Meet Sonia Sutcliffe, Serial Killer Peter Sutcliffe’s Oblivious Wife

Published June 11, 2019
Updated February 24, 2020
Published June 11, 2019
Updated February 24, 2020

While Sonia Sutcliffe was a school teacher, her husband was committing rapes and murders across northern England. Hounded by the press once the truth came out, she's lived her life in his shadow ever since.

Sonia Sutcliffe Hides Her Face

PA Images/Getty ImagesSonia Sutcliffe hides her face from the press while leaving the Old Bailey after her husband’s trial. March 20, 1981. London, England.

Peter Sutcliffe murdered at least 13 women during his infamous 1970s killing spree in Britain. Known as the “Yorkshire Ripper” ever since, he managed to evade authorities for years before finally being apprehended. His wife Sonia, meanwhile, had absolutely no idea her husband was a serial killer.

Born in Bingley, Yorkshire in 1946 to a humble, blue-collar family, Peter Sutcliffe displayed anti-social behavior such as causing mischief and sticking to himself from an early age. After he gave up on school at 15, he worked various temporary jobs — including a couple stints as a gravedigger.

It was at this stage when his penchant for the macabre and pubescent urges formed together. His fellow graveyard workers were keenly aware of Sutcliffe’s pitch-black sense of humor. In addition to topping even their gallows humor, Sutcliffe developed a troubling, powerful lust for prostitutes.

When he wasn’t spying on prostitutes conducting their business on the streets of Leeds and Bradford, Sutcliffe was establishing a seemingly decent life of his own. He was 21 years old when he met Sonia Szurma in 1967. They married in 1974, after which he acquired his truck driver license.

Sonia Sutcliffe At A Party

Bettmann/Getty ImagesA candid photo of Sonia Sutcliffe at a 1979 party in Bradford, England.

With a wife at home and a reliable job that allowed him to roam the streets, Sutcliffe’s obsessions were now able to expand — and worsen. Between 1975 and 1980, he killed at least 13 women and tried to kill seven more.

But his wife, Sonia Sutcliffe, remained entirely ignorant of what her cold-blooded, murderous spouse was up to at night.

How could she not have known, or at the very least, suspected her husband to be the infamous Yorkshire Ripper?

In order to gain a clearer perspective from her side of things, we’ll have to delve into the man’s modus operandi. In the beginning, Peter Sutcliffe stalked and preyed while his wife worked as a teacher. This worked out well for Sutcliffe, until he was apprehended — and she discovered the truth.

How exactly he got away with it for so long, as well as how Sonia spent the next few decades mentally dealing with these harrowing truths, could only be described as shocking and macabre.

How Sonia Sutcliffe Met The Yorkshire Ripper

Sonia Szurma was born in 1951 to parents from Czechoslovakia. She first met her future husband during a disco night at a local pub. Her father prohibited the underage girl from going, but she wouldn’t listen.

Peter Sutcliffe The Yorkshire Ripper

Express Newspapers/Getty ImagesPeter Sutcliffe, a.k.a. The Yorkshire Ripper, on his wedding day. August 10, 1974.

The 16-year-old had no idea that the charming truck driver she had just met was raping and killing women across the city in his spare time.

Shockingly, she wouldn’t find out about it until he himself told her — while under arrest at the Dewsbury police station.

Sonia was studying to become a teacher when a schizophrenia diagnosis put the breaks on her career goals. She’d soon be described as short-tempered and constantly dissatisfied.

Her husband-to-be even had to “contain her physically by pinning her arms to her side,” according to one author, during her common “unprovoked outbursts of rage.”

According to reporter Barbara Jones, who interviewed the killer’s wife in the mid-1980s, Sonia was “the most irritating, strangest and coldest person I’ve ever met. She’s so incredibly prickly and demanding.”

But before Sonia ever learned the truth about her homicidal husband, Peter Sutcliffe spent years terrorizing a quiet British town.

Peter Sutcliffe Begins Killing Women

Sutcliffe’s killing spree began in 1975, one year after he married his wife — though his violent assaults on women began as early as 1969. He beat his first victim over the head with a rock-filled sock in that year, and attacked three women with a knife and hammer in 1975 in three separate incidents.

He then moved on to actual murder, earning him the Yorkshire Ripper name in the press.

His motives have never been clarified. Some theorized his brutal attacks on prostitutes stemmed from a bad personal experience with a sex worker, but it’s never been confirmed or denied. His approach to the deed, however, rarely wavered.

