Sutcliffe could be interviewed and then eliminated so many times without starting to become increasingly assured that the police are deeply incompetent or that he is somehow untouchable, or even both. Whether for this reason or due to some other motive, after almost a year of apparent inactivity, Sutcliffe suddenly starts attacking once a month again.
The darkest winter
Two months after Sutcliffe’s drink-driving arrest, on the 20th of August, there is another attack, this time in Leeds. This victim is 47-year-old Marguerite Walls, a civil servant. She is walking through Leeds when she is struck over the head, knocked down, and then strangled with a piece of cord. Her body is stripped, indecently assaulted, then hidden under a pile of grass cuttings in the grounds of a large house. Due to its differences, this murder is not linked to the series. Later, however, Sutcliffe will confess to this attack.
A month later, on the 24th of September, there is another attempted murder. This time the victim is Uphadya Bandara, a 35-year-old doctor from Singapore. She is attacked with a hammer and strangled with a piece of cord, but incredibly, Uphadya survives. She describes her attacker, but despite the similarity with previous descriptions of the Yorkshire Ripper, because of the use of cord and strangulation rather than a knife and stabbing, the crime is linked with Marguerite Walls’ murder, rather than with the series. Later, Sutcliffe will confess to this attack too.
Another month, another attack. In October of 1980, a 20-year-old unnamed student at Leeds University is struck in the head with a hammer. A passerby witnesses part of the attack. She sees a struggle and realises that a man has his arm raised. When he flees, she goes to the spot where he was stood, and finds the victim in the gutter covered in blood. The student survives but with a broken jaw and a dented and fractured skull. Doctors explain that her injuries are similar to those of other Yorkshire Ripper victims, but though this is reported to the police, this is, again, not linked to the Ripper series. Sutcliffe never confesses to this attack.
A few weeks later, on of 05th of November, in Huddersfield, 16-year-old Teresa Sykes is walking on a footpath back from the shops when she is struck in the head with a hammer, resulting in severe head injuries. The attack is interrupted when the man she is living with hears her screams and runs out of the house. He pursues Sutcliffe, who flees and hides under a hedge. Teresa Sykes survives and is able to give a description of her attacker which matches that of Sutcliffe. Yet again, despite the similarities to previous attacks, and, despite many detectives in the case believing that the Yorkshire Ripper is responsible, this case is also not linked with the series – that is, not until Sutcliffe finally confesses to it after his capture.
One might wonder why, particularly throughout the autumn and winter of 1980, the police were so reluctant, time and again, to link crimes that had clear similarities with the other Yorkshire Ripper attacks. And in fairness to them, there are arguments to be made both ways, about the evils of linking too many crimes that are not related, and the evils of linking too few that are related. Firstly, the benefit of hindsight is wonderful, and everything seems so clear and obvious decades later, but at the time, when presented with new crimes, the police will have had to grapple with a host of questions. Was this a copycat? An aggrieved partner or relation utilising a now-infamous method of violence as a way of throwing the detectives onto the wrong track? Statistically, of course, one must work out whether it is more probable for a single serial killer to occasionally change their habits, or if it is more probable to suddenly have two serial killers active at the same time and in the same place, one appearing to loosely copy some of the habits of the other. Intuitively the former option – a change in habit – sounds more likely but that doesn’t make the latter – two attackers – or even both options, impossible.
In trying to keep unrelated crimes apart from the Yorkshire Ripper series, the police were endeavouring to prevent high quality intelligence and data in each case from contaminating each other and wasting time and resources. However, by inadvertently cutting out what later transpired to be Yorkshire Ripper crimes, the police also unwittingly cut out potentially vital clues and opportunities for better insights.
There were, however, arguably less pure motivations for keeping the numbers of Yorkshire Ripper victims low. The fuse on the powder keg of pressure from senior government officials and powerful civil servants was burning critically short. Just one more apparent failure, one more bad headline, one more unsolved murder, and the keg might blow. In spite of all the efforts to prevent this happening, finally, twelve days after the attack on 16-year-old Teresa Sykes, or by the official timeline of Yorkshire Ripper attacks, just over a year after the murder of 20-year-old student, Barbara Leach, the last of the fuse burns up.
