Peter Sutcliffe: Expert details Yorkshire Ripper’s death in 2020
It has been two years since the death of Peter Sutcliffe, but the memories of his killings and attacks live on.
For six years, the heinous murderer, dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper, terrorised Yorkshire and the north-west of England, killing 13 women and attempting to murder seven more. It is thought that he committed more crimes, but was only convicted for the aforementioned murders and attacks.
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The relatives of Sutcliffe’s victims were left devastated by their loved ones’ lives being taken away before their time.
Five decades on, the bereaved families of murdered women, such as those of Zara Aleena, Sarah Everard, and Sabina Nessa, continue to suffer from their relatives’ unrelated but similar attacks. Experts now tell Express.co.uk that “closure” does not exist, and they must instead learn to “carry” their grief.
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Between 1975 and 1980, Sutcliffe committed brutal attacks and mutilations, employing the use of screwdrivers and hammers to harm his victims. It was wrongly thought by police that he was pursuing sex workers following the discovery of the body of the mother of four from Leeds and first known victim, Wilma McCann, in October 1975.
Fear heightened following the murder of 16-year-old shop assistant Jayne MacDonald – who was described as the first “innocent” victim by police – and 19-year-old building society clerk Josephine Whitaker in Halifax.
It was felt that “respectable women” were now potential targets as well. Former Ripper Squad detective, Bob Bridgestock, told the BBC that Sutcliffe had created a “culture of fear” and “mass hysteria” in the area.
Following Ms MacDonald’s murder in 1977, a curfew was effectively placed on women living in West Yorkshire with the police encouraging them to stay home. In retaliation, the Reclaim the Streets movement was founded.
Al Garthwaite, who helped organise the 150-strong march, told the BBC: “That was partly what fuelled our anger and rage, that in effect there was a curfew on women but not on men.”
This advice has been given to women in more recent times, like during the spree of Ian Wright, the Suffolk Strangler, who killed five sex workers in 2006, and the disappearance of Ms Everard, who was kidnapped by Metropolitan police officer Wayne Couzens last year. The onus is continually placed upon women.
Peter Sutcliffe was convicted for murdering 13 women
Vigils were held in memory of Sarah Everard earlier this year
The CEO of the organisation Support After Murder and Manslaughter (SAMM), Jo Early, told Express.co.uk that phrases such as “in the wrong place at the wrong time” should be disused as this is “victim blaming”.
She explained: “When you look at violence against women and girls if you say ‘she was in the wrong place at the wrong time’, what you’re breeding is the attitude that it was down to her to stop herself from being murdered.”
The Yorkshire Ripper’s victims who were not sex workers were effectively thought of as “in the wrong place at the wrong time”, as the pervading idea was that some victims were more “innocent” than others.
In fact during Sutcliffe’s trial, where he unsuccessfully pleaded not guilty, the prosecutor and attorney general at the time, Sir Michael Havers, sought to differentiate between 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.”
West Yorkshire Police later apologised to the families of Sutcliffe’s victims in 2020 for the “additional distress and anxiety” caused to all relatives by the “language, tone and terminology” used by officers at the time.
READ MORE: Quarter of young women in UK have little trust in the police
Police search the surroundings of Sutcliffe’s home following his arrest in 1981
Murder robs not only the victim of an actual life, but it has the potential to psychically ‘kill’ the deceased’s loved ones. If a loss cannot be processed then it manifests as trauma and pervades every part of that individual’s experience of life.
Author and artist Mo Lea, who is based in Bedfordshire, was attacked by Sutcliffe when she was a 20-year-old student at Leeds University. In an interview this month with LadBible, she described “sheer panic taking over” as she heard his footsteps approaching faster and faster before feeling a “massive blow” to her head.
Luckily, a couple walking nearby heard her screams, and their presence stopped Sutcliffe from doling out the final, fatal blow. But her injuries were so bad she was unrecognisable to her parents in the hospital.
