The two Sunderland letters posted in March 1978, one to George Oldfield, and the other to the Manchester offices of the Daily Mirror, had both been routinely checked and dismissed at the time as the work of a crank. Other than claiming to be responsible for the murder of Joan Harrison, which had not been connected to the Ripper series, there was little to distinguish it from the hundreds of other crank letters received by the police and the newspapers.
The Joan Harrison murder, while having a few similarities to the Ripper murders, also had important differences, such as sexual activity, the lack of any stabbing, and theft. Joan Harrison's murder wasn't regarded as the work of the Yorkshire Ripper, even though the police had noted the similarities, especially the re-arrangement of clothing and the placement of clothing after the murder. The possibility of a connection had been looked at in early 1977, and reported in the newspapers.
One article had been published in the Yorkshire Post on March 9 1977, a year before the letters arrived. In it was a quote from Chief Superintendent James Hobson, which said: "We are also following up a possible link with a similar type of murder in Preston in November 1975, when a prostitute was found stabbed to death in the town centre." The quote is in error, as Joan Harrison had not been stabbed to death, but struck on the head with what was first thought to have been the heel of a shoe, and later thought to be consistent with a hammer-type instrument. She had also been subjected to violent kicking and stamping, but had not been stabbed. The Lancashire police also felt that the attacker was probably a local man.
Another article, published on April 12 1977, also reported that the West Yorkshire police were exploring whether there was any connection between the Harrison murder and the Ripper series. That article was published in the Daily Mirror, the very same newspaper that had been the recipient of the second letter.
Except for the reference to the Harrison murder, neither of the two letters contained any "exclusive" or "only the killer would know" information, and so were not much different than the two hundred anonymous phone calls and over fifty anonymous letters the police received during the first four weeks after the Helen Rytka murder.
When the body of Yvonne Pearson was found on March 26 1978, almost two weeks after the second letter had been posted, it was reasoned that if Yvonne Pearson was a Ripper murder, why had the letter writer, if he was the murderer, not mentioned it? He was hardly one not to boast about his "achievements", and there was not even a cryptic "there's a surprise waiting for you" or similar statement in the letters. As well, it is interesting to note the fact that the Yvonne Pearson murder had more similarities to the Joan Harrison murder, including the lack of stab wounds, and she had been kicked about the head and body, and jumped on, than any of the previous Ripper murders. Yet the letter writer was silent about her murder.
Just eleven days before the murder of Josephine Whitaker on April 4 1979, the third in the series of letters from the same writer arrived on Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield's desk, again bearing a Sunderland postmark. This time there was more detailed information, and forensic evidence which suggested that it may not be from a hoaxer after all.
Through a semen test, the man who had murdered Joan Harrison, claimed by the letter writer as one of his victims, belonged to the blood group B, which was in common with approximately 6 per cent of the general population. A saliva test on the March 23 1979 envelope revealed that the person who had sealed the envelope was also a blood group B secretor. This indicated that it was possible that the letter writer was connected to that murder.
As well, it appeared that the letter writer had made a prediction in the earlier letters which appeared to have come true. In the first letter he said: "Old slut next time I hope," and in the second letter had said: "next time try older one I hope." Also in the second letter, the writer said: "maybe Liverpool or even Manchester again." The next in the Ripper series of attacks after the letters had been received was the murder in Manchester of prostitute Vera Millward, who at aged 40 was one of the oldest in the series to date.
A reference in the third letter to Vera Millward having been in the same hospital on whose grounds she had been killed, was considered by the police to be very significant. The police believed this information, that she has recently been a patient at the hospital, had only been known to the police, and had not been published anywhere. Therefore, if the letter writer knew it, he must be also her killer.
One prediction in the third letter did not come true. He had said: "I don't know when I will get back on the job but I know it wont be Chapeltown too bloody hot there maybe Bradfords Manningham." The next murder took place on April 4 1979, in Halifax, not Bradford, and was not in a red-light area like Manningham or Chapeltown, and the victim, Josephine Whitaker, was not a prostitute.
