The Yorkshire Ripper has become a scarecrow. The death of Peter Sutcliffe last month seemed to mark the moment the case has receded in the past, with his murders remembering a dwindling number of people. But it should not be relegated to history, as the mistakes made by the police in this flawed investigation are repeated to this day.
Forty years after Sutcliffe’s final murder, violence against women is at an epidemic level. Rape convictions have declined to the point that some claim he has been decriminalized, a failure that encourages serial predators. Sutcliffe was not a rapist, but a misogynist, and the criminal justice system is hardly better now at identifying and convicting these men.
Police have always misunderstood what motivates violence against women. A new Netflix series, The Ripper, uses archival footage from the 1970s to show West Yorkshire detectives insisting they were looking for a killer who hated “prostitutes,” a word they used to many. repeated in the interviews. They couldn’t imagine an abuser like Sutcliffe going out at night looking for women alone, just because he hated women. And the police did not listen to the surviving victims, even when it was recognized that they had been attacked by the killer, if these women said something that did not fit with the police preconception of who they were looking for. .
Another new documentary, The Vanishing of Suzy Lamplugh (on Channel 5 tonight at 9 p.m.), shows that the lessons of the Yorkshire Ripper investigation have not been learned. Lamplugh was a real estate agent in West London and the disappearance of a pretty middle-class woman in 1986 attracted huge publicity. This time it was the victim’s mother, Diana Lamplugh, who was not listened to when she suggested the name of a suspect. Diana died in 2011 and her daughter’s body has still not been found. (Full Disclosure: After writing a lot about Sutcliffe and violence against women, I was interviewed for the Netflix and Channel 5 movies.)
In 1975, Leeds Police insisted Wilma McCann was the first victim of the man who would become the nation’s most notorious serial killer. Because she was murdered in a red light district, they also speculated that she had connections to prostitution. She didn’t, but the second woman to die, Emily Jackson, had was selling sex as a desperate measure to cope with a financial crisis. From that point on, in January 1976, detectives were convinced they were looking for a 20th century Jack the Ripper.
They were wrong. Watching the film of the press conferences in Leeds, Halifax and Bradford, it is hard to avoid concluding that it was the police who were obsessed with “prostitutes”. It was not until an examination in 1978 that two victims who were attacked before Wilma McCann were included in the case, even though both women had characteristic hammer injuries to the head. Both survived, but they had been neglected because they had nothing to do with the commercial sex industry. The second victim, Olive Smelt, clearly remembered his attacker and insisted he had a local accent. But the police thought she was wrong.
A report commissioned from Her Majesty’s Inspector of Police after Sutcliffe’s conviction in May 1981 underscored the importance of survivors’ testimony, claiming he should have ruled out the Wearside hoax that sent a tape to the senior detective claiming responsibility for the murders. Yet some of the scariest moments in Netflix movies show buyers being read to the tape that led the investigation so disastrously. And this damning report by the HMIC has been kept secret for a quarter of a century.
When Lamplugh went missing five years after Sutcliffe’s trial ended, her mother realized that the kidnapping of a sporty young woman must have been carefully planned and was unlikely to have been carried out by a person without a previous record. She wanted the police to examine a serial rapist named John Cannan, who lived in a youth hostel in west London. Cannan had been convicted of kidnapping and raping a woman in Reading, and detectives in Thames Valley told the Lamplugh inquiry he was a promising suspect.
The investigating detective was not impressed. Another secret report, unpublished two years ago, concluded that “unfortunately the WIS [senior investigating officer] seems to have been prejudiced against this course of action “in part because he thought Diana Lamplugh had suggested it. Cannan’s alibi was not verified and it was not put on an ID parade, even though it looked like photos created by witnesses.
In 2002, the Metropolitan Police made the unusual decision to name Cannan as the likely killer of Lamplugh. At the time he was serving a life sentence for the murder of Shirley Banks, whom he kidnapped and killed in Bristol 15 months after Lamplugh’s disappearance. He has never admitted to Lamplugh’s murder and will be able to seek parole in 2022.
These documentaries may seem like an old story to some, but not to the friends and families of the victims. And they’ll resonate with the thousands of women who report rape each year, only to be told their counts aren’t good enough for prosecution. Women were not believed in the 1970s and they are still not believed today.
There is a scene in The Ripper when West Yorkshire detectives hold a press conference after Sutcliffe’s arrest in January 1981, beaming and congratulating each other even though he had been caught by traffic cops from a force different. Thirteen women have died, many children are growing up motherless – and the police still don’t seem to have learned their lessons. All these years later, the criminal justice system has to do better.
• Joan Smith covered the Yorkshire Ripper Murders from 1978 to 1981 and wrote about Peter Sutcliffe in his book Misogynies