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The Yorkshire Ripper: the case that led to the HOLMES system

Peter Sutcliffe's terrible crimes fundamentally changed the methods used in linked major inquiries.

Sutcliffe under a blanket arriving at Dewsbury Magistrates' Court

Sutcliffe under a blanket arriving at Dewsbury Magistrates' Court

Date - 13th November 2020
By - Gary Mason
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Peter Sutcliffe, the serial killer whose crimes led to the development of the HOLMES system for dealing with major inquiries, has died aged 74 in prison.

He was serving a whole life term for murdering 13 women across Yorkshire and the North West between 1975 and 1980.

The five-year investigation into Sutcliffe’s crimes committed on both sides of the Pennines became one of the biggest investigations in British criminal history.

During the £4 million investigation, which marred several distinguished CID careers, 250,000 people were interviewed – Sutcliffe himself nine times – 32,000 statements taken and 5.2 million car registrations checked.

But the main bottleneck to the inquiry was the main incident room at Millgarth police station in Leeds which used a manual  card index system.

The inquiry was so intensive that new cards would come in before the existing ones had been processed and cross-referenced. Eventually there were so many cards that the floor of the incident room had to be reinforced to support the weight.

Eventually the manual system was overwhelmed leading to evidence against Sutcliffe being lost in the index.

Two Home Office inquiries were set up to review the lessons from the investigation which led to the Byford and Sandford reports.

The Byford report focused on the inadequacy of the manual index card system and recommended that “standardisation of the procedures for major incident rooms must be achieved so that systems compatible with one another are introduced in all police forces.”

By the time the report’s recommendations were published in 1982 a pilot of the HOLMES system was underway.

HOLMES stands for Home Office Large Major Inquiry System  - a rather tortuous acronym which has stood the test of time. 

Today HOLMES2 is currently delivered as a cloud service to all UK police forces. The cloud delivery model means the information management system supports greater collaboration and cross-border data sharing .

It can be configured so multiple forces share resources to support the lead force with mutual aid and immediately begin managing information relating to major incidents.

Although Sutcliffe was interviewed nine times, he was only caught when picked up by chance by patrolling officers with a prostitute in his car. Their suspicion of the vehicle was triggered by a registration check which showed it was displaying a false plate. He confessed to being the Ripper during an interview after being arrested for driving a vehicle with false plates. 

As the number of murders and attempted murders continued to rise the Ripper case understandably became the subject of intense public scrutiny. The media focused on the decision by SIO Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield of West Yorkshire Police to treat as genuine a hoax tape and two letters sent from Sunderland, which purported to be from the Ripper.

There were warnings of a hoax from voice experts and other detectives, but ACC Oldfield pressed on, convinced this was his man.

Because the voice on the tape had a North East accent, Sutcliffe, who was from Bradford, was not considered a prime suspect.

Oldfield’s mistake has been described as one of the biggest in British criminal history, but he was widely regarded as a “top notch copper”.

An “old school” policeman with three decades experience, he was a dedicated man who developed a deep personal obsession with nailing the Ripper.

He worked 18-hour days and made a personal pledge to the parents of the sixth victim, Jayne MacDonald, that he would catch the killer.

When the tape arrived it was a personal message to Oldfield, which said: “Lord, you are no nearer catching me now than four years ago when I started.

“I reckon your boys are letting you down George. You can’t be much good can ya?”

Later the same year Oldfield had a heart attack at the age of 57, and was subsequently moved off the case.

He has been described by friends as “the Ripper’s 14th victim”.

The Wearside Jack messages were finally, conclusively proved to be hoax nearly 30 years after they were sent when Sunderland alcoholic John Humble admitted perverting the course of justice and was jailed for eight years in 2006.

Following the announcement of Sutcliffe's death, Brian Booth, Chairman of West Yorkshire Police Federation, said: "On hearing of the death of Peter Sutcliffe today, I feel good riddance. The monster who murdered so many innocent women in and around West Yorkshire should rot in hell. 

“He is the very reason most people step to the plate and become police officers - to protect our communities from people like him.”

Brian added: “As a child in West Yorkshire, when he was on his reign of terror, I can say his activities caused fear throughout the region. My heart goes out to all the families affected through the loss of their loved ones, but I personally will not be mourning the death of this monster.”

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