Mistakes that left Ripper on the loose

The Byford report into the systematic failure of the Yorkshire Ripper inquiry details a raft of mistakes which left Peter Sutcliffe free to continue his reign of terror. Rob Waugh reports.

POLICE failures meant officers failed to connect vital clues which could have led to Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe being arrested nearly four years earlier than he was.

Officers who interviewed Sutcliffe in November 1977 failed to examine his red Ford Corsair – the tyres of which would have linked him with the murder of Irene Richardson nine months earlier.

This was a "vital error" which gave Sutcliffe the opportunity to commit a further seven murders before his apprehension in January 1981, the report by former inspector of constabulary Sir Lawrence Byford said.

It reveals more details of how the major incident room failed to cope with the weight of information it received during the course of the inquiry. In December 1980, there was a backlog of 36,000 documents waiting to be filed.

"It is estimated that this would have taken existing staff nine months to eliminate on the basis that no new crimes occurred in the meantime," it said.

The inspector concluded that senior police officers lacked the "flexibility of mind" to speedily address failures in their systems.

Led by Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield, the top officers failed to ensure the massive workload was distributed to make the most of individual officers' skills, the report added.

"The senior detectives of West Yorkshire were – and are – probably no better and no worse than those in other forces," it said.

"They were, however, not well equipped in management terms to control an inquiry of the size and scale which the Ripper inquiry proved to be."

One of the key criticisms involves the ill-fated belief that the so-called Wearside Jack, a hoaxer who sent letters and tape to police claiming he was the Ripper, was indeed the serial murderer.

The report said that the "complete acceptance...that the author was the killer was not justified by the evidence available at the time and should, in any case, have been tested by rigorous analysis.

"The decision to use factors from the letters and tape as a basis for the elimination of suspects was indefensible."

The conviction this March of unemployed alcoholic John Humble for the Wearside Jack hoax is believed to have influenced the Home Office's decision to finally publish the Byford report after a request was made under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act.

Humble, from Sunderland, now aged 50, was tracked down after 24 years following DNA analysis of saliva from an envelope seal. The hoaxer admitted four counts of perverting the course of justice and was jailed for eight years.

The five-year hunt for the Ripper – who used hammers, screwdrivers and knives to butcher his 13 victims – took up millions of police hours, and officers spoke to nearly a quarter of a million people and took 28,687 statements.

It was already known that Sutcliffe was questioned and released nine times by murder squad detectives during the inquiry, and a further two times by police in connection with a theft of car tyres and a drink-drive offence.

The Byford report gave a step-by-step analysis of each interview, pointing out failures to ask specific important questions, investigate alibis and conduct searches of Sutcliffe's home and car.

Blunt letters questioned competence

The Home Office published its file of correspondence relating to the Yorkshire Ripper case alongside the report by Sir Lawrence Byford.

It included one letter to the Home Secretary's office from former inspector of constabulary Sir Lawrence which was significantly more blunt in its language than his official report.

In it, Sir Lawrence said the focus on the "Wearside Jack" hoax was "perhaps the most fundamental failure" of the whole investigation.

The letter, dated May 15, 1981, revealed that Sir Lawrence had "misgivings" about the head of the Ripper squad, Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield, dating back to a visit to Yorkshire in summer 1980.

"When I inspected the force last year it was clear to me that Oldfield had run out of steam and needed to be replaced as the officer in charge," said Sir Lawrence. "Unfortunately, nothing was done about this until I visited the force last November."

He suggested the Ripper inquiry had suffered because of "divided loyalties" in the wake of earlier police force amalgamations, leading to a "schism at the top".

"Oldfield with his lack of personality and pedestrian manner, especially towards the end of the investigation, was not the sort of officer to inspire confidence in his overall command," he said.

On Peter Sutcliffe's arrest and confession, it was Oldfield who was called to the police station rather than his successor, acting Assistant Chief Constable James Hobson, the letter said.

"I immediately contacted the chief constable and told him that in my view Oldfield and his followers should be instructed in no uncertain terms that their direct responsibility for the Ripper case was over," said Sir Lawrence.

Discussing how Sutcliffe had been missed as a major suspect despite his name cropping up repeatedly, the inspector said: "I fail to understand... how Sutcliffe... still was not identified as a prime suspect."