While the attack had a long-lasting effect, she has not let it define her. She said: “I’ve been less trusting of people, it’s made me very cautious of men… It did shape me.”
Knowing she was so close to death gave her a new “lust for life,” and a “responsibility to carry on harder”. She added: “Harness your anger, fear to turn it into fuel, don’t let it subsume you, drown you and define you.”
Mark Vahrmeyer, an integrative psychologist who has run a private practice for 14 years, explained to Express.co.uk how he helps those suffering from trauma.
He said: “I work with them to slowly attach feelings to the narrative: traumatised people cannot feel – they are either numb or overwhelmed. When feelings can be felt and relationally received, they change and become more bearable…
“I would focus on how we separate the awful event from the rest of life. Just because this happened to them does not, therefore, mean that now everything is lost, nobody can be trusted and the world is an unsafe place.”
Women demonstrating for sex workers outside the Old Bailey during Sutcliffe’s trial
For homicide victims’ relatives, they are hit with the double trauma of the sudden death as well as the knowledge of the horrific circumstances in which their loved one died.
Mr Vahrmeyer continued: “With the sudden and violent death the process of grieving is invariably much harder as the death is ‘absurd’ and ‘unpalatable’ for others to hear about and there is no ‘hero story’ to recount. They die senselessly and unnecessarily. Therefore rather than closure, it is perhaps more a case of finding a way to re-establish trust in the world and to put one foot in front of the other each day.
“Murder is probably the most violent act one human can commit against another and it robs not only the victim of an actual life, but it has the potential to psychically ‘kill’ the deceased’s loved ones. If a loss cannot be processed then it manifests as trauma and pervades every part of that individual’s experience of life.”
Richard McCann was just five years old when his mother became Sutcliffe’s first murder victim.
The author and motivational speaker struggled for many years, holding much “pent-up anger” and going through a breakdown. Writing about his life in his book, Just A Boy, helped him confront his past.
After attending a lecture on Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu in 2010, he managed to let go of his rage towards Sutcliffe. He wrote on the Forgiveness Project website: “I am no longer carrying around remorse or bitterness; Desmond Tutu’s words about forgiveness helped me forgive the person who killed my mother. At the same time forgiveness fluctuates in my experience; it’s not a decision you come to.”
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Wilma McCann was Peter Sutcliffe’s first known victim
Richard McCann was just 5 years old when his mother was murdered
Mr McCann, like 4,000 people in the UK, was helped by SAMM, an organisation that helps those bereaved through homicide on their “recovery journey”. Speaking to Express.co.uk about the impact of homicide, Ms Early stressed the difference between grief by homicide, which she described as “traumatic grief”.
She said: “The family is never the same again, it is basically a life sentence for the family as well. No one ever really gets over it; it’s about learning to survive and cope in some small way for the rest of your life. It’s a case of adapting to a new normal.
“People feel very isolated, they’ve never been through anything like this before. It’s like going to a foreign country – you don’t speak the language, recognise the money or have a map. There are so many new things you have to navigate such as the criminal justice system, a murder trial and the press knocking on your door.
“We don’t use the word closure, we use words like ‘trying to get used to the new normal’, ‘cope’ and ‘recovery journey’ because that journey is ongoing for many, many years. But sometimes a conviction helps to cope, knowing that there’s some form of justice.”
Mr Vahrmeyer added: “Part of the fervour that drives victims to seek retribution through justice is that it functions as a way for that person to feel ‘powerful’ in the face of the powerlessness of the enormous loss they have experienced.
“Secondly, it can operate as a ‘manic defence’ – a shield – to push away the unbearable feelings of loss that would otherwise be felt. Ultimately, whilst a conviction may feel just, it will never compensate for the loss and the feelings that have been held at bay will eventually need to be felt.”
Tragically, many families never experience “pure happiness” again, Ms Early explained, instead they learn to cope and “get through it, somehow.”