British Serial Killer
At one time, Bruce George Peter Lee, or 'Bruce Lee' as he preferred to be known as, was believed to have been one of the United Kingdom's leading serial killers and was listed in the 1982 edition of the Guinness Book of Records as Britain's number one murderer with a kill total of twenty-six. Since that time however doubts have arisen regarding Lee's actual responsibility for the crimes he claimed to have committed.
Born in Manchester on the 31st July 1960, his given name was Peter Dinsdale, and it was not until the summer of 1979 that he changed his name by deed poll in homage to his hero Bruce Lee, the martial arts expert and film star. His mother Doreen was a prostitute, whilst his father disappeared some months before his birth. Between the ages of six months and three years he was cared for by his grandmother, thereafter his mother appears to have only occasionally and somewhat reluctantly given him a home, apparently referring to her son as 'the freak' because of his disability (he was born with a spastic right arm) and his occasional epileptic fits. He therefore spent much of his childhood in a variety of care homes where he was introduced to homosexuality and became involved in the local rent boy network. Commonly known in his neighbourhood as 'Daft Peter', he had an IQ of only 68.
The Selby Street fire
On the 4th December 1979 someone set fire to No 12 Selby Street in Hull which was occupied by the Hastie family. As a result of injuries sustained in this fire, three members of the family, Charles Hastie
(15) and his younger brothers Paul (12), and Peter (8) later died in hospital. The fire service rapidly concluded that the fire had been started deliberately by someone pouring paraffin
through the letterbox, and so a police investigation into the incident was begun under the command of Detective Superintendent Ronald Sagar
The father Tommy Hastie, who was serving a five month sentence for burglary at the time of the fire, was an habitual criminal with a long list of prior offences. The rest of the Hardie family followed in his footsteps and were responsible for a catalogue of thefts and acts of vandalism in the local area and so were not exactly popular with their neighbours. In fact, as Sagar put it; "Never before have I encountered such hatred and dislike for a family". Indeed shortly before the fire the family had received a warning scrawled on the back of a piece of card cut out from a Cornflakes packet which read; "A FAMILY OF FUCKING RUBBISH, WE ALL HATE YOU. YOU SHOULD ALL LIVE ON AN ISLAND (DEVIL'S ISLAND). BUT I'M NOT KIDDING BUT I PROMISED YOU A BOMB AND BY HELL I'M NOT KIDDING. WHY DON'T YOU JUST FLIT WHILE YOU'VE GOT THE CHANCE. IF WE CAN'T GET YOU OUT NORMALLY THEN WE'LL BASTARD WELL BOMB YOU OUT, AND THAT'S TOO GOOD FOR YOU."
Sadly for the police the author of this missive turned out to be a rather frail little old lady who was simply tired of the Hastie boys vandalising her garden, and was rapidly eliminated as a suspect. But it provided a clear illustration of the problems the police faced in their investigation. Firstly, there was no shortage of suspects, as virtually the entire neighbourhood had some kind of grudge against the family, and secondly that the entire neighbourhood were not particularly minded to assist the police in apprehending someone whom in their opinion had delivered a rough, if somewhat extreme form of justice.
After six months the investigation appeared to be going nowhere, and practically the only information of any value unearthed by the police was that Charles Hastie, the oldest of the three brothers, might have been in some way involved in the local rent boy scene. They began questioning local homosexuals and in June 1980 questioned Bruce Lee who confirmed that knew Charlie Hastie, and that he had been involved in "indecent behaviour" with him. Having this obtained confirmation of Hastie's activities and since he had nothing better to go on, DS Ronald Sagar decided to bring in a number of local homosexuals and accuse each in turn of setting the Selby Street fire. The nineteenth such homosexual he so accused was Bruce Lee himself, or as Sagar said to him at the time, "Bruce, I'll be quite blunt with you. I think that you started that fire at the Hastie family's house, and that indecency with Charlie is probably the cause of it all somehow."
