The following are the nine police interviews of Peter Sutcliffe during the Yorkshire Ripper Investigation.
The first time Peter Sutcliffe was interviewed was a result of his failure to find the newly issued £5 note he had given to Jean Jordan on October 1 1977 in Manchester when he made a "return visit" to the body on October 9th. Jean Jordan's body was found the morning of October 10th. Her handbag, with the incriminating £5 note, was not discovered until five days later, approximately 100 yards from where the body had been found. The note, serial number AW51 121565, had been part of a batch distributed to firms for pay packets for almost 8,000 men only days before October 1st. It was reasoned that it was doubtful, though still a slight possibility, that the note could have travelled so far, so quickly, by regular commerce. Find the man who had received the note, and you probably had found the killer.
Sutcliffe, employed by T. & W. H. Clark (Holdings) Limited in Shipley, one of the firms that could have received the note, was visited at home by Detective-Constables Edwin Howard and Leslie Smith at 7:45 pm on November 2nd. Sutcliffe and his wife were both at home, and Sutcliffe appeared relaxed and casual, and did not seem to be perturbed by the visit of the detective-constables. He said he had been at home the night of the murder of Jean Jordan, a month earlier, and had gone to bed around 11:30 pm. His wife confirmed his story. When questioned about the second date, when the killer had returned to the body, Sutcliffe had an apparently solid alibi, he and his wife had been having a housewarming party. Sutcliffe could not produce any £5 notes that he had received in his pay packet a month earlier on September 29th.
Having found nothing to arouse their suspicions, like thousands of other routine enquiries dealing with the £5 note, the detective-constables subsequently filed a five paragraph report stating Sutcliffe had denied being a punter and that his wife had given a general alibi for the night of the murder. "Not connected" was the conclusion drawn in regards to the Jean Jordan murder.
Six days after the first interview, Sutcliffe was questioned again about the £5 note by two different policemen. Sutcliffe and his wife Sonia gave the same stories as they had given to the previous police visitors. They also allowed their house to be searched and nothing incriminating was found. Sutcliffe was also questioned about his car, as tire tracks had been found at the scene of the Irene Richardson murder which could have come from around 50 different types of vehicles.
As a follow-up to Sutcliffe's statement about the housewarming party on the night of October 9th, police called on Sutcliffe's mother, Mrs Kathleen Sutcliffe, who confirmed she had been at her son's house on the night in question. She also stated that he had driven her and her husband back to Bingley after the housewarming party (after which Sutcliffe had not gone home, but had continued on to Manchester to further attack the body of Jean Jordan and search for the incriminating £5 note).
An operation mounted in the red-light districts in Leeds, Bradford, Manchester, and Sheffield brought the police again to Sutcliffe's door. Police officers had been staking out the red-light districts noting down car numbers. Sutcliffe's red Ford Corsair had been spotted seven times in the Bradford red-light area. On August 13th, Detective-Constable Peter Smith called at No 6 Garden Lane to interview Sutcliffe.
DC Smith found Sutcliffe in overalls decorating the kitchen and did not seem to mind the interruption. Without revealing that the police were conducting the secret monitoring of vehicles in the red-light districts, DC Smith inquired generally about Sutcliffe's car movements. Sutcliffe would later say "I told him I couldn't say exactly what I'd been doing, but that I had to drive that way to work and back." Sutcliffe also denied that he used prostitutes when questioned without his wife present.
Sonia Sutcliffe backed up her husband by stating that he rarely went out at night, and when he did she was usually with him. She also said that they had been at Rockafella's, a discotheque in Leeds, on the night of one of the murders. Both Sutcliffe and his wife had difficulty remembering what they did on the weekend of May 16th/17th, when Vera Millward was murdered, but Sonia believed her husband would have been home all evening.
DC Smith did not check the tires on Sutcliffe's red Ford Corsair, nor was he aware that Sutcliffe had recently purchased a black Sunbeam Rapier, which had already been spotted nine times in the Manningham red-light district.
Dective-Constable Peter Smith, on a return visit, inquiries about Sutcliffe's banking arrangements, and about his vehicles. Sutcliffe's purchase of the black Sunbeam Rapier had eventually resulted in the sale of the red Ford Corsair. DC Smith would later visit the new owner of the car to check the tires, but by then the tires had been replaced with new ones.
