How Wearside Jack derailed Yorkshire Ripper investigation
The Yorkshire Ripper hoaxer who convinced police they were hunting a killer from Sunderland: ITV drama on the hunt for Peter Sutcliffe retells how Wearside Jack derailed investigation and left serial killer free to murder three more victims
- John Humble sent the recording to police along with three letters
- Police led by George Oldfield were convinced tape was recorded by the Ripper
- They shifted focus away from men from Yorkshire and turned to Sunderland
It was one of the most notorious hoaxes in criminal history; one which had truly deadly consequences.
In the summer of 1979, at the height of the Yorkshire Ripper’s reign of terror, the police revealed a recording they believed had been sent by the serial killer himself, having already received letters from the same man.
Speaking in the distinctive voice of someone from Sunderland, the alleged murderer – who came to be known as ‘Wearside Jack’ – boasted how the police had had ‘no luck’ catching him and suggested it was because they were not ‘much good’.
Despite experts’ misgivings about the veracity of the tape and letters, police chief George Oldfield insisted they were from the murderer.
As a result, officers ruled out real Ripper Peter Sutcliffe – who had been interviewed by officers five times by that point – because he was from Yorkshire and his handwriting was not a match.
The moment the tape was played to a press conference is revealed in the trailer for the upcoming ITV drama about the Ripper, The Long Shadow.
Star David Morrissey, who portrays Oldfield, is seen telling attendees: ‘The voice you are about to hear is the man we believe to be the so-called Yorkshire Ripper’.
Overall, Sutcliffe murdered 13 women. The Ripper’s final three victims – Barbara Leach, Marguerite Walls and Jacqueline Hill – all died after officers had heard the cassette recording and shifted their focus away from men from Yorkshire.
John Humble, the hoaxer known as ‘Wearside Jack’, convinced police with a recording that the Yorkshire Ripper was from Sunderland. The real Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe (right), was free to kill another three women
It took a further 27 years before the man behind the hoax, bricklayer John Humble, was finally unmasked and jailed.
He was caught after a crucial piece of evidence – a two-centimetre section of the seal from the envelope used to send the third hoax letter – was finally tested.
Former Detective Chief Superintendent Chris Gregg told in April how a laboratory biologist made the breakthrough.
‘In a place it shouldn’t have been were glass slides,’ he told the ‘Behind the Crimes’ podcast in April this year.
‘In between the two pieces (of glass) was a perfectly-preserved two-centimetre section of the seal from envelope three of the Ripper letters.
‘She blew the dust off and that quickly produced a one in a billion profile.’ In another blunder, the tape itself had been taken home by a scientist.
When it was recovered, investigators were unable to develop any new scientific leads.
Humble was quickly arrested because his profile had already been logged for minor offences.
Sherwood star David Morrissey portrays West Yorkshire Police’s Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield, who led his force’s investigation into the ripper. Right: Oldfield during a press conference in 1979. It was Oldfield who was convinced that Wearside Jack was the Ripper
The now infamous tape (pictured) on which the hoaxer sent the detective leading the team hunting the Ripper a taunting message in June 1979 had been taken home by a scientist
Sutcliffe was pictured in public for the last time on September 26, 2015 when he was being taken from Broadmoor to Frimley Park Hospital in Surrey for eye treatment
A composite of 12 of the 13 victims murdered by Sutcliffe. Victims are: (top row, left to right) Wilma McCann, Emily Jackson, Irene Richardson, Patricia Atkinson; (middle row, left to right) Jayne McDonald, Jean Jordan, Yvonne Pearson, Helen Rytka; (bottom row, left to right) Vera Millward, Josephine Whitaker, Barbara Leach, Jacqueline Hill
He admitted four counts of perverting the course of justice and was jailed for eight years in 2005.
READ MORE: The Long Shadow trailer hears Yorkshire Ripper witnesses’ chilling descriptions – as writer reveals they changed name of ITV drama series out of respect for victims
After being given a new identity following his release, Humble died aged 63 in 2019 from ‘chronic alcohol abuse’.
