In England the most famous murderers in recent history have come from the north: Ian Brady and Myra Hindley of Hattersley, Harold Shipman of Hyde and Peter Sutcliffe (The Yorkshire Ripper) of Bradford. I was a boy when Peter Sutcliffe was on the loose and it seemed like years passed before he was caught. I can remember playing out and knowing he was out there and could kill anyone again at any time. Here I am outside his home where he lived when he was carrying out the murders (still owned by his wife.)
In 1981 Sutcliffe was convicted of murdering thirteen women and trying to murder seven others. Normally he bludgeoned them with a hammer from behind then mutilated their bodies with screwdrivers and knives. Even though I was a boy and he only killed women I can remember being a bit scared. Women in Yorkshire and Greater Manchester were advised by police to walk home in company and prostitutes were advised to work in pairs. He was always one step ahead of the police and injected terror across the country.
West Yorkshire Police were criticised for taking so much time to catch Sutcliffe. He had a record of violence which should have sounded alarm bells: aged 23 he assaulted a prostitute he had met whilst searching for a woman who had tricked him out of money (hit her over the head with a stone in a sock) then at 29 he struck a woman with a hammer and gashed her stomach with a knife. He would have probably killed her but was disturbed by a neighbour. Shortly after he attacked again using the same method of approaching from behind and hitting hard a single hammer blow. Soon he attacked a 14-year-old girl but beams off a car’s headlights scared him away.
The murders started when he was working as a truck driver for T & WH Clark (Holdings) Ltd in Bradford. In Chapeltown in Leeds he hit a woman with a hammer and stabbed her 15 times leaving four children without a mother (one daughter killing herself after years of depression over her mother's death.) The murder spree had started and Sutcliffe’s job as a driver meant nobody knew exactly where he was. The next woman was selling sex from the family van. Sutcliffe killed her but left the first clue: the impression of his boot when he stamped hard on her thigh. Next it was a 20-year old who accepted the offer of a lift from Sutcliffe. She left the car to have a wee and he hammered her from behind. Somehow she survived but lost the four month old baby growing inside her.
I won’t go through all the murders here but it was known that Sutcliffe attacked prostitutes but some of the victims weren’t. Reporters thought he’d had a bad experience during which he was conned out of money though he was probably just evil.
On 14 December 1977 he attacked Marilyn Moore, another prostitute from Leeds. She survived and provided police with a description of her attacker. For the first time they could produce a picture: a swarthy man, black hair, black beard. Tyre tracks found at the scene matched those from an earlier attack. Ironically the police had the killer under the eyes all the time - they’d sat and had a cup of coffee with him at this home and interviewed him many times.
Suddenly the killing stopped for a year. Later it was found Sutcliffe’s mum had died in November 1978 and it must have suppressed his appetite for murder.
He must have loved it when the hoax “I am Jack” cassette was sent to the police (and two letters.) The Ripper Squad were put off his traces for a while (in October 2005 an unemployed alcoholic was sentenced to eight years in prison for the hoax.)
Aged 33 Sutcliffe was arrested for drunk-driving but killed two more women while awaiting trial. An associate reported him to the police as a suspect but the information disappeared into the mountain of paperwork the investigation had created. The investigation had generated so much paperwork that the floor at the police investigation office had to be reinforced.
He was caught by accident. Aged 34 he was stopped by the police in his car in Sheffield, a prostitute by his side. He said he was bursting for a wee and, slipping away for a moment, threw down a hammer, knife and rope. A routine check found the car wore false number plates and Sutcliffe was arrested. The police searched his car and found nothing but nearby they found the murder tools. Later at the police station they found a second knife hidden in the toilet cistern. The prostitute in the car was definitely going to be murdered as the police found out at the station when Sutcliffe stripped off. Weirdly he was wearing a V-neck jumper on his legs but upside down. His willy and nuts were hanging through the “V”. The elbow pads were on his knees were to either protect them as the monster knelt over his victims messing them up (or masturbating over his handiwork.)
