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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 May, 2005, 09:57 GMT 10:57 UK
Robbed by the Ripper
Imagine your mum was murdered by a serial killer who claimed that voices from God told him to rid the streets of prostitutes. That's real life for people whose mothers were murdered by the Yorkshire Ripper.

Richard McCann was awoken by his older sister, Sonia. She was worried because their mother, Wilma, wasn't home. Together, the two children, then aged six and seven, decided they had to look for her.

They walked out of the house they shared with their younger siblings on a Leeds council estate, and made their way to the local bus stop. It was 5.25am, and they decided to wait there for their mum to get off the bus.

People would tell jokes about the Yorkshire Ripper, not knowing
Richard McCann
She never did, of course. Wilma McCann was the first victim of Peter Sutcliffe - Sonia Newlands and Richard McCann are two of 25 children robbed of their mothers by the man dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper.

"As we grew up, we could never get away from it," Richard says now. "People would tell jokes about the Yorkshire Ripper, and not know that Peter Sutcliffe killed my mum. It followed us wherever we went.

"Yes, it was difficult, but it wasn't as difficult as what my mum went through."

They have led troubled lives since the murder. Richard served time in prison for drug charges, and Sonia - she uses her mother's maiden name - is battling her alcohol addiction in a residential rehabilitation centre.

'Just a Boy'

The pair often return to the bus stop where they waited for their mum that October morning 30 years ago, not realising that her body was lying just a hundred yards away on the playing fields behind where they lived.

Miss Newlands and Mr McCann
The siblings at the bus stop where they waited for their mum
But they had never before walked on to the field where she had been found.

On a visit to the site with a camera crew, Sonia stood back; Richard felt he wanted to be closer to the spot where his mum was murdered.

"Do I want to stand where my mum stood?" he asked himself. "It's almost like I owe it to her. That's the last place she ended up and it's almost like she's not alone laid on the field - I am there with her."

After the experience, he said he felt it had been an important one: "Me being on the field was like I was holding her hand."

Richard, who wrote the bestselling book Just a Boy about his life after the murder, has always been driven to understand more about Sutcliffe.


He has scoured books, magazines and newspapers for snippets of information that might explain why Sutcliffe was driven to murder and why he chose Wilma McCann. Now, though, Richard wanted more - he decided he was ready to contact the man who killed his mum.

I think most people remember the number 13 - for the number of women he killed. But what about the children - there's 25 of them and no-one remembers them
Sonia Newlands

So he wrote to Sutcliffe in Broadmoor Hospital, asking him to explain why he had killed his mother. A few weeks later he received an intriguing reply from Sutcliffe's psychiatrist suggesting further correspondence or even a meeting might be possible.

Now Richard had to wrestle with whether he could ever forgive the man who murdered his mother. Or was Sutcliffe just manipulating him from within his cell?

Richard McCann
Richard tried to understand Sutcliffe
The wait for answers proved long and frustrating. During this time, Richard tried to understand more about Sutcliffe. He visited Olive Curry and Diane Simpson, two women who have spent years writing to him in prison. They told him Sutcliffe was incapable of remorse. They said he had even commented that the children of his victims were better off without their mothers because he believed the women he had killed were bad women.

When he heard that, Richard was astounded.

But as he left Ms Simpson's house, Richard suddenly felt free from his need to understand more about Sutcliffe - he realised there was nothing to understand.

Now he thought of Sutcliffe as simply evil and no longer deserving of his time and energy.

So instead he and his sister decided to learn more about their mother, who they were sick of hearing described as a prostitute. They knew she had led a somewhat reckless life, but they were also convinced she was not a prostitute.

"My mum was not a prostitute," he says. "Her family contacted the papers at that time to tell them that."

They decided to find out more about her for themselves.

'Into the Light'

And as they searched for some answers, they kept returning to something that had always troubled them. What had become of the other children whose mothers had been murdered by Sutcliffe?

Sonia Newlands and Richard McCann
Their mother's body was found in a field behind their house
Sonia, especially, needed to know: "I think most people remember the number 13 - for the number of women he killed. But what about the children - there's 25 of them and no-one remembers them."

But it was a difficult and frustrating search. In their enthusiasm to make contact and to give mutual friendship and support, perhaps they underestimated the stigma that still surrounds Sutcliffe's crimes.

There were false starts, raised hopes and fleeting phone calls with glimpses of lives that had also been damaged. At times, Richard and Sonia thought they were doing the wrong thing and that their search was bringing further distress to the other children.

But they have since met others who understand the difficult journey they've taken, and derived comfort from it, says Richard, who is now working on a second book.

If there's one message that they took from their journey, it came from the writer David Yallop who, after a visit, took Richard aside and told him: "You must go forward. Don't let this man spiritually murder you like he physically murdered your mother. That would be another death which he wouldn't be paying a price for."

ONE life: The Ripper Murdered My Mum was broadcast on BBC One, on Tuesday 10 May, at 2235BST.


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