October 15, 1979 12:00 PM

On the evening of June 26, 1977, Jayne MacDonald, a 16-year-old supermarket clerk in Leeds, England, went out on the town with her boyfriend. “That night she saw him home,” remembers her mother Irene. “He’d had a bit to drink and was afraid of what his parents might say. She thought the walk might sober him up.” Afterward, Jayne could not find a taxi and started walking home by herself. She never arrived. Crossing a playground about a quarter-mile away, she was clubbed unconscious, brutally murdered and mutilated. The Yorkshire Ripper had claimed his sixth victim.

Long before the MacDonald killing, British police had realized they were on the trail of a psychopathic mass murderer, but the death of the pretty Leeds teenager sent a chill through the industrial North. Previously, the killer—like his 19th-century namesake, Jack the Ripper—had confined himself to the murder of prostitutes; other women had thought themselves safe. Now, suddenly, that assurance was gone. In the next 27 months six more women would die, and the search for the murderer would become a domestic obsession in Great Britain.

This month marks the fourth anniversary of the Ripper’s original killing and of the stabbings that have become known as his signature. Yet though he is the object of the biggest and most expensive manhunt in British history, little more is known of his identity than the Ripper has tauntingly supplied on his own. Three times he has written to George Oldfield, assistant chief constable of West Yorkshire, mocking the efforts of local police. Last June he mailed a tape-recorded message to Oldfield, in which he spoke of nearly being caught several months before, then vowed to keep up the killing. “I’m not quite sure when I will strike again,” he announced in a menacing monotone, “but it will definitely be sometime this year. There’s plenty of them knocking about. They never learn, do they, George?”

True to his word, the Ripper struck again last month. The victim this time was Barbara Leach, 20, a university student in Bradford, near Leeds. Frustrated, but racing against time to stop the psychopath before he murders again, more than 300 members of the police “Ripper Squad” swept the area for the innocuous-seeming clue that might prove his undoing. To each of the investigators, the killer is a mystery but hardly a stranger. Piecing together scanty bits of material evidence—a footprint here, a tire track there—they have also interviewed several women who survived attacks which are believed to be the Ripper’s work. “We know his writing, his voice and certain body characteristics,” says West Yorkshire Detective Superintendent Dick Holland. “We know that at one time he had access to an older-type car. We know he has access to tools.”

From such details, police have concluded that the killer is a powerfully built man between 30 and 45 years of age, possibly an engineer or mechanic. His unmistakable “Geordie” accent is native to the area around the North Sea town of Sunderland, and police believe it will make him conspicuous. Tape recordings of the Ripper’s voice are broadcast regularly by mobile police vans and can by heard by anyone who dials a special police number. Undiscouraged by the fact that the original Jack the Ripper was never caught or positively identified, investigators are confident that such failure won’t be repeated. “The killer’s been lucky so far,” says Police Inspector John Stainthorpe. “We are optimistic he won’t be for long.” “I think they’ll catch him,” agrees Irene MacDonald bitterly, “and when they do he should have the death sentence. It isn’t enough just to keep your daughters at home. He’ll keep on killing as long as he lives.”

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