Police Investigating Sutcliffe Home

Andrew Varley/Mirrorpix/Getty ImagesPolice searching the ground behind the home of Peter Sutcliffe in Bradford following his arrest. January 9, 1981.

Sutcliffe’s modus operandi? He’d hit his victims with a hammer from behind, then stab them to death.

In 1975, Sutcliffe stabbed his first known murder victim, Wilma McCann, 15 times in the neck and stomach. Her four children were sleeping soundly in the house, a mere 150 yards away.

In January 1976, he stabbed his second murder victim, Emily Jackson, nearly 50 times. He dragged her into a parking lot and killed with a screwdriver. Sutcliffe then stomped on her so virulently he left a boot print on her body.

Sutcliffe’s violent and sexual attacks continued well into 1977, when the Yorkshire police finally began putting pieces of the puzzle together.

The Police Sniffs Out The Yorkshire Ripper

More than 150 police officers contributed to the search for the Yorkshire killer. Sutcliffe evaded them for years, but in 1977, they finally caught their first break.

When they found a five pound banknote in the purse of one of his victims — Jean Jordan, a prostitute he mutilated and murdered — they traced it back to the bank. This narrowed their search down to around 8,000 people.

Unfortunately, even after interviewing Sutcliffe — one of the 5,000 suspects they managed to speak to — his alibi was credible enough for police to take him off their list. He subsequently attacked another prostitute two months later, named Marilyn Moore. Fortunately, she survived — and described her assailant to curious police.

A 1980 BBC Newsnight segment on the Yorkshire Ripper developments.

All in all, Sutcliffe was interviewed nine separate times in connection with the Yorkshire Ripper murders. Though witness descriptions and other circumstantial evidence did tie him to the killings, there was never enough evidence to arrest him.

Sutcliffe was nabbed for drunk driving in April 1980. While awaiting trial, instead of keeping a low profile, he decided to kill two more women and attack three others. That November, his acquaintance Trevor Birdsall reporter Sutcliffe to the police as a definite suspect.

On Jan. 2, 1981, he was finally arrested. When two officers spotted Sutcliffe in his car with a 24-year-old prostitute and ran his plates, they found that they were fake. Brought in for this minor offense, they noticed his description matched that of the Yorkshire Ripper’s, and began to dig deeper.

Sutcliffe Victims

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

The next day, they returned to the scene where they found him and discovered a knife, hammer, and rope that he had discarded while claiming he needed to slip away to pee. He hid a second knife in a police station toilet.

They strip-searched Sutcliffe, who was wearing a V-neck sweater under his pants — the sleeves over his legs and the V leaving his genitals exposed for more expedient sexual assault. Police were convinced this was their man. After two days of interrogation, Peter Sutcliffe confessed.

Sonia Sutcliffe Learns The Truth

Sutcliffe recounted his crimes to the police in thorough detail. At this point, they knew more than his own wife. Before he stood trial for 13 counts of murder, he finally admitted to his wife what he had done over the past seven years of their marriage.

Peter Sutcliffe Jimmy Saville Frank Bruno

TwitterPeter Sutcliffe (left) with world-renowned pedophile and friend of the Royal Family, Jimmy Saville (center), and professional boxer Frank Bruno (right). Taken inside prison in the 1980s.

“What on earth is going on, Peter?” Sonia asked her husband.

“It’s me, I’m the Yorkshire Ripper,” he replied. “I killed all those women.”

“What on earth did you do that for, Peter?” Sonia replied.

According to the Yorkshire Ripper himself, he knew the time had come to reveal his secrets to his spouse — and he didn’t want anyone else doing it for him:

“I personally told Sonia what had happened after my arrest. I asked the police not to tell her, just to ring her and let me explain. She had no idea, not a clue. I never had any blood on me or anything. There was nothing to link me, I was taking my clothes home and taking my clothes off and doing my own washing. I was working all day long and she was working as a teacher so I could only do it at night. She was deeply shocked when I told her. She couldn’t believe it.”

In the end, the jury was in a fair amount of shock, as well. Peter Sutcliffe was sentenced to life in prison 20 times over that year, and remains behind bars to this day. As for Sonia, she finally decided to break her silence on her relationship with the killer.

Sonia Sutcliffe Breaks Her Silence On The Yorkshire Ripper

According to The Daily Mail, Sonia Sutcliffe ended her decades-long silence on her relationship, marriage, and subsequent divorce from her husband in a 2015 interview with The Sun. The divorcee had since remarried, and had spent much of her time suing publications for defaming her in the press.

