Yorkshire Ripper's victim shares horrors inflicted on his family

As an ITV drama recreates the Yorkshire Ripper’s reign of terror, one victim shares the blood-chilling horrors inflicted on his family by the serial killer

  • Woman shares her close encounter with convicted killer Peter Sutcliffe in 1980
  • Mo Lea was just two days from her 21st birthday when she came across Sutcliffe  

The morning after his mother was murdered by Peter Sutcliffe, Neil Jackson was asked to identify her body. He was just 17 and the sight of her bloodied, battered corpse on a slab in a Leeds police mortuary haunts him to this day.

‘You can’t put something like that out of your mind,’ says Neil, now 65. ‘It’s not something any son should have to see. It was a terrible thing to have to do at that age.’

Emily Jackson was the second of the Yorkshire Ripper’s 13 known murder victims and, before long, her face was all but lost amid the sea of black-and-white photographs of the women Sutcliffe killed between 1975 and 1980.

But for Neil and his two younger siblings, the 42-year-old mother of three’s violent and brutal killing in January 1976 marked the beginning of a lifetime of grief and trauma, which ultimately tore them apart.

‘He didn’t just murder my mum, he murdered our family,’ he says.

‘The family hit bad times. Our lives were destroyed and were never the same again.’ Last year, the father of one and grandfather told his story to actor Daniel Mays, who will play the part of Neil’s grief-stricken father Sydney in a new ITV drama about the terrible legacy Sutcliffe left behind.

The title of the six-part series, The Long Shadow, was carefully chosen to avoid mention of the serial killer whose name has, until now, largely eclipsed those of his victims. It focuses instead on the impact of his crimes.

Mo Lea was a third-year fine art student at Leeds Polytechnic and just two days from her 21st birthday when Sutcliffe tried to kill her in October 1980

Nearly half a century on – and three years after Sutcliffe’s death from Covid – the women he killed will finally take centre stage, played by actresses including Jill Halfpenny, Daisy Waterstone and Coronation Street star Katherine Kelly, who portrays Neil’s mother, Emily.

‘It’s about time attention was given back to the women he murdered,’ says Neil, who also takes pains to avoid mentioning the name of his mother’s killer. ‘Thank God he’s dead now. He doesn’t deserve to be remembered. I still miss her so much.’

Sitting on the sofa at home in Leeds, where photographs of Emily hang on every wall of Neil’s neat sitting room, he articulates the toll her death has taken on the family.

He explains how his father fell to pieces and that, within a day of the murder, his five-year-old sister was sent to live with an uncle and aunt, never to return to the family home.

While his brother remained with their father, Neil joined the army to get away from the unbearably tense atmosphere at home and the climate of fear that descended over the area as the number of Sutcliffe’s victims rose.

‘It was impossible to get away from it,’ says the retired roofer. ‘I’d walk into town and my mum’s photo would be everywhere, on billboards, on the side of buses and I’d know he was still out there.

‘Joining the forces got me away from everything but what he did split the family up. My dad couldn’t cope and we all went separate ways. I’ve had to live with that all my life.’

Neil’s story is not unique. Sutcliffe’s reign of terror during the 1970s and 80s left 23 children without mothers as blunders by West Yorkshire Police saw Sutcliffe remain free to kill.

The force, which used a simple card index system, was unable to cope with the volume of information, leading to vital evidence being lost and not properly cross-referenced.

Mo, whose family lived in Liverpool, was heading to a city centre bus stop after a night out with friends at around 10.30pm

Sutcliffe was questioned and released nine times before he was finally arrested in January 1981 while driving a car with false number plates. He was eventually charged with 13 murders and seven attempted murders – a figure now believed to be a fraction of his crimes.

For, as the Mail discovered this week, the women portrayed in the new drama form only part of the bitter legacy the sick killer left behind.

Nearly 50 years after he began his murderous spree, dozens of women have never seen justice; women who were almost certainly attacked by Sutcliffe and whose cases were consigned to police filing cabinets, never to see the light of the day.

