I remember as a student being woken by the radio alarm to news that police had finally arrested the Yorkshire Ripper – after long six years of hunting him.
That was 1981. Big news. The murderer had spread fear across the North of England with his cowardly, obscene hammer attacks on women.
The media had started by loyally reporting police efforts to catch the culprit, but this switched to doubts and criticism. Politicians turned on the police. The Reclaim the Night campaign was launched in Leeds in 1977 by women angry that police were telling them to stay home at night.
I started watching the Netflix true-crime series, but decided to switch to John Grisham’s book to better absorb these events. The author says in the series that you could not write this story as fiction because no one would believe it.
It’s a really shocking tale of a vicious miscarriage of justice. It involves a rotten police investigation, lamentable courtroom failures and a prosecutor apparently hellbent on enacting his own prejudices.
The town you probably want to avoid in Oklahoma where these events occurred was Ada. The case was the murder of waitress Debra Carter in 1982. Former hometown baseball hero Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz are the two innocents railroaded to jail. Williamson ended up on death row while Fritz got life.
Grisham can’t maintain authorial dispassion while relaying this events, his prose occasionally dripping with sarcasm at the callousness and malignancy of the authorities.
As Fritz states in these pages, ‘When you don’t have any money to defend yourself, you’re at the mercy of the judicial system. Once in the system, it’s almost impossible to get out, even if you’re innocent.’
A powerful book full of villains and wonderful ordinary people fighting for justice. Sadly, Williamson and Fritz lost more than they could ever get back – and the true killer roamed free for years.
This intriguing documentary is now scheduled for next Tuesday (12 Feb) at 9pm on BBC4.
Dark Son: The Hunt for a Serial Killer is a 90-minute look into one of the most appalling and unsolved serial killer cases in British history.
In 1964-65 a kerb-crawler murdered six women in west London. He left their naked bodies in the River Thames or various outdoor secluded spots. Scotland Yard mounted its biggest ever manhunt but could uncover no strong suspects.
The killer stopped his murder campaign in February 1965. The public and media largely forgot the crimes.
As described elsewhere on this blog, the producers at Monster Films have pulled together a team of experts to reinvestigate the case. Child murderer Harold Jones is the prime suspect the police overlooked, the film argues.
John Cooper was a man with a powerful streak of badness in him. A bully, a psychopath and a vicious killer, he terrorised an area of Pembrokeshire for two decades.
He is the subject of a forthcoming episode of CBS Reality’s Murder by the Sea (Tuesday, 29 January, 10pm). As a contributor to the series, I must say Cooper made the biggest impression on me for the heartless, chilling nature of his crimes.
He was jailed for 30 counts of burglary in 1998. By this time, however, he had also committed two double murders.
Joseph Wambaugh, former LA cop, has had an interesting writing career, spanning fiction and non-fiction. I’ve read several of his books and just finished this true-crime title from 1973.
It recounts events from 1963 when two LAPD officers stopped a pair of small-time but dangerous characters. Greg Powell and Jimmy Lee Smith pulled a gun and took the policemen, Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger, hostage.
The officers were ordered to drive to an onion field near Bakersfield. Campbell was executed but Hettinger managed to escape. My initial feeling when I started reading was not good. The book is written in the style of Truman Capote’s a ‘non-fiction novel’ In Cold Blood. This style and Capote’s reliability as narrator have since been questioned.
So, in The Onion Field we get the participants’ thoughts and dialogue from throughout their lives, which clearly no author can know. My reaction was that this must be a novel, but the spine said non-fiction.
Dark Son: The Hunt for a Serial Killer is now available to view on BBC iPlayer.
I have been talking about this documentary for a while now. It was almost a year ago that I got involved with filming some sequences for this re-examination of the unsolved Hammersmith Nude Murders.
My involvement was sought because of findings in my book The Hunt for the 60s Ripper. This employed some modern policing theories to understand why Scotland Yard’s biggest ever manhunt failed to unmask the killer of six women in London in 1964-65.
