Obituary: John Humble
Yorkshire Ripper hoaxer dubbed 'Wearside Jack' who taunted the police with letters
John Humble, who has died from the side-effects of alcohol abuse aged 63, derailed the Yorkshire Ripper murder investigation in the late 1970s by sending the police anonymous letters and a cassette tape which detectives were convinced were from the killer, but which turned out to be the most infamous hoax in British criminal history.
The Ripper's killing spree had started in 1975, and the unknown assailant had murdered 10 women in West Yorkshire and at other locations in northern England when, in June 1979, officers revealed they had received a cassette tape recording of a man's voice. "I'm Jack," he declared in a mocking Wearside accent, "I see you're still having no luck catching me…"
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The speaker taunted the police in general, and in particular the officer leading the Ripper inquiry, assistant chief constable George Oldfield. The man on the eerie tape recording went on to warn Oldfield that he planned to strike again, "maybe September or October, even sooner if I get the chance".
One London evening newspaper splashed VOICE OF THE RIPPER across its front page, and the tape was repeatedly played on radio and television. Detectives confirmed that the voice on the tape belonged to the writer of three anonymous letters to the police from the North East of England and another to the editor of the Daily Mirror in Manchester.
Nine weeks after the tape's arrival, the Ripper claimed his 12th victim, Barbara Leach, a university student, whom he murdered 300 yards from the Central Police Station in Bradford.
After voice and dialect experts from Leeds University pinpointed the likely origins of the speaker on the tape to a small mining area of Wearside, theories multiplied about the identity of 'Wearside Jack', some suggesting that he might have been an accomplice of the killer, or even a former policeman with a grudge.
As a result, the focus of the Ripper manhunt shifted away from West Yorkshire to the North East, with valuable resources diverted and Oldfield convinced that the voice on the tape really was the man he was looking for.
In fact it was not that of Peter Sutcliffe, the Bradford lorry driver subsequently unmasked as the Yorkshire Ripper, but John Humble, an unemployed alcoholic in his early 20s, who lived with his mother in Sunderland.
Humble was obsessed with the unsolved Jack the Ripper murders in Whitechapel, East London, nearly a century before. Having immersed himself in the literature of the original Victorian killings, he had copied passages of letters from library books about them, which he adapted in the letters he sent to the police.
As the result of Humble's hoax, Sutcliffe remained at large and murdered three more women before being arrested early in 1981. He had been interviewed by police on four occasions after the tape's appearance but ruled out because his accent and handwriting did not match those of 'Jack'.
Almost quarter of a century later, in 2005, a fragment from one of the hoaxer's envelopes was traced to Humble through DNA, and the following year he was sentenced to eight years in prison for perverting the course of justice.
One of three children, John Samuel Humble was born in Sunderland on January 8, 1956. On leaving Havelock Secondary School on the city's Ford Estate, he drifted in and out of work, racked up convictions for burglary and theft, and at 19 was admitted to a young offenders' institution for attacking a policeman.
In 1979, bored and on the dole, he bought a cassette tape from Woolworths and recorded his hoax message, which he posted - like the letters - outside Ford post office. Grains of custard powder found on the cassette casing suggested that he was probably in the kitchen when he dictated his taunts to Oldfield.
Twelve days after Barbara Leach's murder in September 1979, Humble anonymously telephoned a police incident room, warning them that the tape was a hoax. But he stayed on the line for only a few seconds, and officers believed he deliberately tried to scupper the Ripper inquiry because of his strong antipathy to the police.
A few weeks later, apparently overcome with remorse, he jumped from a bridge in a suicide attempt, but landed on a boat below, breaking his fall.
When Humble's marriage broke up in 2002, he returned to the Ford estate to live with his brother. The pair spent their days drinking cider, and when police finally arrested Humble in 2006 after matching a saliva swab taken from him in connection with an unrelated drinking offence, they had to wait until the following day before he was sober enough to be questioned.
At first he denied writing the letters or making the tape, but confessed after being told that a DNA match meant there was a one in one billion chance of the hoaxer being someone else.
John Humble married Anne Mason, a mother of two, after a six-week romance, but the marriage failed in 2002. His death was reported on August 20.