By Jim Greenhalf
Thirty-five years ago, after Peter Sutcliffe was captured by South Yorkshire police and confessed to being the Britain’s biggest mass murderer, the man the media dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper told psychiatrists that he was driven by a voice telling him that God wanted him to clean up the streets by killing prostitutes.
In reality the bearded chap who lived in the nice suburban pebble-dashed semi in Bradford’s Garden Lane was less discriminating: he attacked anyone who was alone and vulnerable with his ball-pein hammer and sharpened screwdriver. His victims included 16-year-old Jayne McDonald in Leeds, Halifax bank clerk Josephine Whitaker and students Barbara Leach in Bradford and Jacqueline Hill in Leeds. Although married, Sutcliffe and his Polish wife Sonia didn’t have any children. In the five or six years of his nocturnal reign of terror in Leeds, Bradford, Huddersfield, Manchester and Halifax – his favoured killing ground – he murdered 13 women and orphaned 23 children. Marcella Claxton was four months pregnant when Sutcliffe attacked her in Leeds. She lost the baby in a miscarriage.
Among the children orphaned by Sutcliffe were Richard and Sonia McCann. Their mother Wilma McCann was found dead on land not far from the family home in Leeds, in October, 1975. She died from blows to the skull and stab wounds to various parts of her body. Richard and his sister – there were two other siblings – were young children. Sonia struggled for more than 30 years to come to terms with the slaughter of her mother. In December, 2007, at the age of 39, she committed suicide. Her brother Richard, who had been in and out of prison as a young man, was struggling to overcome the psychological side-effects of his mother’s murder. His sister’s death – she became Sutcliffe’s 14th known victim – was another mountain for him to climb. But he succeeded. How he did it can be read in his two books Just a Boy and the sequel A Boy Grows Up.
Last month the news came out that Sutcliffe, approaching 70, was considered mentally well enough to be moved from Broadmoor special hospital to a secure prison. Dr Mike Berry, clinical forensic psychologist told BBC Radio’s Shaun Ley that at the time of Sutcliffe’s trial: “Four psychiatrists, two for the defence, two for the prosecution, agreed that he was paranoid schizophrenic… With the use of medication they have got his mental state under control. The prison system won’t be easy for somebody in his seventies, he will be treated as a Category A prisoner with very little control over his life…”
Richard McCann admitted that he used to be full of hatred for the former Bradford grave-digger and lorry driver. But since marrying and having three children that rage has subsided. He recently told an interviewer: “He was like a family member for many years, the uncle who embarrasses you; but my thoughts about him have changed over the years. I won’t be celebrating the fact that he’s going to prison. I forgave him in 2010. I don’t mean I am a friend; but feelings of anger and bitterness have gone.”
These days we try to make sense of the inexplicable or the irrational by avoiding the use of terms such as good and evil. In 1978, long before the concept of serial killing entered the language, I was disposed to think that anyone who denied the reality of evil should be taken to a murder site, preferably at night.
One Saturday morning in January, 1978, I was on news duty in the Telegraph & Argus along with a colleague, David Warner. A 21-year-old Bradford woman, Yvonne Pearson, had gone missing and we had acquired her address, 4 Woodbury Road, a small terraced house behind Lumb Lane. We drove there. The front door was not locked. I pushed it open and walked into a dimly-lit, sparsely furnished front room. A black man seemed to be asleep, stretched out on a sofa. We didn’t linger, 30 seconds, a minute at most. That gloomy, gas-lit interior stayed with me. Yvonne Pearson had gone missing on a Saturday evening after making tea for her daughters, two-year-old Lorraine and five-month-old Colette and leaving them to be looked after by a 16-year-old neighbour. After tidying her bleach-blonde Joanna Lumley basin cut and dressed in black flared slacks, black turtle-neck jumper and stripy jacket, she had gone out. She was last seen alive at 9.30pm shouting to an Asian man in Church Street, not far from her home.