The powder keg
On Monday the 17th of November, 1980, near the Arndale Centre in Leeds, Sutcliffe murders another university student. 20-year-old Jacqueline Hill is a student at Leeds University – the same university where Ellis and Windsor Lewis work – had even attended the classes of Stanley Ellis in her first year. Sutcliffe disables her with violent hammer blows to the head, then, almost interrupted by another woman walking down the same road, he drags her onto wasteland and repeatedly stabs her. It takes two full days before the police finally link this murder with the series of crimes, but finally, on Wednesday the 19th, this update is circulated to all forces.
Within hours, the powder keg blows up. According to The Telegraph, the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher…
…had been so vexed by the Ripper’s growing tally of victims and what she regarded as police incompetence that she summoned her Home Secretary, William Whitelaw, and announced her intention of going to Leeds that very weekend to sideline Gregory and to take personal charge of the investigation herself.
Whether this apocryphal story is true or not, there is evidence that government officials in very high places are extremely unhappy.
Instead of Margaret Thatcher that weekend, instead, on Monday the 24th of November, exactly a week after Jacqueline Hill’s murder, they received a visit from an inspector from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary. I cannot imagine that this meeting was much fun for the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police, Ronald Gregory, or for any of the officers present, especially since the inspector has been personally sent by the Home Secretary, Sir William Whitelaw, with two objectives: to discuss the capabilities of the people in charge, and to provide the inquiry with a Consultative Committee made up of senior officers. He also announces that the Home Secretary, Sir William Whitelaw himself will visit the Ripper team at a later date.
After an update from the inspector, the very next day, Tuesday the 25th of November, the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meets again with her Home Secretary, Sir William Whitelaw, and also with the most senior civil servant in the United Kingdom, Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong, and the Permanent Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Sir Brian Cubbon. The consequences from that meeting are immediate and drastic. Chief Constable Ronald Gregory is spared, though one hardly knows by how much. Instead, Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield is summarily removed from his command of the Ripper inquiry. Instead, Detective Chief Superintendent James Hobson is appointed to the position of Assistant Chief Constable and he is given control of the investigation.
Hobson is also provided with the Consultative Committee made up of senior officers that I mentioned earlier. This consists of four senior officers from other police forces with no prior connection to the Ripper series, along with a forensic scientist. Their task is to review the case thus far and then report their findings to Chief Constable Ronald Gregory. In turn, Gregory has the dubious distinction of being answerable to the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister.
Meanwhile, far away from such lofty, ancient halls of power, on the ground at the Millgarth Incident Room, an anonymous note arrives. It is written on Tuesday the 25th of November, 1980, the same day that Thatcher holds her supposedly enraged meeting with her most senior civil servants, but it is not delivered till the next day. Its contents are potentially explosive. The writer indicates that one Peter William Sutcliffe seems to be responsible for the Yorkshire Ripper crimes. This claim is supported by a number of small points about Sutcliffe’s character, and vague information about an incident involving a sex worker. The writer of the note, however, claims that he cannot give a detailed account for fear of being identified.
Detective Sergeant Boot receives this note and marks it “Action to trace/interview Sutcliffe”. He initials and dates it and marks it Priority No. 1, meaning that this is an easy action containing sufficient detail to execute. This note is then directed to the Millgarth Incident Room, where it vanishes into the mountains of paperwork.
Later the same day, at 10:10pm, the author makes an appearance at the police station in person. So who is this anonymous author? It’s a figure all the way back from the start of the very first episode in this mini-series: Sutcliffe’s friend, Trevor Birdsall. And why has he suddenly come forwards now? His girlfriend, Gloria Conroy, has convinced him that he must. Birdsall does not mention he is the author of the anonymous note, but he does repeat his general apprehensions about Sutcliffe to Constable Butler. He mentions the first incident involving the stone in the sock, and he explains his suspicions about Sutcliffe’s involvement in an assault that took place in Halifax while Birdsall was waiting for Sutcliffe in the car. Unbeknown to Birdsall at that moment, he is in fact describing Sutcliffe’s attack on Olive Smelt.
