Smokescreen for a Serial Killer
UK author examines unsolved murders linked to Yorkshire Ripper.
Posted February 23, 2018 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
“Yorkshire Ripper” Peter Sutcliffe recently told a pal that police plan to question him a third time about unsolved murders possibly linked to him. “They must be a bit thick as I’ve explained everything I know,” Sutcliffe wrote. “They are making me look like an idiot by keeping coming back to ask me the same things.”
Yet he welcomes a day in court because he wants to appeal his sentences. In 1981, Sutcliffe had received 20 life sentences for 13 murders and 7 attempts. And if former Norfolk police intelligence officer Chris Clark is right, this master manipulator will be prepared with yet another deceptive tactic.
The more we’ve learned about psychopaths and serial killers in the past four decades, the more we realize how chameleonic some can be.
Clark’s book with Tim Tate on Sutcliffe, Yorkshire Ripper: The Secret Murders, recounts case details and shows links to many more actual and attempted murders than the official count. The true extent of the Ripper's crimes, he contends, have yet to be sussed out. This is due, in part, to suppressed documents and police cover-ups.
Many books promise to tell secrets and provide behind-the-scenes errors and omissions, often just to hook customers. This one actually delivers. It offers a comprehensive true-crime narrative, as well as a step-by-step journalistic critique of the investigation and subsequent reviews.
Readers are offered the sense of being a very well-informed fly on the wall throughout Sutcliffe’s interviews, hearings, and trial. They will also learn about the genesis of errors to follow. More to the point, they will understand the outrage that many experienced as they watched Sutcliffe successfully dupe psychiatric experts about his alleged voices. This anger only continues as the injustices pile up.
Clark ably demonstrates the role of bias in a police investigation. Sutcliffe was in the net several times, but primitive linkage analysis, tunnel vision, and chaotic record-keeping allowed him to slip out. (It’s astonishing how often the striking Photofit images from survivors were ignored!) An assumption that the killer was driven by a hatred of prostitutes narrowed the linkage criteria too much and too fast, infected media coverage, and gave Suttcliffe the details he needed for a feigned mental illness.
Since the police thought that the killer’s victims would only be prostitutes hit with a hammer and subjected to clothing disarray, many incidents that should have been investigated weren’t. Some assault survivors were dismissed and even disbelieved! Several had exceptionally good information.
It’s not clear why investigators formed such rigid criteria, but Clark contends that when they did they laid a faulty foundation for further mistakes over several decades. Families were denied justice, survivors were denied resolution, and three men were falsely convicted, losing decades from their lives.
Central to the errors was the suppression of a significant piece of evidence that would contradict the mental illness defense and support the fact that Sutcliffe was a sexually compelled predator who carefully planned his crimes and knew that what he was doing was wrong. This piece of evidence was not shown to psychiatric experts during his evaluation—a major oversight.
“Even in a country where secrecy (and its assistance in the preservation of power) is endemic,” writes Clark, “the Yorkshire Ripper saga stands out by the dogged official determination to cover up the extent and depth of his crimes.”
But why? Clark offers answers that erode faith in those who hold positions meant to protect.
Some reviewers think Clark is too harsh, but he does acknowledge merit where merit is due. He’s not the first to see Sutcliffe’s link to other cases and he says so. He also recognizes that the investigation was overwhelming to those with no experience in such matters. Yet it’s important that someone from within the ranks call out higher-level officials who should have known better. Clark shows not only that the errors were made in a way that increased harm but also that those in charge failed to rectify the damage done.
No one wants to discover that their error (or ego) assisted with the convictions of innocent men or allowed a serial killer to increase his victim toll, but hiding these facts just invites compounded humiliation when discovered, and compounded harm. Clark uses this case to suggest that we accept errors, learn from them, and improve our best practices to avoid such errors in the future. Transparency should be high on this list.
Clark, C. & Tate, T. (2015). Yorkshire Ripper: The secret murders. John Blake Publishing.