Mr Gregg added that the Ripper inquiry was ‘derailed’ by Humble’s three letters and recording.
He was among more than 100 officers who had been ordered by Oldfield to gather at Halifax’s Old Court House to listen to the recording when it was first sent to police.
‘He said they’d received a tape which he was going to play for us and that they are satisfied that this was from the killer.
‘And he was saying it in a tone that was very, very sombre and serious.’
He said that Oldfield told officers that he wanted them to try to recall ‘anyone you have questioned that has an accent or a voice like this.’
Mr Gregg told how the courtroom fell ‘deathly silent’.
‘Then he went click.’
The tape lasted for three minutes and 14 seconds, beginning with the haunting words: ‘I’m Jack’.
In a gruff north east accent, he went on: ‘I see you are having no luck in catching me.
‘I have the greatest respect for you, George, but Lord you are no nearer catching me now than four years ago, when I started.
‘I reckon your boys are letting you down, George. Ya can’t be much good, can ya?’
Analysts linked the voice to the Castletown area of Sunderland – fatefully shifting the focus of the inquiry to a completely different part of northern England.
More than a million pounds was spent on advertising, while the recording was played on television and radio bulletins.
In the meantime, Sutcliffe carried out his final three murders and attacked three more women who survived.
Two victims who had managed to get away alive told detectives their attacker had a Yorkshire accent – not the North Eastern voice of the person on the tape.
Humble taunted police detectives in the 1970s by claiming to be the Yorkshire Ripper in three letters and an audio tape. Pictured: An envelope Humble sent West Yorkshire police in 1979
Three letters in which ‘Jack’ laid down a string of false ‘clues’ had been treated with chemicals in a bid to find fingerprints so many times they had turned black. Pictured: Page one of the first letter sent by John Humble
The back of an envelope sent to police which contained an audio tape made by John Humble, better known as ‘Wearside Jack’
However they were discounted by Mr Oldfield, a move which would later heap shame on both him and his force.
A set of catastrophic coincidences had already helped convince him the letters – the first of which was sent in 1978 – were genuine.
At that time, detectives knew of seven murder victims.
This letter described an eighth, referred to as ‘Preston 1975’.
This alluded to the killing of 26-year-old Joan Harrison. Lancashire Police had discounted any links with the Yorkshire murders.
But scientists found that the person who licked the letter, a sample found at the scene of the crime and a third sample found from one of the confirmed Ripper murders all came from men with a rare blood group.
In the days before DNA, Mr Oldfield concluded these were likely to be the same man.
The man who murdered Joan Harrison also left a bite mark which matched one inflicted by Sutcliffe when he killed Josephine Whitaker in Halifax in April 1979.
Sutcliffe was interviewed a total of nine times during the investigation, without being arrested.
‘Getting the killer in the net, the lines of inquiry, they were doing it,’ Mr Gregg told the podcast.
‘But then they started eliminating on Geordie accents.’
Apparently stricken with remorse, Humble later phoned police anonymously to reveal he was a hoaxer — but he was not believed.
Sutcliffe was finally caught in January 1981 after being stopped in Sheffield’s red light district due to the fact he was displaying stolen number plates.
He was given 20 life sentences and died in 2020 after refusing treatment for Covid-19.
Oldfield’s mistake has been described as one of the biggest in British criminal history, but he was widely regarded as a ‘top notch copper’.
An ‘old school’ policeman with three decades experience, he was a hard drinking, dedicated man who developed a deep personal obsession with nailing the Ripper.
He worked 18-hour days and made a personal pledge to the parents of the sixth victim, Jayne MacDonald, that he would catch the killer.
His 200-strong ripper squad eventually carried out more than 130,000 interviews, visited more than 23,000 homes and checked 150,000 cars.
Later the same year Oldfield had a heart attack at the age of 57, and was subsequently moved off the case. He died in July 1985.
He has been described by friends as ‘the Ripper’s 14th victim’.
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