Bruce Lee seemingly couldn’t stop talking once he had admitted his shocking claim, and what he had to say was almost unbelieveable. To admit to such an amount of damage and a love of fire would be shocking enough. But worse, Lee admitted that nine of his previous fires over the years had caused fatalities, 26 fatalities in total when the victims from each were tallied. Unfazed by what he was recounting, Lee began to set out his accounts of the many fires and deaths he had caused. Apart from the Hastie fire, none of the other fires that Lee confessed to setting had been classed as arson at the time. They were all thought to have been accidental.
The first fire set by Lee that was to lead to a fatality was on the 23rd June 1973, when six year old Richard Ellington was suffocated after being overcome by smoke inhalation after Lee had set fire to his family home on Askew Avenue, Hull. Lee knew the boy – he attended the same special school as Lee and they would often be on the same school bus. The cause at the time was thought to have been a faulty gas meter. Lee was to say of this murder:
“When we stopped in bus next morning, they said he’s died in a fire during night. I just sat on bus quiet looking out a window and said nowt…I’ve kept it secret from everybody for years.”
72 year old Bernard Smythe was the next to die, dying in his armchair at home on Glasgow Street on 12th October 1973. A recluse who suffered from gangrene in both legs, Mr Smythe was thought to have knocked over a paraffin heater in his sleep – whereas Lee had in reality squirted paraffin throughout his front room and ignited it. Lee had been walking the streets all night and when he felt the familiar tingling in his fingers, entered Mr Smythe’s house through a broken window. He then set the fire and left through the front door – leaving Mr Smythe to burn to death agonisingly.
Just over two weeks later on 27th October 1973, 34 year old David Brewer was burned alive after Lee set fire to his house on Madeley Street. Again it was thought to have been a paraffin heater knocked over, but Lee was to confess his guilt by giving an example that showed his malicious streak. He had rowed with Brewer some days previously over some pigeons, with Brewer threatening to give Lee “a clout”. Seething about this, Lee broke into his home late at night and finding Brewer asleep in his armchair, poured paraffin on him and around the room and ignited it. Brewer caught fire and rushed outside screaming, but despite the efforts of neighbours who came to his aid, Brewer died in agony nine days later in hospital.
“He clipped my ear – and he shouldn’t have done that” claimed Lee. Some days later, Lee returned to the house and wrung the necks of every one of Brewer’s pigeons.
It was more than a year later when one of Lee’s fires caused its next fatality. An frail partially blind 82 year old woman, Elizabeth Rokahr, died in a house fire on Rosamund Street, the cause of which was thought to have been her falling asleep whilst smoking in bed. Lee was to say when describing the fire, in an example of his indifference to life:
“I did see someone lying in a bed, but I didn’t know if it was a man or a woman. I didn’t wake ’em up to ask, did I?”
He admitted that he had entered Mrs Rokahr’s house through the unlocked backdoor – kept open for the old lady’s cat to come and go.
The next death was on 3rd June 1976, when 1 year old Andrew Edwards died from smoke inhalation after Lee had set fire to his home on Orchard Park. Andrew’s great grandmother – who was looking after the children that evening – managed to get Andrew’s two siblings to safety but was unable to save him. The elder sibling was later blamed for starting the fire accidentally. Lee followed this death by claiming another child as a victim, setting a fire in the home of the Thacker family on West Dock Avenue on 2nd January 1977. Six month old Katrina Thacker was asleep in her cot in the living room of the family home and her mother and siblings were upstairs. Lee entered the home (it transpired later that he knew the family and had again rowed with them some weeks previously) and started a fire, again using paraffin, in the front room. The cause was thought to have been “shedded sparks” from unburnt fuel in the open fireplace. Three years later, Lee was to prove this theory wrong:
“I just went in through a window one evening. I sprinkled paraffin on some carpet and the couch. The living room, I think it was, and up it went. The little baby died in it and I killed her.”
Lee’s worst fire followed just three days later, on 5th January 1977. Wensley Lodge Residential Home was a council run premises that accommodated elderly men of various ages and of various physical and mental ability. Lee claimed that he had cycled the three miles to the area to ” to just come along here to do a big house, just ride along, any house” and had painstakingly held a can of paraffin on the handlebars of his bicycle as he pedalled. He then claimed he had chosen the big house as it was “nice and quiet”, kicked a window in and started a fire in the bedroom of one of the residents, then left and went to watch the fire from outside. An orderly noticed smoke coming from a first floor corridor and raised the alarm, but the fire spread through the first and second floors, trapping many. Killed in the fire were as follows:
Harold Akester, 95; Victor Consitt, 83; Benjamin Phillips, 83; Arthur Ellwood, 82; William Hoult, 82; William Carter, 80; Percy Sanderson, 77; John Riby, 75; William Beales, 73; Leonard Dennett, 73; Arthur Hardy, 65
Strangely, the cause for this fire was blamed on a blowtorch that a plumber had been using earlier that day in a bedroom directly underneath the room where the fire was found to have started. Experts found no faults with any of the plumber’s equipment and the plumber himself denied any negligence – yet was still blamed. It was only when Lee confessed three years later was the possibility of arson raised. Again, whilst confesing to this fire Lee showed his indifference to human life:
“I could hear like old blokes shouting. Don’t ask me how I know’d they was old blokes, but they was not women and babies. I heard a man’s voice shouting ‘God help me’. It was bloody terrible. I knew that the fire was killing people. I knew as I walked along blokes was dying in the fire. I’d killed people before in my fires so I wasn’t that bothered like.”