In the wounds on Josephine Whitaker forensic evidence revealed traces of milling oil, used in engineering shops. It was similar to particles that had been found on one of the Sunderland envelopes.
After the trial in 1981, the Sunday Times revealed that Ripper Squad detectives believed that someone with a gap between the two upper front teeth had left a bite-mark on one of Josephine Whitaker's breasts. Peter Sutcliffe denied that he had bitten her, but even after his trial some Ripper Squad detectives were still convinced he had. The New Statesman, following up on the story, reported that: "The detectives conjecture could not be supported by expert opinion. The marks could equally have been caused by the scratching of Sutcliffe's finger nails as he carried out his customary act of dragging his victim's bra upwards, or by the v-shaped wedge of a claw hammer."
Did this conjecture, that there was a bite-mark on Josephine Whitaker, also further convince the Ripper detectives of the connection between the Harrison murder, who had been bitten deeply on the breast by her murderer with a gap in the upper front teeth, and the Ripper murders? Was this just further confirmation that the letter writer, who claimed the murder of Joan Harrison as his own, was therefore the Ripper? Also, Marilyn Moore had described her attacker as having a gap between his front teeth. Further evidence of this conjecture?
With all these coincidences, the Yorkshire police were rapidly coming to the conclusion that the letter writer was in all likelihood the Yorkshire Ripper. Almost two weeks after the murder of Josephine Whitaker, on April 16th, at a special police press conference, George Oldfield made the announcement that had a bearing on the letters they had received. Oldfield was asking Yorkshire firms engaged in machine tool manufacture, engineering, and plant or machinery maintenance who had business connections in the North East to check to see if any of their employees were working in the North East or Tyneside on March 7th, 8th, 12th, and 13th, of 1978, and on March 22nd and 23rd of 1979. He was also interested in employees from those firms who had time off on those dates. As well, he asked asked firms in the North East to check their records for anyone from Yorkshire working on their premises on those dates.
Prior to these details being presented to the press and public, the West Yorkshire police had informed the Northumberland police that the letters were being taken seriously. A team of four detectives had been set up in Sunderland to visit firms in the area to gather information about potential suspects, Yorkshiremen who had been in the area on the dates the letters had been posted, and men from the North East who might have been down in Yorkshire on the attack dates. Following a conference in West Yorkshire with George Oldfield, the Sunderland squad was enlarged and they set up an incident room.
The task facing the police was enormous, there were over two million engineering workers in the British Isles, and thousands of small firms in the North East. As well, the vast amount of information gathered from both regions would have to be processed, potential suspects checked and eliminated. Even with this massive task, the police felt they were making progress in the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper.
Two months later, the whole course of the investigation was to be drastically changed and sent off in a new, and unfortunately wrong, direction when a envelope with a tape inside it was received by the West Yorkshire police. The tape had been sent from Sunderland on June 17 1979. From the writing on the envelope the tape was in, it was soon confirmed that it was from the same man who had sent the previous letters from Sunderland. Forensic scientists also found that saliva blood group tests on the envelope indicate the same B blood group as had been found on the envelope of the third letter. The man who had written three letters, had now sent a taunting tape to the police.
On June 20th, a secret conference of top detectives from four police forces, West Yorkshire, Manchester, Lancashire, and Sunderland was held at the Wakefield headquarters of the West Yorkshire police. The West Yorkshire police played the gathered detectives the tape and then gave their view on its authenticity, which included the rare B blood group connection to the Joan Harrison murder, if it was a Ripper murder, the milling oil link to the Josephine Whitaker murder, and the hospital reference to Vera Millward.
The Lancashire detectives reiterated their previous doubts about a link of the Joan Harrison murder to the Ripper murders, but their resistance was weaken. Other discussions involved whether the tape should be released to the public, there were doubts about whether it should be released, and persuasive arguments that if it was discovered that the police had the tape, not released it, and there were further murders: "all hell would break loose." Also discussed was how much of the tape should be released to the public. Even after the meeting, George Oldfield was still uneasy about the tape and its possible authenticity.
