Dread mounted that the peaceful east coast of England had given birth to a new “Ripper,” as police hunted Tuesday for the killer of five women whose bodies have been discovered over the last two weeks.
In recent days, police said three nude bodies had been found around the city of Ipswich in Suffolk County. On Tuesday afternoon, Det. Chief Supt. Stewart Gull, head of the Suffolk police crime management team, told journalists that two more bodies had been discovered.
Gull said all of the women were believed to have been prostitutes, although the bodies found Tuesday had yet to be identified.
The grisly discoveries revived memories of Peter Sutcliffe, “the Yorkshire Ripper,” who killed 13 women, many of them prostitutes, in northern England in the late 1970s. Nearly a century earlier, Jack the Ripper slit the throats of five prostitutes in London’s East End; his identity remains a mystery.
On Tuesday, helicopters and divers searched fields, rivers and woods that dot a countryside known more for its pastoral tranquillity than as a backdrop to murder. Police were racing to track down a criminal they would not yet call a serial killer.
“We have to keep an open mind.... It’s such a fast-moving inquiry, I would almost describe it as a crime in action,” Gull told the BBC.
Police acknowledged that they faced a formidable task.
“To have this number of murders in such a short time is unprecedented,” Suffolk Chief Constable Alistair McWhirter told the BBC.
Media and police reports indicate that all five bodies were found near a major road that leads from the nearby port of Felixstowe to central England.
Computer records tracking port traffic and truckers are being examined. Psychologists have worked on a message that asks the killer to surrender. Botanists have been called to examine the grass and weeds around the bodies.
Police were first alerted Nov. 25 by the partner of a missing woman named Gemma Adams, a 25-year-old known to work as a prostitute. A week later, a passerby discovered her nude body in a stream in the nearby countryside.
Tania Nicol, 19, was reported missing by her mother. She had left home in Ipswich on Oct. 30 to work in the town’s red-light district. Her naked body was found Friday in a nearby river. Police said they had yet to establish the cause of death of the two women.
On Sunday, the naked body of another woman known as a prostitute was found in woodland in the same area. She was identified as Anneli Alderton of Colchester, a city about 20 miles south of Ipswich, and had been strangled, police said.
Police were asking that two women who have been reported missing contact them: Annette Nicholls, 29, was last seen Dec. 5 in Ipswich, and Paula Nicholl, 24, was last seen early Sunday in Ipswich. Both were known to work as prostitutes.
On Tuesday evening, police had not confirmed identities but said they assumed that the two bodies found that day, one by a passerby walking near the village of Levington and the other, found nearby by a police helicopter, were those of the missing women.
“We’ve formally linked the murders of Tania and Gemma on Saturday because of significant similarities, and they continue with Anneli, Paula and Annette,” Gull said. “Clearly they were all prostitutes from Ipswich, they were found naked and in an open rural environment.”
Formal identification and causes of death are expected this morning after government pathologists arrive, the BBC reported.
Along with other community leaders, Chief Constable McWhirter urged women to look out for one another when they go out, particularly in the evening.
“I can’t assure people they can be safe.... To the working girls and to anybody going out for a pleasant evening in Ipswich tonight, I would say, ‘Look after yourselves, take care of each other.’ ”
Reporters in Ipswich say prostitutes are still working at night, many to fuel a drug habit.
Assistant Chief Constable Jacqui Cheer has made repeated appeals to women on TV and radio since the first bodies were found:
“Please stay off the streets. If you are out alone at night you are putting yourself in danger. We are coming up to the party season and up to Christmas. There will be groups of women going out, and I would say you have really got to look after each other, plan how you are going to get there and come home together. Whatever happens on your night out, do not leave your friends alone.”