Detectives have always believed the Yorkshire Ripper committed more than 13 murders and one of the cases they investigated was the killing of a woman in Darlington. Nigel Burton reports.

BY any standards, the killing of Stephanie Spencer was a brutal murder.

The 25-year-old art gallery assistant was battered to death on waste ground near a lorry park. Her bloodied body was hidden in bushes off Haughton Road, Darlington.

She was found by a 13-year-old boy on Sunday, May 29, 1977.

The youngster and his friends had been looking for a bird's nest containing eggs. When he saw an umbrella sticking out of a bush, the boy went inside and discovered Stephanie's body.

The murder weapon - a large lump of rock - was lying close by. Her underwear had been removed and tests showed that a stranger had sex with her before she died.

Police arrested a 34-year-old unemployed labourer called Michael Hodgson.

He had met Stephanie on the previous Thursday evening and the pair had argued when she made fun of his fumbled attempts at love-making.

During an interview, Hodgson told detectives: "My mind went blank. Something snapped. She just provoked me."

It seemed like an open and shut case. But as the trial date approached Hodgson changed his story and claimed he had gone home after the row.

His protests carried no weight with the jury at Teesside Crown Court, which found him guilty of murder. In February 1978, he was sentenced to life - a sentence later reduced to six years for manslaughter on appeal.

And that would probably have been an end to the sad story of Stephanie Spencer's murder had intriguing new evidence not come to light three years later, casting a sinister shadow over the case.

The prosecution maintained Stephanie died in the early hours of Friday, May 27, but three witnesses said they had seen her alive almost a day later.

Forensic tests also showed that Michael Hodgson had not had sex with Stephanie. The person who did has never been found.

The case took another bizarre turn when two people claimed they had seen Peter Sutcliffe, the man who was to become known as the Yorkshire Ripper, in the Flamingo nightclub on the weekend of the murder.

This was not as outlandish a claim as it seemed. The Bradford lorry driver visited Darlington and nearby Newton Aycliffe at least 14 times during his five-year reign of terror.

Company records showed that Sutcliffe had delivered parts to Coles Cranes, in Pendleton Road, Darlington, less than 48 hours after Stephanie's battered body was found.

As the killing took place close to a lorry park, initial police inquiries had also centred on haulage drivers.

Most chillingly of all, the description of a man seen arguing with Stephanie at the Flamingo bore an uncanny resemblance to Sutcliffe.

In another odd coincidence, the lawyer who defended Michael Hodgson was James Chadwin QC, who had also acted for Peter Sutcliffe. Although he would not speculate on any links between the Ripper and the Spencer murder he did believe the case should be re-opened.

Detectives took the new evidence very seriously and every aspect of the case was re-examined.

But after a four-month investigation they ruled out any link.

To this day, Michael Hodgson - who is now a free man - denies he killed Stephanie.

The Ripper link may have been a red herring - a West Yorkshire Police spokesman said at the time detectives throughout the country were "queuing up" to question Sutcliffe about controversial murders - but at least one man did admit to the killing.

In a twist that has a strange parallel to Wearside Jack, a series of letters were sent to Hodgson's partner claiming to be from the real murderer.

One was a sickening Valentine card written in rhyme that read: "I hid her in the bushes to spare her blushes ..."

The letter ended with a list of unsolved rapes for which the author claimed responsibility, including an attack on a 12-year-old girl in Darlington's Brinkburn Road in 1976.

Could this have been the real killer? Had the rapist progressed from sex attacks to murder?

The writer has never been found.