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Thursday, 27 May 2010

Casting A Long Shadow

Anyone living in or near the city of Bradford in the late 1970s will need no prompting about the Yorkshire Ripper case: Peter Sutcliffe was eventually arrested, then charged and convicted of thirteen murders, and there were probably several more. Most, but not all, of his victims were prostitutes.

The shadow of the Ripper has now been cast over the same part of the world as a number of street workers have gone missing recently, but on one count, things are very different: West Yorkshire police have made an arrest soon after the grim discovery of body parts in the River Aire at Shipley.

Because, in the Ripper case, it seemed that there might never be an arrest. Sutcliffe was questioned more than once, and on one occasion, one of his victims had a newly issued five pound note in her purse which was traced back to his employer’s payroll. But he was released, and carried on killing.

West Yorkshire police were also diverted from their task by a hoax audio tape made by a man with a Wearside accent (the culprit was, many years later, jailed for his efforts), and when Sutcliffe was eventually brought in, it was the neighbouring South Yorkshire force that arrested him.

What has changed? Well, one major handicap for the investigation in the 70s was that everything was done manually: no significant use of Information Technology was involved. The amounts of paper and card must have been immense – and unwieldy. Potentially crucial evidence went missing, or was not cross referenced to tie it to Sutcliffe.

Hopefully, the West Yorkshire force has nipped this series of killings in the bud. Even so, the memory of Peter Sutcliffe will continue to cast its shadow over the county, and its police.

[UPDATE: Stephen Griffiths, age 40, has now been charged with three murders]

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