Lee next killed two people in a fire on 27th April 1977, a 7 year old boy named Mark Jordan and a 13 year old disabled girl called Deborah Harper. He squirted paraffin through the letterbox of the house on Belgrave Terrace, igniting a blaze in the living room. Out of 7 people in the house that evening, three adults and four children, five of them managed to make it out to safety. Brave Mark had gone back in in an attempt to help Deborah escape, but both had tragically been overcome by smoke fumes and died. Mark was later recommended for a posthumous bravery award. The cause of this fire was thought to have been one of the adults smoking and falling asleep, but again there was little evidence to support this theory.
Brentwood Villas, Reynoldson Street was the next scene of horror, on 6th January 1978. 24 year old Christine Dixon was talking to a neighbour outside when she noticed smoke and flames coming from an upstairs window. Inside were her ill husband and four sons. Christine instinctively ran in to save her family, but only Christine’s husband managed to escape, along with their baby son. Christine was killed in the fire, along with her sons Mark, 5; Steven,4; and Michael, 16 months. The inquest later was to suspect that the elder boys had started the fire themselves with matches and lighter fluid, but this was strongly denied by Mr Dixon. In his favoured method, Lee had squirted paraffin through the letter box and then set matches to ignite it. He was to claim:
“I had to go to the Bible after that one”
Christine was awarded a posthumous award for bravery, and the baby she had saved was raised by her mother. Lee had wiped out an entire family for the simple reason that he had:
“Tingling in me fingers and a fire in me head”
Following this, Lee’s next fatal fire was his last, which claimed the life of the Hastie children.
Sagar and his team decided to test Lee’s claims. They considered the possibility that Lee may have been a fantasist, but although Lee could not be specific in many dates and times of his fires, he knew exactly where each one had been. A check of his story revealed that there had indeed been fires in the locations he had described. They decided to take him around Hull in a police car, asking him to take them to the locations that he described without any prompting. He could do this each time, and to test how much truth Lee was telling, he was taken to a location where there had been a fire but someone else had already confessed to and been convicted of it. Lee vehemously denied ever setting a fire at the location. Sagar and his team knew then that Lee was indeed telling the truth, and in October 1980 he was charged with twenty six counts of murder, various counts of arson, and two counts of grievous bodily harm in the case of the Fenton fire. Lee was reportedly happy with this, and even when a solicitor advised him to recant his confessions, Lee refused to do so, instead dictating a statement where he again accepted all responsibility for the fires.
After psychiatrists had examined Lee and determined that although he was a pyromaniac, he was fit to plead and he stood trial in Leeds Crown Court in January 1981. Lee pleaded not guilty to 26 charges of murder, but pleaded guilty to 26 counts of manslaughter, 11 counts of arson and the counts of GBH that he was charged with. This was accepted by the crown, with Mr Justice Tudor Evans stating that Lee was “a psychopath and an immediate danger to the public”, and he was ordered to be detained indefinitely under the Mental Health Act. He was taken first to Liverpool’s Park Lane Special Hospital, but was then later transferred to Rampton Secure Hospital. He remains incarcerated to this day.
Following Lee’s conviction, articles in the Sunday Times newspaper raised questions about the validity of some of his claims, even though he had fully admitted his culpability in a convincing manner. It was suggested that police had used Lee’s low intelligence against him and coerced him into confessing to crimes that, because of his disabilities, he could not have had the mobility to have committed. It was also suggested that police had falsified witness statements, something that Ronald Sagar strongly denied and actually successfully sued the Sunday Times newspaper for libel for. The Wensley Lodge fire, in which eleven people had died, was however, concluded to have been accidental following a public enquiry in 1983. Lee’s 11 convictions for manslaughter in this case were quashed as a result – yet he has never ceased to accept his responsibility for the fire.
Following the result of this public enquiry, the question was raised – how much reliance could be given to Lee’s confessions? Apart from the forensic evidence that supported his confession to the Hastie fire, there was little physical evidence apart from Lee’s confessions in each remaining case, and although he was convincing in his accounts of the fires, there were no witnesses who could place him at the scene at the time. There was also the fact that although Lee had used paraffin in all of his fires, only the Hastie fire was suspected from the start as arson. Lee was not a sophisticated arsonist, he would just simple squirt paraffin around and light it. Would experienced fire investigators have missed evidence of arson in each case, it was argued? Yet this may be harsh criticism. The areas in which Lee set his fires were poor areas, where open fires were still commonplace in houses. Smoke alarms were nowhere as commonplace as they are nowadays, and the furniture in said households was often made from cheap, highly flammable material. As a result, house fires were quite common, and it is easy to see how Lee was able to hide his crimes, albeit with some luck also.
