Discover more from Persons Unknown
Why Peter Sutcliffe could not evade capture for so long today
For five long years Sutcliffe hid in plain sight of Yorkshire police as he murdered 13 women. Modern technology and investigatory methods would trap such a brazen killer far more speedily…
The current ITV series The Long Shadow compellingly explores the trauma of Peter Sutcliffe’s murder campaign between 1975 and 1980.
It also gives a sobering insight into the blunders and shortcomings of the police efforts to arrest him. Nine times they interviewed him, nine times he walked free.
The investigation accumulated an astonishing 92 photofit descriptions of Sutcliffe from witnesses, dating back to 1972. His likeness appears again and again among them, but none of the top detectives in West Yorkshire Police ever joined the dots.
Here is a breakdown of the main failures:
Chaos in the incident room
Sutcliffe’s name cropped up several times during the manhunt. His car was spotted repeatedly in red-light districts and he was questioned in connection with a brand-new £5 note found on the body of Jean Jordan – police suspecting this was a direct link to the killer. However, an incident room snowed under with reports and police ‘actions’ (inquiries to be done), along with poor administration, resulted in there being four index cards for Sutcliffe that were never cross-referenced or filed together. This meant senior and junior detectives were unaware of the growing file building on him. When he was interviewed, detectives were usually unaware of his being previously interviewed in connection with other aspects of the case.
Fooled by the fake letters and tape
The most glaring blunder was the acceptance by the man in overall charge, ACC George Oldfield, and his senior team that the ‘Wearside Jack’ letters and tape were genuine, despite there being no real evidence to support such a decision. These fabrications purported to come from the killer, taunting the police, but were actually fakes sent in by a wretched alcoholic called John Humble. This acceptance had the disastrous effect of diverting police to look for a Geordie from the Sunderland area, Humble having spoken on the tape in a Geordie accent. Sutcliffe was from Bingley in the West Riding of Yorkshire. When Humble started his game of giving the police the runaround, Sutcliffe had murdered nine women. While detectives looked for a Geordie, he went on to attack another eight victims, killing three of them.
Detective’s suspicions ignored
When detective constables Andrew Laptew and Graham Greenwood were dispatched to interview Sutcliffe at his home in 1979, they had been informed that the suspect being sought was from the Sunderland area. The reason for their visit was that Sutcliffe’s Sunbeam Rapier car had been seen cruising the red-light areas of Bradford, Leeds and Manchester. Laptew became suspicious of the man. He looked like a photofit Laptew had seen – ‘Jason King’ beard, moustache; he also had a gap in his teeth that had been described. Sutcliffe took a long time to answer the officers’ questions, mulling over his replies. When his wife, Sonia, was out of the room, Sutcliffe denied having anything to do with prostitutes – a falsehood clearly at odds with his cruising habits. Despite Sutcliffe not being a Geordie and his handwriting not matching that of the hoax letters, Laptew had a bad feeling about Sutcliffe, who had a flimsy alibi from his wife. When Laptew requested in writing to senior detective Dick Holland that Sutcliffe should be investigated more closely, mentioning the resemblance to the photofit, he was threatened with traffic duty. Holland, according to Laptew, said he was sick of hearing about photofits. ‘He bit my head off,’ Laptew said later.
The inquiry led by Lawrence Byford into what went wrong with the investigation criticised Chief Constable Ronald Gregory for giving command to George Oldfield. Oldfield already had plenty on his plate as Assistant Chief Constable (Crime). He fell ill having committed to long hours on the inquiry. Byford, the local HM Inspector of Constabulary, was also critical of Oldfield. He opposed on principle the appointment of the lead man on the basis of seniority in terms of age and service. The top investigator needed sound professional competence and charisma to inspire a large team. ‘These attributes were clearly not present during the Ripper inquiry and it was Assistant Chief Constable Oldfield’s failure to lead effectively which paved the way for the loss of confidence in and loyalty to his inquiry policies,’ Byford said in his report.
Byford said police were inflexible in how they categorised potential victims. His team compiled a list of 13 further attacks in which a woman had been hit from behind with a hammer, but which were excluded on various criteria, such as the hammer head being a different size to that used in most other attacks categorised as being one of killer’s. This meant further clues were lost. These included valuable and accurate descriptions of Sutcliffe by survivors.
