The Yorkshire Ripper Files: Who was the hoaxer Wearside Jack?

A sick hoax almost derailed the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper entirely as police were sent down the wrong path by a crank caller.

In 1978, police received a tape containing messages from a man claiming to be the killer.

The message taunted Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield, who was leading the investigation, over his failure to catch the killer. The infamous tape said: “"I'm Jack. I see you're having no luck catching me. I have the greatest respect for you, George, but Lord, you're no nearer catching me now than four years ago when I started.”

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The man’s strong Wearside accent led to detectives focusing on the north-east in the hunt for the Ripper - a mistake that proved fatal. Dialect experts narrowed the search area down to the Castletown area of Sunderland. Letters and tapes had also been sent to the Daily Mirror, boasting of the crimes. One major red herring was that the writer claimed to have killed Joan Harrison in Preston - a murder which police mistakenly believed wasn’t public knowledge. DNA evidence in 2011 convicted another man, Christopher Smith, of Harrison’s murder and Sutcliffe had always denied involvement in her death.

Detectives listening to the Wearside Jack tapes in WakefieldDetectives listening to the Wearside Jack tapes in Wakefield
Detectives listening to the Wearside Jack tapes in Wakefield

At the time of the investigation, Wearside Jack was never traced, and police only realised his calls were a hoax when Sutcliffe confessed to the murders in 1981.

Some of the surviving Ripper victims claimed police ignored information they provided because it did not fit the supposed profile of the killer - including the belief that he was from the north-east. He had always been a suspect and was interviewed nine times by police before he was caught, the first time being in November 1977 - when he had killed six of his 13 eventual victims. He was one of 5,000 men questioned because a £5 note found on the body of Jean Jordan in Manchester was traced to a batch issued by the Midland Bank in Shipley or Bingley in wage packets. Sutcliffe gave an alibi which was considered credible.

The saga looked set to be a frustratingly unsolved mystery for decades until a breakthrough in 2005, when advances in DNA technology led to police re-opening the hoaxer case.

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DNA samples from the envelope the letters were sent in were entered into the national database until officers got a match - and it came from an unemployed alcoholic called John Humble, who lived on the Ford estate in Sunderland. His DNA had been taken when he was arrested for being drunk and disorderly in 2001. Humble was convicted of attempting to pervert the course of justice in 2006 and given an eight-year prison sentence.