I consulted Dr Kim Rossmo, one of the world’s leading geographic profilers. He produced an analysis and map for my book that revealed two areas of west London where the killer was probably based.
Harold Jones lived in the middle of the murder area
It is this data that is used in Dark Son. One of the problems the original investigation had was that it was thinly spread over 24 square miles of London.
The geo-profile would have allowed detectives to focus resources on two hotspots around Hammersmith and Notting Hill. Had they done so they would have crossed paths with Harry Stevens.
This man, living in Aldensley Road, Hammersmith, never featured in the original investigation. As Dark Son explains brilliantly, Stevens was actually Harold Jones, a murderer of two children in his youth in 1921.
This new series about how police question suspected killers begins on CBS Reality on Thursday 3 January.
I am a contributor to it and had to do a lot of research on the six cases included. Watching or listening to lengthy questioning sessions was tedious at times. Unlike TV dramas, there usually isn’t much drama.
At the same time it requires patience for those vital moments when a callous killer may give themselves away.
They vary considerably here, from chilling psychopath Israel Keyes in the US to UK killers Nathan Matthews and Shauna Hoare, who killed teen Becky Watts. The latter tragic case starts the series.
Some of the killers are hard to pin down because they are psychopaths who lie easily and feel no guilt. Others are stupid and incompetent, and soon outfoxed by detectives.
The series, presented by Professor David Wilson, gives rare insights into the reality of all types of homicide and the challenges facing police. But be warned – the cases are generally sad and chilling.
Thanks goodness deference to authority largely gets the middle finger today.
This means we can give short shrift to claptrap like this: ‘Sadistic crime is probably more rare in England than in any other country in the world. Curiously enough, even the few known exponents in our English records are apt to bear an alien name.’
So, just to be clear – sadism is a vice of foreign blighters. The English do not stoop to such shameful behaviour.
This view, voiced in 1941, was not that of some loudmouth in a pub after one too many. It was the opinion of the Commissioner of Prisons, Alexander Paterson.
Sadism and cruelty
The problem he faced was what to do with Harold Jones, who had been convicted of murdering two little girls when he was 15. In 1941 Jones had served 20 years, considered a ‘life’ term at the time.
During his incarceration, the consensus had been that Jones was a sadist who showed no remorse. Senior medical officer W Norwood East reported that for Jones ‘the sexual act reaches its highest gratification when accompanied by cruelty’.
In 1936 the governor of Maidstone prison, B Grew, was damning, ‘Sad as it may seem I can see no hopeful prospects for Jones in the future.’
But by 1941 Paterson was effectively muddying the waters. The medical profession really knows little about sadism, he suggested.
Last Tuesday saw the conclusion of evidence being presented and filmed for Dark Son, the forthcoming BBC documentary about 1960s serial killer Jack the Stripper.
It a was a big day’s filming: for me 12 hours long, but for the Monster Films’ team much longer.
I was interviewed in the morning and was later on hand for a long session of afternoon-evening filming. Fascinating research from contributors, former police officers and others was explored.
It was a brilliant day. It was also a treat to be again working alongside criminologist Prof David Wilson and ex-detective Jackie Malton. David Howard (director) and Rik Hall (producer) from Monster ran the production calmly and superbly.
The venue was the Ebenezer Baptist Church Centre in Abertillery, Wales. The significance of the setting will become clear when the film is aired.
It has been in production throughout this year. I was initially involved for a chilly day’s filming in February on the Thames (two victims were found on the river foreshore).
From magazine feature to book to TV
I could not imagine how all this would unfold when I signed a contract to write The Hunt for the 60s’ Ripper in October 2016 (Mirror Books). The idea grew out of a feature I proposed for a true-crime magazine that Mirror Syndication were developing.
My argument was that the case – and victims – were largely forgotten today and it should be reviewed and remembered.
The magazine was eventually shelved, but I was able to develop the research I had for the article into a book. Following its publication, my research sparked further new findings about the unsolved 1960s murders of six women in west London.
The documentary team assembled high-quality experts to delve further into the case. I can’t talk about the film’s content, but anyone who thinks they know everything there is to know about the case should think again.