The Yorkshire Ripper Hoax
We recently explored the role of forensic linguistics in assisting criminal investigations and in securing convictions. As a follow-up, we thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at a specific case.
It was our intention to examine a case that had been solved by linguistic experts. But it was impossible to resist revisiting the notorious Yorkshire Ripper hoax. This was not a case where forensic linguistics unveiled the guilty party, as the advice of the experts was ignored by the police. But it is a tragic story that reveals much about the potential for forensic linguistics to help law enforcement.
Reign of terror in Yorkshire
Between 1975 and 1980, 13 women were murdered and many more were assaulted by a serial killer who was dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper. The moniker referenced the infamous Jack the Ripper who murdered and mutilated five women in East London in 1888. Jack the Ripper has never been identified. The Yorkshire Ripper may also have escaped justice, had it not been for a stroke of luck. One of the many reasons that the police took so long to catch him was their belief that a letter and tape that had been sent to them were the work of the killer.
The Yorkshire Ripper investigation was led by Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield of the West Yorkshire Police. 17 June 1979, Oldfield received a recorded message from a man claiming to be the Yorkshire Ripper. The man had a Wearside accent, and the letter he had previously written to Oldfield had been postmarked Sunderland, Wearside.
George Oldfield believed that Wearside Jack, as he became known, was the killer. His belief was reinforced by the mention in the letter of a murder in Preston which the police had attributed to the Ripper. The police wrongly thought that this information was not in the public domain, and so only the killer could have known about the crime’s connection to the Ripper.
The Yorkshire Ripper Hoax: Police ignored expert advice
George Oldfield and his most senior officers were quickly informed by the FBI that the creator of the audio tape was obviously a hoaxer. The eminent criminal profiler Robert Ressler has since stated that he contacted Yorkshire Police shortly after first hearing the tape to inform them it was a hoax. Despite this expert advice, Oldfield decided to focus his investigation on finding Wearside Jack.
At Oldfield’s behest, Linguistic experts examined the Wearside Jack recording. They concluded that the speaker hailed from the Castletown area of Sunderland. An analysis of the infamous tape by the department of Linguistics and Phonetics at Glasgow University led to the identification of two speech defects – a distinctive pronunciation of the letter ‘s’, and a hidden stammer. Wearside Jack should have been easy to recognise and would certainly have stuck out like a sore thumb in Yorkshire, where most of the crimes had been committed. The police evidently didn’t find it odd that none of the Ripper’s survivors noticed him having such a distinctive accent or manner of speech. Indeed, those that did hear him speak said he had a Yorkshire accent.
40,000 men in the Sunderland area were subsequently investigated to no avail. This work and the accompanying publicity campaign cost £ millions. But there was a far greater human cost. Whilst police officers were pursuing their fool’s errand in Sunderland, the real Yorkshire Ripper murdered three further women and attacked several more – in Yorkshire. It transpired that the Yorkshire Ripper was interviewed by the police on more than one occasion after the receipt of the Wearside Jack tape. He was eliminated as a suspect partly because he did not have a Wearside accent.
How the Ripper was found
On 2 January 1981, a man was arrested by police, having been found in a parked car with 24-year-old prostitute Olivia Reivers. Probationary constable Robert Hyde’s suspicions had been alerted when they had checked the number plates of the car and found them to be false. The arrested man was taken to Dewsbury police station, where he was questioned regarding the Ripper murders because he possessed many of the known physical characteristics of the killer.
The following day, the police returned to the site where the man had been arrested as they were suspicious that he had asked to take a pee before being placed in the police car. The police recovered a knife, a hammer and a length of rope that the suspect had discarded.
While being interviewed, the suspect eventually confessed to being the Yorkshire Ripper. His name was Peter Sutcliffe, and he was from Bradford, Yorkshire. He later commented that he had felt safe from detection during the time when the police were busy looking for Wearside Jack.
Peter Sutcliffe was subsequently convicted on 13 counts of murder and 7 of attempted murder. He received a whole life tariff which meant he would never be released from prison. He died November 2020 of Covid-19.
But what about Wearside Jack?
How Wearside Jack was identified
In 1979, when the Yorkshire ripper hoax tape and letters were sent to the police, it wasn’t possible to test the items for DNA. Even it had been, a DNA profile would only have proved useful if it had matched a profile already on the DNA database. As it turned out, Wearside Jack’s DNA profile would not have featured on such a database.
By the time DNA profiling became possible, it was thought that the evidence in the case had been lost. However, during a case review in 2005, a search uncovered a small piece from the seal of the envelope that Wearside Jack had sent to George Oldfield. DNA was recovered from that fragment, and a match was found in the DNA database.
Wearside Jack was revealed to be John Samuel Humble. His DNA profile had been placed on the database following his arrest for a minor offence in 2001. Had he not committed that offence, he may never have been identified. In 1979, when he sent the hoax tape, Humble was living just 1 mile from the Castletown area of Sunderland. This was the area where the linguistic experts had said the offender would be located.
John Humble was found guilty of perverting the course of justice and jailed for 8 years. He served 4 years of his sentence and was released in 2009, at which time he was given a new identity. He died 10 years later from heart failure.
The police should have listened
Forensic linguistics didn’t help the police to catch Peter Sutcliffe or Paul Humble. But the linguists involved in the Ripper case did correctly identify the accent of Wearside Jack, and the FBI profiler was correct in his assertion that Humble’s letter and tape were hoaxes. If the police had listened to these experts, they may have caught Sutcliffe over a year before finding him by accident. This tragic story demonstrates that forensic linguistic experts can play an important role in law enforcement and that they are able to make incredibly accurate deductions from what they see and hear.