How Serial Killer Peter Sutcliffe, The “Yorkshire Ripper,” Terrorized 1970s Britain

Published May 24, 2018

Peter Sutcliffe murdered at least 13 women and evaded hapless police time and again on his way to becoming the Yorkshire Ripper.

Peter Sutcliffe

YouTubePeter Sutcliffe, the Yorshire Ripper.

During the 1970s, Peter Sutcliffe terrified Britain as he viciously murdered at least 13 women and attempted to kill no less than seven others all while narrowly evading capture again and again. The press called him the “Yorkshire Ripper” — and he more than lived up to his name.

Peter Sutcliffe’s Early Life

Peter Sutcliffe was born in Bingley, Yorkshire in 1946 to a working-class family. A loner and a misfit from an early age, he left school at 15 before shuffling from job to job, including work as a gravedigger.

Even as a teen, he earned a reputation among his fellow graveyard workers for his morbid sense of humor on the job while also developing an obsession with prostitutes. He began consistently watching them conduct their business on the streets of the nearby city of Leeds.

But while his macabre and voyeuristic interests bloomed, he also began to build a relatively normal life for himself. He met a local woman named Sonia Szurma in 1967 and the pair eventually married in 1974. The following year, Sutcliffe got his license as a heavy goods vehicle driver.

While he now had opportunities for steady employment as well as a wife at home, this truck driver job also allowed him to be out on the road for long stretches of time without any questions asked. Soon, Peter Sutcliffe wouldn’t be content to merely watch prostitutes.

The Yorkshire Ripper Murders

Starting in 1975 (though some say he’d attacked women previously), Peter Sutcliffe embarked on the grisly murder spree that earned him the name Yorkshire Ripper.

While the motive for the murders remains unclear — some say he was taking revenge on prostitutes because he’d once been swindled by one; he said the voice of God commanded him to kill — his method of killing remained fairly consistent. He would strike his victims, mostly prostitutes, from behind with a hammer before stabbing them repeatedly with a knife.

He stabbed his first murder victim, Wilma McCann, 15 times in the neck and stomach in late 1975. More than 150 police officers participated in the ensuing investigation, but they weren’t able to find a culprit.

Victims Of The Yorkshire Ripper

Keystone/Getty ImagesSix of the women murdered by Peter Sutcliffe.

In fact, the authorities’ first break in the case didn’t come until two years later, when they found a five-pound note in a secret compartment of the handbag of a mutilated dead prostitute named Jean Jordan. Police figured that a customer may have given Jordan that note and that said customer might have information about her death.

Police were able to trace the bill to a specific bank and analyze the bank’s operations to deduce that the note could have been part of the wages received by approximately 8,000 people.

Authorities were able to interview about 5,000 of these people — including Peter Sutcliffe, but they found his alibi (family party) to be credible.

Having eluded police, the Yorkshire Ripper attacked another prostitute named Marilyn Moore just two months later. However, she survived and provided police with a detailed description of the man who had attacked her, a description that matched the appearance of Sutcliffe.

Furthermore, tire tracks at the scene matched those found at one of Sutcliffe’s previous attacks, helping to cement the idea that the police indeed had a serial killer on their hands.

But time and again, authorities (widely taken to task for their bungling of the case later on) couldn’t catch their man — even though they interviewed Peter Sutcliffe nine times in connection with the Yorkshire Ripper murders.

Between the five-pound note incident, the fact that Sutcliffe matched Moore’s description, and the fact that his vehicles were often spotted in the areas where the murders occurred, police frequently dragged Sutcliffe in for questioning. Each time, however, they didn’t have enough evidence and Sutcliffe had an alibi, one that his wife was always ready to affirm.

But even though police couldn’t nab Peter Sutcliffe as the Yorkshire Ripper, they were able to get him for drunk driving in April 1980. While awaiting trial, he killed two more women and attacked three others.

Meanwhile, in November of that year, Sutcliffe acquaintance Trevor Birdsall reported him to the police as a suspect in the Yorkshire Ripper case. But the paperwork he filled out vanished amongst the massive amounts of other reports and information they had received on the case.

Finally Caught

On Jan. 2, 1981, two police officers approached Sutcliffe, who was in a parked car in an area where prostitutes and their customers were commonly spotted. The police then decided to do a check, which revealed that the car had false plate numbers.

They arrested Sutcliffe only for this minor offense, but when they found that his appearance matched descriptions of the Yorkshire Ripper, they questioned him about that case.

After two days of interrogation, Peter Sutcliffe confessed that he was the Yorkshire Ripper and spent the next day describing his many crimes in detail.

Sutcliffe

YouTube

Sutcliffe soon stood trial for 13 counts of murder. He pled not guilty to murder, but guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, claiming a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and that he was a tool of “God’s will,” claiming to hear voices that ordered him to kill prostitutes.

The jury didn’t buy it. Peter Sutcliffe was found guilty on all 13 counts and on seven accounts of attempted murder and given 20 concurrent life sentences. He remains behind bars to this day.


After this look at Peter Sutcliffe, the “Yorkshire Ripper,” read up on the five most likely Jack the Ripper suspects. Then, discover the story of Richard Cottingham, the “Times Square Torso Ripper”.

Kara Goldfarb
Kara Goldfarb is a writer living in New York City.
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