Much to his surprise Bruce readily admitted that this was indeed the case. Explaining that he hadn't actually meant to kill anyone, he claimed that he'd started the fire purely to teach Charlie a lesson, since Charlie was trying to extort money put of him and because Charlie's sixteen-year-old sister Angie, had repeatedly refused to be his girlfriend. Lee's account of how he started the fire corresponded with the evidence found at the crime scene, and so he was charged with arson and three counts of murder and remanded in custody.
That might well have been the end of the story were it not for Rosabell Fenton. Some time before the Selby Street fire she and her daughter had suffered serious burns as a result of a fire at their home on the 21st June 1979. Earlier on the day of the fire Mrs Fenton had seen a young man she knew only as 'Daft Peter' acting suspiciously and had always believed that he was responsible for starting the fire. However at the time Mrs Fenton, who spent eleven months in hospital recovering from her injuries and the trauma of losing the baby that she was carrying at the time, was never interviewed by the police and the authorities had concluded, as they so often do, that a carelessly dropped cigarette was to blame for the fire. It wasn't until over a year later when the local Hull press reported on the developments in the Selby Street case and published a picture of 'Bruce Lee' that she realised that she realised that this was the same person as the 'Daft Peter' she had known and so communicated her suspicions to the police.
When Sagar put this additional accusation to Lee, he readily admitted his guilt once again explaining, "I just did it. Someone I knew didn't like her and, well, I just did it." He then went on to claim that "I've done more, Four killed, even more...the three Hasties was my last one, but there's four other fires with one dead in each one." In fact over the following days Lee went on to claim responsibility for setting a number of other fires.
All in all, in addition to the Selby Street fire and the arson attack on the Fenton home, Bruce Lee also confessed to setting fires at Askew Avenue on the 23rd June 1973, and Glasgow Street on the 12th October 1973, further house fires on the 27th October 1973, 23rd December 1974 and 3rd June 1976, together with another fire at West Dock Avenue on the 2nd January 1977; all of which claimed one victim each, making six in all. In addition Lee said that he had started the fire at the Wensley Lodge residential home on the 5th January 1977 which claimed the lives of eleven elderly men between the ages of sixty-five and ninety-five, a further house fire on the 27th April 1977 in which two people died, as well as the Reynoldson Street fire of the 6th January 1978 in which four members of the Dickson family died.
The police were rather sceptical of Lee's claims, especially since up until that time no one had identified arson as the cause of any of these fires and in each and every case with the coroner had recorded misadventure verdicts. In order to provide at least some confirmation of his claims the took Lee on a tour of Hull in a police car, during which he pointed out the correct location for each of the fires he claimed he had set. They also accused him of setting a fire which they knew to be arson but for which they had already identified and prosecuted the perpetrator; Lee denied all knowledge of this fire.
Thus satisfied that there was at least a prima facie case to answer, Lee was charged with a further ten counts of arson and twenty-two counts of murder. He appeared to be quite happy with this state of affairs, and even when he was advised by his solicitor to retract his confessions, Lee refused to do so, and simply dictated another statement noting the advice received and insisting on his responsibility for the fires.
Lee was examined by psychiatrists who determined that he was sane and fit to plead and stand trial, and duly appeared before Leeds Crown Court on the 20th January 1981, when he pleaded not guilty to murder. He did however plead guilty to twenty-six counts of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, and a further eleven counts of arson. The prosecution decided to accept his manslaughter pleas and Mr. Justice Tudor Evans recommended that Bruce Lee be detained under the Mental Health Act for an indefinite period. Lee was sent to Rampton Hospital where he remains to this day.
Strangely enough the case attracted very little publicity at the time, even though Lee had been convicted of causing the death of twenty-six people. The simple explanation being that the national press was preoccupied with the ongoing trial of Peter Sutcliffe aka the Yorkshire Ripper to worry about a few fires on Humberside.
That was not however the end of the story as in the months following Lee's trial the Sunday Times ran a number of stories questioning the validity of his confessions. The Sunday Times accused the police of taking advantage of Lee's low intelligence and inducing him to confess to crimes that he had not committed whilst also claiming that they had falsified witness statements. The paper also questioned whether it was physically possible for Lee, given his disabilities, to have actually cycled from one end of Hull to the other clutching a can of paraffin. It was the Sunday Times's campaign that transformed Lee's case into something of a minor cause celebre and encouraged his defence team to apply to the Court of Appeal for leave to appeal against his convictions. Although strangely enough, Lee continued to insist that he was guilty despite the fact that his legal representatives were asserting the contrary.
