Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Bruce George Peter Lee

Conviction

For someone of such low academic intelligence, Bruce Lee showed a practical cunning and ability to cover his tracks that belied his daft reputation. His ability to go unnoticed while loitering near the scenes of his crimes, despite being well known in the area, and to set fires in such a way that arson was never suspected, suggested a calculating criminal mastermind rather than a bumbling half-wit.

Yet when seen in context, the authorities' failure to identify arson as the cause of his fires is less surprising.

Looking through copies of the Hull Daily Mail from the time, house fires made the headlines almost every other day, even after Lee's arrest. The houses were invariably in poor areas of the city, where open fires were still common in houses, smoke alarms had yet to be common household appliances, furniture was often made of cheap, highly flammable material, and smoking indoors was perfectly socially acceptable. So perhaps it was just cruel bad luck that meant the scenes of carnage Lee caused were for so long disregarded as commonplace household accidents.

It was also Lee's good fortune that in the neighborhoods where he set the fires, relations between residents and police were not the best. After his trial a TV documentary featured several local people who said they knew of Lee's habitual fire-starting but never mentioned it to police. One woman said she suspected Lee of starting the fire that killed David Brewer in October 1973, but decided "You can't just go accusing, can you? You can't tell a policeman that a lad has started a fire."

Meanwhile, since none of Lee's victims except the Hasties had the kind of enemies who could be considered willing or able to burn down their home, there seemed little cause to consider arson. It was only in the Fenton and Hastie fires that Lee seemed noticeably careless in terms of covering his tracks. Indeed it might be argued that his carelessness in committing those later crimes was evidence of a common serial killer trait a seemingly unconscious desire to give himself away, which increases the longer his murderous activities continue.

Either way, the spent matches he left outside the Hasties' gutted home on Selby Street, and the paraffin he left on the ground, were to bring a long overdue end to his six year reign of terror.

Leeds Magistrates Court
Leeds Magistrates Court

After psychiatric evaluations Bruce George Peter Lee was pronounced sane and fit to stand trial, and on January 20, 1981, he pleaded not guilty at Leeds crown court to 26 counts of murder. Instead he pleaded guilty to 26 counts of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, and 11 counts of arson acknowledging recklessness as to whether life was endangered. Prosecuting counsel Gerald Coles said the crown was prepared to accept his manslaughter pleas, and said of Lee "The fires were his only true achievement in life." Mr. Justice Tudor Evans recommended that Lee be detained in a maximum security mental hospital indefinitely for the protection of the public.

Gerald Coles
Gerald Coles

Immediately after the verdict was announced, local members of Parliament called for a public inquiry into how Lee could have started these fires during periods when he was still a child in local authority care.

 

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