‘The Yorkshire Ripper? My instinct would be to hang the f---er’

Fatal errors: it took years for police to finally arrest Peter Sutcliffe
Fatal errors: it took years for police to finally arrest Peter Sutcliffe - Justin Slee

It’s almost three years since the serial killer Peter Sutcliffe died, aged 74, chained to a hospital bed in North Durham, after contracting Covid-19. More than four decades have passed since his chance arrest in a red-light area finally put an end to his vicious murders, yet those crimes have left an indelible scar on the collective memory of the nation. In creating The Long Shadow, a seven-part drama about the events, ITV is stepping into a place haunted by unimaginable pain. Some have questioned whether it should have been made at all.

The Long Shadow, however, avoids sensationalism – Sutcliffe barely features as a character – and it tries to restore respect to the victims and their families, including 25 children who lost their mothers. Sutcliffe was ultimately found guilty of killing 13 women and attempting to murder seven others, causing life-changing injuries, in a series of horrific attacks between October 1975 and November 1980.

But as the author Michael Bilton explains, the true number is “at least 30, maybe more – the police know that he was involved in at least 10 others”. Bilton, a former investigative reporter with the Sunday Times and later a TV producer, is the writer of Wicked Beyond Belief: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, a remarkable and disturbing work of research first published in 2003, which provides the main source material for George Kay’s drama.

Over 800 pages, the book details the bungled police investigation that allowed Sutcliffe to slip through the net nine times, to kill and kill again. It was an investigation so flawed that after the death of student Jacqueline Hill in 1980, the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, had to be talked out of going up to Leeds to take charge of it herself.

Bilton’s book also supplies The Long Shadow with much of the information about the real lives of the women murdered by Sutcliffe, hard lives in some cases, like that of 28-year-old Irene Richardson (Molly Vevers), whom Bilton describes as “penniless and fending for herself in very straitened circumstances”. She was suffering from severe depression, and in the final 10 days of her life “had been wandering the streets practically destitute”. She was reported to have got into a car with a man to have sex for money on the night of her murder in February 1977.

Her death played into a narrative that proved catastrophic for the investigation. After the killing of 42-year-old Emily Jackson (Katherine Kelly) the year before, the original lead detective Dennis Hoban (Toby Jones) had told TV reporters, “We’re quite certain this is a man who hates prostitutes.”

“They did not see that he was targeting women,” the forensic criminologist Jane Monckton-Smith tells me, “but the women he had access to were sex workers.” This fatal error would lead police to call the murder of 16-year-old shop assistant Jayne Macdonald in June 1977 a “mistake”. It was allied to a systemic failure to believe women, and what was almost certainly institutional racism.

A man in a white car (Sutcliffe was driving a white Ford Corsair) had attacked Marcella Claxton (Jasmine Lee-Jones), a black woman, with a hammer in Roundhay Park, Leeds, nine months before Richardson was murdered there. Claxton’s close photofit would have been a vital clue. Instead, she was labelled an unreliable witness, and when she later applied for criminal injuries’ compensation, West Yorkshire Police claimed she had misled them in their inquiries (she insisted her attacker was white; they didn’t believe her; it had been Sutcliffe).

Fourteen-year-old Tracey Browne (Emily Coates) had her skull fractured in several places when she was attacked with a hammer by a man who had walked alongside her and talked to her near her home in Keighley, back in August 1975. Two years later, when she walked into a police station to report that she thought the serial killer was the same man who had hospitalised her with severe head injuries, she recalled, “they just smirked… they treated it as one big joke. I think because I wasn’t a prostitute, they didn’t put any importance on it.” She had provided an accurate photofit and described a man who spoke with a Yorkshire accent. Sutcliffe later admitted to the attack.

Twelve of the 13 women Sutcliffe was convicted of murdering
Twelve of the 13 women Sutcliffe was convicted of murdering - PA

As late as October 1979, detective Jim Hobson (Lee Ingleby) was still saying: “He has made it clear that he hates prostitutes. Many people do. We as a police force will continue to arrest prostitutes. But the Ripper is now killing innocent girls.” In 2020, the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police made an official apology for the “language, tone and terminology used by senior officers at the time”, but Bilton notes that it could equally have been said of the attorney general, Michael Havers, in his address to the jury at Sutcliffe’s trial at the Old Bailey in 1981. Havers told jurors: “Some [victims] were prostitutes, but perhaps the saddest part is that some were not. The last six attacks were on totally respectable women.”

Bilton insists that the officers he got to know well were not misogynist, and were very concerned that sex workers did not make themselves vulnerable – “These were their communities.” The press, however, became obsessed with the prostitute angle, finding parallels between the unsolved Whitechapel murders of Victorian London and the “Yorkshire Ripper”. This opened the door to the hoax perpetrated by “Wearside Jack”, which derailed the entire investigation. The series of letters sent by Sunderland man John Humble (identified and jailed 25 years later thanks to DNA testing) to George Oldfield (David Morrissey), the assistant chief constable brought in to take over the murder squad, destroyed any progress that had been made.

