Jan. 2, 2023

The Arrest of the Yorkshire Ripper

The Arrest of the Yorkshire Ripper

January 2, 1981. Britsh police arrest a man named Peter Sutcliffe for a routine traffic violation, but they soon realize that he is a mass murderer known as the Yorkshire Ripper.


Cold Open

It’s half past ten in the morning on October 9th, 1977 in Manchester, England.

24-year-old Bruce Jones struggles to push a wheelbarrow across a patch of hard, rutted ground along Princess Road. As he scans the path ahead, Bruce spots what he’s searching for: some old bricks to help him build a new shed on his nearby allotment.

Bruce stops next to the pile, picks up a brick, and tosses it into the wheelbarrow. But as he bends down to get another, something catches his eye in the long grass a few meters away. Bruce straightens up and takes a step toward it… before stumbling back in horror. It's a dead body. Bruce calls over for his friend, and together the two men force themselves to move closer. They see that the body is that of a woman. Her clothes are scattered around her naked body, and wounds show that she has been viciously assaulted.

Bruce stumbles away from the body and runs across the road toward a telephone box to call the police. His heart is pounding in his chest and his hands are sweaty because Bruce is certain that the infamous Yorkshire Ripper has claimed another victim.

Within days, police confirm Bruce’s suspicion. They decide that the violent death of prostitute Jean Jordan in Manchester is indeed the work of a person who has carried out a number of other violent assaults and murders of women, usually sex workers, across northern England. This serial killer, dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper, has terrorized the streets for the last two years and killed five times before. Jean is his sixth victim.

And the Yorkshire Ripper will continue his depraved killing spree for another four years. All the while, the police will struggle to cope with a mounting volume of evidence and the interference of a malevolent trickster. The violent attacks will only come to an end when the police strike it lucky and unknowingly arrest the Yorkshire Ripper for a routine traffic violation on January 2nd, 1981.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is January 2nd, 1981: The Arrest of the Yorkshire Ripper.

Act One

It’s 6:45 PM on November 2nd, 1977 in Bradford, England, 24 days after the discovery of Jean Jordan’s body.

Detective Constable Edwin Howard knocks on the door of a small, nondescript house on Garden Lane. As he waits for a response, he glances at his watch and flashes an exhausted smile at his colleague, Detective Constable Leslie Smith. Both men are putting in extra hours to interview countless men across the city of Bradford as the search for the Yorkshire Ripper narrows in on a group of potential suspects.

Six days after the discovery of Jean Jordan’s body, a member of the public found her handbag in the long grass nearly 200 feet from her body. The handbag contained the biggest clue the Ripper investigation had yet uncovered: a newly printed £5 note. Bankers used the note’s serial number to identify it as one sent to a branch of the Midland Bank near Bradford. Using this information, police identified 8,000 employees of local businesses who may have received the £5 note found in their weekly pay packet. Now, Detective Howard is helping to cross-examine those people—because the man who was paid the £5 note may well be the Yorkshire Ripper.

A few seconds after Detective Howard knocks, the door opens and Howard asks to speak with Peter Sutcliff. The woman who opened the door is Peter’s wife, and she quietly invites the detectives in and directs them into a cluttered lounge. There, the 31-year-old Sutcliffe directs his wife Sonia to make the two gentlemen some tea and then apologizes for the room’s mess, politely explaining that they only moved into the house a few weeks ago and are still unpacking.

Detective Howard briefly tells Sutcliffe why they need to talk with him. Sutcliffe nods saying that he read about the £5 note in the newspaper. And he confirms that he works as a lorry driver for a company that may have given out the banknote in their workers’ wages. So, Detective Howard moves on to the next phase of questioning.

He asks Sutcliffe where he was on the evening of October 1st, the night the police think Jean Jordan was killed. Howard waits as Sutcliffe furrows his brow. Then Sutcliffe tells him that he thinks he was at home watching television and went to bed around 11:30. That's when Sonia arrived with the tea and Howard asks her the same question. After a moment’s thought, she confirms her husband’s answer.

