December 15th, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

The Ipswich Strangler, Rippers, Profiles and Manhunts

With five murders in Ipswich in a matter of weeks the press has been full of serial killer stories this week. As usual it started with a clamour for a profile. What kind of man are we looking for? A question that anyone who watches television could answer - white male, age 25 to 55. There is no other profile for a serial killer. There are additions - e.g. a car driver with local knowledge. Sherlock Holmes might suggest a left-handed, travelling salesman, down on his luck having recently returned from India. There are even dissentions - Kevin McBigot, the BNP profiler, bizarrely suggested that the police should be looking for a black, Asian Muslim asylum seeker wearing a burkah.

But when it comes down to it - the police do not want to exclude anyone by being too specific. Memories of Wearside Jack and the time and lives lost searching for a hoaxer during the Yorkshire Ripper investigation are still fresh.

As they are with me. I lived in Leeds during the height of the Yorkshire Ripper manhunt. I remember the police coming round to our office - as they did to all workplaces in Leeds and Bradford - and playing the tape of Wearside Jack. Do you recognise this voice, they asked? He might be a neighbour or a co-worker, someone you sit next to on the bus.

Not surprisingly, team morale took a nosedive after such visits. The worst example being a friend of mine who was invited to a leaving do, led down a corridor but instead of finding a room at the end packed with his co-workers, he found the police and a pair of handcuffs. His colleagues had shopped him for his soft Geordie accent.

A soft Newcastle accent, that is, not the soft Sunderland accent the police were searching for. I'm not sure which pissed him off most - that his colleagues thought he was a murderer or that he came from Sunderland.

And suspicion wasn't confined to the work place. It was worse on the streets. All men were suspects and every woman walking home at night would, justifiably, be extra wary of any man walking behind them. As I found out every time I walked home.

I tried avoidance. If I found myself walking behind a woman and she started glancing back at me every two or three strides, I'd slow down, let her move away and avoid eye contact. Sometimes this worked but sometimes the woman would start to wonder why I was walking so slowly. And why did I keep looking around? Was I looking to see if the coast was clear? And no one walked that slow. I had to be a lurker, a mad serial killing hammer-wielding lurker. Then she'd panic and either run on ahead or turn back and come at me swinging her handbag.

I Iearned very quickly never to walk behind a woman in Leeds. If I found myself on the same pavement, I'd cross the road at the first opportunity. And I smiled a lot - thinking that exuding a happy non-serial killing persona would put people at ease. Wrong. It made me look like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. And as for crossing the road back and forth - it raised further suspicion. Why's that man crossed the street so many times? And that smile. He's got to be on something, hasn't he? Or mental. Look at him, no one's that happy.

Cue more swinging handbags.

Thankfully by the time I moved into the middle of the next manhunt - The Fox* - I'd bought a car and no longer had to walk home.

*The Fox - a serial rapist who caused absolute panic in the Rape Triangle of Buckingham and Bedfordshire where I lived and worked at the time. Feelings were so high in the area that vigilante groups were formed to protect villages. He preyed on couples, breaking into people's homes and if he found no one in he'd build a fort out of their furniture and wait for them. He was a bisexual rapist. And, swiftly ending this post on a calming note, was soon caught.

PS. Before anyone invites me to a leaving do, I'd like to point out that it's pure coincidence that I lived in the middle of two of the 1980s largest police manhunts. And I don't live anywhere near Ipswich at the moment. Not even in the same country.