Detective-Constable Andrew Laptew and Detective-Constable Graham Greenwood visit Sutcliffe at home after his Sunbeam Rapier was spotted 36 times by Ripper surveillance teams in Bradford, twice in Leeds, and once in Manchester. This was the most crucial interview of the nine times that Sutcliffe was questioned by police. For the first, and only, time Sutcliffe's answers and demeanour did not allow him to avoid the suspicion of the officers that there was "something not quite right about this man." When the two detective-constables went to interview Sutcliffe they did not know that he had been questioned about the £5 note, nor did they know he had been questioned about the frequency of his red Corsair in red-light areas. His file in the Ripper Incident Room was almost two years out of date.
In an interview with the Times, Laptew said, "I remember having a joke with his wife to break the ice. I said to her that now was a good time to get rid of her husband if she wanted to. I expected some reaction or a laugh. But neither her nor her husband seemed to have any sense of humour whatsoever." Sutcliffe was strong in his denials, and was, once again, backed by his wife, but at the same time he appeared unusually quiet. When questioned, Sutcliffe claimed again that the Bradford red-light sightings were due to his travelling to and from work, the Leeds sightings were when he visited a nightclub, and he denied the Manchester sighting. At one point in the questioning, Sonia agreed to leave the room, and Sutcliffe continued to deny he used prostitutes, saying that he had no need of such women since he hadn't been married very long.
As he sat in the front room of Sutcliffe's home in Garden Lane, Bradford, DC Laptew realised that everything the police knew about the Ripper seemed to fit the man he was questioning. Sutcliffe was the same height and build as the man described by two survivors, he had a beard, a Jason King-style of moustache, collar-length black hair, dark complexion, and smallish feet. Sutcliffe also had a distinctive gap between his top two teeth as noted in survivor Marilyn Moore's photofit. He was also a lorry driver, one of the suspected occupations of the Ripper. Laptew said, "He stuck in my mind. I was not 99 per cent certain, otherwise I would have pulled him in. But he was the best I had seen so far and I had seen hundreds. The gap in his teeth struck me as significant. He fitted the frame and could not really be taken out of it."
Both DC Laptew and DC Greenwood felt there was something not quite right about Peter Sutcliffe. Days later, Laptew discovered that could have owned the £5 note that was found in Jean Jordan's handbag. Continuing to follow up on Sutcliffe, he also found found out through the Regional Criminal Records Office that Sutcliffe had been convicted for 'going equipped to steal' in 1969. Unfortunately, Laptew did not check with the Criminal Records Office at Scotland Yard, where there were two important and vital details, the burglary tool had been a hammer, and Sutcliffe had also been arrested earlier in a stationary car in a red light district.
DC Laptew's two page report, detailing his and DC Greenwood's suspicions, and that Sutcliffe should be seen by senior detectives, was passed on where it was considered about nine months later by two superintendents, including Detective Superintendent Dick Holland, second-in-charge of the entire inquiry. Here the hoax letters and tape, and the police over-reliance on them as being from the Ripper, instead of the real crime scene clues and descriptions from survivors, played their horrific part in allowing Peter Sutcliffe to avoid becoming subject to more intense questioning and from becoming a prime suspect. Sutcliffe had lived all his life in Yorkshire, and a Home Office report showed that a specimen of Sutcliffe's handwriting, taken by DC Laptew, did not match the letters from Sunderland. DC Laptew and DC Greenwood's suspicions and report was routinely marked "to file" where it would languish with thousand of others in the massive backlog of reports not yet filed in the system, allowing Sutcliffe to escape yet again from further and more probing investigation.
Sutcliffe is seen by two detective-constables for the second time about his Sunbeam Rapier being spotted over 36 times in red light areas. This was due to an inspector who was checking through the Ripper Incident Room's backlog of unprocessed actions. He was not entirely satisfied with the alibis and statements that had previously eliminated Sutcliffe and so further action was initiated. Unfortunately, at this time, the Laptew report was still missing from the system. Sutcliffe was re-interviewed and samples of his handwriting were again taken, and, not surprisingly, he was again eliminated as a suspect.
