My brother the Yorkshire Ripper: As an ITV drama recreates Peter Sutcliffe’s killing spree, an extraordinary interview with his youngest brother Carl – who lays bare the making of a monster
On Monday, a new ITV drama about the heinous crimes of serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, The Long Shadow, began its seven-part run on ITV. The 60-year-old man who sits in front of me, drinking tea in his pleasant, flower-filled cottage garden, did not watch it – indeed, he refuses to.
But its title could not be more apposite, for a long shadow not only describes the sense of fear which engulfed the UK during the five-year hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, but the darkness that Sutcliffe’s notoriety has thrown over the life of his younger brother, Carl.
For more than 40 years, ever since Sutcliffe’s conviction at the Old Bailey in 1981 for the brutal murder and mutilation of 13 women, and attacks on seven more, Carl has lived with the shame, guilt and attention brought on the family by his brother’s crimes.
He is a successful antique dealer, who has been with partner Steff for almost 30 years, with whom he has three thriving children – and yet he has never been able to escape the horror of what happened in West Yorkshire in the 1970s. It does not help, he says with a mixture of anger and weariness, that the crimes are constantly rehashed on television.
Indeed, he accuses TV bosses behind this latest drama, which stars Toby Jones, David Morrissey and Jill Halfpenny, of cashing in on other people’s suffering.
On Monday, a new ITV drama about the heinous crimes of serial killer Peter Sutcliffe – known as the Yorkshire Ripper – called The Long Shadow, began its seven-part run on ITV
‘What is to be gained from this? I feel so sorry for the victims’ families that they have to endure the retelling of losing their loved one. It just drags up the most painful memories,’ he tells me. ‘My family don’t need it either; it was bad enough to go through it at the time. It’s like reopening a terrible old wound.’
One of six children, Carl was a teenager living at the family home in Bingley, north-west of Bradford, at the time of the murders, and had no idea that the brother he called ‘Pete’, whom he saw often and ‘looked up to’, was the evil and obsessive mind behind them.
He might share the same deep brown eyes and hair, but Carl has often eschewed the family name.
‘Apart from Peter, the rest of us turned out fine and lead good lives — after sharing the same upbringing and parents,’ he tells me. ‘It has been a thorn in my side. Unless you have a notorious criminal in your family, you cannot understand what it is like. It is shameful, an unwelcome presence that never goes away, even after his death.
‘I stopped using my surname for years after the trial, going by my first and middle name, Carl Nicholas. If I booked a restaurant and used my surname, people would ask if I was related. Even now, I try not to use my surname if booking anything, or if I am abroad and get chatting to people.’
A stoic streak has served his partner well, he says. ‘I met Steff ten years after the trial and told her straight away who my brother was. She said, ‘Well, it’s not you, is it?’, and we have been together 29 years now, and we’ve probably only ever had five rows. I’ve certainly never shown violence to her.’
But his children, who are aged between 16 and 26, have also been forced to grow up under their uncle’s malevolent shadow.
‘When my youngest was just five and at junior school, he was playing out with a lad and one of the teachers said to the other boy’s parent, ‘I hope you know who you are letting your son play with and who he is related to.’ Thankfully, the parent was fine about it – but that’s a teacher making a disgraceful, cruel comment about a five-year-old.’
Father John ( left), mother Kathleen (in coat), Sonia Sutcliffe’s mother Maria Szurma (next to her),behind is Mick Sutcliffe and his now ex-wife Sue, and Peter Sutcliffe. In front is Ian Ellis, Jane Sutcliffe’s now ex-husband, front is Sonia Sutcliffe
On another occasion, when one of his children was 11, a teacher ‘let it be known’ to the class who their fellow-student was related to. Carl complained to the headteacher, but ‘sadly, this is one of many incidents we have all dealt with’.
The story of the Sutcliffe family has been told many times, but rarely from the perspective of the other, innocent siblings. Their father, John, a supervisor at a mill, was abusive and neglectful, and the children were often left alone while their mum, Kathleen, worked evenings as a cleaner. There were three boys and three girls – Peter was the eldest; Carl the youngest, a 18-year gap between them – all squeezed into a four-bed council house. ‘Dad was an abusive husband and father who treated our lovely, gentle mum and us terribly,’ says Carl.
