Peter Sutcliffe hit the headlines in January 1981 after confessing to the murder of 13 women between 1975 and 1980. The search for the so-called Yorkshire Ripper had been one of the largest and most expensive manhunts in British history, and police were strongly criticized for taking so long to apprehend the perpetrator.
Here we look back at articles from the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror on the day of Sutcliffe’s original plea hearing and the day of his sentencing. These authentic newspaper extracts offer a rare window into how the Ripper case was reported at the time, as well providing an insight into the life of the man himself, via interviews with former friends, colleagues and family members.
Turn the page to:
- Who Was the Yorkshire Ripper?
- “Sutcliffe: He Took the Lives of 13 Women”
- Portrait of a Killer
- “WHY the police ruled out Sutcliffe”
- “The Ripper guilty of murder”
Peter Sutcliffe was born 2 June 1946 in Bingley, West Yorkshire. He married his wife, Sonia Szurma, in 1974 and worked as a HGV driver. On 2 January 1981, he was arrested in a car with false number plates, carrying a prostitute passenger. Two days later, he confessed to being the “Yorkshire Ripper”, a wanted, previously unidentified serial killer for whom police had been searching since 1975.
In total, Sutcliffe killed 13 women and attempted to kill seven others, initially targeting prostitutes before beginning to attack young women indiscriminately. Despite pleading insanity, he was trialed by jury and ultimately sentenced to life imprisonment in 1981, before being transferred to Broadmoor Hospital in 1984. He died in December 2020 after suffering a heart attack and COVID-19 complications.
The first Yorkshire Ripper newspaper article to consider is from the Thursday, April 30, 1981 edition of the Daily Mail. After brandishing a huge, full-page photograph of Sutcliffe on the front cover beneath the headline “THE KILLER” and an artist’s drawing of the courtroom on page two, the paper’s third page article begins with a chilling summary of his crimes:
“PETER SUTCLIFFE killed 13 women, battered seven more almost to death, and gave nightmares to millions.”
Having been arrested four months earlier, April 29 was the day Peter Sutcliffe stood in the dock at the Old Bailey and, “in a soft Yorkshire voice”, admitted murdering the thirteen women. But despite his horrific portfolio, the Mail emphasized that Sutcliffe’s demeanor didn’t exactly match it:
“This short, slight, dark-eyed man fitted no picture drawn up by police artists, nor any image conjured up by the minds of detectives, sooth-sayers, psychiatrists, or cranks with hazel twigs and crystal balls.”
“Sutcliffe – ‘Pete’ to everyone who ever knew him – was the ultimate invisible man: Four paces in any direction from his place in the dock and he would have melted into any crowd of three.”
On the same day, the Daily Mirror’s coverage of the hearing painted a more vivid portrait of the man:
“There was an ordinariness about him. He was average height and his grey wool-and-fibre suit was well fitted. Long black sideburns brushed out into an untidy beard, and a rough bundle of curls spilled over the collar of his open-necked blue shirt.”
The Mirror contrasted this image with one of a wooden table in court which carried some of Sutcliffe’s vast array of weaponry:
“Six ballpein hammers and a claw hammer, nine screwdrivers, matching carving knives… They were the type of exhibit which had been brought in from 7,000 which had been gathered in the case.”
Sutcliffe, as had been expected, actually pleaded not-guilty on all 13 charges, instead claiming manslaughter. Sutcliffe’s confession to police officers had included a proclamation of his belief that he was on a mission from God, and psychiatrists had subsequently diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia. By pleading guilty to manslaughter, it was intended that he would avoid a trial by jury, and live out the rest of his life in a psychiatric hospital. The Mail said of his “well-rehearsed little speech”:
“Without apparent emotion, and only an occasional stutter over the words, he admitted all charges of attempted murder, pleaded not guilty to the murders but 13 times added: ‘But guilty of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility.’”
The Mirror also focused on the absurdity of Sutcliffe’s addendum being repeated 13 times:
“SUTCLIFFE had rehearsed his answer, but the legal phrases tangled on the end of his tongue… He stumbled again on the second charge of murder against him, and on the third… On the fourth he got it right, and the awkward sentence was spoken firmly without error… There was a rhythm to his replies now… Sutcliffe’s replies became starkly perfect.”
