By the time he was caught, 13 women had been brutally murdered; seven more savagely attacked and for nearly six years the people of an English county lived in fear. The fiend known as the Yorkshire Ripper was free and on the rampage.
But could at least three deaths and three attacks been prevented if police hadn't been preoccupied in the summer of 1978 by one of the cruellest deceptions in UK criminal history? For over a year, police resources were switched from catching the real killer to looking for the man the press called the Geordie Ripper — a heartless hoaxer whose antics allowed the real killer to carry on his murder spree.
The Yorkshire Ripper's reign of terror started in October 1975 when 28-year-old mother of four Wilma McCann was found dead on a piece of waste ground in the industrial city of Leeds. She had been battered to death and also stabbed 14 times.
Within the next three months three more women had died violent deaths in the Chapeltown area of Leeds and police realised they were dealing with a serial murderer and threw four million pounds of resources into the hunt for the man who was now known throughout the world as the Yorkshire Ripper.
West Yorkshire's Assistant Chief Constable, George Oldfield was chosen to spearhead the biggest murder inquiry Britain had ever known.
Over the following months over 250,000 people were interviewed, 32,000 statements taken and five million car registrations checked. Now over 300 police and detectives were working full-time on the case — and getting nowhere. Then George Oldfield thought he had finally got the break he had prayed for.
In May 1978, nearly three years since the first murder, two letters arrived in Yorkshire from Sunderland in north-east England. One was addressed to George Oldfield, the other to the editor of a Manchester newspaper and they purported to be from the killer.
The letters were kept secret while they were examined by experts, but were known to contain information about the Ripper's victims. And after traces of engineering oil, similar to that found on the body of one of the victims, were apparently detected on the letters, George Oldfield decided they were genuine. At a sensational press conference, Oldfield read out the letters and appealed to the public for information. Thousands wrote or phoned but no definite leads were established and just as Oldfield began to think his optimism had been misplaced, the story took another spectacular twist when a buff-coloured envelope arrived on his desk.
It was addressed in the Sunderland writer's now-familiar hand and contained a cheap black cassette tape. Oldfield slotted the tape into a cassette player and switched it on.
From the machine came a man's broad Geordie accent. The message contained 257 words. If it was authentic it was one of the most sensational clues in the history of UK crime detection.
Oldfield was convinced the tape was genuine, but wanted to keep it under wraps for a while, but his boss, Chief Constable Ronald Gregory, thought otherwise. Gregory thought that such a distinctive voice would be easily identified if the public were allowed to hear it. Two days later at a crowded press conference, George Oldfield played the tape, warning: "Of course this could all be an elaborate hoax" but it was a warning no one heeded as they listened fascinated to the flat Geordie voice. This was the message: "I'm Jack. I see you have no luck catching me. Your boys are letting you down, George. You can't be much good can you?
"I'm not sure when I will strike again but it will definitely be some time this year, maybe September or October — even sooner if I get the chance. I'm not sure where, maybe in Manchester. I like it there.
"These girls never seem to learn, do they George? Well, it's been nice talking to you. Yours, Jack the Ripper."
A huge publicity campaign followed — the public could phone in and listen to the "Geordie Ripper" tape in the hope that someone would recognise the voice.
In three days over 50,000 calls had flooded in and every call was checked by over-worked detectives.
Meanwhile, George Oldfield, who now regarded catching the Ripper as a personal challenge, played the tape to top linguistic experts Stanley Ellis and Jack Lewis, who quickly verified the accent as genuine Wearside and pinned it down to Castletown, a small suburb of Sunderland. Over 100 police and detectives descended on Castletown and interviewed over 2,000 local men — but everyone seemed to have a cast-iron alibi.
But by now George Oldfield was convinced he would find his man in Castletown, even though Ellis and Lewis believed there was no reason the killer had remained in the town and urged an alternative campaign which did not eliminate suspects from other regions. The expert opinion was not accepted — which meant that anyone not living or originating in the Sunderland area was eliminated from police inquiries ... and that included a bearded truck driver from Bradford, who had already been interviewed four times by police ... Peter Sutcliffe. George Oldfield, his own career and the reputation of his force on the line, refused to give up, and the hunt for the Geordie Ripper went on for another two years, clogging the heavily overloaded police system with useless information.
Extensive forensic tests showed that whoever licked the flaps of the envelopes containing the Sunderland letters and tape had Group B blood — shared by only six per cent of the population.
By early 1980, the strain of the unsuccessful murder hunt was taking its toll on George Oldfield. As the killings continued, Oldfield has became increasingly overworked, overweight and a 60 sticks -a-day smoker.
Finally he had a heart attack and was taken off the case, bitterly disappointed that for five years he had consistently been outwitted by the killer he had vowed to bring to justice.
Ironically when police finally got their man a year later it was not by painstaking detective work, but by a lucky fluke. On January 2, 1981 Sergeant Bob Ring and PC Robert Hydes were on routine patrol in Sheffield when they saw a car they knew was being driven with false number-plates.
The bearded driver, who said he was Peter Williams, was taken to the local police station, where he admitted he had given a false name — he was really Peter William Sutcliffe. A police check showed that Sutcliffe had been interviewed by Yorkshire police no less than 12 times in the previous five years. On his own initiative, Sergeant Ring returned to the spot he had arrested Sutcliffe and searched nearby bushes.
His initiative was rewarded. In the grass lay a hammer and a sharpened knife containing Sutcliffe's fingerprints. The hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper was over. Interviewed by detectives, Sutcliffe seemed relieved to be caught. He admitted 11 murders but said he knew nothing about the Geordie tape.
"Just thinking about those murders reminds me of what a monster I am," he said. Later, in a 17-hour confession, he said that he had been following instructions from God to rid the streets of prostitutes. Peter Sutcliffe appeared at London's Old Bailey in May 1981 and after a three-week trial was found guilty of 13 charges of murder. He was jailed for a minimum of 30 years.
A year later he was attacked by another prisoner who slashed his face with a broken coffee jar. Today he is a patient in Broadmoor special hospital. It is reported that his mental state has deteriorated and he is often totally incoherent.
George Oldfield died in 1985 still regretting that his preoccupation with the Geordie tapes probably allowed Peter Sutcliffe to continue his killing spree.
The mystery was finally solved in 2005 when improved DNA matching revealed that samples on the envelopes of the Geordie Ripper letters came from unemployed labourer John Humble who admitted attempting to pervert the course of justice and was jailed for eight years in 2006. He was released in 2013.
Shortly before he died, George Oldfield told a friend: "In my view, the man who made that tape is probably just as guilty of murdering Peter Sutcliffe's last three victims as if he had wielded the hammer himself."
John Humble has yet to make any comment on whether he agrees with that.