Detective Howard then asks Sutcliffe if he can provide his whereabouts on the evening of October 9th. Sutcliffe looks momentarily confused and asks why. Howard tells Sutcliffe that police think the killer returned to the body that night, perhaps to look for the lost money. Sutcliffe leans back, and says he can easily account for that night; he and Sonia held a housewarming party. Other than driving his parents home, he was at the party all night.

Finally, Detective Howard asks if Sutcliffe has any £5 notes, so he can write down their serial numbers. Sutcliffe pulls out his wallet and holds it open, showing that it’s empty. Sutcliffe smiles and says that buying furniture for their new house has proven expensive. Howard laughs knowing it's true and bids the Sutcliffes a good night.

An hour later, Detective Howard reads through his report detailing the interview with Sutcliffe. The short, five-paragraph document explains that the lorry driver could have received the £5 note. But he was polite and relaxed. He was happy to answer questions. And he had offered his whereabouts for both the night of the murder and the night the murderer might have returned to the body. Howard adds a final comment at the bottom of the report that Sutcliffe is likely not connected to the murder.

Then Detective Howard adds the report to a pile of others he has written, one for each of the many interviews he's conducted during the day. Then, he takes his people and adds them to an even larger pile on a table in the middle of the incident room, thankful that he's not the person who has to read through all of them. Finding the Yorkshire Ripper among all these statements feels like searching for a needle in a haystack.

The Ripper investigation will quickly be overwhelmed by its effort to track down and interview so many potential suspects. In the days before data and statements are inputted into computers, police officers must file and cross-check every lead by hand—and the detectives will drown in the paperwork. When Detective Constable Edwin Howard finally leaves work for the day, he will remain unaware that he has just spoken to the Yorkshire Ripper because the killer is Peter Sutcliffe, the polite and helpful man whose house he just visited. Sutcliffe has already killed six women and will go on to murder another seven, partly thanks to a hoax that will further distract police from the real killer.

Act Two

It’s the morning of June 17th, 1979, 17 months after Peter Sutcliffe was first interviewed by the police.

Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield, the policeman in charge of the Yorkshire Ripper investigation, looks at a padded envelope on his desk. Then he raises a questioning eyebrow at the police officer who just put it there. The officer explains that the envelope arrived in the post only minutes ago. And inside is yet another message from the Yorkshire Ripper.

More than a year ago, Oldfield received a letter just like this newest one purporting to be from the serial killer. Experts initially decided it was one of many hoax letters sent by cranks to disrupt the investigation. Then, a year later, the same person wrote another note to Chief Constable Oldfield. This time, the police began to suspect that the letters may not be a hoax. He seemed to know information that was not released to the public. It’s possible it may have been a coincidence. But Oldfield is excited that this latest correspondence might provide a clue leading him to the killer who has now struck ten times.

Oldfield opens the padded envelope. But he is surprised when, instead of a piece of paper, an audio cassette drops out. He reaches into his desk drawer and pulls out a cassette player. He loads it, presses play, and listens to the voice of a man who claims to be the Yorkshire Ripper.

"RIPPER TAPE: I see you are still having no luck catching me. I have the greatest respect for you, George, but Lord, you are no nearer catching me now than four years ago when I started."

Chief Constable Oldfield’s stomach lurches as the man on the tape addresses him directly, tauntingly. As the tape continues to play, Oldfield examines the handwriting on the envelope. He’ll get experts to verify it, but he’s pretty certain the writing matches the letters he previously received. So now, Oldfield doesn’t just have a sample of the suspect’s handwriting. He has got his voice too. And with that information, they might be able to identify him, and finally catch the Yorkshire Ripper.

Nine days later, Chief Constable Oldfield presses play on the cassette recorder again. But this time, he is in a press conference and hundreds of journalists hang onto every word. When the tape finishes, Oldfield describes what the police have learned so far.

The person who wrote the letters and recorded the tape is probably the Yorkshire Ripper. Oldfield continues explaining that the cassette and letters were posted from Sunderland, a town in the North East of England. He also says that experts have narrowed down the accent of the person speaking on the tape to the same area. So, now, Oldfield is appealing to the public for their help in identifying suspects in Sunderland.