Her partly-decomposed body was found two months later under an old sofa on waste-ground at Whetley Hill. The site was later developed as a community centre. Her black leather bag contained an address book with 36 names, addresses and telephone numbers, a near empty purse and a pair of scissors – the weapon she carried to protect herself against the Yorkshire Ripper. Yvonne Pearson was due to appear in court on January 26 to answer a charge of soliciting. With two previous convictions she was expecting to be sent to prison if found guilty. She needed money to look after her little girls and, on what was to be her last night on earth, she probably needed cheering up. Instead she met Peter Sutcliffe. “It’s just my luck to get knocked on the head,” she used to tell friends. To paraphrase the old blues song, without bad luck some people have no luck at all. Lorraine and Colette were taken into care and the windows and door of little house on Woodbury Road were filled with breeze-blocks.
One Friday night in the same January, I was on late duty. A routine call to West Yorkshire police disclosed that the body of a young woman had been found in a wood-yard in Huddersfield. Officers from the Ripper Squad were in attendance. The late-night photographer gathered his cameras, rolls of film and flashes and drove me to Huddersfield. The night was cold and rainy. If this was a Ripper killing it would be his eighth. A few piles of planks separated me from the body of 18-year-old Helen Rytka – a fearful idea to contemplate, not at all thrilling in the sense of a reporter taking a walk on the wild side. There was something in the air, intangible though it might be, that made my flesh tingle with horror and perhaps pity. Whatever the extent of the attack, blood had been spilled on this site. Life had been ripped out like a wire from a plug. Terror, pain and shock had been inflicted. Helen Rytka had died alone in the dark of that freezing wood-yard. She had not expected to die that night. An act of evil had been committed there. I felt like a trespasser.
At that time reggae was popular and was played on juke-boxes in pubs along Lumb Lane, pubs like The Perseverance, The Queens and The Flying Dutchman, Yvonne Pearson’s favourite haunt. Whenever I hear any of the Bob Marley classics – Jammin’, Redemption Song, Is it Love? – that time and place come back immediately. It was in one of these pubs that I found a prostitute to interview, at the request of T&A news editor Don Alred. The prostitute worked out of an upstairs flat at the junction of Carlisle Road and Lumb Lane. One thing she said stood out: “We are going to know this man.” Don Alred, who used to be the paper’s crime reporter, was of the opinion that the Ripper was a Bradford man; he wasn’t taken in for a minute by the hoax “I am Jack” Ripper tape that so badly diverted the West Yorkshire police investigation and embarrassed the-then Chief Constable Ronald Gregory and Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield, head of the Ripper Squad.
On the last page of Michael Bilton’s 2003 book about the Yorkshire Ripper – Wicked Beyond Belief – Sir David Phillips, formerly Chief Constable of Kent, says this about serial killers: “The serial killer will always be the most difficult sort of case to investigate. We are talking about someone who attacks randomly and there is no linkage between the victim and the killer, and that is what makes it difficult to detect. It is not that there is no motive, there is a motive, but the victim has been selected as a prey might be selected.”
Bilton, who worked for The Sunday Times, characterises Sutcliffe as a “sick and perverted murderer”, so “pathetic and twisted” that any contact with him would be “worthless”. His book takes issue with Sutcliffe’s courtroom defence. Sutcliffe pleaded guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. The Prosecution accepted the plea, but the trial judge, Sir Michael Havers, didn’t. The medical evidence was based on what Sutcliffe had told psychiatrists, he said, and ought to be put to a jury. The jury found Sutcliffe guilty of murder.
Bilton attributes another dozen hammer assaults and murders to Sutcliffe, including two attacks on men. If Sutcliffe attacked men his claim that he was told by the voice of God to destroy women prostitutes doesn’t hold up. Thirteen years ago Bilton was saying that Peter Sutcliffe should be serving his life sentences in a prison, not Broadmoor High Security Hospital.
Before DNA testing, ordinariness is what made repeat killers such as Sutcliffe, Dr Harold Shipman – Doctor Death – and nurse Beverley Allitt – the Angel of Death – so hard to detect and bring to justice. Sutcliffe, don’t forget, was interviewed on nine occasions by West Yorkshire Police and aroused the suspicion of at least one officer, Andrew Laptew. But his notes got lost in the Ripper hunt’s card index system of shoeboxes. Before Sutcliffe’s capture, more than 250,000 interviews with men all over Northern England were on file. The computer age was only just dawning. Shipman and Allitt were also protected by operating in one of the caring professions.
