Christine Talbot's report from 2017
Peter Sutcliffe, the notorious Yorkshire Ripper, died on 13 November at the age of 74 ending a dark era in the history of our region.
He rarely corresponded during his 40 years in prison, but in a rare letter, thought to be his last to a journalist, he wrote to Calendar Presenter, Christine Talbot.
Here she tells the story of how that letter came about following an investigation by her and then Calendar journalist Sheron Boyle, into whether Sutcliffe may have begun his killing spree by attacking men in West Yorkshire.
Article by ITV Calendar's Christine Talbot
It’s over three years since an extraordinary handwritten letter addressed to me from Peter Sutcliffe, the notorious Yorkshire Ripper arrived on my desk in the Calendar office. It came as a surprise, even though we had written to him a few weeks earlier, to address claims being made in a film I was making for Calendar alongside my friend and then ITV colleague and producer Sheron Boyle.
The allegations were that that the serial killer, who died this week, may actually have started his murderous reign many years earlier by killing and attacking men. In May 2017 Sheron and I had interviewed Irene Vidler, a lovely lady who always believed that her father Fred Craven was probably Peter Sutcliffe’s first victim.
The story behind the Letter
Fred was a bookmaker in Bingley, his place of work was just around the corner from the cemetery where a young Sutcliffe was working as a gravedigger.
The Cravens and the Sutcliffe family knew of each other as they lived on the same road. Mrs Vidler told me how Peter used to mock her father, who was known for his short stature, and imitate his walk as he followed him down the street.
In April 1966, Mr Craven was brutally beaten up and murdered in his office, bludgeoned on the back of the head with a blunt instrument (The same modus operandi used by Sutcliffe in his later murders). Two hundred pounds had also been stolen. A person fitting Sutcliffe’s description had been spotted peering through the bookmaker’s window that morning. We also interviewed former taxi driver John Tomey, who had similarly been hit eight times on the back of the head with a blunt instrument on the moors above Bingley after picking up a man who fitted Peter Sutcliffe’s description in 1967. John survived his injuries but had suffered the long-term effects all his life. He adamantly believed that his attacker was Sutcliffe.
Both incidents occurred many years before Sutcliffe was to claim his first known victim (Wilma McCann in Leeds in 1975) and both cases remain unsolved.
Now some people may think that Sutcliffe, with his criminal notoriety and history, would have no right to comment on anything at all, but legally, before we broadcast anything, we had to give him a right of reply to the accusations made by Irene Vidler and John Tomey. In 2017 Sutcliffe was serving a whole life sentence in the top security HMP Frankland prison in Durham and a judge had ordered he could never be released, but he had never stood trial on these accusations. Besides, Mrs Vidler and Mr Tomey wanted answers.
We knew, from media reports, that Peter Sutcliffe had recently been questioned about more attacks although the police would give no details, so Sheron and I composed a letter asking if the killing of Fred Craven and the attack on John Tomey were among them. We also put all the points made by Mrs Vidler and Mr Tomey along with comments from other experts on the two cases and asked for his response to them. Finally, we asked Sutcliffe if he could give Mrs Vidler the closure she desperately needed about her father’s death and provide answers for Mr Tomey. We addressed our letter to Peter Coonan, (We knew he’d adopted his mother’s maiden name in prison) then I signed it and we gave him a deadline of two weeks to reply. Off it went to HMP Frankland and, to be honest, we really didn’t expect to hear any more. We doubted the letter would even reach him due to strict prison protocols and, to our knowledge, Sutcliffe rarely corresponded, especially not with journalists. We had tried and that was that. But it seemed Peter Sutcliffe did want his say after all.
The letter contents
Here on my desk just two weeks later, and within our deadline, was an envelope with URGENT handwritten in capitals on the front, plus in red letters across the top, “This reply requested to be back by 6pm 7th June)
The letter, when I opened it, was polite and considered in tone.
It began with Sutcliffe explaining his words were being transcribed his prison buddy and carer Steve as he was now registered blind. Indeed, it was reported that Sutcliffe underwent eye surgery for his right eye in 2017.
