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The tragic story behind ripper hoax

The tagline of Martin Scorsese's classic Taxi Driver runs: "On every street in every city, there's a nobody who wants to be a somebody."

In the milieu of the manhunt for Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe, who killed 13 women in his six-year reign of terror, John Humble was that nobody who wanted to be a somebody.

In 1979, Humble, a petty thief from Sunderland, sent West Yorkshire police three hoax letters, signed "Jack", and one cassette recording in which he claimed to be the Ripper. By this time, Sutcliffe -- who began killing in 1975 -- had already claimed the lives of 10 women.

The immediate consequence of Humble's hoax was that the policeman in charge of the Ripper investigation, George Oldfield, shifted the entire focus of the manhunt away from Yorkshire to the North East, on the basis that the voice on the tape had a Geordie accent.

Instead of becoming a lead to be followed up, the letters and tape became a means of eliminating suspects -- including Sutcliffe, who was pulled in for questioning nine times over the years.

Had it not been for Humble's letters and tape, Sutcliffe might not have gone on to kill three more women. He was eventually apprehended, by sheer luck, in 1981 when two uniformed coppers pulled him in for having false licence plates on his car.

Within two days, Sutcliffe admitted to being the Ripper. It would be 2005, however, before DNA samples from three of the envelopes containing the hoax letters led police to John Humble.

Humble had, by this time, slid into hopeless, violent alcoholism, driven, he said during the police interview shown here, by guilt over "them wee lassies" (Sutcliffe's final three victims).

When arrested, he was blind drunk. "He didn't seem to know what was going on," said one of the policemen present.

While there's no doubt that Humble's hoax derailed the investigation and prolonged Sutcliffe's murder spree, this compelling, brilliantly put-together documentary, which featured interviews with several policemen at the heart of the investigation and a number of relatives of the Ripper's victims, revealed a parallel story of police ineptitude. Obvious clues were missed; hot leads were overlooked or ignored entirely.

When Tracy Browne, a narrow survivor of one of Sutcliffe's early attacks, heard the tape on the TV news, she immediately knew the police were on the wrong track. She'd been with Sutcliffe for half an hour before escaping.

She was 14 at the time and clearly remembered her attacker had a Yorkshire accent. She contacted the police. They not only failed to take on board what she was telling them, but also refused to believe her attacker could be the Ripper.

At one point, feeling guilty and panicked at the way his stupid actions had spiralled out of control, Humble phoned the police to tell them the letters and tape were bogus -- although he stopped short of admitting to being the perpetrator. Again, police seem to have disregarded this information.

One of the cops involved, David Zackrisson, began to question the authenticity of the "Jack" letters when he noticed similarities in language and phrasing to the original Jack the Ripper letters. "It was almost theatrical," he said, "as if the writer was donning a cloak and a top hat".

Two voice experts drafted in by police had similar misgivings about the tape, but were told to "close ranks" and say nothing. Humble himself admits to cobbling the letters together from books and newspaper articles he'd read about Jack the Ripper.

Near the end of this fascinating film, reporter Fiona Bruce discovered that only a fraction of the paperwork from the Yorkshire Ripper files remains, yet it's still enough to fill an entire storeroom. Who knows what other missed clues lurk in those sealed boxes?

STACEY'S STARS

The Yorkshire Ripper Hoaxer *****