It was not in doubt that Lee was a pyromaniac, indeed, he told Ronald Sagar initially just how devoted he was. He loved fires and if there was a fire burning somewhere, Lee would inevitably be there as an onlooker. It is therefore possible that Lee could have learned the dates and locations of the fires he confessed to (which he was indeed vague about the date and chronology of) and elaborated an account of how he caused them. Was it all attention seeking, and Lee did not necessarily set the fires that he confessed to? Yet, even when his defence team appealed against his convictions, Lee remained adamant that he had been the cause of every fire he confessed to, claims which he adheres to to this day. There has always been a lack of publicity concerning this case, perhaps because the convictions were for manslaughter rather than murder; perhaps of Lee’s relative youth and mental health at the time of his conviction; and perhaps that not only was his trial short due to his guilty plea, but because it was overshadowed by the arrest of the Yorkshire Ripper in the same month. Perhaps because of this, Lee is often overlooked in a list of Britain’s most prolific killers.
What then, were Lee’s motives? It can be argued that they were mixed. On one hand, Lee set fires purely because of his love and fascination for them, and the fact that anyone died in the fires was immaterial – Lee wouldn’t have cared if anyone was in the buildings or not. Yet on the other hand, the victims who died in the fires were all unable to flee – either because they were asleep, infirm or disabled, or physically unable to due to age. Lee had also had clashes with a number of the victims – were they perhaps targeted as a result of a grudge, and had Lee targeted people who he classed as victims like himself? Lee was to admit to Ronald Sagar that he hated people and that “fire is my master”, and that he especially hated people who had a home – because he claimed he had never really had one. Speculation aside, it remains that for whatever reason, Lee confessed to many fires and was almost proud of his handiwork. He evolved as an offender and is a rarity amongst most serial arsonists in that he would actually enter the structure he was setting fire to to set the fire. From carrying a can of petrol around, he evolved and refined his favoured choice of accelerant to paraffin, making sure he was able to carry it around in a container that was easily concealable and safer to himself to use as an accelerant. His favoured method was to create a pool of paraffin, then leave a trail leading away from it and to then make a smaller pool – giving himself time to light it, then get to safety and to be able to observe his handiwork. He was able to avoid detection and suspicion in each case, and although he was considered by people as being an odd loner, tragically he was never considered by anyone as being potentially dangerous. Ronald Sagar was to write a critically acclaimed book about the case upon his retirement, Hull, Hell and Fire, and echoed this:
“He wasn’t seen, because he was a pathetic, insignificant man. It was a dreadful state of affairs. I didn’t show him sympathy, but I feel sorry for him as a human being. Sorry that in this day and age you could have a youngster who no-one cared for, who could be in such a terrible state.”
Lee’s is a name that rarely appears in the press, only appearing twice of note in the years since his incarceration. In 2005 it was reported that he had been allowed to marry another patient in Rampton Hospital, Anne-Marie Davis. He had met her at a disco organised for the residents, and they had developed a relationship of sorts. This news caused uproar amongst the families of Lee’s victims, but they were somewhat appeased when authorities swiftly pointed out that inmates, whilst allowed to marry, are not allowed to consummate their union.
What caused arguably more uproar was the report in local and UK national press in July 2016 that Lee had been allowed out on day release, albeit supervised, into the community surrounding the lower security facility in the Home Counties that he had been moved to in 1996. The Sunday Mirror newspaper reported that Lee had been seen repeatedly out in the community on day release, laughing and joking with staff. His face was pixellated to retain his anonymity, and the picture is reproduced above:
Ronald Sagar, who died a few years ago now, was to say of Lee that he wished one day that he may be freed and allowed to rejoin society, to make good on the pre-trial promise that Lee made him of:
“I’ll never set fire to another house as long as i live”
But it is unlikely Lee will ever be released to put this to the test. He is now in his 36th year of incarceration, having spent nearly his entire adult life in a secure institution. He is arguably institutionalized now, and there is also the small matter of the magnitude of his monstrous crimes and the feeling that they still provoke to this day. The areas in which Lee started his fires were poor areas of Hull, but strong community spirited areas – and people have never forgotten the horrors that Lee inflicted, unnoticed, during his years of terror. Rosamund Fenton, who was severely injured and suffered a miscarriage in one of Lee’s fires, summed up the feeling when discussing Lee potentially being released:
“I still suffer flashbacks of that night, he ruined me, ruined me for my daughter. She couldn’t even look at me and wouldn’t let me touch her, claiming “You’re not my mummy, where’s my mummy” because i looked so badly burnt. ‘The police always said we’d be kept informed of what was happening with him at every stage, but we’ve heard nothing about this. He’s a danger to society. The thought of him walking about near kids sickens me.
He should never be allowed out”
It remains to be seen whether Lee will, or will not, ever be considered safe to be released.
The True Crime Enthusiast