‘He was a miserable b******, a bully who knew no boundaries with women. He was horrible to us as kids. We’d be watching a film on TV and he’d come in from the pub, push us out the way and switch channels to the cricket, never speaking to us.
‘He had a proper whip and if I did something wrong, he’d lift up my shirt and whack me with it about five or six times from about the age of ten. He did that a handful of times.
‘He punched me in the face five times for throwing an orange pip in the bin and missing it. I also had a few black eyes off him. I don’t know if he hit Pete or our other brother, Mick, as they were older than me. He wasn’t as harsh with the girls either. To me, he was a brute.’
With women, Carl’s father was a loose cannon and a ‘predator’.
‘Any woman was fair game to him,’ recalls Carl. ‘He tried it on with anyone; he was an old pervert, a predator – that’s how little respect he had for any female, and you have to wonder how that impacted on Pete.’
In fact, it was Pete who looked out for Carl as a young child and teen. ‘I looked up to him. He was a father figure to me, patiently teaching me how to repair bikes and cars, taking me skating, buying me things.’
When their mother died of a heart attack in 1978 at just 57, his father moved another woman into the family home within three weeks.
By then, Peter Sutcliffe was already well into his murderous career. Now living in his own flat with his wife, Sonia, whom he married in 1974, he had killed nine women in brutally violent attacks in local towns and cities. The country was consumed by fear of the so-called Yorkshire Ripper, and pressure on the police to catch him was mounting daily. Everyone in the region knew someone who was pulled over by the increasingly desperate police.
‘I was 17 and heartbroken at Mum’s death,’ says Carl, who left the house the day after his father’s new partner appeared. He slept rough for a few weeks in local woods – until Peter found out and took him back to his house in Heaton, Bradford. ‘He got me fish and chips, made me a cup of tea and showed me to the guest room. I remember thinking how old fashioned the decor was.’ The irony, of course, is vast: Carl was seeking refuge in the home of a serial killer.
There were, Carl maintains, no clues to his brother’s true nature. If anything, it was Sonia who dominated the household, telling Peter she did not want his little brother to stay. ‘She made it clear I was not welcome. She hated our family.’
Carl moved into a nearby flat and Peter would visit every couple of weeks. ‘He’d stay for about an hour, have a cuppa and seemed to spend most of it trimming his beard or staring at himself in the bathroom mirror. He was obsessed with his beard.’
Meanwhile, photofits of the Ripper had been drawn up according to descriptions given by several of the women who had escaped Sutcliffe while he was attacking them, and now began appearing on the front pages of newspapers.
‘I fleetingly thought they had a look of Pete,’ says Carl, ‘but never in a million years did I think my quiet brother, a mummy’s boy and henpecked husband, could be this violent monster. No one had a bad word to say about Pete. He hid this warped, evil side from everyone.’
Later, in 1979, after Peter Sutcliffe had killed two more women, a tape sent to police – later revealed to be a hoax – suggested the murderer was from the north-east and had a Geordie accent.
Throughout this time, Peter would visit Carl in his flat. ‘One day, a neighbour walked past,’ he says. ‘He was Geordie and had dark hair and a beard — just like the photofits and hoax tape. I said to Pete, ‘Oh, that’s the Ripper, he’s a Geordie, has a beard and dark hair. The police need to catch that b******. I’d cut his balls off.’
‘Pete suddenly became upset at that, started crying and muttered, ‘Sonia is all I have left now’. Then he left suddenly. I just thought something was wrong with his marriage,’ says Carl.
Like all women living in the north of England at that time, Carl’s three sisters, who were married and living in their own homes, were terrified they might become the next victim.
‘We never let them walk alone at night. We discussed who the Ripper could be and every time he killed, it made everyone nervous.’
Extraordinarily, Peter Sutcliffe even drove Carl’s then-girlfriend home one night in 1979, ‘as he said it wasn’t safe to go alone while the Ripper was about. How twisted was that?’ He added: ‘We had been to the pictures in Bradford with him and Sonia. He dropped Sonia home because that was closest, then me, and then he offered to take my girlfriend home.’
It wasn’t until January 1981 that Peter Sutcliffe was finally arrested – 12 years after he’d first attacked a woman and more than five since his first murder.
