Police took six years to capture serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, and this was later partly blamed on a catalogue of mistakes made by the force at the time.
He murdered his first known victim in 1975. But it took the West Yorkshire Police until 1981 to arrest him for the crimes. In which time, he’d killed another 12 women, and attacked at least seven more.
Peter Sutcliffe’s crimes became one of Britain’s most notorious serial killer cases. And now the case has been dramatised for the first time by ITV. The Long Shadow is currently airing on Monday nights at 9pm.
And the makers behind the seven-part documentary have attempted to highlight the many mistakes made by the police in the search for Peter Sutcliffe…
Mistakes made in the Peter Sutcliffe case: The moniker The Yorkshire Ripper
While not unusual at that time, police gave the unknown killer the nickname The Yorkshire Ripper. Like Jack the Ripper before him, police gave Peter Sutcliffe the gruesome title as they launched the investigation into the murders.
Of course, we now know the moniker is extremely offensive. Not only is it painful for the family of the victims, it also helps the glamorous the killer.
Ahead of The Long Shadow airing on ITV, the broadcaster told reviewers: “We’d like to respectfully ask you to consider not using the term The Yorkshire Ripper in your press coverage when writing about The Long Shadow.
“Although the name is well-known shorthand for Peter Sutcliffe, the victims’ family members and survivors of his hideous crimes find the term very distressing and triggering. In respect to the many, many people affected by his awful crimes, we’d ask you to call Peter Sutcliffe by his real name.”
The police force were ‘misogynistic’
West Yorkshire Police received widespread criticism for the way it handled the Peter Sutcliffe case. The Long Shadow writer George Kay explains: “And then there are the detectives. While old-fashioned, unpalatable, misogynist attitudes were ever-present and contributed to the many missteps that drove the flawed investigation, not all were the blinkered misogynists that many might believe them to be.
“Many were stubborn, well-intended men and women who gradually became hamstrung by their own investigation. Whose failures on at least two occasions drove them to an early grave.”
As we learn from the ITV series, four very different men were in charge of the investigation. Although, two million man-hours were logged in the incident room, it took six years to catch the killer.
George Kay also explains how the fact some of the victims were known sex workers also affected the case. He says: “Our exploration and research into the stories of the women who fatally crossed Peter Sutcliffe’s path emphasised the disgraceful way sex workers are still persecuted today.”
He adds: “It’s a known fact that the West Yorkshire Metropolitan Police were a force troubled with misogyny and racism. Senior officers opted to follow seemingly tangible evidence – like the hoax letters and tape – rather than listen to the first-hand testimony of women who had survived, like Marcella Claxton.”
‘Institutional prejudices and injustices failed these women’
Director Lewis Arnold elaborates: “I felt angry at all the institutional prejudices and injustices that had failed these women between 1975 and 1981. Whilst also being aware that things hadn’t dramatically changed in the 42 years since Peter Sutcliffe’s arrest.
“Gender inequality is still so visible in 2023. And it was during the time I was reading the scripts that the shocking discovery emerged that Metropolitan Police officers were sharing vile and grossly offensive messages with each other.
“I felt that George had […] given a voice to the women and families, who were so misrepresented during the initial case in 1975.”
Mistakes made in the Peter Sutcliffe case: The police let him go
Unbelievably, the police force interviewed Peter Sutcliffe nine times during the investigation. But each time then let him go. All the police had about the case was in paper form, making it hard to cross-reference.
The Ripper incident room at Millgarth police station used a card index system which was overwhelmed with information. It was not properly cross-referenced. This led to evidence against Peter Sutcliffe getting lost in the system. Crucial similarities between him and the suspect were not picked up. Such as the gap in his teeth and his size seven feet.
At his Old Bailey trial, Peter Sutcliffe himself said: “It was just a miracle they did not apprehend me earlier – they had all the facts.”
It’s true that Peter Sutcliffe slipped through the police’s net on several occasions, despite the hunt for the so-called Yorkshire Ripper being the biggest manhunt in Britain’s history.
On one occasion, police officers interviewed Peter Sutcliffe and showed him a picture of the culprit’s bootprint near a body. In a shocking failure, they failed to notice that Peter Sutcliffe was wearing the exact same pair of boots at the time.
During the police inquiry, he was interviewed nine times. However, he was only caught when police picked him up by chance with a prostitute in his car.
Mistakes made in the Peter Sutcliffe case: A catalogue of stupid mistakes
In Manchester in 1977, police found a £5 note in the pocket of 28-year-old Jean Jordan. The money directly linked to Peter Sutcliffe. But police again failed to connect the two.
The note was traced to one of six companies, including Clark Transport, which employed Peter Sutcliffe as a lorry driver. He was interviewed but his alibi – from his wife and mother – was accepted.
Police also overlooked Peter Sutcliffe’s arrest in 1969 for carrying a hammer in a red light district. They also failed to respond appropriately when his friend Trevor Birdsall pointed the finger at him in an anonymous letter.
The surviving victims were not believed
There were surviving victims whose testimonies were never believed. For example, Marcella Claxton. The police had a fixed idea of who the killer was likely to be and they were convinced he was only attacking sex workers.
Many other victims who survived attacks were students, office workers, and other young women, but the police did not use the information they could offer as they did not believe they were victims of the same attacker.
As early as 1976, Marcella Claxton was hit over the head with a hammer near her home in Leeds. However, potentially vital evidence was overlooked.
She survived the attack and was able to help police produce a photofit – which later proved to be accurate – but she was discounted as a Ripper victim because she was not a prostitute.
Police ‘hoodwinked by a hoax tape and two letters’
One of the worst mistakes in the hunt for Peter Sutcliffe came in 1979. At the time, Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield of West Yorkshire Police was hoodwinked by a hoax tape and two letters.
The letters, sent by someone claiming to be the Ripper, were sent from Sunderland. Despite warnings of a hoax from voice experts and other detectives, Oldfield pressed on. He became convinced this was his man. And, because the voice on the tape had a North East accent, Bradford-born Sutcliffe was not in the frame.
His mistake has subsequently been described as one of the biggest in British criminal history. Thirty years later, the messages were proven to be a hoax. Sunderland alcoholic John Humble admitted perverting the course of justice and was jailed for eight years in 2006.
The Long Shadow continues on Mondays at 9pm on ITV1 and ITVX.
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