Despite the prosecution being willing to accept the medical diagnosis, Judge Boreham requested further explanation of it, and after two hours of “lengthy excerpts and medical reports”, insisted that the trial should be dealt with by a jury, beginning the following Tuesday. The Mail wrote that the trial had “always promised to be pure theatre”, mentioning how prior to its commencement “the streets were a madhouse, with TV crews from around the world elbowing for position.”
The two-week trial concluded on May 22, 1981. The following day, the Daily Mirror, alongside its front page Yorkshire Ripper news report, was packed with information about the man himself, attempting to somehow understand or explain how a seemingly normal, supposedly happily-married man could have committed such atrocities.
The Mirror piece written by Gordon Hughes and Reginald White portrays Sutcliffe as man who had an unhealthy relationship with sex from an early age, obsessed by prostitutes and strippers, but “virtually impotent”:
“Sutcliffe, the man who claimed he hated prostitutes and had a God-given mission to rid the streets of them, was nevertheless fascinated by vice.”
Sutcliffe, a regular patron at numerous red-light district haunts, was called a “kickster” by prostitutes, meaning:
“A man who gets his thrills watching girls pick up their clients, occasionally chatting to them himself but rarely doing business.”
Nevertheless, one former neighbor, Jacqueline Ibbitson, claimed that Sutcliffe had paid for prostitutes from the age of 18 onwards:
“We all knew he started picking up whores. The lads on the estate could see nothing wrong with him. But the girls thought he was weird.”
Her sister, Colleen Young, remembered being thrown down a flight of stairs by Sutcliffe as a child, and looking up to see “a sickly grin on his face”.
However, Sutcliffe’s relationship with women in general is portrayed as somewhat paradoxical. Other past acquaintances recall how Sutcliffe was prudish and perhaps overly protective of women. Carol Jones, who knew him as a teenager, said:
“He was always clean and tidy and never swore. I always felt safe with him. We went out together fairly often over a four-year period. We didn’t have sex.”
Former colleague Susan Kelly was given lifts by Sutcliffe when she felt it was too dark to walk home. She said:
“He was kind and courteous and never made a pass.”
However, this could all just be evidence that Sutcliffe was adept at pulling the wool over the eyes of those closest to him. Sutcliffe is reported to have condemned the actions of the by then much-publicized Ripper on more than one occasion, telling a colleague that the killings were “terrible”, and also saying to his brother:
“He told Mick: ‘They should hang that bastard. He needs topping.’”
“The Ripper… from the cradle to the grave”
When he was 19, Sutcliffe took a job as a gravedigger. It was here that his life, and many others, would change forever:
“It was while digging a grave at Bingley cemetery that Sutcliffe says he heard the voice of God urging him to kill.”
What makes this even more eerie is the fact that, on account of his black beard, workmates at the graveyard referred to Sutcliffe as “Jesus”.
While working as a gravedigger, Sutcliffe exhibited a lack of respect for both the law and the deceased. Colleagues said he “looted rings from bodies” and one time pulled a skull from an old family grave and used it to scare children in the school playground.
“Love affairs that shocked the family”
Like most serial killers, Sutcliffe had an unstable home life and had a front row seat for the gradual destruction of his parents’ broken marriage. Both parents had affairs that “caused turmoil” for their six children, as the Mirror revealed:
“John Sutcliffe trapped his wife into confessing that she had strayed. He pretended in a phone call to be [her lover] the policeman and made a date with Kathleen. When she turned up at a Bingley hotel she was met not by her boyfriend but by her husband.”
“Three years later, mill-worker John Sutcliffe faced his family’s fury over his walkout. His mistress, 40-year-old deaf-mute Mrs Broughton, had been a close friend of Kathleen.”
This article also explores how Sutcliffe’s siblings reacted to the revelation that their brother was the Yorkshire Ripper. His sister Maureen, 29, said:
“All I could do was let out a scream… The brother I loved and the monster are two different people. Knowing that is the only way we can come to terms with this horrible nightmare.”
His brother Mick, 30, spoke of Peter being a good uncle to his daughter Michelle:
“Whenever he called he brought sweets for her. He would have loved a child of his own.”
And his father John, 58, simply said:
“The greatest shadow hanging over us is the terrible suffering caused to the families and friends of the victims.”
“I stand by my man, says tragic Sonia”
A lot of column inches throughout our Yorkshire Ripper newspaper coverage are given to Sutcliffe’s wife, Sonia, focusing particularly on her decision to support him even after his confession and sentencing. Sonia told the press she was still in love with her husband, and visited him regularly in prison.
