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 so