BETWEEN 1975 and 1980 a Bradford lorry-driver, Peter Sutcliffe, murdered 13 women and attacked at least another seven. Women in West Yorkshire were terrorised by the threat of the sexually-driven murders.

Nearly fifty years later Peter Sutcliffe is still the subject of fascination and controversy. What took Sutcliffe on his murderous path? Why did the West Yorkshire Police fail to catch him for five years?

On September 25, ITV began a seven-part series, The Long Shadow, about the Peter Sutcliffe killings. From November 2, the Ilkley Playhouse will feature a drama set in the incident room at the Leeds Millgarth Police Station during the Sutcliffe murders. That will also recall the terror which enveloped West Yorkshire when the murderer was at large.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: 'My key role in the PeterSpecial conference of detectives involved with the Peter Sutcliffe manhunt in 1978'My key role in the PeterSpecial conference of detectives involved with the Peter Sutcliffe manhunt in 1978

Two Ilkley residents were key actors in the murder saga. One was Sir Harry Ognall QC, who died in 2021. Sir Harry prosecuted Sutcliffe and in eleven hours of relentless cross-examination demolished the psychiatric evidence that Sutcliffe suffered from abnormality of mind and was of diminished responsibility.

The other Ilkley protagonist was Sir Rodney Brooke CBE. Throughout the investigation into the murders he was the chief executive of the West Yorkshire Police Authority. When the murders dominated the press, Sir Rodney was the conduit between the police investigation, the Police Authority, the Police Inspectorate and the Home Secretary.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Sir Rodney Brooke was the link between the police investigation and the Government Sir Rodney Brooke was the link between the police investigation and the Government (Image: Sam Friedrich)

During the Peter Sutcliffe terror women in West Yorkshire were advised by the police not to go out at night alone. Hysteria mounted. As public alarm increased, innocent men were fingered. Coronation Street star Pat Phoenix accused her driver of being the murderer.

Ilkley was not immune from the terror. On Friday, October 11 1979, Yvonne Mysliwiec, a 21 year old reporter for the Ilkley Gazette, was attacked after crossing the footbridge by the Ilkley railway station. She suffered severe head injuries from a blunt instrument. She was saved when a passer-by interrupted the attacker, who fled in a lorry. The attack had all the hallmarks of a typical Sutcliffe attack, though Sutcliffe never admitted it.

As murder followed murder the physical evidence mounted. The police interviewed over a quarter of a million people and took 28,687 statements. Those were the days before computers: the weight of paper meant that the floor of the incident room at the CID headquarters at the Millgarth Police Station had to be strengthened. Tens of thousands of punched cards were produced in the hope of finding symmetry. Lines of enquiry were started, then abandoned as murder followed murder and new evidence appeared.

Such was the public concern that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher actually threatened to come and take charge of the investigation herself. Working with Normanton-born Inspector of Constabulary Sir Lawrence Byford, Brooke had to deflect the Prime Minister.

As a result, squads of top detectives descended on West Yorkshire. They achieved no more than had the West Yorkshire police force.

Peter Sutcliffe, the murderer, was a lorry driver who worked for a small transport company on the Canal Road industrial estate in Shipley. Regarded as a model employee, he was chosen to appear in a promotional brochure for the firm. During the investigations, he was interviewed nine times.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Police task force officers searching land at Garden Lane, Heaton, in January 1981Police task force officers searching land at Garden Lane, Heaton, in January 1981

The ninth policeman to interview Sutcliffe suspected him and recommended that he be further investigated. That never happened. Before another interview could take place - and crucial to Sutcliffe’s survival - were three letters and a tape sent by the so-called ‘Wearside Jack’. He was John Humble, a Sunderland alcoholic who claimed to be the murderer. Experts tracked his Wearside accent to the Castletown area of Sunderland.

In June 1979 the Sunday Times obtained details of the Wearside Jack tape and told the police that they planned to publish details. Chief Constable Ron Gregory telephoned Sir Rodney and asked him to come over to Police HQ urgently. Together with the head of the investigation Squad, Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield, Sir Rodney and Ron Gregory listened to the tape from Wearside Jack.

George Oldfield and Ron Gregory felt that they had to either accredit the tape or rebut it. Understandably they felt that to say they didn’t know whether it was from the murderer or not would be seen as extremely wet.

One of the Wearside Jack letters claimed responsibility for a murder in Lancashire which bore a close resemblance to the Sutcliffe murders. The police believed that it had been committed by the same murderer, though it had not been linked to him in the press. Clinching the identification with the Yorkshire murderer was the saliva on the envelope which contained a Wearside Jack letter. It came from someone of blood group B, shared by only 6% of the population. It was the blood group of the Yorkshire murderer. Oldfield and Gregory felt that this was more than a coincidence and decided to authenticate the tape and letters as coming from the murderer.

Sir Rodney challenged the conclusion: when the letter had been received the body of one of Sutcliffe’s victims, Emily Pearson, had not been discovered. Surely, Sir Rodney asked, the letter writer would have written ‘and there’s one body more you haven’t yet discovered’ if he had really been the murderer?

But it was too late. Gregory and Oldfield had made up their minds: they told the press that they were 99% sure that the tape and letters were from the Yorkshire murderer. The coincidence of the blood group was too much: suspects without a Wearside accent were eliminated from the enquiry.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: DCS George Oldfield with the Wearside Jack tape DCS George Oldfield with the Wearside Jack tape (Image: Newsquest)

There were several leads to Sutcliffe: the serial number on a new £5 note found in the purse of a victim was traced to the payroll of Sutcliffe’s employer; there were regular sightings of Sutcliffe’s car in red light districts; and some of the photofits produced by the survivors of his attacks bore an extraordinary resemblance to Sutcliffe.

But because of the Wearside Jack tape the leads to Yorkshire native Peter Sutcliffe were disregarded - with fatal consequences. A 20-year-old Leeds University student, Jacqueline Hill, became Sutcliffe’s last victim when she was returning to her students’ hall of residence in Headingley.

Sutcliffe was eventually arrested thanks to a routine police check. After his conviction there were inquisitions by West Yorkshire Deputy Chief Constable Colin Sampson (later Sir Colin) and Chief Inspector of Constabulary Sir Lawrence Byford. They concluded that Sutcliffe had almost certainly committed other crimes as well as those for which he had been convicted. They slated the West Yorkshire force for its failure to identify the crucial clues - though they had also been unrecognised by the several external police enquiries.

There was a search for scapegoats. Sir Rodney was summoned to meet Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw. In a private interview Whitelaw suggested that the West Yorkshire Chief Constable should be sacked. Sir Rodney refused: the West Yorkshire Police Committee felt defensive about their force. Top Scotland Yard detectives had been drafted into West Yorkshire and had got no nearer to identifying the murderer than their Yorkshire colleagues.

Four months later Sir Rodney’s answer would have been very different. As soon as Chief Constable Gregory retired he sold his account of the murders to the Daily Mail for £40,000. There was popular and justified revulsion at Gregory making money from the tragic murders. As a result he was excluded from the West Yorkshire Police Mess and treated as an outcast by his former colleagues. He died in lonely exile in Spain.

There can be no repeat of the multiple murders by Peter Sutcliffe. Computers would identify the several leads to Sutcliffe. DNA would recognise Sutcliffe as the killer. But fifty years ago those techniques had not been invented. As a result Sutcliffe was able to continue his murderous activities for over five years.

* Sir Rodney Brooke gives his account of the pursuit of the murderer in his memoirs The Winding Stair, obtainable at the Grove Bookshop, Ilkley.