The Yorkshire Ripper and the FBI
Netflix’s new true crime series neglects the profilers’ feedback.
Posted Dec 26, 2020
I just watched the new Netflix series, The Ripper. It features the investigation of the Yorkshire Ripper, a man who attacked at least 20 women during the late 1970s with hammers, screwdrivers, and knives. The program shows how a lack of experience and sophistication with criminal psychology made lead investigators prone to tunnel vision. The killer, Peter Sutcliffe, might well have been stopped sooner.
A primary issue involved a fixation on three letters and a brief cassette tape recording from “Jack the Ripper” sent to Chief Inspector George Oldfield (with one letter to the press). Accepting without evidence that this communication was authentic, they believed they had a primary set of identifying clues. They hired a linguist to pinpoint the communicator's location to Castletown, Sunderland, based on a thick Wearside, or “Geordie,” accent. Even when West Yorkshire investigator Andy Laptew reported in 1977 about Sutcliffe’s resemblance to an assault victim’s description and his match to evidence, the investigation remained fixated on the tape. The task force leaders were certain their killer wasn't a West Yorkshire man. They spent millions of pounds publicizing the communications to elicit an identification from someone who knew him.
The Netflix series walks us through this error. However, little is said about what happened with the letters and tape, now referred to as the "Wearside hoax." Two different law enforcement groups doubted this line of inquiry right away. The series covers one but not the other.
First, Detective Inspector David Zackrisson of the Northumbria Police thought the letters were fake, based on how close some of the phrasing was to "Jack the Ripper" letters from 1888. This doesn't actually prove the modern communicator is no killer, but it fairly raises doubts. In addition, the letter writer described only murders already in public record, despite there existing a victim whose body had not yet been found. He never mentioned this murder. Zackrisson submitted a report, but it had no impact. Oldfield, it seems, would consider only evidence that supported his notions.
A couple of members of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, profilers Robert Ressler and John Douglas, were in England in 1979, during the Ripper publicity effort. Ressler offered a summary of what occurred in his book, Whoever Fights Monsters.
One of the first-generation profilers, Ressler had learned the psychological principles involved from pioneers Howard Teten and Patrick Mullany when he joined their unit in 1974. "When they opened the Academy,” he told me, “they had different departments, like a university, and I was recruited into the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU)." He introduced several programs that contributed to the development of the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, and sometimes went to other countries to teach. Although the BSU was just beginning to gain recognition when he was in England in '79, he was surprised by their resistance to behavioral analysis from crime scenes.
Ressler and Douglas went to the British police college, Bramshill, a leading training agency. Ressler hoped to inspire an exchange program with Quantico, but he had trouble making inroads. As the agents drank beers with British detectives to talk more informally, they met John Domaille, who was part of the Yorkshire Ripper investigation. By then, eight murders had been linked to the offender over the course of four years. Domaille described the letters and tape, as well as the extensive effort to publicize them.
Ressler and Douglas asked to see the crime scene photos and offer their analysis. The photos weren’t available, but a copy of the tape was. Ressler listened and said, “You realize, of course, that the man on the tape is not the killer, don’t you?” Douglas agreed. Both thought it was a hoax, based on inconsistencies between how Domaille had described the crimes and what the man on the tape had said. They thought the killer would be an introvert, not likely to communicate and taunt so boldly as this man did. They offered a few more ideas, although they cautioned that without the photos and reports, they were winging it. They figured the offender’s employment gave him cover in the murder areas. He might be a cabbie, mail carrier, or truck driver making deliveries. He had a relationship with a woman, was in his late twenties or early thirties, and had serious mental problems.
Ressler hoped to get access to the photos for a more accurate profile but learned that Oldfield prohibited it. He apparently disliked being second-guessed about his theories, considering the effort and expense, or being viewed as a man so easily duped. They'd find the killer on their own.
Five more women died. In 1981, Peter Sutcliffe, a 34-year-old married truck driver from West Yorkshire, was finally arrested. He’d been interviewed nine times, had the right shoe size, resembled the physical description from survivors, and was seen in areas where bodies were found. He didn’t have a Geordie accent. He confessed to thirteen murders and seven assaults.
Ressler closed his account by adding that the hoax had been perpetrated by a retired police officer with a grudge against Oldfield. However, this is incorrect. The case was reopened in 2005 when DNA samples from the envelopes of the letters were analyzed. They matched John Samuel Humble, an unemployed alcoholic obsessed with Jack the Ripper and true crime, who sought notoriety. In a police interview, he admitted that the Ripper case was getting on his nerves. “It was on the bloody telly all the time. I shouldn’t have done it."
An official inquiry found that the police force had been overwhelmed with paperwork during the case, with no way to organize it or to cross-reference the thousands of cars searched and men questioned. They'd made a number of mistakes, including anchoring in a rigid hypothesis that hindered consideration of potential new evidence or more informed opinions. That's clearly the lesson of the Netflix series.
Ressler, R., & Schachtman, T. (1992). Whoever fights monsters: My twenty years tracking serial killers for the FBI. St. Martin's.