Policewoman Nicholson writes up a report of Birdsall’s account. Constable Butler signs it and submits it to the Incident Room at Millgarth, where it is read by Constable Summers. And then, like so many other pieces of paperwork – Birdsall’s note, the linguists’ reports, Zackrisson’s analysis, Laptew and Greenwood’s interview write-up – this report too, simply vanishes into the mountains of unread paperwork.
Fall from grace
Speaking of the linguists, what have they been up to all this time?
Well, behind the scenes, over the last year, Ellis has been quietly and competently analysing the samples brought to him by the police, maintaining his discretion and shunning any media attention about the case. Thatcher’s change in the investigation’s leadership, however, will trigger a chain of events that no one could have foreseen, culminating in Windsor Lewis, and by association, linguistics, exploding back into the foreground of the investigation, but this return to prominence is going to be about as welcome to the commanding officers as a thunderclap to a flock of sleepy pigeons.
When Hobson takes over the investigation in late November of 1980, he is asked by the media a few days later what new developments he can share about the killer. In amongst his other findings, he revives the old theory from the Glasgow linguists that the killer likely has a stammer, based on his articulation of the word sorry and his long pauses. As you might remember, this was a theory that neither Windsor Lewis nor Ellis subscribed to. Regardless, Hobson presents the idea as though both linguists are in agreement with the theory on its own merits, and with the underlying implication that the Wearside Jack tape really is from the killer. Aghast, Windsor Lewis decides that silence is no longer an option.
At this juncture I decided, come what may, to speak out against what I strongly felt was the folly of the police leadership line. At least I knew I would have the sympathy of many of the less exalted detectives who were putting in such hard work on the case and there was a hope that there might be a wide measure of acceptance of my contention that it was vitally necessary to be on the look-out for a killer who might have any sort of accent and who would be perfectly likely to have one from the locality in which he had been active. I had for a long time had an open invitation from the main newspaper of the region, the Yorkshire Post, whose principal crime reporter, Roger Cross, later wrote the best of the several books that were published on the case (Cross 1981), to contribute an article on it.
Windsor Lewis’ clapback takes a few days to come to fruition, but sure enough, on Wednesday the 03rd of December, 1980, it arrives on doorsteps all over Leeds, Bradford, Halifax, and beyond. The front-page headline of that day’s Yorkshire Post reads:
VOICE EXPERT DISMISSES VITAL CLUE AS JUST A RED HERRING
This article by crime correspondent Roger Cross describes Windsor Lewis’ belief that the creator of the letters and tape is a “super-hoaxer”. Within the Yorkshire Post, on page nine, is a special article by Jack Windsor Lewis himself. He describes this report in his own words thus:
I decided to explain in the simplest language possible, as they headlined it, Why I believe [the] Ripper tape is a hoax, taking the Hobson announcement as the starting point. I pointed out how that by then so famous voice, while lacking many of the best known north-eastern features, did contain enough characteristics to enable it to be traced to a quite narrowly specifiable geographical area. This, along with personal peculiarities, such as slight imperfections of articulation, meant that the number of people who could share even most, let alone all, of these features could hardly be reckoned even in hundreds. I also mentioned the letters, referring to the 1,400-word report on them that I had submitted to the police in September 1979 with the recommendation that it should be made public as soon as possible because it drew attention to some striking features that could well have helped someone to identify the wanted person to the police. … I repeated what should have been clear to the police leadership fourteen months and two murders earlier, i.e. It seems to me that it may well be that the greatest single obstacle to the successful pursuit of the man who has committed these murders is the red herring of the Geordie letter writer and tape speaker. This obviously deeply embarrassed Assistant Chief Constable Jim Hobson and his colleagues, especially when it was at once taken up by the national news media. I was invited to repeat the charge in radio and television broadcasts, which included the BBC Nine o’clock News. The police made statements insisting that they were ’99 per cent certain’ (that was according to Mr Hobson; his press officer Superintendent Frank Morritt was only ’95 per cent certain’) that the Geordie voice was that of the murderer they had been seeking unsuccessfully for so long. One month later, two Sheffield policemen arrested a man whom they suspected of involvement in the murders. They plainly had been undeterred by the fact that he was obviously audibly a Yorkshireman. I like to think that they may have been encouraged in their alertness, at least to some extent, by their knowledge of the fact that there were some of us who strongly disagreed with the convictions of their superior officers who had been directing those notorious investigations ineffectively so long and so tragically.