The next day, Carl heard rumours that the police had caught the Ripper. In Bingley library, while scanning the job pages after his temporary one in the construction industry had ended, he saw a man he knew reading a national newspaper. ‘He called over, ‘Carl, you’d better have a look at this’ — and across two pages was a photo of Peter and Sonia’s house. I thought he can’t be the Ripper, it’s a mistake. I dashed to my sister Maureen’s house where all the family were. Another sister, Jane, collapsed with shock and the doctor had to be called to sedate her.
‘Dad was there and he kept muttering, ‘They’ve got it wrong, he’ll be released tomorrow.’ ‘
Sutcliffe had been caught in Sheffield when his car, which had false number plates, was pulled over. Inside was 24-year-old prostitute Olivia Reivers, who was unharmed but might well have become his 14th victim.
He was taken to Dewsbury Police Station where over the weekend he confessed to the police he was the serial killer.
It’s perhaps testimony to Carl’s character that neighbours and locals did not treat him any differently in the weeks after the arrest, nor during the trial itself. Yet from now on, in the eyes of the world at large, the Sutcliffe family name would forever be tarred with the blackest of brushes.
A few weeks later, Carl accompanied his father and brother Mick to Armley Prison, where Sutcliffe was held on remand. Their treatment reflected the security surrounding Peter, the most dangerous man in Britain.
‘We had a police car in front and behind us, and two motorcycle officers ahead of us. We were driven straight into the jail and taken to a big cell where Peter was sat at a table with a guard hovering close by behind him.
‘My first words were, ‘Did you do it? Was it you?’ says Carl.
‘He said, ‘I was just cleaning up, our kid, just cleaning up. Don’t worry, they will say I am crackers, put me in a mental hospital and then I’ll be out in a few years.’ He appeared very calm and relaxed, as if he was passing a comment about mending the car.
‘I was floored by his words. ‘Who are you kidding?’ I blurted out. I was disgusted at his actions and, obviously, I still am. Dad didn’t think Peter was the Ripper until he heard those words, and then he turned to me and said, ‘It looks like it was him, then’. We said no more as we journeyed home.’
At his Old Bailey trial just weeks later in May 1981, Sutcliffe pleaded not guilty to murder on the grounds of diminished responsibility, but was convicted of murder and was given life.
‘I’ve always been relieved our mum died before his arrest, as the shock would have killed her,’ says Carl. ‘They were very close. He was devoted to her and always calling in to see her. Every Sunday he’d come back to the house for tea, even when he was wed to Sonia. He was devastated when Mum died.’
Peter’s conviction did not put an end to his contact with Carl. ‘Peter began writing letters and I felt I should reply. Then this turned into phone calls every Tuesday, bang on 7.15pm. This went on for several years, but I got sick of waiting in for them, then listening to his self-centred moaning, ‘I should be freed, there’s people done far worse than me who are out’.
‘When [Sonia’s mother] Maria Szurma died in 2003, Pete asked me if I would represent him at her funeral. I rarely saw Sonia, but when I was at their house after the service, she treated me like she had treated Pete, bossing me about. ‘Stand in the hall and take people’s coats,’ she demanded.’
Sonia took Carl up to a spare bedroom where she showed him the paintings Peter had sent to her from prison: ‘It was like a shrine to him. He wasn’t a bad artist as a young guy, but some of the work was weird. In one, he depicted himself as Christ and in another he had recreated a Napoleonic battlefield with him and Sonia laid dead on the ground. I don’t see Sonia now at all.’ He has no idea whether she has remarried or changed her name.
‘I don’t think it ever sunk into his warped brain how mad and bad he really was. I don’t think he was insane. I used to tell him he was the most notorious killer in the country, that women were terrified of him and did he not realise what he had done? How evil his crimes were? He’d just say he wasn’t right in his head back then, but he was OK now.
‘I was livid with Peter; he’d brought all this awful attention to our family – and we have never escaped it.’
Not even after his brother’s death at the age of 74 from diabetes-related complications in 2020, it would seem.
‘I have a thick skin and this [new ITV] drama won’t impact on me too much. But I hope this will be the last. My brother’s story has been repeatedly told and, for the sake of the victims and their families – and my family – it needs to be left now. It is history.’
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