Jan 2 1981: the Yorkshire Ripper is caught

It was pure luck. He was sitting in his car on an empty laneway on a quiet Friday night after new year’s. Beside him in the passenger seat was a woman who, by the end of the weekend, would be grateful to be alive. Two local police officers on the night shift chanced upon the couple parked in this dark corner of Sheffield’s red light district, and decided to run a routine plate check. 

The plates were from a stolen car. And the woman with him was not his girlfriend, as he initially claimed, but a sex worker. By now, with 13 women dead at the hands of the Yorkshire Ripper and several survivors left with debilitating physical injuries and mental trauma, the two officers, Sergeant Robert Ring and PC Robert Hydes, decided this man was worth investigating. So they took the couple into the local Hammerton Road station. Twenty-four-year-old Olivia Reivers would be released relatively soon after. Peter William Sutcliffe, on the other hand, would stay awhile. 

As the weekend wore on and the inquiries progressed, police slowly but surely became more convinced that this swarthy, almost eerily calm man who had turned down the offer of a lawyer might be the suspect they’d been looking for since the first Ripper victim, Wilma McCann, had been found dead on a sports field behind her house in October 1975. 

By Saturday evening, January 3rd, Sergeant Ring was back on a new night shift. Discovering that the man he’d brought in Friday night was still being questioned, he made a life-changing decision: He decided to go back to Light Trades House where the couple had been found and do a quick search. He recalled how, the night before, Sutcliffe had ducked behind an oil tank to relieve himself. At the time, Ring wondered whether he’d heard a metallic clink. Upon returning Saturday night, he headed over to the oil tank to have a look. There on the ground his flashlight revealed a hammer and a knife.

If you’ve been watching The Ripper on Netflix, or are familiar at all with this massive manhunt that consumed northern England in the late 70s, you know what a lucky break Ring’s find was for the police. Because this was a hunt that seemed to hit one dead end after another.

It was also a hunt mired in paper. So much paper, in fact, that the Ripper Room at Millgarth Police Station in Leeds had to be structurally reinforced because of concerns that the great weight of its paper might cause its floor to collapse. Watching the old news footage of stoic, resolute officers poring over files, flipping through index cards, and scribbling on notepads, phone receivers cradled on their shoulders, you can’t help but wonder how much sooner Sutcliffe might have been caught had the police had the benefit of the information technology we use today. 

A few quick reminders of the state of policing in the 1970s:

  • DNA testing would not come into use until 1986.
  • Fingerprints were still compared using the naked eye.
  • CCTV existed but was not widely used. 
  • Computerized record-keeping was limited; the UK did not have a single, integrated national police database until 2006.

Another huge hindrance for Ripper investigators — and one that, to this day, they appear to regret deeply — were the letters and, in particular, the tape from a man claiming to be the Ripper. While the letters and tape were later discovered to be a hoax, and the sender, John Samuel Humble, was charged with perverting the course of justice, they sent police on a wild goose chase for a man with a Geordie accent, prompting them to discount critical leads, such as the fact that at least one surviving victim was certain her attacker had spoken with a Yorkshire accent.

Police actually interviewed Sutcliffe nine times during their six-year investigation. But it was only through sheer coincidence that they eventually nailed him. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, he spent most of his incarcerated life at the Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital west of London. He died November 13, 2020 of COVID-19.

Manhunt: The Search for the Yorkshire Ripper (1 hr, 39 min)

Released in 1999, this superbly produced and narrated documentary is easily as good as the recent Netflix series, and is definitely worth a watch if you’re so inclined. It contains many good interview clips, including one with Ripper survivor Maureen Long, who has since passed away. 

Peter Sutcliffe arrives at court (40 sec)

Sutcliffe was taken into custody on Friday January 2nd and by Monday January 5th had confessed and was making his first court appearance. Unfortunately there’s no audio on this video, though you’ll recognize it if you’ve watched the Netflix series. If so, you might remember the one journalist who recalled that everyone already seated in the courtroom knew when Sutcliffe’s police van had arrived because of the angry roar that erupted in the crowd outside.

Relatives of Ripper victims speak out (8 min, 22 sec)

This BBC Newsnight report aired on November 27, 1980, mere weeks before Sutcliffe’s arrest. In it, the victims’ relatives speak directly to the camera, addressing their remarks to the Ripper himself.

Relevant Yorkshire Ripper sites today (3 min, 13 sec)

This brief video touches on a few of the sites relevant to the Ripper investigation.

This is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper (3 hrs, 16 min)

This is a dramatization of the Ripper investigation from the perspective of the police officer who led it, Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield. Probably more than any other officer, Oldfield visibly suffered the effects of years of tremendous scrutiny and strain. He died four years after the Ripper was caught.