Peter Sutcliffe: The Yorkshire Ripper

For five years the women of Yorkshire and the north of England lived under a cloud of fear as an unidentified assailant butchered women. The culprit: an apparently normal, mild-mannered Bradford man with a wife and a job.

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Peter Sutcliffe: The Yorkshire Ripper

Peter Sutcliffe: The Yorkshire Ripper

Sutcliffe was fastidious about his appearance and knew he was good-looking. Even one of his surviving victims described him as having "come to bed eyes".

Timeline

For five long, bitter years, the women of Yorkshire and - ultimately - the whole of the north of England lived under a cloud of fear. An unidentified assailant was butchering women in the most brutal manner across the county and its neighbours. At first, his victims were dismissed as 'merely' prostitutes and so women went about their business unconcerned. But as the killer spread his net wider to include 'normal' women from all walks of life, panic clutched the region and the country's biggest ever man-hunt was launched.

A total of 13 women would lie in morgues before the killer was apprehended in Sheffield by the purest chance - and a string of near-victims would remain scarred for life by their encounters with The Ripper. Declared insane, he still lives within the walls of Broadmoor.

The person who had created such a climate of terror turned out to be a married, gently-spoken Bradford lorry driver by the name of Peter Sutcliffe.

Early Life & Career

Sutcliffe's early life was fairly unremarkable. He enjoyed a close relationship with his mother but relationships with his father were difficult and often resulted in physical discipline when he was young. At school he was described by most of those who knew him as shy and introverted, avoiding the physical rough and tumble of games and finding solace instead in books and reading. Later, at secondary school, he took up body building and underwent something of change - finally engaging his brothers in arm wrestling contests and the like.

By the time he had left school, perhaps his most unusual trait was his apparent lack of interest in girls. He had no girlfriends and expressed little interest in the opposite sex, but most who knew him regarded him as a normal kind of bloke.

He did have two stints working as a gravedigger, where colleagues recall him playing macabre pranks with skeletons and the bodies of those he was to bury - but such black humour is, frankly, fairly typical of young men in unusual situations as this.

But it was also at this time that he both started dating future wife, Sonia Szurma and seeing prostitutes.

Modus Operandi

Sucliffe's M.O. was well-established and, a few outliers aside, very consistent. His victims were all women, alone and attacked in the open. While his early victims were all prostitutes, he began to choose his victims almost at random - partly as a result of his own delusions about who actually was a prostitute, and partly as a deliberate strategy to throw police off his scent.

His initial attack was a hammer blow to the rear of the head, which either caused instant unconsciousness or death in itself, but was always followed up by further blows of varying savagery - in one case effectively flattening his victim's head.

After this he would engage in some kind of ritual activity involving her clothes - typically exposing her breasts by lifting her top and bra and often pulling down her jeans or skirt.

He would then set about the mutilations from which he took his name - an appellation that echoed the other famous 'Ripper' of history. He would use a variety of weaponry from the claw end of his hammer, to a Stanley knife or similar, and sometimes use objects that he found near at hand: a plank of wood, broken bottle or shard of glass.

Bloodlust spent, he would frequently arrange the victim's clothing - peculiarly covering up her lower body and legs before leaving the scene.

Mad or Bad?

At Sutcliffe's trial - and ever since - debate has raged about whether he was evil or clinically psychotic. Famously, he claimed to be acting in response to 'the voice of God' who he said had sent him on a mission to kill prostitutes. In light of this, psychiatrists who evaluated him following his arrest declared him insane - and thus culpable of manslaughter by diminished responsibility. Prior to his trial, both prosecution and defence took this line and assumed that they would see Sutcliffe incarcerated in a secure hospital such as Broadmoor after the formality of a guilty plea and expert deposition to the judge.

Despite this, the judge ordered that the case demanded a full trial by jury and Sutcliffe's plea of insanity was demolished by prosecutors in court. However, medical opinion remained divided and when Sutcliffe was attacked at Parkhurst, the decision was made to take him out of the mainstream prison population and place him into Broadmoor's care, where he has remained ever since under a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

However, evidence that came to light only much later would seem to dramatically undermine that claim. The two detectives who originally interviewed Sutcliffe at Dewsbury police station had failed to follow the usual protocol in their anxiety to get Sutcliffe talking following his arrest and the subsequent discovery that he was a Ripper suspect. Normally, prisons detained for such reasons would have their clothes removed and taken for forensic examination while they are issued with prison issue uniform. It was only subsequent to Sutcliffe's full confession having been taken that the detectives realised their error and made him change.

When he undressed, it was revealed that instead of wearing underpants he had placed his legs into a v-necked sweater - with the arms acting as 'leggings'. The 'v' of the sweater left his genitals free and exposed, and he had padded the elbows to create make shift kneepads. The implication of this was clear and stunning: Sutcliffe had a clear sexual motive and had developed a method of allowing him to expose himself while assaulting the women while kneeling by their bodies. This alone would have blown a huge hole in Sutcliffe's insanity defence, but somehow escaped the knowledge of prosecutors - a final entry in the sorry litany of mistakes, oversights and error that had come to characterise the hunt for Sutcliffe.

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Peter Sutcliffe: The Yorkshire Ripper: location

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Pictures of Peter Sutcliffe: The Yorkshire Ripper

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Videos

Videos

Broadcast of the Yorkshire Ripper's arrest

Vintage news footage when West Yorkshire police announced that they had finally caught the Ripper

Peter Sutcliffe Interview

A recorded phone conversation between the Yorkshire Ripper and a woman.

I'm The Yorkshire Ripper

Lead investigator George Oldfield plays a tape alleged to have been sent by the Yorkshire Ripper. Later it was revealed to have been a hoax.

Manhunt

Excellent documentary about the search for the Yorkshire Ripper

Left For Dead

Documentary focussing on the Ripper's "forgotten" victims - those who survived Sutcliffe's attacks

Further reading and recommended books

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