Yorkshire Ripper dead: Reporter John Cundy recalls hunt for killer

Yorkshire Ripper dead: Reporter John Cundy recalls hunt for killer

Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe, who has died aged 74, murdered 13 women and attempted to murder seven others between 1975 and 1980 before he was caught and jailed for life in 1981. The BBC’s former crime correspondent in Yorkshire John Cundy looks back on the manhunt that gripped the nation.

The search for the Yorkshire Ripper must rank as the biggest and most sinister story I have covered in nearly 50 years in journalism.

For more than five years this bogeyman preyed on women across West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester, killing 13 and attacking many, many more while police sought desperately to hunt him down.

While he was at large no woman felt safe.

Sutcliffe claimed his first victim, Wilma McCann, in October 1975, but it took several more murders for police to realise they were looking for just one man.

As the killings continued a pattern began to emerge. His victims were routinely struck over the head with a hammer before being slashed with a knife or screwdriver.

Once it became clear there was a madman on the loose every effort was made to catch him.

But the detectives made slow progress. It was a time before computers when every piece of evidence was recorded on index cards in a massive room at Millgarth Police Station, in Leeds.

At one stage the investigation room was groaning under the weight of the files and they had to reinforce the floor.

But, as pressure grew to bring the Ripper’s reign of terror to an end, the inquiry was thrown completely off track when, in 1978, a series of letters and a tape recording, ostensibly from the Ripper himself, were received by West Yorkshire Police.

The recording of a man with a Sunderland accent taunting the police led officers to focus their search on the Castletown area of Sunderland.

Crucially, during that period, because they were looking for totally the wrong person, three more unfortunate women were murdered.

When Sutcliffe was finally apprehended his arrest, as in so many cases, was a stroke of sheer luck.

Two officers had approached a man, who later turned out to be Sutcliffe, while he was sitting in a car with a woman in Melbourne Road, Sheffield.

One of the officers spotted the registration plate on the car did not match the number on the tax disc.

Their suspicions aroused, Sutcliffe was taken in for questioning.

A second stroke of luck followed soon after.

While being spoken to by the arresting officers Sutcliffe had asked to go to the toilet behind a nearby building.

When police returned to the scene the following day they discovered a hammer hidden in a drainpipe near to where Sutcliffe had gone supposedly to relieve himself.

That was the hammer which he had used to kill almost all of his victims.

With the evidence in hand Sutcliffe confessed to police.

The atmosphere at the press conference announcing Sutcliffe’s arrest was electric. The hunt was over.

The following day he was brought before magistrates in Dewsbury charged with the murder of Jacqueline Hill.

There was an absolutely massive scrimmage outside where the court was in those days.

The crowds were there shouting abuse. They had to smuggle Sutcliffe from the police van in to the court with a blanket over his head while officers held back the crowds to clear a path.

When I arrived at the BBC in 1980 I said I wanted to be there if they ever caught this this bogeyman and within a year they had.

It was the biggest crime story of the century, possibly of any century.

For six years Sutcliffe had kept whole communities in fear, people wondering ‘Who on Earth is this man?’

He was, of course, one of the biggest mass killers of all time and one of the most sinister.

Sutcliffe was eventually found guilty of 13 murders and seven attempted murders in May 1981. He was given 20 life sentences.

In 2010, following an appeal against the sentence, the High Court ruled he would never be released from prison.

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