We will come back to those two Sheffield officers that Windsor Lewis mentions shortly.
The very next day after this article is published, meanwhile, on Thursday the 04th of December, a message is sent to the Prime Minister. The Home Secretary, Sir William Whitelaw, will personally visit Leeds and Wakefield to talk to the Ripper team about the inquiry. He will arrive a week hence, on Friday the 12th of December.
Having broken ranks, stated their fears that Wearside Jack and the Yorkshire Ripper are two different people, and in doing so, publicly humiliated the police, the linguists are now in deep disgrace – a disgrace so severe that, as already mentioned, the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police, Ronald Gregory, will go on to single them out for public criticism in a stinging tabloid article soon afterwards. Before we get there, however, let us now go back to those two Sheffield officers and their initially unremarkable arrest of a Yorkshireman.
It is almost exactly a month to the day since Windsor Lewis’ Yorkshire Post article – that is, around 4pm on Friday the 02nd of January, 1981. It has been raining and the weather, unsurprising for early January, is cold and overcast. Peter Sutcliffe leaves his home in Heaton and drives his Rover to a scrapyard near to Leeds. There, he picks up a numberplate fallen from a Skoda, and pulls the other numberplate off. Using black electrical tape, he fits the stolen plates over the top of his Rover’s real plates, and sets off again. After various stops by petrol stations and so forth, thirty miles later, he is driving through Havelock Square, a red-light area of Sheffield. It is now 10pm and aside from the dull orange streetlights, the darkness is complete. Six weeks have passed since the murder of 20-year-old Leeds University student, Jacqueline Hill.
Sutcliffe pulls up beside a 19-year-old sex worker and asks if she is “doing business”, but something about his stare and manners frighten her and she quickly walks away. Sutcliffe drives on, turns onto Broomhall Street, and then pulls up beside 24-year-old Olivia St. Elmo Reivers. Reivers has been a sex worker for four years. In her words:
I was walking on the pavement when it stopped. The driver asked me if I was doing business and I said I was. I told him it was £10 in the car with a rubber. [A rubber is a condom.] He said that it was OK.
They drive a short distance to Melbourne Avenue and park in front of the Light Trades House. According to Reivers, after Sutcliffe pays her £10, he asks if they can talk first, and when she agrees, he states that he has had an argument with his wife. He says that his name is Dave, and she in turn says that her name is Sharon. After this, according to Reivers, they attempt to have sex but after ten minutes of trying, Sutcliffe is unable perform. They resume chatting, and Sutcliffe is just telling her how he is unable to have sex with his wife when they are dazzled by the headlights of another car that turns and parks directly in front of the Rover.