He had lost the sight in his left eye after he was attacked in prison in 1997. The prison buddy’s transcript was neat and small, but the signature at the end, according to the prison buddy writer, was Sutcliffe’s own, using his new name Peter Coonan. Sutcliffe started by saying that he was hopeful I would get his reply in time to meet our deadline, but he was doubtful “due to all mail going through censors before going out” He then, one by one, addressed our questions, reprimanding me firstly for not doing my research “…a little better.” Our point that he had recently been questioned over 17 other attacks was wrong he told me, it was actually 16 and “all were non-fatal”. He added that the police were satisfied that he was not involved in any of them and that he had never been questioned about Mr Craven or Mr Tomey. Our letter had asked if he knew Mr Craven? He said that he knew of Mr Craven and his family as he used to “walk past their house” and he had spoken with his daughter on the odd occasion but “that’s as far as it goes”. To the question, did he murder Mr Craven? His response: “I can tell you with 100 per cent honesty that I did not murder Mr Craven and never have I attacked a male.” We had asked in our letter to Sutcliffe if he could give Mrs Vidler some closure about her father’s death. His answer “What is my message to her about this? I understand she would want closure and yes, I did some bad things, but I just want people to know I did not attack or murder any males." And with a whole life sentence I’d have nothing to lose and it would not be in my interest to say I didn’t do it if I did.” He added: "I’m in jail till my dying days so I’m telling you 100 per cent it was nothing to do with me."
The letter then continued to address a few other points we had made before ending finally: “I hope this is satisfactory to your needs and reaches you in time”. He then signed it in his own hand ‘Yours sincerely Peter Wm Coonan”, I showed it to Sheron immediately. Our reaction? Initially taken aback that we had a response at all, but then very sad for Irene Vidler and John Tomey – this letter only gave denials and they still had no answers. We knew they would be upset at the contents of the letter and indeed they were. The comment: “Yes, I did some bad things” also stuck with us. Bad things? What a massive understatement, given the horror and severity of this man’s crimes. To me he clearly felt no remorse, empathy or even real acknowledgement of his actions even to this day, yet interestingly that wasn’t the reaction of Richard McCann, the son of Sutcliffe’s first victim Wilma.
Richard later told me, after an appearance on Calendar, that he felt this sentence was actually something of a step forward. It was to take several months of further investigation before we finally broadcast the story and went public about the letter.
Checking and verifying
As journalists we take nothing at face value and at Calendar we double check everything before broadcast. Our lawyers at ITV were rightly adamant that every possible measure should be taken to verify this letter as much as possible to ensure it was authentic. We used a handwriting expert to verify the distinctive signature, consulted a linguistics expert and spoke to lawyers. I asked a former Frankland prisoner to verify the notepaper used, the layout of things like prison numbers on the letter and envelope and to describe the protocols for letter writing and the use of writing “buddies”. Small details such as Sutcliffe’s claim that he knew Fred Craven’s daughter and walked past her house were important. It fitted with private information given to us by Irene Vidler that Peter Sutcliffe knew her older sister. One thing that was unusual, according to my prison source, was the lack of an HMP Frankland stamp on the envelope, simply a Royal Mail (North and West Yorkshire) marking, which we tracked to Durham. Had this letter been smuggled past the authorities to meet our deadline and avoid the “censors” Sutcliffe mentioned in the letter? Finally, with all our checks completed, we went to air with Irene and John’s stories and Peter Sutcliffe’s response on 22nd August 2017, three months after the letter first arrived on my desk. Looking back, it was certainly one of the more curious stories that I have ever covered in my 26 years at ITV Yorkshire, where the Yorkshire Ripper killings have been so much a part of the history of our region, even if for all the wrong reasons. I’m glad that our efforts at least got Peter Sutcliffe to respond in some way to Irene and John’s claims, even if it didn’t bring the confession and closure they hoped for. But I often wonder why he felt the need to respond, at all, given the numerous other allegations about him over the years and the fact that he had long ago admitted to murdering 13 women and attacking seven more. Why did he care about this and why did he feel the need to respond so quickly to our deadline? It felt as if the accusation that he may have killed men before he killed women seemed to rile him so much he felt the need to react. Could it be, as one psychologist suggested to me, that he could never admit to killing a man because that would destroy his defence which was that he had “heard voices” in his head and believed that God was telling him to kill women? Also, it would make him more “ordinary, not a messenger of God’s Will" as he had claimed, but simply a ruthless, cowardly and cold-blooded murderer. Sutcliffe told me he would be “in jail till his dying day” and in theory he was although he died in hospital. His death ends forty years of notoriety and finally draws a line under one of the darkest eras in criminal history in Yorkshire. As for me as I re-read that letter again three years on, I feel only sadness and regret that Irene Vidler and John Tomey didn’t get the closure they longed for and that the murder of Fred Craven and the attack on John may always remain unsolved.