‘Yorkshire Ripper’ death: Police apologise over language used for victims

Chief constable says language used for sex workers at time of murders was ‘wrong’

A British chief constable has issued a "heartfelt" apology to relatives of the victims of serial killer Peter Sutcliffe – known as the Yorkshire Ripper – after his death in hospital.

Sutcliffe, once one of the most feared criminals in Britain, died aged 74 after reportedly refusing treatment for coronavirus.

The series of murders he committed across Yorkshire and Manchester from 1975 to 1980 terrified northern England and launched a huge manhunt and a botched police inquiry.

Sutcliffe was serving a whole life term for the murders of 13 women, some of whom were sex workers, and the attempted murder of seven more. He was an inmate of the maximum security Frankland jail and died on Friday morning at the nearby University Hospital of North Durham.


Richard McCann was five when his mother Wilma was murdered in Leeds in 1975. He said that when 16-year-old Jayne MacDonald was killed in 1977, officers referred to her as the first "innocent" victim.

“My mum was completely innocent and deserved to live,” he told Sky News.

That led West Yorkshire Police chief constable John Robins to offer what he said was a "heartfelt apology", saying the language used by senior officers at the time caused families "additional distress and anxiety".

“Such language and attitudes may have reflected wider societal attitudes of the day, but it was as wrong then as it is now,” he said.

Mr Robins said the huge efforts by the team to catch Sutcliffe had been overshadowed by the language senior officers used, but stressed that attitudes had changed.

‘Totally respectable’

During Sutcliffe's 1981 trial at the Old Bailey, Michael Havers, the attorney-general who was prosecuting, said of the victims: "Some were prostitutes, but perhaps the saddest part of the case is that some were not. The last six attacks were on totally respectable women."

Sutcliffe was born in Bingley, west Yorkshire, in 1946. He left school aged 15 and worked in menial jobs before becoming a grave digger. He began his killing spree in 1975 and avoided detection for years due to a series of missed opportunities by police to arrest him.

He a was caught in Sheffield in 1981, but despite his 24-hour-long confession to the killings, Sutcliffe denied the murders when he appeared in court.

He was jailed for 20 life terms at the Old Bailey, with the judge recommending a minimum sentence of 30 years. He was transferred from Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight to Broadmoor secure hospital in Berkshire in 1984, after he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

In 2010 he was told he would never be released, and was later deemed fit enough to be treated as an inmate and was returned to prison.

More than two decades later, an unpublished report carried out by a police inspector concluded that Sutcliffe probably committed more crimes than the 13 murders and seven attempted murders for which he was convicted.

‘Detested’ killers

John Apter, chairman of the Police Federation, urged people to remember Sutcliffe's victims. He tweeted: "The 13 women he murdered and the 7 who survived his brutal attacks are in my thoughts."

Former detective Bob Bridgestock said he was one of the first on the scene when Josephine Whitaker was murdered in 1979. He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Peter Sutcliffe wasn't a very intelligent killer, he was just brutal.

"It fits, in my mind, into the likes of [Myra] Hindley and [Ian] Brady and the likes of Robert Black – serial killers who will be detested way after they've gone."

He said senior detectives “wore blinkers” while leading the cumbersome inquiry, which got side-tracked by a hoaxer.

One of Sutcliffe's surviving victims said she was still suffering from the effects of his attack in Leeds, 44 years on. Marcella Claxton told Sky News: "I have to live with my injuries – 54 stitches in my head, back and front – plus I lost a baby, I was four months pregnant. I still get headaches, dizzy spells and blackouts."