The month before Sutcliffe was arrested, a panel of senior officers from other forces, led by Thames Valley deputy chief constable LE Emment, wrote to West Yorkshire chief constable Ronald Gregory.

They had been asked to review the course of the investigation, and said they had difficulty understanding the Ripper team's decision to place such huge weight to the hoax letter and tape.

Other letters hinted at the anger at the highest levels of government after police officers, including Mr Gregory, made inappropriate comments after Sutcliffe's arrest in January 1981.

Their comments amounted to a "presumption of guilt" which could have prejudiced the murderer's trial, Hillsborough MP Martin Flannery said in a letter to Home Secretary William Whitelaw,

And the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, wrote in strong terms to then Attorney General Sir Michael Havers: "How can I be expected to get the Contempt Bill through Parliament in an acceptable form, or how can you be expected to operate the law at all when the police, including a chief constable, behave like this?"

A letter from 10 Downing Street just over a month before Sutcliffe's arrest revealed then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had doubts about the police inquiry and called for an outside task force to give independent advice.

Years of fear as Ripper claimed his victims

Summer 1975: Peter Sutcliffe begins attacking women, two in Keighley and one in Halifax. All three survive and police do not link the attacks.

October 30, 1975: Sutcliffe carries out his first fatal attack on Wilma McCann, a 28-year-old prostitute from the Chapeltown district of Leeds.

January 20, 1976: He murders Emily Jackson, 42, from Leeds, battering her with a hammer and stabbing her with a screwdriver.

February 5, 1977: He kills Irene Richardson, 28, another prostitute from Leeds.

April 23, 1977: Sutcliffe strikes for the first time in his home town of Bradford, murdering 32-year-old Patricia Atkinson.

June 26, 1977: The case comes to the attention of the national press after Sutcliffe murders Jayne MacDonald, a 16-year-old shop assistant. The murder, and the realisation that a serial killer is on the loose in Yorkshire, shocks the country.

The attacker is dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper by the press, and West Yorkshire Chief Constable Ronald Gregory appoints his most senior detective, Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield, to investigate the murders.

October 1, 1977: Sutcliffe chooses Manchester for his next attack – on Jean Jordan, 20. He dumps her body on an allotment and throws her bag, containing a new 5 note he gave her, into nearby shrubs. Police find the bag and trace the serial number on the note back to the payroll of Yorkshire hauliers T and W H Clark, who employ Peter Sutcliffe. He is interviewed by police but provides an alibi.

January 21 to May 16, 1978: Sutcliffe murders three prostitutes – Yvonne Pearson, 21, from Bradford; Helen Rytka, 18, from Huddersfield, and Vera Millward, 40, from Manchester.

April 4, 1979: Sutcliffe kills Halifax Building Society clerk Josephine Whitaker, 19.

June 1979: A tape is sent to police by a man calling himself Jack the Ripper, who has already sent a series of hand-written letters from Sunderland. Assistant Chief Constable Oldfield mistakenly decides that these are the work of the Ripper.

July 1979: Police interview Sutcliffe for the fifth time. Detective Constables Andrew Laptew and Graham Greenwood are suspicious but their report is filed because his voice and handwriting do not fit the letters and tape.

September 2, 1979: Sutcliffe murders Barbara Leach, 20, in Bradford.

August 20, 1980: The Ripper claims another victim, Marguerite Walls, 47, from Leeds, followed by Jacqueline Hill, 20, a Leeds University student, on November 17.

November 1980: Det Chief Supt James Hobson replaces Oldfield. Hobson downgrades the importance of the Wearside Jack tape and letters.

January 3, 1981: Sutcliffe admits he is the Yorkshire Ripper after police arrest him with a prostitute. Police admit the killer does not have a Wearside accent.

May 22, 1981: Sutcliffe is jailed for life at the Old Bailey. The judge recommends a minimum sentence of 30 years. He is transferred to Broadmoor secure hospital, Berks,in 1984.

March 21, 2006: John Humble, a former builder, is sentenced to eight years in prison after he admits to being the Yorkshire Ripper hoaxer known as Wearside Jack.

June 1, 2006: A report which has been kept secret for nearly 25 years reveals that Sutcliffe probably committed more crimes than the 13 murders and seven attempted murders for which he was convicted.