If Peter Sutcliffe had been an obvious physical monstrosity like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, he would not have killed for as long as he did. Women would not have gone with him. He had a soft, high voice, a cheeky sense of humour and raffish good looks. And a quarter of a century after he was given 20 life sentences for killing 13 women and seven attempted murders, women still wrote him love letters and fan mail.
Myra Hindley was a vivacious-looking young woman who had no trouble persuading youngsters to help her look for her lost dog. She drove four of them to Saddleworth Moor where Ian Brady raped and murdered them. Hindley watched. A fifth, 17-year-old Edward Evans, was attacked with an axe and battered to death in the house that Hindley and Brady shared. In the audio tape that the pair made of ten-year-old Lesley Ann Downey, they encouraged the little girl to call them “mummy” and “daddy” while they tormented her and then tortured and killed her. Violating and killing youngsters excited and stimulated Brady and Hindley. They thought that killing in this way made them special.
Of all the other serial killers I can think of – Fred and Rose West, Dennis Nilsen, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Charles Manson’s Family, Andrei Chikatilo – only two might be considered exceptions: Dahmer and Chikatilo. Both were manifest social failures for whom killing offered a form of sublimation for what they needed but lacked in ordinary life. Most of the others had the ability to charm or persuade their victims. In this respect serial killing could be thought of as a form of seduction. Incidentally, serial killers are not necessarily mass murderers. In a matter of minutes, Michael Ryan shot dead 14 people in Hungerford in 1987, and Thomas Hamilton shot dead 15 primary school children and a teacher in Dunblane in 1996. Both men lost control, lashed out and then, as though in expiation for what they had done, killed themselves. Peter Sutcliffe still lives, principally because the death penalty in Britain was abolished in 1965.
While anyone is capable of behaving violently, most people are beyond the carefully-considered stratagems of a premeditated and sustained campaign of murder. Everything I have read, seen or heard on the subject of serial killers – fictional books and films excluded – points to three prime motives.
Some are motivated by feelings of intense anger and contempt, others by feelings of personal inadequacy, darkness and despair. Some of the predators named here – Chikatilo, Dahmer, Nilsen, Bundy, Gacy, Shipman, plus Halifax-born John Reginald Christie, fall into one of these two categories. A third motive is power or pleasure – some just get a kick out of killing. Sutcliffe, Moors murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, Fred and Rosemary West, enjoyed stepping over the line, inflicting their power on others and then making a fool out of the authorities. Sex was also a factor although not in every case; nor in every murder.
Dysfunctional sad sacks like Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen kept the bodies of their victims, or parts of their bodies, close at hand. Reginald Christie and Fred and Rose West buried the bodies of their victims in and around their homes at 10 Rillington Place and 25 Cromwell Street, respectively. Not because they had a morbid fixation about the dead; they just wanted to get rid of the evidence as quickly and conveniently as possible. Dahmer, a sweet factory worker in Milwaukee, and Nilsen, a civil servant in London’s Muswell Hill, could only have relationships with young men after killing them. Dahmer especially feared loneliness. Death was a way of making and preserving a relationship. They killed 30 between them. John Wayne Gacy raped and murdered up to 33 young men, burying the bodies in the basement of his detached Chicago home. Unlike Dahmer, he was popular in his local community, was active in the Democratic Party, and on one occasion got himself photographed with the-then First Lady Rosalyn Carter. He hosted street parties and entertained children as Pogo the Clown. Gacy was twice married. He was also an ex-con, sentenced to ten years for raping a teenage boy. He served 18 months and was released back into the community.
