The story of Wearside Jack and Sunderland's link to the Yorkshire Ripper investigation

After Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe’s death in prison we look at how one man single-handedly derailed the murder investigation, turned the eyes of the world on Sunderland – and left a maniac free to kill again.

Tuesday, 20th August 2019, 10:35 am
Updated Friday, 13th November 2020, 12:35 pm

The 74-year-old Sutcliffe died on, Friday, November 13, at the University Hospital of North Durham, three miles from the maximum security HMP Frankland jail where he was an inmate, after testing positive for coronavirus.

Three of Sutcliffe’s killings occurred after one of the most notorious hoaxes in British history convinced police to concentrate their search not in the Ripper’s hunting grounds but almost 100 miles away – in Sunderland.

In 1979, police received a taped message from a man whose accent led them to focus their search on Wearside and let Sutcliffe, who had first been interviewed a year earlier, slip through the net – something the killer himself would later acknowledge.

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Picture dated 26/06/1979 of West Yorkshire's Assistant Chief Constable, Mr George Oldfield, at a police theatre at Wakefield, listens to an eerie tape recording of the man thought to be the "Yorkshire Ripper", which turned out to be Wearside Jack hoaxer John Humble. Picture by PA

Driven by his interest in the case of the original Ripper and sitting at home alone in the Hylton Lane Estate, Humble came up with the idea of sending letters about the crimes to the police, just as the Victorian killer had done.

The letters

The first was posted from Hylton Road in March 1978 and addressed to head of the Ripper Squad, Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield.

John Humble

When there was no reaction to the letter in newspaper or on television, Humble decided to go straight to the media.

In each letter he posted, he signed the inside of the envelope flap "Jack the Ripper", so the recipient would know who he was when opening the envelopes.

But a year passed after he sent the second letter, and still no attention, so in March 1979 he wrote his final letter.

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Sunderland Yorkshire Ripper hoaxer Wearside Jack has died aged 63
Image released by West Yorkshire Police

The tape

After his letters seemed to fall flat, he decided to make a tape using his brother's recorder and a cassette he bought from Woolworths in Fawcett Street, Sunderland.

Eventually it would be played to millions of television viewers across the country.

The hoax sent police on the biggest wild goose chase in British criminal history as detectives switched their investigations to Sunderland.

Police images released in 1979 of four envelopes and two signatures of 'The Yorkshire Ripper' - which were actually from John Humble

All the letters were stamped with a Sunderland postmark, and officers pinpointed the accent on the tape down to the Castletown area of the city.

"I'm Jack," said the voice. "I see you are still having no luck catching me."

The tape was heard across the UK, with headlines in the Sunderland Echo proclaiming: "Ripper is a Wear Man".

In the previous four years the Ripper had brutally murdered 10 women in Leeds, Bradford, Manchester, Huddersfield, Halifax and Preston.

In an article published in the Echo on June 27, 1979, Mr Oldfield stated: "I acknowledge that there is a possibility that this is a hoax, but there are factors in the letters that I have received that make me believe that the man who wrote the letters can only be the man known as the Ripper."

Police descended on Sunderland, carrying out door-to-door inquiries and interviewing thousands of people across the city.

What happened next?

The scale of the police’s mistake in taking the tapes at face value was revealed after Sutcliffe’s arrest on suspicion of using a vehicle with false number plates in January 1981.

After two days of questioning, he finally admitted the police had their man.

It was only after his confession that Wearside Jack was confirmed to be a hoax.

ACC Oldfield took early retirement following the case and it was reported he was totally humiliated over falling for the hoax.

On May 22, 1981, Sutcliffe was convicted of murdering 13 women and attempting to murder seven others and sentenced to 20 concurrent life sentences.

He served much of his prison sentence at Broadmoor before being moved to HMP Frankland.

John Humble was arrested in 2005 and pleaded guilty to four counts of perverting the course of justice in 2006.

He was sentenced to eight years in prison and released in 2009 when he given a new identity.

He was found dead at his home in South Shields on 2019.

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