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Murder of three prostitutes sparks fears of new 'Ripper'

Thirty years after the Yorkshire Ripper's reign of terror was finally brought to an end, fears over a new serial killer returned yesterday to haunt the city of Bradford.

Police confirmed that a 40-year-old man was being questioned over the suspected murder of three women after the discovery of body parts in the river Aire in Shipley, close to the former home of Peter Sutcliffe.

Police are also examining possible links to three other unsolved murders in the city.

The man, who is believed to be local, was being questioned by detectives over the disappearances of three Bradford prostitutes – Suzanne Blamires, 36, from Allerton, Shelley Armitage, 31, also from Allerton, and Susan Rushworth, 43, who was from the Manningham area.

It is believed the body parts are those of Ms Blamires, who has not been seen since last Friday. Concern that a killer targeting prostitutes could be at large again had already mounted after her friend, Ms Armitage – described as a "much loved daughter and sister" – failed to return home on the evening of 26 April.

Both women sold sex in the Sunbridge Road red light area of the city. Last month, police launched a poster appeal hoping to persuade witnesses to come forward. But now the disappearances of the two friends is being linked to that of Ms Rushworth, a grandmother.

She was known to have had problems with heroin and suffered from epilepsy sufferer. She was last seen in June last year leaving her flat in Manningham – a short walk from the home of the Yorkshire Ripper victim Patricia Atkinson, who was stabbed and bludgeoned to death in 1977.

West Yorkshire Police Assistant Chief Constable Jawaid Akhtar said officers had been granted extra time to question the 40-year-old man, who was arrested on Monday. Speaking at the scene, where police divers and forensic teams were at work, he said the body parts appeared to be the remains of one woman but had not yet been formally identified.

"It is a very thorough and painstaking inquiry into three missing women, all of them sex workers, with all the necessary resources and expertise devoted to it," he said. The families of the three women were all being supported by police family liaison officers.

The remains were found in the water just a few yards from where the busy Otley Road dual carriageway crosses the Aire. Screens were erected on either side of the bridge and forensic work continued in the small industrial estate.

Although she had a history of going missing, the family of Ms Rushworth – who was known as Sue or Susie – said she had turned a corner in her private life. Her 23-year-old son James said: "We are all very worried about her. We're a close family and we're not coping well with her disappearance.

"She'd been off heroin for five weeks before she went missing and was getting help for her addiction. There is no reason that she would have just left. She'd only recently started seeing her grandchildren and was getting to know them."

A neighbour of Ms Armitage described her yesterday as "pleasant" and "just a normal girl". Jan Harrison, who works near where the missing woman worked, pointed to the spot where she had chatted to her five or six weeks ago.

She recalled the fear in the area in the late 1970s before the Yorkshire Ripper was caught. "That stopped people going out. People were scared," she said. "No-one wants that again."

Sutcliffe, a lorry driver from Heaton in Bradford, was convicted in 1981 of 13 murders and seven attempted murders of women, mainly prostitutes working in West Yorkshire and Manchester. Three of the victims, including the university student Barbara Leach, were from Bradford.

A local businessman said: "All the girls down here have one problem or another, whether it's drink or drugs or whatever."

Despite police attempts to contain the prostitution problem north of Bradford's city centre, the area where the women worked remains run-down and grimy. Those living in the area complain about sex workers conducting their business outside their homes and leaving used condoms and needles strewn around the area.

In 2001, a 19-year-old prostitute, Rebecca Hall, was found murdered and dumped in an alleyway behind a car park in Thornton Street. Her killer has never been found.