Police Sergeant Robert Ring of South Yorkshire Police, and Probationary Constable Robert John Hydes have been undertaking mobile observations of the Havelock Square red-light district when they spot the dark shape of Sutcliffe’s car parked in the Light Trades House drive. It is no mystery what is probably happening, since this is, after all, a red-light district. When they pull up in front of the Rover, tap on Sutcliffe’s window, and ask him who he is, he initially tells them that his name is Peter Williams, gives a false address, and indicates that the woman in his car is his girlfriend. Unfortunately, when the officers ask him what her name is, he cannot remember, and rather predictably, the police become even more sceptical of his story. Moreover, a search on the Police National Computer, or PNC, soon reveals that the car’s numberplates are stolen. Sutcliffe and Reivers are promptly arrested for theft. Realising that the plates are only taped on, Constable Hydes pulls them off and takes down the Rover’s real registration plate, and then he and Sergeant Ring turn their attention to Reivers. She soon confesses her real name, and another search of the Police National Computer reveals that she has been convicted of prostitution in the past. The officers take Reivers back to the police car to interview her further, leaving Sutcliffe sitting, for the time being, in the driver’s seat of his Rover.
As he watches them lead Reivers away, Sutcliffe realises that he is in imminent danger of being caught red-handed with a ball-pein hammer and a knife under his car-seat. Sutcliffe grabs the weapons, conceals them, tells the surprised officers that he is bursting for the toilet, and quickly walks out of sight behind a stone patio. There he hastily finds somewhere to hide the hammer and knife. However, he has no chance to dispose of a second knife that he is carrying on his person, concealed within the lining of his coat, and now it is too late. The police have determined to take both Sutcliffe and Reivers back to the station for further questioning.
The police then either do not search Sutcliffe at all, or they do not search him well, and he is driven to the nearby Hammerton Road Police Station with his knife still on him, entirely undiscovered. Upon arrival, again, he claims that he needs the toilet and again, he is allowed to go, unattended. Taking the opportunity, Sutcliffe drops his second knife in the cistern of a toilet. In his pocket, however, he retains the length of cord that he used to strangle Marguerite Walls and Upadhaya Bandara.
Because he has been captured in the red-light district, and based on his real plates, the officers contact the Millgarth Incident Room, find the car owner’s real name – Peter Sutcliffe – and discover that this person has been interviewed about the Yorkshire Ripper inquiry several times. Despite the fact that he has been repeatedly eliminated on the basis of his handwriting and on alibis from his wife and mother and that his accent does not match Wearside Jack’s, given all the circumstances – the false name, the stolen plates, the sex worker in his vehicle, and so on – they determine that the situation needs closer scrutiny. Under a little more questioning, Sutcliffe finally admits to his real identity, but though he is questioned further, they make no progress in discovering that he is the Yorkshire Ripper. Instead he talks about why he stole the plates, his elapsed car insurance, and an upcoming court appearance for a drink-driving offence.
Midnight passes, the 03rd of January 1981 arrives, the interviews are finally finished, and by 2:30am, Sutcliffe has been returned to his cell, where he immediately and unconcernedly falls asleep. Though he has almost been caught red-handed with his weapons just moments before his intended murder of Reivers, and though he is now locked up in a cell in a police station, Sutcliffe will later reveal that at this stage, he had no worries about his predicament. He has had so many previous interviews with the police. His house and garage and car have all been searched multiple times. In spite of it all, he has been repeatedly eliminated based on his handwriting, or his alibis, or mistakes in the system. Why should this time be any different? He need only convince them that this has been a simple case of theft, and before long, he will be a free man again. His confidence, as it turns out, is well-founded.
Since the theft of the plates occurred in the Dewsbury Police Station jurisdiction, at around 8am on Saturday the 03rd of January, Sutcliffe is transported there for further questioning. Though he is technically being held for theft, however, overnight, the police have established enough clear possible connections to the murders and attacks to make him a potential suspect in the Yorkshire Ripper case. As a result, the Ripper Squad send Detective Sergeant O’Boyle to question him. O’Boyle’s main goals are to determine whether he is the Yorkshire Ripper, of course, but also to get a blood sample. Initially, Sutcliffe refuses to consent to a blood test, but his objections are mild, reasonable, and short-lived and at last he undergoes the procedure. The test results will not come in for days, however – far longer than he can be legally held if they haven’t yet charged him, so O’Boyle’s only option is to interview Sutcliffe and decide, based on his answers, whether he is the Yorkshire Ripper or not. O’Boyle interviews Sutcliffe for hours, but Sutcliffe is calm, cooperative, plausible, even personable. He seems to have reasonable answers to every question. At last, convinced, O’Boyle prepares to recommend that Sutcliffe be released, but he runs into an unexpected obstacle.
