Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Peter Sutcliffe

A Killer's Mask

On Friday, 2 January 1981 the Yorkshire Rippers five-year reign of terror came to an end. In the previous five years, beginning in July 1975 with his first attack, he had killed thirteen women and left seven others for dead. The seven survivors were told how lucky they were, but with physical, emotional and psychological scars that would never completely heal, they didnt feel very lucky. Some would even believe that they would have been better off if the man they had known for so long as The Ripper, had succeeded in killing them. As the nation celebrated the final triumph of good over evil, the Yorkshire Rippers family sat stunned. It was incomprehensible to them that the Peter William Sutcliffe that they knew and loved could possibly be responsible for the heinous crimes of the Yorkshire Ripper.

Peter William Sutcliffe was the first-born son of John and Kathleen Sutcliffe. He was born in Bingley, an industrial county of Yorkshire, England, on 2 June 1946 weighing only 5lb, but healthy in every way. As they took him home from the hospital, both parents were confidant that their son would grow to be like his father, a burly man who loved to play and watch any type of sport and an extrovert who loved a drink at the local pub. John looked forward to the day that he and his son would share the manly pleasures of life, but Peter would not grow to be a mans man like his father. He was a quiet, shy boy who much preferred to stay indoors with his mother than join in the rough games of his younger brothers and sisters, choosing to read rather than play sport. Greatly intimidated by his fathers aggressive masculinity, he found a safe haven in his mother, a gentle loving woman who adored all six of her children.

At school, which he always hated, Peter did not attempt to integrate with the other children. He would spend each play hour standing alone in a safe corner, away from the other children, avoiding the rough games from which he, being small and not particularly strong, invariably came out the worse for wear. His fathers concern for his son during his primary years led him to visit Peter at the school each afternoon, hoping to encourage his son to join in with the other children, but to no avail. The move to Secondary School was no better for Peter. He became the subject of severe bullying, culminating in his truancy from school for two weeks, before his parents were informed of his absence. He had spent the two weeks hiding in the upstairs loft, reading comics and books by torchlight. Although the bullying stopped after the school took action, Peter, who never fought with other boys or chased after the girls, was seen as different, set apart from the rest.

In the last years of secondary school, Peter attempted to fit in with the other boys and overcome the stigma of outcast he had been given in his younger years. He took up bodybuilding and was soon, to his fathers great delight, able to beat both of his brothers at arm wrestling. While still showing no sign of interest in girls, he would learn to play some sports in order to fit in, but his fear of leaving a mark or bringing attention to himself would cause him to never excel in any area of his schooling. He left school at the age of fifteen with no clear focus of what he wanted to do with his life. Over the next two years, Peter would change jobs regularly. He started in the mill where his father worked, but within a few weeks left to begin an engineering apprenticeship, which he quit after only nine months. His next job was as a labourer in a factory, but again, after only a short time, he quit to work as a gravedigger at the Bingley Cemetery.

Peter continued to be devoted to his mother all through his teen years and would happily run errands for her and spend a great deal of time with her. Things were not so good with his father who, Peter felt, spent far too much time away from the family home with sport and socialising, an issue that Peter had always resented. For John Sutcliffe, his greatest concerns about his son were allayed by the time Peter celebrated his eighteenth birthday. Although he never did share his fathers love of sport, he had taken up bodybuilding and other manly pursuits, including a passion for riding and repairing motorbikes. The only other concern was that Peter still showed no interest in girls, and had never had a girlfriend.

Peter Sutcliffe
Peter Sutcliffe

In his twentieth year, while with friends at the Royal Standard, a hotel in Manningham Lane, Peter deliberately approached a girl for the first time. Her name was Sonia Szurma, the second daughter of Maria and Bodhan Szurma, immigrants from Czechoslovakia, now living in Bradford. Polish-born Bodhan, a physical education teacher and university lecturer in Czechoslovakia, was not happy with his daughters choice at first, but in time he would come to see Peter as a hard working man who was careful with money, and most importantly, who treated his daughter well. Sonia held hopes of becoming a teacher when she met Peter, and although they would not marry for another eight years, the intention to marry had always been an unspoken expectation for the couple.

In the eyes of John and Kathleen Sutcliffe, Peter had grown up to be the ideal son. As far as they could tell, his only flaw was his work record, which was tainted by his habitual lateness, and eventually cost him his job at the cemetery, after which he held a number of labouring positions. By April 1973, this final problem seemed to be cured, when he began his first really steady job doing permanent night shift at the Brittania Works of Anderton International. In 1974, the family pressure for Peter and Sonia to marry had finally convinced him that they should do so, even if they hadnt yet saved for a deposit on a house and Sonia had not been able to complete her teaching degree, because of a schizophrenic episode during the second year into her course. With the decision that they would live together with Sonias parents, they married on 10 August, Sonias 24th birthday.

Sonia & Peter on wedding day
Sonia & Peter on wedding day

Peter had succeeded in creating a public persona that was exemplary, described by many as hard working and quiet, a caring and loving husband who kept to himself with no outward signs of the violence and depravity he had hidden deep within him. There were very few who had ever seen the other side of Peter. Gary Jackson, who had worked with Peter at the cemetery, had found his pleasure in playing morbid pranks with the skeletons and the theft of rings from the hands of some of those he buried, to be more than a little macabre. His brother-in-law, Robin Holland, would often go out drinking with Peter in the red-light districts of Yorkshire where Peter would often brag about his exploits with the prostitutes in the area. While at home, he would continue to play the part of family saint who would make grand stands about the immorality of men who two-timed their wives. Eventually, Peters hypocrisy became too much for Robin and he refused to go out with him any more. Trevor Birdsall had become friends with Peter at about the same time as he met Sonia and would eventually report to police his suspicions that Peter Sutcliffe was the Yorkshire Ripper. Trevor and Peter would spend hundreds of hours over the next few years in pubs and cruising the streets of the red-light districts in Peters succession of cars. Peter had seemed to have a liking for prostitutes, mixed with a strange anger. Trevor remembered vividly a night in Bradford in 1969, when Peter had left him in the car for a few minutes. When he returned, Peter told him that he had tried to hit a prostitute with a brick he had put inside a sock, but the sock had fallen apart and the brick had fallen out. Despite his strange behaviour, Trevor would remain friends with Peter until his arrest in 1981.


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