Oldfield expects there to be a flood of new information resulting from the tape and letters. So, he devises a checklist for investigating officers. Analysis of saliva on the envelopes shows that the sender is in blood group B. Previous crime scene analysis and witness statements also suggest that the Yorkshire Ripper is aged between 20 and 50, is white, and has at least size-nine shoes.

So Oldfield requests that officers check every potential suspect’s age, skin color, shoe size, blood group, and also wants his officers to secure a handwriting sample, and listen to their accents. If these details do not match the specifications the police have pieced together, the suspects are eliminated from the inquiry.

Within three days, police have received more than 2,500 phone calls from members of the public with information they hope will be helpful. More than 1,600 households around Sunderland are identified as being of interest. And it takes six months for 250 police officers to conduct 60,000 interviews with new potential suspects. But, the whole time, the police are looking in the wrong place. Because the letters and audio cassette were not sent by the Yorkshire Ripper, they were part of an elaborate hoax dreamed up by a trickster who gets a kick out of fooling the police.

The real serial killer—Peter Sutcliffe—is not from Sunderland. But he will be reinterviewed by police in July 1979 after his car is spotted driving around several of the locations where the murders occurred. But he will be discounted as a suspect yet again because his accent doesn't match the man on the hoax tape, leaving time for the Yorkshire Ripper to kill three more women before his lucky arrest.

Act Three

It’s half past ten in the evening on January 2nd, 1981, eighteen months after the Ripper tape was mailed to the police.

Sergeant Robert Ring chats to Probationary Constable Robert Hydes as he drives a police car around the streets of Sheffield. As part of their routine night-time patrol, Sergeant Ring heads for the red-light district where prostitutes are known to hang out. But he hopes the cold weather means they stay off the streets and he’ll have a quiet night.

But as Ring drives along, he notices a car parked halfway up the drive of a local business. He suspects that a sex worker might be plying her trade in the car, so he blocks the driveway and exits his vehicle.

Sergeant Ring glances through the window of the parked car and just as he suspects sees a man and a woman in the front seats. He leaves Constable Hydes to question the couple and then walks around the car noticing that the registration plates are held on with thick black tape. That's an odd detail, so he makes a note of the registration number. Then, he returns to the police car and then radios in, asking for the number to be traced.

While he waits for his response, Constable Hydes approaches and laughs as he repeats the man’s unlikely story. He says he is with his girlfriend, but he doesn’t know her name because he hasn’t known her very long. As the two policemen chuckle over this, the radio bursts into life. The registration plates belong to a Skoda brand car. Ring squints through the darkness. The parked car they've blocked in is not a Skoda. It’s a Rover. So Sergeant Ring decides it’s time to read this driver his rights.

As they walk back to the parked car, Ring sees the driver’s door open. The man gets out and walks quickly to the rear. He calls over his shoulder that he’s desperate to pee. Ring gets his handcuffs out, and when the man returns a minute later, he tells the driver that he is under arrest.

The next evening, Sergeant Rings senses excitement in the air when he returns to the police station to begin a new night shift. Ring listens as his colleagues tell him that the man he arrested last night has been identified as Peter Sutcliffe. When word got out that he was in custody again after being picked up with a prostitute, the Yorkshire Ripper detectives requested he be transferred for questioning.

But hearing this, Ring gets a feeling that he missed something. So when his shift starts, he returns to the scene of Sutcliffe’s arrest. He turns on his flashlight and searches the area where Sutcliffe had the sudden urge to urinate. He finds a hammer and knife lying on the ground – exactly the type of weapons used by the Yorkshire Ripper.

When this evidence is shown to Peter Sutcliffe, he will soon confess to being the Yorkshire Ripper. The reign of terror that saw 13 women murdered in northern England will finally come to an end. And after five years, investigators will have finally captured their killer thanks to nothing more than a stroke of luck after police arrested Peter Sutcliffe for using false number plates on January 2nd, 1981.


Next onHistory Daily. January 3rd, 1911. After three London policemen are killed trying to stop a robbery, their murderers are finally tracked down to an East London slum where a dramatic and deadly armed siege begins.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.