Events rapidly overtook the police investigations and discussions and forced the police hand when a leak to the press informed them of the tape and its contents. An internal police inquiry failed to discover the source of the leak. The police decided to release the tape unedited, except for shortening some of the blank spaces in the tape. The accent on the tape had been identified as from a man from the Sunderland area.
At 2:00 pm on June 26 1979, George Oldfield walked into a crowded press conference and played a tape made by a man with a Geordie, or more accurately, a Wearside accent, who claimed to be the Yorkshire Ripper. Photographs of the envelopes were also released at the news conference. The story instantly became not only national news, but international news. The story led all news bulletins on television and radio that night and the following morning, as well as dominating newspaper headlines for the next week. Days after the release of the tape, George Oldfield released extracts from the letters to further the attempt to track down their author.
Prior to the release of the tape, the police forces expected a large public response to the tape, and had expanded the Sunderland incident room, including adding eleven West Yorkshire detectives. This brought the number of men and women waiting to handle the public response to 100. Once the tape was released six officers in Sunderland were engaged in handling the telephone calls during most of the day, while four were needed for the 10:00 pm to 6:00 am shift. By the end of the third day 2,500 calls with information had been received by police forces nationally, with the Sunderland incident room handling 560 calls. These calls did not included mere requests to hear the tape. A "Dial-The-Ripper" Freephone telephone hotline was set up to accommodate the people who wanted to hear the tape, and was promptly overloaded with calls.
The public response overwhelmed the already over-burdened Ripper investigation squad, which had approximately 250 officers working full time on the case in West Yorkshire. Large numbers of staff were required in the incident rooms just to handle the thousands of calls and letters from the public with information which would have to be checked, investigated, and then reports written and filed. Even prior to the release of the tape, the file system was already overwhelmed by the burden of paperwork and files yet to be processed. The additional paperwork and information from the public from the release of the tape would further cause delays in processing of files and information in the system.
Detectives in the North East decided that the greater the exposure of the tape, the more likely the voice would be identified. They began taking copies of the tape to play to local firms, pubs, and clubs. The police in West Yorkshire did not do this until some weeks later, after trying to cope with the calls they had already received. When the West Yorkshire police did begin to take copies of the tape around to various locations, they discovered the number of people who had listened to the tape was far fewer than they had expected.
While the focus of the investigation over the summer months seemed to be on the North East as the Ripper's location, George Oldfield was consistently saying that he believed the Yorkshire Ripper actually resided in the Bradford-Leeds area.
In August, six weeks after the release of the tape, voice and linguistic experts Stanley Ellis and Jack Windsor Lewis, of Leeds University, had narrowed down the focus of the accent to the Wearside mining village of Castletown, near Sunderland, as being almost certainly the Ripper's home town. Both felt that the West Yorkshire police should not have been so adamant that the author of the letters and tape was the Yorkshire Ripper, they figured a 50-50 possibility was more likely, and it would have been better to allow the public more options. Both were confident that the author of the letters and tape lived and worked in Castletown, and were hopeful that he would be apprehended within days.
The police set out to visit everyone of the 1,600 households in Castletown in their effort to find the author of the tape. Twenty-five detectives were involved in knocking on doors, going through a detailed questionnaire with the occupants, and recording those who could not help the investigation on white cards, and suspicious names, or those occupants needing further checking, sometimes for the most trivial reasons, on pink cards. After ten days, the task was completed, and it was estimated that to do the same with the entire north bank of the River Wear would take approximately 18 months to complete.
On September 13 1979, an 18-page confidential report, entitled "Murders And Assaults Upon
Women In The North Of England" was circulated to the other police forces by the West Yorkshire
police. It detailed the 16 known attacks and murders thought to be the work of the Yorkshire Ripper, now
including the Joan Harrison murder. It also included handwriting samples from the letters and the
contents of the tape. The special notice included a "points for elimination" section. It stated: "a person
can be eliminated from these inquiries if:
(a) not born between 1924 and 1959.
(b) If he is an obvious coloured person.
(c) If his shoe size is nine or above.
(d) If his blood group is other than B.