The Chief Superintendent at Dewsbury has very different ideas. He is not convinced by Sutcliffe at all. Moreover, he is annoyed and affronted that the Ripper Squad has sent a mere Detective Sergeant to interview what he believes to be a highly plausible suspect. Not satisfied with the affair, he orders that Sutcliffe remain in custody. Accordingly, at around 10pm, Sutcliffe is sent back to his cell for the night, with the promise of further questioning in the morning.
Back in Sheffield, meanwhile, as Sutcliffe steps into his cell in Dewsbury Police Station, Sergeant Robert Ring – one of the two Sheffield officers who arrested Sutcliffe – steps into the office of Hammerton Road Police Station. He has just come back on duty for another night shift, and within minutes he discovers not only that the man he arrested the night before is still being held at Dewsbury, but that the Chief Superintendent there considers him a promising suspect in the Ripper investigation.
Recalling the events of the arrest, and especially Sutcliffe’s sudden, suspicious disappearance to supposedly relieve himself, Sergeant Ring returns to the Light Trades House drive. It is, again, pitch black, but by torchlight, Sergeant Ring scours the area, working his way carefully around the stone patio.
At around 11pm, he finds the ball-pein hammer and the knife.
It goes without saying that the significance of this discovery is extraordinary, and, leaving the weapons where they are, Sergeant Ring races back to Hammerton Road Station to breaks the news. Though it is almost midnight and the weekend, the result is instant and dramatic. Police forces across West Yorkshire mobilise into frantic activity. As the page of Saturday the 03rd of January turns gradually over to Sunday the 04th, teams of officers are dispatched back to the Light Trades House where the weapons have been found, scouring the entire area. Another team races to Sutcliffe’s Bradford home, waking his wife, and they proceed to search every inch of his house from top to bottom. Yet another team is assigned to re-interview Olivia Reivers and the other sex worker that Sutcliffe had frightened earlier on the night he was arrested, who they have since found. And another team is, of course, dedicated to interviewing Sutcliffe as soon and as thoroughly as possible.
Throughout the morning of Sunday the 04th of January, 1981, these interviews take a softly-softly approach in which the officers endeavour to cut off all possible alibies and explanations without indicating that this is their purpose. At last, however, somewhere around lunchtime, they come directly to the point and reveal that they have found the weapons. Finally, in this moment, after six years and around a dozen run-ins with the police, Sutcliffe is, at last, cornered. It is an almost impossible scenario to explain away, so he does not bother to try. Instead, he chooses to confess, starting with the words, “Well, it’s me”.
By 5:30pm, the first announcements of the arrest and its significance have been made to the press, and the news spreads like wildfire. Then at 8:30pm, the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police, Ronald Gregory holds a press conference:
[Press conference audio here:
Gregory: A man was detained in Sheffield by the Sheffield police in connection with a matter which was identified as theft of number plates of a motor car and the number plates had been stolen from the West Yorkshire area. He was brought to West Yorkshire as a result of discussions between the South Yorkshire police and the West Yorkshire police; further inquiries were made and this man is now detained here in West Yorkshire and he is being questioned in relation to the Yorkshire Ripper murders. It is anticipated that he will appear before the court in Dewsbury tomorrow. I cannot say where he is at the moment because a lot of inquiries have to be made. Mr Oldfield and Mr Hobson and other senior investigating officers have to make a number of inquiries tonight but I can tell you that we are absolutely delighted with developments at this stage, absolutely delighted.
Journalist: Can you tell us whether he has a Geordie accent?
Gregory: I cannot tell you that because I’ve not heard him speak.
Journalist: Had he got a North East accent?
Gregory: I don’t know about that, I don’t know yet. I’ve not spoken to him.]