The letters were styled on the most famous example of the hundreds of hoax letters sent to newspapers in the late 19th century claiming to be from “Jack the Ripper”. And when Humble sent a cassette tape directly mocking Oldfield with the words “I’m Jack”, the detective blundered off down a path that took him away from any possibility of catching the real killer.

Toby Jones as the case's original lead detective Dennis Hoban
Toby Jones as the case's original lead detective Dennis Hoban - Justin Slee

“It proved that this wasn’t about the victims,” says Monckton-Smith. “This was about this police officer and the killer puffing their chests at each other. It was incredibly male. Where did women fit into that narrative? They were disposable objects in a fight between two men.” Convinced that the tape and letters were genuine, despite the growing doubts of others around him, Oldfield focused everything on the killer having a North-East accent. This meant actively ruling out suspects (including Sutcliffe) with Yorkshire accents, whose handwriting didn’t match the letters.

Sutcliffe, who was working as a lorry driver, had been cautioned for attacking a sex worker with a piece of brick in a sock as far back as 1969 and convicted that same year of “going equipped to steal” after being caught with a hammer in a red-light district. As a young man, he had worked as a grave digger. By the time he was interviewed in connection with the serial murders, he was married to Sonia Sutcliffe, who provided him with alibis for most of the killings.

Two officers who interviewed Sutcliffe (Mark Stobbart) at his home 18 months before he was arrested reported back that they were “not fully satisfied with this man”, but when one tried to force the issue with a senior detective, he was threatened with a return to uniform. One astonishing detective effort managed to narrow down the people who could have received the brand new £5 note found in the handbag of murdered 21-year-old Jean Jordan in Manchester in October 1977 to the wage packets of just 240 employees. Sutcliffe was number 76 on the list. Yet disorganisation at the heart of the incident room meant that no file linked all the incriminating categories that should have pointed to Sutcliffe as a prime suspect.

Gemma Laurie as one of Sutcliffe's victims, Wilma McCann
Gemma Laurie as one of Sutcliffe's victims, Wilma McCann - Justin Slee

In the end it was “straightforward coppering” that caught him, in the words of the police sergeant who decided to question a man spotted in a car with a sex worker in the red-light district of Sheffield in January 1981. (Sutcliffe later confessed that he intended to kill her.) The sergeant ran a check on his licence plates, which turned out to be stolen. When taken into custody, Sutcliffe lied frequently and seemed shifty. Officers alerted the incident room in Leeds; a ball hammer and large knife were found 24 hours later, close to the scene of the arrest.

Even after that, as Sutcliffe began confessing in grisly detail to the murders, costly mistakes were made. In a hurry to get the killer arraigned in court so that success at last could be announced to the press, chief constable Ronald Gregory (Michael McElhatton) ordered the taking of Sutcliffe’s voluntary statement – which already ran to 34 pages – to be wrapped up rather than painstakingly followed to its conclusion and a full account given.

The serial killer hadn’t even been searched thoroughly; under his clothes he turned out to be wearing a V-neck sweater upside down with his legs through the arms, his underpants removed to reveal his genitals. As Bilton points out, this in itself was evident of a sexual motive for his crimes. Claxton had already said he masturbated over her.

Yet the press narrative allowed Sutcliffe to present himself as on a “mission from God” to kill prostitutes, maintains Monckton-Smith. “They gave him a bag full of excuses, and he used them.” Psychiatrists’ reports convinced the Crown to accept a plea of “Not guilty to murder but guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility”, in the belief that Sutcliffe was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. The judge, however, ruled that the case should be tried by a jury, who convicted Sutcliffe of murder.

Fatal errors: it took years for police to finally arrest Peter Sutcliffe
Fatal errors: it took years for police to finally arrest Peter Sutcliffe - Universal Images Group

There was anger when, after beginning his 20 concurrent life-sentences at Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight, Sutcliffe was subsequently moved to Broadmoor secure hospital, in Berkshire, where the more relaxed regime included visits from Jimmy Savile, who kept an office and a bedroom at the hospital. “We have to be fair to the people who make the decisions. I mean, [Sutcliffe] clearly was mentally ill,” Bilton says, “You don’t kill and attack people like that without being mentally ill. The question was, did he know what he was doing? And my judgment is, yes, he did.”

Does he think justice was served in the case of Peter Sutcliffe? “I think where people are very cruel and brutal... and Sutcliffe was brutal – I read every single forensic report of every murder he did. And it was butchering…” A deep sadness seems to descend over Bilton. “I felt for the families. All those children. And he kept on killing. That young girl, aged 18, [Helen Rytka] who was down in the red light district with her sister because they’d got nothing, no money. I remember going to talk to her brother to see if he was able to talk about it, and he just couldn’t, it was too painful.

“It’s a question, you know, what should society do? What should society tolerate? I think the law should be reasonable, proportionate. And when somebody just goes on and on and on brutalising people… If somebody is hurting society on that kind of level…” He stops. “My instinct would be to hang the f------.”

The Long Shadow begins on ITV1 and ITVX on Monday