When Sutcliffe was questioned by detectives on 4th January 1981 he put up no resistance and declared he was the Yorkshire Ripper. The following day he calmly described the many attacked, that God had told him to murder them. Twice he lost his temper: (1) when telling of the killing of his youngest victim and (2) when denying the murder of Joan Harrison (true – much later DNA evidence proved a convicted sex offender Christopher Smith did it.)
After a two week trial Sutcliffe was sentenced to twenty concurrent sentences of life imprisonment. After his trial he admitted two other attacks. He’s only left prison to move to another and to visit Grange-over-Sands where his dad’s ashes were sprinkled. It costs the public £300,000/year to keep him.
Here I am outside the family home which he still partly owns. I’d seen photos of the elevated house in the newspapers but imagined it was in a row of many. However there were just two big detached houses which looked down onto houses of other designs. I didn’t take many photos of the house and wondered if Sutcliffe’s wife Sonia would come out screaming at me. Sonia Sutcliffe (nee Szurma) still uses the house. She met Peter Sutcliffe on Valentine’s Day in 1967 at a disco when she was 15 and they married seven years later. Working as a teacher she used her salary to help buy the house and they moved into in September 1977. She remained married to the monster for 13 years following his arrest. When she remarried she moved into a flat with her new husband but still uses the house. You’d have thought she’d have sold it to avoid nosey people like me. She mustn’t need the money having won at least nine libel actions against newspapers.
When I was there windows were open but no car was present. It was in the garage where Sutcliffe stored the 30 weapons used to kill 13 women - hammers, spanners and sharpened screwdrivers. Up at the rear is the kitchen sink in which Sutcliffe washed the bloodied clothes he wore while carrying out the attacks.
West Yorkshire Police visited this house many times to question Sutcliffe, interviewing him nine times. It must have been a shock to Sonia when they arrived here to inform her that her husband was The Yorkshire Ripper. They took her away for questioning and allowed her to see her husband. She’s always denied knowing anything about the murders.
One night the couple had hosted a party at this house but Sutcliffe left to return to a prostitute he had murdered and left on scrubland near Southern Cemetery in Manchester (one of my favourite cemeteries.) He realised he’d left a new £5 note on her body and needed to retrieve it (he couldn’t find it and mutilated the corpse then moved it.)
Turning off the main road to Garden Lane (the house is on the right)…
Further down the lane…
The grave from which God spoke to Sutcliffe
In court Sutcliffe pleaded to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility as he was a tool of God's will. He had heard voices that ordered him to kill prostitutes while working as a gravedigger at Bingley Cemetery. He said the voices originated from a headstone of a deceased Polish man called Zapolski. The conversation went like this...
James Chadwin QC (for Defence) : "What was it that happened at Bingley cemetery that you particularly remember?"
Sutcliffe : "Something that I felt was very wonderful at the time. I heard what I believed then and believe now to have been God's voice. I was in the process of digging a grave. It was like a voice saying something, but the words were all imposed on top of each other. I could not make them out, it was like echoes. The voices were coming directly in front of me from the top of a gravestone, which was Polish. I remember the name on the grave to this day. It was a man called Zipolski. Stanislaw Zipolski." (Note: the name on the gravestone is really Bronislaw Zapolski.)
Chadwin: "Did you look at Mr Zapolski's grave?"
Mr Chadwin: "Why did you look particularly at this grave?"
Mr Sutcliffe: "Because that is where the sound was coming from. That is what made me walk closer to it."
Being a geek I went to see if I could find the Zapolski grave. The cemetery is expansive and there are old and new areas separated by trees. After forty minutes I found it and here’re some photographs. Sutcliffe was digging a grave to the left of this when he heard the voices telling him to rid the streets of prostitutes.
Up to Bingley Cemetery to see if I can find the Zapolski grave…
Sutcliffe in 2016. Looking for the grave that spoke to him…
Pointing to the left of the grave. Sutcliffe was digging a grave to the left when God “spoke” to him…
The view from the grave…
While there I spotted red flowers on a war grave. I’ve looked at thousands of these but it’s rare the poor bones under the headstone are that of a woman. This one was just 20, just a kid…