At this press conference, Superintendent Morritt sits to Gregory’s left. To his right, despite no longer being officially attached to the inquiry, is the previous head of the Ripper Squad, Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield. Though only 61, in the footage of this press conference, Oldfield looks – to me at least – to be in extremely poor health, no doubt attributable at least in part to the heart attack he had suffered eighteen months earlier in August of 1979, shortly after the Wearside Jack tape arrived. He seems to struggle to take a meaningful part in the event, rousing himself only when directly asked by the journalists to look cheerful for the cameras. A year after this interview, he will have another heart attack and three years after that, he will pass away, aged just 66. There is a pervasive belief that the extreme and unrelenting stress of the Ripper investigation was a primary factor in his severe decline in health and untimely death.
This press conference also draws sharp criticism from both the public and government figures. The repeated exclamations of delight and the statement later in the interview that the Ripper inquiry will be immediately scaled down are viewed as heavily presumptive of Sutcliffe’s guilt. Legally, Sutcliffe must be treated as innocent until proven guilty, and such celebrations and actions could be considered contempt of court, since they imply that the person they have caught is definitely guilty before he has even been given a chance to defend himself in court – a sovereign right of every person in this country. The fact that a very senior police officer whose judgement many will unquestioningly accept is making these sorts of statements on such a high profile case to the media at a moment of extremely intense scrutiny could very easily impact Sutcliffe’s right to a fair trial.
Speaking to the attorney general, Sir Michael Havers, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham is said to have complained,
How can I be expected to get the Contempt Bill through Parliament in an acceptable form, or how can you be expected to operate the law at all when the police, including a chief constable, behave like this?
We return, however, to mid-afternoon on the 04th of January, far away from the journalists and cameras. Sitting in a small interview room in Dewsbury Police Station, Sutcliffe spends roughly ten hours giving an initial confession that runs to over fifty handwritten pages, finishing in the early hours of Monday the 05th of January. Even at this stage, though, he is not completely forthcoming, admitting to only fifteen of the attacks. As more evidence is unearthed over the subsequent days, linking him to further attacks and murders, he acknowledges these too, and five more crimes are added to the charge sheet that will eventually be presented in court. Even after this, it will be another ten years before Sutcliffe will admit responsibility for two further attacks, but we will come back to these later.
Although now largely unneeded, several days later, Sutcliffe’s blood test result comes back. It is both surprising, and yet, at the same time, entirely predictable. Sutcliffe is the correct blood group that they have been looking for – that is, the rare group B. But he is non-secretor. As a result, he cannot be responsible for the semen found on the Preston ’75 victim – a murder he strenuously denies committing in interview. Sure enough, in 2011, a DNA test carried out as part of a cold case review shows that the killer was probably convicted sex offender Christopher Smith from Leeds, who died of cancer, aged 60, in 2008.
Moreover, the blood test result also shows that Sutcliffe cannot be responsible for the saliva found on the Wearside Jack envelopes. And even if this test result is not enough to discredit the possibility that Sutcliffe is Wearside Jack, there is other, far more immediate and obvious evidence. His voice and accent and handwriting clearly do not match the tape or the letters. In fact, he has a distinct working class Bradford accent. Just as the linguists and so many others had feared, Wearside Jack and the Yorkshire Ripper are, incontrovertibly, two different people.
But will we ever find out who Wearside Jack is? Find out in the next episode.
End of part four of five.
This episode of en clair was researched and fact-checked by Rebecca Jagodziński. And it was scripted, narrated, and produced by me, Dr Claire Hardaker. However this work wouldn’t exist in its current form without the prior effort of many others. You can find acknowledgements and references for those people at the blog. Also there you can find data, links, articles, pictures, older cases, and more besides.
The address for the blog is wp.lancs.ac.uk/enclair. And you can follow the podcast on Twitter at _enclair. If you like, you can follow Rebecca on Twitter at RjJagodzinski, and you can follow me on Twitter at DrClaireH.