(e) If his accent is dissimilar to a North Eastern (Geordie) accent."
With the above criteria, it meant that if the writer of the letters and tape was not the Yorkshire Ripper, the worst case scenario, then the real killer could be easily eliminated as a suspect on at least one, and possibly two, of the points. As well, the letter writer also could be eliminated if he did not meet the criteria that came from the actual murders.
In fact, the supposition that the voice on the tape was the Yorkshire Ripper allowed Peter Sutcliffe to survive the scrutiny of his fifth interview on July 29 1979, the most crucial one, where he failed to satisfy the interviewing officers, Detective Constable Andrew Laptew and Detective Constable Graham Greenwood. They filed a two page report detailing their suspicions and that he should be investigated further. Because of the letters and tape, Sutcliffe was cleared on the basis of a handwriting specimen, no further action was taken, and the report marked "to file". (See POLICE INTERVIEWS for further details.)
To eliminate the many thousands of men from the hunt for the author of the letters and tape, detectives would collect saliva samples, were on the lookout to see if the man had a gap in his front teeth, ask their shoe size, and take handwriting sample where certain passages were dictated to the man to write down. Combining writing aspects of the three letters, one such phrase was: "How's your Elsie getting on in hospital."
Why did the West Yorkshire police put such confidence in the author of the letters and tape being the Yorkshire Ripper? Before the West Yorkshire police began a massive publicity campaign blitz in October 1979 to 'flush out the Ripper,' there were many who had become convinced that the letters and tape were a hoax. There were warnings from Jack Windsor Lewis and Stanley Ellis that the man responsible for the letters and tape, with his distinctive voice, would probably been interviewed very shortly after the release of the tape. Since the police had not yet identified anyone as 'in the frame' as the murderer, it meant it was extremely likely the writer of the letters and tape had been eliminated by having firm alibis for the attack dates. Jack Windsor Lewis stated: "There could only be one possible explanation, the maker of the tape was not the Yorkshire Ripper." They also pointed out, extremely significantly, that none of the survivors had even hinted at a Geordie accent for their attacker.
Other warnings had been given by Detective Chief Inspector David Zackrisson, who had reviewed everything that had been published in the North about the Yorkshire Ripper. He came to the conclusion that all the information in the Sunderland letters had appeared in the newspapers at one time or another. Most telling was the fact that the information about Vera Millward being a patient at the Manchester Royal Infirmary, information the West Yorkshire police thought was only known by them 'and the murderer' (the writer of the letters), had in fact been published in the Daily Mail shortly after her murder. Her husband had told the Daily Mail: "She had been to the hospital before about stomach pains." There had also been an interview with her husband about her health in the Manchester Evening News.
Det Chief Insp Zackrisson also meticulously detailed the striking similarity in phrases between the Jack the Ripper letters of 1888 and the Sunderland letters. He drew the obvious conclusion that the letter writer was a hoaxer with an obsession with the Jack the Ripper murders.
In fact, even a reading and examination of the information in all three of the letters and the tape reveal many aspects that point to them as a hoax. The first two letters had been dismissed as the work of a hoaxer because the connection to the Harrison murder was not special knowledge, but had been speculated as being connected to the Ripper murders in published reports in the Yorkshire Post and the Daily Mirror. Rather telling, the second letter had been sent to the Manchester offices of the Daily Mirror.
Also, at the time the first two letters were sent in March 1978, Yvonne Pearson, whose murder was more consistent with the Harrison murder than any of the other Ripper murders, lay waiting for discovery, having been dead since January 1978. Yet there is no word about the murder in the first two letters, hardly likely if the writer was the killer, especially after having just corrected the total number of murders: "Up to number 8 now you say 7 but remember Preston '75." Furthermore, by the time of the tape, he says: "I think it's eleven up to now, isn't it?" By this time Yvonne Pearson was included in the total number of murders the police had attributed to the Yorkshire Ripper. The author of the tape was also now including it in his total, and yet at the time of the first two letters he was silent about the murder. Clearly it is because he didn't know about the murder at the time.
