Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Bruce George Peter Lee

"No qualms whatsoever"

Between the time of his first confessed fatal fire in 1973 and the Hastie fire in 1979, Lee would claim responsibility for no fewer than 26 deaths.

A few months after he claimed the life of Richard Ellerington, in the early hours of October 12, 1973, the fire brigade were called to a house in Glasgow Street, Hull, where 72 year-old Arthur Smythe lived. He suffered from gangrene in both legs and led something of a reclusive existence.

Lee had been walking the streets all night with a can of paraffin, with that familiar tingling in his fingers. Around 6 a.m., he found Smythe's house with a front window broken, and climbed through it. He poured paraffin throughout the front room where the old man was sleeping, set it alight and left through the front door. Smythe had little hope of escape, and was dead by the time firemen gained access to the house. The inquest concluded that a faulty paraffin heater was to blame.

A couple of weeks later, a fire broke out on the afternoon of October 27, 1973, at the home of 34-year-old David Brewer. He was unable to work due to an industrial injury, and was sat at home when the 13-year-old Lee struck. After getting up to go to the toilet, he returned to the living room to find the room ablaze. His clothes caught fire and he ran out into the street screaming for help, but despite the help of neighbor Hilda Lister, he died from his burns. The neighbor later revealed that Lee had been involved in a row with Brewer and her son Shaun Lister over the latter's pigeons. Lee threatened to kill Lister's pigeons, prompting Brewer to threaten him with a "clout" if he did. That was only a couple of days before the fire, and a couple of weeks later most of Lister's pigeons were found dead with their necks wrung.

Once again, however, arson was not suspected, and the blaze was eventually blamed on drying clothes catching light in front of the fire.

It would be another year before Lee claimed his next victim. She was 82-year-old Elizabeth Rokahr, a widow who lived on Rosamond Street, Hull, suffering from poor eyesight and only able to walk with a frame. By the time neighbors noticed smoke coming from her house just before 10pm, she had already died from smoke inhalation. The seat of the fire was found to be at the head of the bed, and the inquest's verdict was misadventure, suggesting the old lady had been smoking in bed and allowed the sheets to catch fire. This despite her family claiming she never smoked in bed.

It would be six years before Lee admitted he gained entry to her house through the back door which the old lady kept open to allow her cat access. In this case, as with the Ellerington and Smythe fires, there appeared to be no motive.

There was another long gap before Lee's next major fire. On June 3, 1976, James and Veronica Edwards were out for the evening and Mrs. Edwards' 77-year-old grandmother, Dorothy Stevenson, was looking after three of Mrs. Edwards' children. Mrs. Stevenson had just put the youngest child, 13-month-old Andrew, to bed, when she came down the stairs to find smoke coming from the cupboard underneath the stairs. In the fire that ensued, baby Andrew was trapped upstairs and died. Five-year-old David Edwards claimed he had started the fire by playing with matches underneath the stairs, but Mrs. Stevenson insisted there were no matches in the house other than those she kept in her pocket. David later denied starting the fire, and his denial seemed convincing when Lee later admitted sneaking into the house and pouring paraffin underneath the stairs before setting the house alight. The end result, however, was yet another fire death which was wrongly filed as a tragic accident.

 

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