Having survived an attempted murder by one of the most infamous killers in history, their lives have been overshadowed by the knowledge that, while he was alive, Sutcliffe was never prosecuted for these crimes.

‘His way of holding on to control was not to admit what he had done to me and other women, even while he was in prison,’ says Mo Lea, who was a third-year fine art student at Leeds Polytechnic and just two days from her 21st birthday when Sutcliffe tried to kill her in October 1980.

It was more than five years since his first known murder in 1975 and West Yorkshire Police were supposedly at the height of the biggest manhunt in British criminal history.

Mo, whose family lived in Liverpool, was heading to a city centre bus stop after a night out with friends at around 10.30pm. Fear of the man dubbed the ‘Ripper’ was rife and she walked quickly, cutting through the campus then turning into a residential street to reach the main road.

‘As soon as I turned the corner I could see that one of the street lights was out and there was a dark spot,’ says the 63-year-old artist and retired university lecturer.

‘I was conscious of the danger I could be in but I could see the bright lights of the main road just 200 yards away and thought if I turned back I’d take even longer to get there.’

She was halfway along Hillary Place when Sutcliffe called out to her, speaking as if they knew each other. His friendly voice – something nearly all of his surviving victims recalled – unguarded Mo.

Sutcliffe was questioned and released nine times before he was finally arrested in January 1981 while driving a car with false number plates

READ MORE: Yorkshire’s deepest scar: A new drama revisiting Peter Sutcliffe’s reign of terror gives a new perspective by telling the victims’ stories not the killer’s 

Katherine Kelly as Sutcliffe’s second murder victim, Emily Jackson, a 42-year-old married mother-of-three who took on occasional sex work to try to keep her family afloat. She was murdered in January 1976

‘I heard him call out ‘Hey’. It was a friendly, young man’s voice. He crossed over and walked towards me, chatting like we knew each other, asking things like what the time was and which way I was going.

‘My first thought was that I must know him and he was a friend I could walk into town with.’ She recalls how, as he got closer, she saw Sutcliffe’s distinctive mop of frizzy dark hair and pitch dark eyes.

He was wearing a black bomber jacket and holding himself strangely with one arm over the other. It was only later she realised he had been concealing the hammer and screwdriver he used to attack her.

‘I realised I didn’t know him and something was wrong,’ says Mo. ‘I half apologised. It was a polite conversation and I said I was going on my way. I turned and carried on walking and I heard his footsteps.

‘I thought, I’m going to start running, but as I ran I could hear his footsteps increasing at the same pace as mine.’

Mo was only about 25 metres from the main road and could see the lights and the traffic ahead.

‘Absolute terror and adrenaline kicked in,’ she says. ‘I ran as fast as I could but within seconds he caught up with me and I felt this massive crack at the top of my head. He hit me so hard I keeled over.’

She believes she is alive today only because a man and a woman on the main road heard her cry out and spotted Sutcliffe crouched over her unconscious body. As they approached, he ran off.

Mo is still in touch with the woman who found her covered in blood. ‘She found me with my head in the gutter choking on my own blood. I was close to death. What she saw traumatised her for life.’

At St James’s Hospital in Leeds, Mo was rushed into surgery. Her skull was fractured, her cheek and jaw broken. She had puncture wounds where Sutcliffe had jabbed a screwdriver repeatedly into her neck, narrowly missing her spinal cord.

When her parents visited her in intensive care, they didn’t recognise her and walked past her bed.

Yet it was Mo herself who contacted police after doctors noted her injuries were similar to those of other victims they had treated.

She was sitting in a hospital chair when detectives came to interview her. They took notes but when she’d finished, she says, one of them said: ‘If we decide to take this incident seriously, we’ll be in touch with you.’

They used the same astonishing phrase, she says, to the woman who found her. ‘That was the last either of us heard from them.’

Why does she think the police didn’t investigate her assault further – particularly given that the description she gave of her attacker, not to mention his modus operandi and the weapons he used, perfectly matched his other crimes?

‘At the time, West Yorkshire Police were looking like fools,’ she says. ‘Sutcliffe had been attacking and murdering women for more than five years, making them look ridiculously stupid, inept and lazy. My case, if it had been taken further, would have caused added embarrassment.’