Indeed, Sonia had been one of the first people to hear the truth following Sutcliffe’s arrest in January 1981, as the Mirror recalls:
“A MIDNIGHT phone call disturbed Sonia Sutcliffe’s sleep – and shattered her life. It was her husband, Peter, calling from the police station at Dewsbury, Yorks. ‘I want to be the first to tell you,’ he said. ‘I’m the Yorkshire Ripper.’”
The Mirror’s record of their marriage reinforces the notion that there were two very different sides to Peter Sutcliffe, a theory his defense had endeavored to prove in court. Sutcliffe “worshipped her”, but “lied and cheated to hide his obsession with the vice world and his bloodlust for prostitutes.” To family and friends “the Sutcliffes seemed to have made it”, but after Peter had lied to them about Sonia’s being pregnant, “to cover the deception… Sutcliffe said his wife lost two babies through miscarriages.”
Psychiatrist Dr. Hugo Milne described the Sutcliffe marriage as:
“Intense – on the one hand loving, at the other extreme very angry.”
And in the eyes of many, it may have been the largest contributing factor to Sutcliffe’s descent into murder. Indeed, his first was committed “little more than a year after his wedding”. One senior police detective spoke of the duality in Sutcliffe’s feelings towards his wife:
“During our interviews he repeatedly told how she nagged, nagged, nagged. He idolised her really, but couldn’t stand her rigid, high-handed rules.”
The article states that Sutcliffe “did not lift a finger to his wife”. In accordance with this, the detective surmises:
“I think when Sutcliffe attacked his twenty victims, he was attacking his wife twenty times in his mind.”
One of the most contentious aspects of the Sutcliffe case was the West Yorkshire police’s alleged mishandling of it, which the Mirror dubs “the most costly blunder ever made by British police”.
They reveal that a secret document contained five points for elimination of potential suspects, one of which being: “if his accent is dissimilar to a North Easter (Geordie) accent”, effectively ruling out Sutcliffe, who “has a soft Yorkshire accent”. The Mirror is particularly scathing in its critique of this methodology and commitment to the “false lead”:
“NOTHING, it seems, could shake the Ripper team’s faith in the Geordie theory. Not the statements of three Ripper victims who lived to tell police that their attacker had a Yorkshire accent. Not the fact that none of the other survivors of Sutcliffe’s attacks mentioned a Geordie accent.”
Police were supposedly misled by a conman who sent letters and tapes with a Sunderland postmark, claiming to be the Ripper. The Mirror article lists the other criticisms faced by the police pertaining to the manhunt, including:
“Police questioned Sutcliffe NINE times and each time he talked his way out of trouble. One detective named him as a prime suspect. But the detective’s report to his superiors was shelved.”
“Sutcliffe’s car was spotted at least 50 times in known red-light haunts of the Ripper.”
“Two survivors of attacks gave descriptions of Sutcliffe. They said he was bearded, but police PhotoFit pictures based on the descriptions do not show a beard.”
A 2006 inquiry into the case found that police made “major errors of judgement” and led to changes to investigative procedures which were adopted across UK police forces.
Of course, what the Mirror’s May 23, 1981 front page led with was the results of Peter Sutcliffe’s murder trial, the headline quoting the mother of Jacqueline Hill, his final victim:
“I WANT HIM TO DIE IN PRISON”
Inside, the page 2 article reports on the outcome of the trial:
“LUCK finally ran out for the Yorkshire Ripper at 4.22 yesterday afternoon. It was then that the foreman of the Old Bailey jury returned the first verdict: guilty of murder.”
“In the end, despite the lengthy evidence of three psychiatrists, the jury of six men and six women decided by a majority of ten to two that he was a murderer and not a madman. An evil coward, not a man with a mission.”
Sutcliffe was sentenced to 30 years in prison, although any decision to release him after that point “would depend on a thorough investigation”. Of this, the judge said:
“That is an unusually long period, in my judgement, but you, I believe, are an unusually dangerous man. I express the hope that, when I have said life imprisonment, it will mean precisely that.”
Ultimately, it would. On November 13, 2020, after just shy of forty years in incarceration, Peter Sutcliffe died at the age of 74 whilst on medical release from HMP Frankland.