When the investigation was floundering, two forensic scientists, Ron Outtridge and Russell Stockdale, were drafted in to inject some intellectual analysis and new perspective into it. They were startled to discover an oversight that should have been bleeding obvious even to a layman. Detectives had not collated all the descriptions of the perpetrator given by witnesses. In November 1979, Outtridge wrote a memo saying these should be collected and a composite produced. His advice was never acted on. When the Byford team did this after Sutcliffe’s capture, they were astonished to be confronted by a wall of 92 photofits from which Sutcliffe’s face stared at them repeatedly. Sir Andrew Sloan, regional crime quad coordinator, is quoted in Michael Bilton’s book Wicked Beyond Belief, ‘I felt almost a physical blow to the stomach because there was Peter Sutcliffe looking at us from these assembled pictures.’ He added that had the Ripper squad detectives taken this elementary step, interviewing officers would have had a clear idea of the killer’s appearance and suspicions would have been raised when he was spoken to in person.
Police did not listen well enough to the women who survived attacks. Three – Olive Smelt, Tracey Browne, Marilyn Moore – told detectives he had a local accent and was not a Geordie. Browne and Moore both gave excellent descriptions. It was the photofit provided by Moore that DC Laptew had seen and was struck by its similarity to Sutcliffe during their encounter. As we have seen, Laptew’s supicions were ignored.
So what’s changed…
Investigations are not the personal fiefdom of one grand old senior detective any more. Senior investigating officers today must keep diaries of every decision they take, which can be assessed as part of regular reviews of an inquiry’s progress. This ensures that investigations, particularly those involving several victims and large teams of officers, can’t be disastrously sidetracked by blinkered decisions by one all-powerful detective at the top, as happened with George Oldfield’s acceptance of the phoney tape and letters. A National Crime Facility was set up in Bramshill, Hampshire, in 1995 to establish best practice in homicide investigations and a murder manual was compiled as a guide on how to proceed.
The computerised incident room arrived in 1986, some six years after Sutcliffe’s arrest. This was in the shape of the HOLMES computer system (Home Office Large Major Enquiry System). Paper overloads and misfilings no longer sap investigations as they did in the Yorkshire inquiry. Sutcliffe could have been apprehended in 1977 if 53,000 owners of vehicles that might make the same tyre tracks found at the murder sites could have been crossed-checked with 6,000 Shipley employees who could have received the new £5 note in victim Jean Jordan’s handbag. Sutcliffe’s name would have featured in both, making him a prime suspect.
The techniques of geographic profiling would today help officers to pinpoint where a serial offender such as Sutcliffe has a base, such as home, work or parents’ home. It involves looking at the timings, travel routes nearby and locations of the crimes, among other factors. Home Office Professor Stuart Kind went some way to pioneering this method for the Sutcliffe hunt when he deducted that the killer lived very near to Bradford (he actually lived in the Heaton area of the city). Today such data would enable investigators to narrow their area of focus.
CCTV cameras and ANPR (automatic number plate recognition) mean a killer cannot roam the roads in near anonymity.
And, of course, DNA, extracted and delineated by Alec Jeffreys at Leicester University in 1984, has been the biggest leap forward for investigators. Many murderers worldwide have been convicted on the basis of genetic fingerprinting, while the innocent have been exonerated.
These changes in methodology and technology would have seemed almost miraculous to the desperate West Yorkshire detectives of the late 1970s. Sutcliffe could not have pursued his flagrant killing spree even a decade later without leaving detectable traces of himself and his movements that would have swiftly exposed him.
I’ve been enjoying Black Snow, an Aussie crime drama about a – what else? – tortured cop tackling a cold case (on BBC iPlayer in the UK). Great characters and a terrific setting – hope it gets commissioned for a second outing.
The BBC has scheduled The Reckoning, a drama exploring the horrendous crimes of showbiz shapeshifter Jimmy Savile (Monday 9 October, BBC One). Starring Steve Coogan as the most vile man on primetime telly, it is a controversial subject for dramatisation. Executive producer Jeff Pope has worked on compelling dramas about notorious killers such as Fred West, Myra Hindley and Ian Brady. He defended such series to Radio Times: ‘My view is that the quickest way to invite something like this to happen again is to ignore it. I passionately believe we have to explore stories like Savile. The same is true with Fred West, Myra Hindley and Ian Brady. The theme of a lot of stuff that Neil [writer Neil McKay] and I do is that it’s a warning from the past.’ See the trailer here.
I was delighted to be asked back onto the British Murders podcast to chat with host Stuart Blues about my book, The Real Ted Hastings: The True Story of the Copper at the Heart of Line of Duty. We natter about bent coppers, conspiracies and the most popular crime drama on UK television, Line of Duty. Even if you don’t listen to my slot, there’s plenty going on at britishmurders.com