The 'special knowledge' the police attached to the Vera Millward hospital information was also suspect. The information had been published in the Daily Mail and in the Manchester Evening News. The writer of the letter himself seems to clearly indicate that he had read it in a newspaper. The way it is phrased is most telling: "That bit about her being in hospital, funny the lady mentioned something about being in hospital before I stopped her whoring ways." The phrase "that bit" seems to indicate a news report, similar to a phrase used in the first letter: "that photo in the paper gave me fits and that bit about killing myself, no chance." The rest of the phrase after the inference to a news report is unremarkable and does not indicate 'special knowledge', and only seems to indicate an avid reader of the Ripper case.
The prediction of an "old slut next time I hope" did come true, but as the previous victim, Helen Rytka, had only been aged 18, would he have claimed the prediction was correct if the next victim had been 25, or 30 instead of 40? The known Ripper victims at the time had been age 28 (Wilma McCann), 42 (Emily Jackson), 28 (Irene Richardson), 32 (Patricia Atkinson), 16 (Jayne MacDonald), 42 (Maureen Long), 20 (Jean Jordan), 25 (Marilyn Moore), and 18 (Helen Rytka).
The prediction of: "maybe Liverpool or even Manchester again" did come true as well, and coupled with the "old slut next time I hope" does seem to indicate that the letter writer could be the murderer. However, his prediction in letter three: "maybe Bradfords Manningham" was totally wrong. The explanation given in the tape is extremely suspect: "Sorry it wasn't Bradford. I did promise you that, but I couldn't get there." Halifax is not very far from Bradford, yet he couldn't get there? This from a man who, if the Ripper, was known to have a vehicle, and had killed in Leeds, Bradford, now in Halifax, twice in Manchester, claimed a Preston murder, and had made the threat to add Liverpool to his hunting grounds? Not only that, but in the same tape, he says of his next murder: "maybe Manchester; I like it there." The next murder of the series after the tape was of Barbara Leach in Bradford. Another failed prediction. Yet the rather limp explanation of why he couldn't get to Bradford apparently did not detract from the police supposition that the man who sent the tape was the murderer.
As well, another factor seems to make his prediction of the Vera Millward murder in Manchester less likely to be anything other than a lucky guess. The letter writer seems to have a fixation with Manchester. He predicts murders in Manchester in the second letter and then again on the tape. The second letter was also sent to the Manchester offices of the Daily Mirror. In the third letter he makes sure that George Oldfield knows about the second letter, by asking: "Did you get letter I sent to Daily Mirror in Manchester." The Vera Millward information was published in the Manchester Evening News. As well, Preston is close to Manchester, and it is possible that the letter writer was the murderer of Joan Harrison. The fixation with Manchester may have been more an indicator of his residence in, or a connection to, Manchester, than anything else. His threat to murder in Liverpool, rather than, for example, York or Sheffield, when it is clear the geographical location of the murderer is the Leeds-Bradford area, is more in line if the letter writer's location is in the Manchester area. As well, the lame excuse after the Halifax murder that he couldn't get to Bradford, does make a little more sense as an excuse if the letter writer was in the Manchester area and was therefore basing it on the extra distance that would be required to go from Manchester to Halifax and then on to Bradford.
The forensic evidence was more important, but even then part of it only pointed to the possibility the letter writer was the murderer of Joan Harrison, but not necessarily the Yorkshire Ripper. But even just 6 per cent of the male population of England and Wales being B blood group secretors still translates into approximately 1,500,000 individuals. While the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, was also of the B blood group, he was a non-secretor. The milling oil clue again was not extremely exclusive, as mentioned above, there were approximately two million engineering workers in the British Isles. If the conjecture about the bite mark on Josephine Whitaker played any part in making a connection to the Joan Harrison murder, and therefore to the author of the letters and tape, it might have been a case of trying to make it fit into being a link, even though forensic evidence suggested other equal possibilities for the mark.