In January 1980, Manchester police returned to Bradford for a second attempt to trace the owner of the £5 note. In order to try and reduce the number of people who could have received the note down from the over 8,000, an innovative re-enactment took place. They recreated the counting out of the money using the same bank staff and arranged for them to count out the same amounts as when the original batch had been done back in September 1977. Using experienced bank staff and the ledgers, they were able to more clearly establish were the money had gone. Through these techniques they were able to reduce the number of firms which could have received the note down to just three firms, Clarks, Butterfields, and Parkinsons. They also reduced the number of people who could have received the note down to 241 (including Peter Sutcliffe). Meanwhile, the Laptew report still hadn't found its way past the massive backlog and into the system.
On January 13th, Sutcliffe and his wife are interviewed at their home by a Detective Sergeant from Yorkshire and a Detective Constable from Manchester. Sutcliffe was asked about his work, and also for an alibi for the night of the murder of Barbara Leach four months previous, but he was unable to provide one. The officers searched Sutcliffe's house, as well as examining his boots and the tools in his garage.
Due to a failure in the incident room indexing, either through missing or misplaced cards, the officers were unaware of Sutcliffe's more recent interviews, only aware of his interviews in the previous £5 note inquiries. When Sutcliffe stated he had provided a handwriting sample in a previous interview, it surprised the officers, who would later check with the incident room. This re-check of the index would eventually result in the finding of some interview documents conducted during the red-light monitoring, but the Laptew report was still out of the system.
Of the 241 suspects that were to be interviewed from the original £5 note investigation, only seven had been flagged as having any additional information in the index. It was later discovered that Sutcliffe was one of eighteen others who should have fallen into this category, but who had been missed in the initial search of the index.
On January 30th, at the Kirkstall Forge Engineering Works in Leeds, while loading his lorry, Sutcliffe was again interviewed. He is again asked and explains about his car movements through red-light districts, and says that he was home at the time of the Leach murder, which his wife could confirm. The two officers also search the cab of Sutcliffe's lorry (their report would also claim that they searched Sutcliffe's home and car, but this had not been done. They had known at the time of the interview that Sutcliffe's house had been searched in the previous interview).
Sutcliffe claimed that the policemen also had a photograph of his boot print left at the scene of the murder of Josephine Whitaker, and that he was wearing the same boots when interviewed. "I stayed dead calm, and as I got into the wagon I realised I was standing on the steps, which were mesh, and they could look up and see for themselves that I was wearing those boots. But they didn't. They couldn't see what were in front of their own eyes."
The final interview comes about as a result of the incident room inspector not being satisfied with the action report from the previous interview. He orders a more indepth interview be conducted in regards to Sutcliffe's vehicles, his vehicle sightings in red-light districts, and his alibis.
Sutcliffe is interviewed at T. & W. H. Clark's by two detective constables, where he gives alibis for some of his car sightings, as well as an alibi that he was home on the night of the Whitaker murder, which, again, Sonia would confirm.
There are many factors which allowed Sutcliffe to be able to avoid becoming a prime suspect in the murders. The massive backlog of unprocessed actions allowed Sutcliffe's file to be woefully outdated and inadequate for police officers intending to interview him. Many times they did not know what had happened in previous interviews, or that any previous interviews had taken place. Ronald Gregory revealed in his memoirs in the Mail On Sunday that on four occasions the interviewing officer, or officers, thought they were questioning Sutcliffe for the very first time.
The £5 note inquiry, which first brought police to his doorstep, was hampered by the fact the note was not found until five days after the body of Jean Jordan. Even then, interviewing thousands men who could have received the note was a daunting task. As well, there still was a slim possibility the note had changed hands quickly and the murderer was not the one who received it in his pay packet. More importantly, Sutcliffe's alibi on the night of the return visit to the body had collaborating witnesses. Since most of the police interviews were about subject matter that had taken place some times months previously, confirmation by Sutcliffe's wife Sonia of any alibis, or the statements that he was at home at the time, could not realistically be challenged by investigating officers.
The over-reliance of the police on the hoax letters and tape, rather than the more substantial clues from survivors and murder scenes, contributed greatly to Sutcliffe's avoidance of becoming a prime suspect as it gave him an "out" during the interviews and investigations. The most important interview, by DCs Laptew and Greenwood, and their investigation into Sutcliffe's past and their suspicions about him based on aspects of the case unconnected to the letters and tape, was ultimately nullified by the letters and tape at a senior level, allowing Sutcliffe to avoid further and more intense inquiries.
(NOTE: Sources: Bilton, Burn, Jones, Cross, Mail On Sunday, The Times, Sunday Times.)