Ted Bundy was good-looking, church-going like Gacy, socially charming and a law student. Mothers said he’d make the perfect husband. But he declared war on society in general and females in particular, killing at least 28 of them in Oregon, Utah and Florida. The trigger for him had been pornography. His intense fascination with sexual fantasies began as a boy. As Bundy physically matured he became obsessed with the idea of sadistic sex which, in turn, made him feel deeply ashamed. Shame enraged him. On the lookout for victims, the charming young man would have had no trouble either picking up girl hitch-hikers or persuading them to let him into their rooms. The day before his execution Bundy told psychologist James Dobson that the inhibitions of his upbringing had kept him in check until he started drinking. Alcohol released him from the conflict of his inner tensions. Interestingly, Bundy warned against the dangers of pornography, as Lord Longford, Mary Whitehouse and Barbara Cartland had done in this country. On his last day on earth Bundy accepted responsibility for what he had done and, appalled by all the pain and misery he had inflicted, also accepted that he should forfeit his life.
Fred and Rosemary West, a plausible pair on the surface, had little trouble attracting young female lodgers to their Gloucestershire home. But their friendliness and jollity were masquerades. They were sexual predators, excited by pornography and sado-masochism, who between them killed a dozen mainly young women over a 20-year period. West sometimes liked to watch his wife having sex with other men in the upstairs of their home. The house was demolished after the pair were caught and convicted. Fred West subsequently hanged himself.
There has never been a definitive number put on the victims of Harold Shipman, the doctor who worked in Yorkshire and Lancashire. The authorities believe he may have killed up to 250 of his patients. Shipman, who killed himself in jail, refused to discuss his crimes. Michael Eaton’s 2002 television docu-drama showed the world’s biggest serial killer to be outwardly kindly and considerate. “Doctor Fred,” as he was known among his patients, was always willing to oblige with home visits, especially to elderly women. They trusted Shipman. He took advantage of that by administering lethal injections and, in some cases, defrauding them of money and valuables.
If serial killers are driven by a compulsion that they cannot control, psychopaths simply enjoy killing. Dr Harold Shipman and nurse Beverley Allitt contradicted society’s sentimental assumptions about professional carers’. Forensic chemistry professor Robert Forrest was interviewed on this subject ten or 11 years ago. He said that some people attracted to the medical and nursing professions are power-hungry. “Some go into the medical field because of the social status it confers, and some because it puts them in a position of power.
“Within nursing, an occasional individual entering the profession with such motivations may go into paediatric nursing, which is where a lot of problems have developed, as with Beverley Allitt. I think many of these people (who have later harmed patients) have gone off the rails during their training, and the current climate of making excuses for this and being too forgiving is not in the interests of society as a whole. We should have a lower threshold for excluding people from the caring professions, from qualifying or continuing to practise. If Shipman had been nailed good and proper when he was caught squirting pethidine into himself while practising in Yorkshire, how many lives would have been saved? A lot.”
The media labels serial killers as beasts; but predatory animals tend to kill for food: only Man kills for pleasure. Most serial killers have the everyday appearance of ordinary people. Peter Sutcliffe was said to be kindly to children, good pub company, in most respects an ordinary Joe. But Sutcliffe did not think of himself in that way. In the cab of his lorry he had a sign exhorting the world to take notice: In this truck is a man whose latent genius, if unleashed, would rock the nation, whose dynamic energy would empower those around him. Better let him sleep. Those who knew Sutcliffe thought he was just like them: he thought he was extraordinary.
Thirty-five years ago the euphoria and sense of release that greeted the news of Peter Sutcliffe’s capture was not readily understood by the liberal-minded further south. What about the idea of being innocent until being proved guilty in a court of law? They did not understand the fear that Peter Sutcliffe created. Most people have forgotten the Reclaim the Night vigils and marches that took place in 1977. Feminists argued that women should not be expected to stay indoors, obeying a self-imposed nocturnal curfew, to save the authorities the trouble of properly policing the streets. Men were advised to avoid walking behind solitary women late at night. This state of general anxiety intensified as the attacks and killings continued through the 1970s. Peter Sutcliffe may not be the man now that he was then. Nevertheless what he did won’t be forgotten or, for most people, forgiven.
. Part of this article is based on 6 Garden Lane, a chapter in Jim Greenhalf’s book It’s a Mean Old Scene: A History of Modern Bradford From 1974.