The arguments put forward by the voice experts, Detective Chief Inspector David Zackrisson, and others, did not impress West Yorkshire Chief Chief Constable Ronald Gregory. Rather than stressing the real possibility that the tape voice might not necessarily be the voice of the Ripper, Gregory continued to wholeheartedly promote the stance that the voice on the tape was the Ripper. In October, a month after the murder of Barbara Leach, he decided to step the campaign up a notch with an unprecedented media 'blitz', against the advice of some of his own senior officers, including George Oldfield.
The "Flush out the Ripper" campaign was extensive, and included billboards in more than six hundred locations, posters, and a special four-page newspaper that was delivered to every home in Yorkshire, Lancashire, and the North East. There was radio airplay of the tape and police messages, as well as having the tape played in pubs, working-men's clubs, and even at football grounds. The result was a deluge of information that swamped the incident rooms, and by mid-November the list of possible suspects had ballooned to approximately 17,000.
The police investigation in Wearside was a thorough and massive trawl. Besides interviewing Castletown men living in the North East, an attempt was made to track down, through school and birth records, and DHSS computer records, every male born there, and those who may have left the immediate area. Early in 1980, Sunderland police stated their inquiries had included 60,000 interviews, 16,000 vehicle checks, 11,000 companies had index-entries, 7,000 handwriting specimens had been taken, and 5,500 telephone tips had been logged.
There was a difference between the search conducted by the West Yorkshire police and that by the Northumbria police. While the West Yorkshire posters declared "The Ripper would like you to ignore this," above a sample of the handwriting, the Northumbria posters took a more cautious and sensible approach with the message "The writer, who signs it Jack the Ripper, claims to be connected with the murders," about their sample of his handwriting. After the arrest of the Yorkshire Ripper, Assistant Chief Constable Brian Johnson explained: "Let's say we weren't as convinced as Mr Oldfield, and we took certain actions to establish our point of view."
The hunt for 'Wearside Jack' continued during 1980 without any success, no one had been 'fit into the frame' of the Yorkshire Ripper, despite continued information from the public and interviews and elimination of suspects. In 1980 came news that the voice on the tape may have had a speech impediment. But the claim by the West Yorkshire police that they were '98 per cent sure' that the Wearside voice was the Ripper never was publicly revised, despite growing speculation by police officers, voice experts, and the media, that the letters and tape might actually be a hoax. Total realisation, for the police, press, and public, that the voice was not the Yorkshire Ripper, would not come until 18 months after the tape had first been released.
When Peter Sutcliffe was arrested in January 1981, and made his confession, the horrible truth became abundantly clear to all. The author of the letters and tape was not the Yorkshire Ripper as thought, but a hoaxer who had led the police off on a tangent away from the real killer, and allowed him to escape detection by including evidence from the Joan Harrison murder and the letters and tape in the criteria for suspect elimination.
The general consensus is that the hoaxer may have been the killer of Joan Harrison, and by having her murder included in the Yorkshire Ripper's attacks, drew police attention away from himself, until he got bold and sent the tape. He would probably have an alibi for some or even all of the murders, but one, that of Joan Harrison, and so would have been eliminated as a suspect on that and other criteria which was strictly from the Ripper murders. If he is not the murderer of Joan Harrison, then he is even more removed from the case.
Peter Sutcliffe's killing of Barbara Leach, in September 1979, also helped continue the hoax as it made a prediction in the tape to strike in "September or October" come true. It makes one wonder whether Sutcliffe himself saw this as an opportunity to help perpetuate the hoax, as it was extremely beneficial to him for the police to think that the man with the Wearside accent was the Ripper.
(See: THE HUNT FOR WEARSIDE JACK for information about the hunt after the arrest of Peter Sutcliffe. )
(Source material: Burn, Cross, Fido, Lavelle, Yallop, Daily Telegraph, New Scientist, New Statesman, Sunday Telegraph, The Sunday Times, "Great Crimes And Trials Of The Twentieth Century: The Yorkshire Ripper", Nugus/Martin Production, 1992.)
For further and more indepth information on the hunt for Wearside Jack before and after the arrest of Peter Sutcliffe, I recommend the book by Patrick Lavelle, "Wearside Jack: The Hunt For The Hoaxer Of The Century", published by Northeast Press Ltd.