In December 1983 the Court of Appeal made its decision and refused leave to appeal against Lee's convictions with the exception of those relating to the Wensley Lodge fire. The Court decided to formally acquitted him on one account of arson and eleven counts of manslaughter, although Lord Justice Ackner saw fit to explain that "We wish to make it clear that we are far from being satisfied that he did not set Wensley Lodge on fire".
The Court of Appeal also saw fit to criticise the Sunday Times for its allegations regarding the police conduct of the case which the Court asserted "were without any valid foundation and should never have been made". Nevertheless the newspaper refused to back away from its allegations and eventually Ronald Sagar sued the Sunday Times for libel and a settlement was reached in 1987 when the paper issued an apology and paid the usual "substantial damages". Soon after Sagar retired from the police force and wrote his own account of the investigation,Hull, Hell And Fire.
The reason why the Court of Appeal decided to acquit Lee on the charges relating to the Wensley Lodge Fire was that earlier in the year it had been the subject of a thorough public inquiry which had established that the fire had been the result of the careless use of a blowtorch directly below the room where the fire started, and completely ruled out arson as a cause. Thus although one cannot exclude the possibility that the public inquiry was mistaken in its conclusions, it therefore appears very likely that Lee was not responsible for this fire. This of course raise the question; if Lee's confession to the Wensley Lodge Fire was false, how much reliance can be placed on his other confessions?
Lee's method of starting fires was not sophisticated, it simply involved squirting some paraffin around a room and setting light to it. From the very beginning the authorities recognised the Shelby Street fire as arson, and therefore might have been expected to have done so with all the previous fires had they been started in the same way as Lee claimed. At the very least it seems incredible that the authorities would have missed the evidence of arson in each and every one of these cases.
It is clear that Lee liked fires, as he told Ronald Sagar: "I am devoted to fire and despise people", and at one time read out the passage from Matthew 6:24, "No man may serve two masters" to illustrate his point that "My master is fire". Thus he liked setting fires and he liked watching fires. If there was a fire burning somewhere in the area it is likely he would have been there, and as a fire-obsessive Bruce Lee might therefore have been quite knowledgable about the location and details of the house fires in his area, and have been quite capable of coming forward with a plausible account of how he had started them, without necessarily being responsible for setting them himself.
Indeed at one time Sagar concerned that Lee was simply confessing to starting all these fires in order to undermine the credibility of his original confession to the Shelby Street fire; on the 12th November 1980 prior to the appeal, Sagar claimed that Bruce Lee told him that "I'm going to plead not guilty see 'cause I understand there's a chance if I deny it and act a bit daft I might get into a mental home, that'll be better than a stinking prison, and anyway I might get away with it all." Of course when it came down to it, Lee persisted with a guilty plea, but it demonstrates how he was not as 'simple minded' as many thought, and quite adept at manipulating the 'system' to get what he wanted, even if what he wanted was a little bizarre by normal standards.
It can reasonably concluded that Lee was indeed responsible for the Selby Street fire (which incidentally was the only fire that was ever regarded as being arson) where his account of how the fire started corresponded with the forensic evidence, and also for the earlier fire at the Fenton home, but aside from Lee's confessions there is nothing much in the way of evidence to suggest that any of the other fires were arson, much less that Lee was responsible for starting them. Thus many have expressed doubts as to whether Bruce George Peter Lee qualifies as a serial killer at all. Not that this makes a blind bit of difference;
Lee remains in Rampton Hospital and is likely to remain there for the foreseeable future.
- Johnny Sharp Bruce George Peter Lee
- Two Genuinely Controversial Cases of Ram's Trial Judge
Ron Sagar, Hull, Hell And Fire — The Extraordinary Story Of Bruce Lee (Highgate publications, 1999)