In the years following Peter Sutcliffe’s arrest and consequent time in the tabloids, his wife remained as hidden from public view as possible. Neighbors and locals knew she lived amongst them, but gave her a semblance of privacy — which the media certainly did not.

Sonia Sutcliffe Outside The Old Bailey

Brendan Monks/Mirrorpix/Getty ImagesSonia Sutcliffe in tears outside the Old Bailey during her husband’s trial. April 29, 1981.

“People have claimed to have interviewed me when the truth is they have not,” she explained. “There have been a lot of bad things written about me and they are not accurate. I would like the truth to come out one day but I am afraid to be extremely busy for the next two or three years.”

“I have commitments I cannot get out of. I do not want to say what they are.”

Sonia divorced Peter in 1994 and remarried in 1997. She seemingly attempted to remove herself from Peter’s shadow and begin life anew. The big motivating factor for the then-69-year-old to rejoin the conversation in 2015 was her ex-husband’s claim that Sonia’s new beau was jealous of their friendship.

According to Express, Peter believed her new husband dictated when and how frequently she could visit him in prison.

Sonia Woodward Walking Into Court

PA Images/Getty ImagesSonia Sutcliffe leaving the courthouse after settling a libel case over allegations in a book that she had perjured herself and tried to help the Yorkshire Ripper escape from Broadmoor Hospital. Oct. 5, 1984. U.K.

“Sonia still goes to see him occasionally although Peter has complained it is less often,” an insider claimed. “He thinks her husband Michael can’t accept they are still friends after all this time. He calls him jealous and insecure and blames him for coming between them.”

The Yorkshire Ripper’s imprisonment left Sonia hounded by the press, and often mischaracterized in publications. Following the conviction, she won nearly a dozen libel cases against regional newspapers.

In 1989, satirical magazine Private Eye was ordered to dole out damages worth £600,000 (for claiming Sonia was actively trying to profit from her fame as the Yorkshire Ripper’s wife. The magazine’s editor, Ian Hislop, was stupefied at the court’s decision.

“If this is justice I’m a banana,” he said.

Private Eye publishers thought it absurd that Sonia Sutcliffe was awarded £600,000 for damages to her reputation, while Peter Sutcliffe’s victims were awarded only £7,000 apiece.

Ultimately, the publication successfully appealed and had its payment lowered to £60,000. Nonetheless, all of these public scraps with the media had left Sonia actively averse to interviews, commenting, and telling her own story.

“One day I might do something but I don’t want to get your hopes up that is going to happen now,” she said in 2015.

Sonia And Peter Sutcliffe As Friends

According to The Sun, the imprisoned serial killer has been utterly convinced that his ex-wife’s new husband is the deciding factor in their post-divorce friendship.

“I have been ringing Sonia but Michael tells her off if I speak to her or leave messages,” said Peter, referring to Sonia’s husband. “He acts like a spoilt brat and should get over his jealousy and accept we are friends.”

The convict’s belief that Michael, a hairdresser, was keeping Sonia from him has been ingrained in the killer for years. Though entirely plausible, Peter was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1984.

He was also blinded by prison inmates and gained a substantial amount of weight from various medications he was prescribed. At the very least, it seems, he retained his sense of humor.

“I have spoken to her and she is upset that I am blind,” he said. “Hopefully that will mean she will come to see me. The problem is I won’t be able to see her face.”

In the end, the simple truth of the matter seems to be that Sonia Sutcliffe isn’t interested in continuing her double life. Once the purportedly unaware wife of a mass-murdering maniac, now an older woman desperate for a quiet life — if ever there was a fork in the road, this would be it.

Sonia visited her ex-husband at Broadmoor Hospital in Berkshire in 2015, but hasn’t seen her ex-husband since. Peter was transferred from Broadmoor to Durham’s Franklin Prison in 2016.

“Peter desperately wants her to come. She has refused to explain why she won’t visit and it has made him worse,” a source said. “But no one in Franklin has a lot of sympathy for him.”

After learning about the Peter Sutcliffe’s wife, Sonia Sutcliffe, read about Pedro Rodrigues Filho, the real-life “Dexter” – serial killer of other criminals. Then, learn about Leonarda Cianciulli, the serial killer who turned her victims into soap and teacakes.

Marco Margaritoff
Marco Margaritoff is a Staff Writer at All That Is Interesting.