Nearly half a century on – and three years after Sutcliffe’s death from Covid – the women he killed will finally take centre stage, played by actresses including Jill Halfpenny, Daisy Waterstone and Coronation Street star Katherine Kelly, who portrays Neil’s mother, Emily

Immediately after the attack, Mo tried to put out of her mind the possibility that the Yorkshire Ripper was responsible.

‘I was deeply ashamed,’ she says. ‘I thought people would think I was a sex worker or that I was asking for it or that I deserved it because I was out alone.

‘I thought I’d be tarnished with the connection to him. The fact the police weren’t interested helped me believe it couldn’t be him.’ But three weeks later, the killer struck again less than a mile from the spot he attacked Mo, murdering his final victim, 20-year-old Leeds University student Jackie Hill, in November 1980.

After Sutcliffe’s arrest in January 1981, Mo saw footage on the news and instantly recognised him. ‘I just fell to my knees,’ she says. ‘I thought: ‘My God. That’s him’.’

Amid huge embarrassment about the mishandling of the case, Sutcliffe was brought to trial within three months. Following his conviction, efforts were made to cover-up the full extent of blunders by West Yorkshire Police.

An internal inquiry, which concluded that Sutcliffe was likely to have been responsible for several unsolved murders and attacks, was kept under wraps within the force.

A Home Office inquiry led by Lord Byford was completed in 1982 but it was only in 2006, following a Freedom of Information request, that a heavily redacted version of Byford’s report was finally published.

He concluded that Sutcliffe was responsible for multiple attacks on women for which he had not been charged, although the names of those women were blacked out. Just two years ago, after writing to the Home Office, Mo was informed her name is among them.

Former West Yorkshire Police Chief Constable Keith Hellawell also re-investigated Sutcliffe’s crimes and even persuaded him, during visits to Broadmoor, to admit to two further unsolved attempted murders but no new prosecutions followed.

Bizarrely, Mo was contacted in 2016 by West Yorkshire Police who said they wanted a DNA sample to compare with hammers and screwdrivers Sutcliffe had used.

Mo agreed but says: ‘I couldn’t believe they’d waited that long. What evidence would have survived? They gave me back my clothes straight after the attack, congealed in a brown paper bag. To me it was clear it was just a box-ticking exercise.’

In a statement sent to the Mail by West Yorkshire Police this week, a spokesman said the force ‘has an ongoing process to review non-recent undetected offences’ and that in 2016 officers visited ‘a small number of people named as victims of unsolved assaults and other offences in cases submitted to West Yorkshire Police as part of reviews carried out in the early 1980s’.

The statement said: ‘The force stated in 2018 that the review had not brought forward information which could lead to new prosecutions or the detection of the unsolved cases.’

Author Tim Tate, who spent years researching Sutcliffe’s unsolved crimes with former police intelligence officer Chris Clark for their book Yorkshire Ripper: The Secret Murders, says: ‘West Yorkshire Police screwed up badly at the time and they have not made any serious attempt to reinvestigate those cases. It baffles me. There is no excuse.

‘They had the evidence against him in their own files and they owed it to the victims and their families to prosecute him.

‘This has been comprehensively covered up and that’s wrong. Those files should be opened. But it’s too late now. It should have happened while he was alive.’

Tate believes the true tally of Sutcliffe’s victims is much higher even than the number of those named in Byford’s report and includes unsolved murders not just from across the UK where he travelled as a lorry driver but Europe as well.

Mo still has a crescent-shaped dent in her head where Sutcliffe hit her and scars above her left eye and inside her mouth. But art, she says, has been her ‘saviour’ in overcoming the post-traumatic stress disorder she suffered.

She has worked and exhibited in the U.S. and Europe and among her work is a project called ‘Ripping Up The Ripper’ in which she was filmed drawing a portrait of Sutcliffe before tearing it up and stamping on the pieces.

‘My artwork has helped me to externalise my feelings,’ she says. ‘But what about the other women in my position who still don’t have a voice?’

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