Bruce George Peter Lee (born Peter Dinsdale in Manchester, July 1960) became one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers when he was convicted of 26 charges of manslaughter in 1981.
The son of a prostitute, Lee was brought up in children’s homes and suffered from congenital spastic disabilities in his right limbs, which left him with a limp in his right leg and a compulsion to hold his right arm across his chest. As an adult, he worked as a labourer. In 1979 he legally changed his name from Peter Dinsdale to Bruce Lee, as a homage to the martial arts star of the same name.
The Hastie fire
It was only after a fire in Hull on December 4 1979, killing three young brothers that police began looking for an arsonist. They found their man in Lee, but when he started to confess to countless other fatal fires, a whole new chapter opened.
The fire trapped Charles Hastie, 15, and his brothers Paul, 12, and eight year old Peter, as well as their mother, Edith, and another brother, Thomas. All were asleep in the house when the blaze began.
Charles rescued his mother by forcibly pushing her out of an upstairs window, but he could not help his other brothers, two of whom were in the same bedroom as him. Charles consequently suffered almost complete burns and died the next day, while Paul and Peter fought for life in Pinderfields Hospital in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, which housed the nearest specialist burns unit. Peter died two days after the fire while Paul battled for nine days before also succumbing to his burns. Their mother survived, almost certainly because she was thrown out of the window by Charles, while Thomas was rescued with minor injuries from a back bedroom - he slept there with his mother because he suffered from muscular dystrophy - where the flames were less severe. The fire also killed the family dog.
Charles, Paul and Peter also had three sisters - 16-year-old Angeleena, 11-year-old Nicola, and Peter's twin Sophie - who were staying with relatives elsewhere in the area that particular night. Their father was a prison inmate at the time and was consequently granted immediate release on compassionate grounds.
Due to the presence of paraffin on the floor of the front porch, noticed by fire officers who had extinguished the blaze, police were called in. They set up a makeshift incident room in a local disused church hall and began talking to local people about the fire and the family. They were surprised and shocked by a rather unfussed response from the neighbourhood regarding the brothers, despite the severity of the fire which led to their agonising deaths. The indifference of the neighbourhood came to a climax at the joint funeral for the boys in January 1980 when a grief-stricken Edith Hastie issued an outburst to the gathering crowd over their lack of sympathy for the loss of her sons. The three boys were buried together in one grave at the Northern Cemetery in Hull.
Once the police had established that the Hasties were known as a "problem" family, responsible for petty crime and vendettas, they began looking for an arsonist who may have been seeking a form of revenge. Lee was one of many teenagers who volunteered to be questioned routinely about the fire. Six months after the inquiry began, he confessed in great detail about pouring paraffin through the letterbox and setting it on fire as a revenge mission against Charles Hastie, with whom he had been in a homosexual relationship. Lee said the 15-year-old had threatened to go to the police (as he was a minor) unless Lee gave him money.
During questioning - and to the complete surprise and horror of the police - Lee then went on to confess to starting nine more fatal fires in Hull over the previous seven years. None of the fires was treated with suspicion at the time; inquests recorded misadventure verdicts and arson was never considered. A total of 23 people had died in the blazes, ranging from a six-month-old baby, through a young mother and her three small sons, to 11 elderly men in a residential home. Countless more were burned or suffered smoke inhalation, or received injuries during the act of escaping.
Lee claimed that most of the fires were started at random because he loved fire, and he rarely considered whether he was endangering life when he started them. Only the Hastie fire and two others were at houses owned by people he knew and against whom he bore a grudge.
Investigating officers then proceeded to drive Lee around the city of Hull to the locations he had specified, whereupon Lee then pointed out the buildings in question. Although Lee couldn't be particular with dates or chronology, research later showed that fires had indeed been started at each of the dwellings he had signalled. Lee said that when he heard of many of the deaths he had caused, he sought solace in the Bible but was not persuaded to stop or confess.
As if to test Lee's story and rule out any prospect of him being merely a well-informed fantasist, officers deliberately took him to a dwelling where a high-profile fire had occurred but a criminal conviction had already been secured. Lee immediately ruled out his involvement - he said he'd never been anywhere near the area - and police knew then that he was being truthful about his vast and extraordinary range of fatal blazes.
Despite initially saying he was not sorry for the deaths he caused, as killing wasn't on his mind when he began the majority of the fires, Lee later offered apologies for his actions while awaiting trial.
Guilty of manslaughter
In October 1980, Lee was charged with a total of 26 murders, along with alternative offences of manslaughter, as well as eleven counts of arson and two of causing grievous bodily harm (he had admitted in interview to starting a fire in which a young mother and her daughter suffered severe burns but survived.)
At his trial at Leeds Crown Court in January 1981, Lee denied every murder charge but pleaded guilty to 26 counts of manslaughter, as well as the arson attacks. The pleas were accepted. He was ordered to be detained indefinitely under the Mental Health Act, with the judge stating that Lee was a psychopath and a danger to the public.
One person who did not live to see Lee's conviction was Thomas Hastie Snr, father of the three boys whose deaths began the inquiry which led to the end of Lee's spree of fires. He died in a motorcycle accident in July 1980, which also injured daughter Nicola, who was his passenger. Two months later, Edith Hastie gave birth to another son.
Prolific - but poor publicity
Lee was initially taken to Park Lane Special Hospital in Liverpool. He was later transferred to Rampton Secure Hospital where he remains to this day. It is not known whether he has been earmarked for release at any time. He became the most prolific killer in the UK yet got next to no national publicity at the time because, firstly, he was convicted of manslaughter rather than murder, and, secondly the Yorkshire Ripper's trial, a much more high profile case, was ongoing at precisely the same time. The fact that the Ripper's existence was known throughout his offending time, while Lee committed killings by fire without ever raising suspicion, also affected the contrast between the publicity levels of the two cases. But the fact was that at the moment he finished pleading in court, Lee had admitted killing 26 people; more than the Ripper, the Black Panther and the Moors Murderers put together.
In 1983, a public inquiry concluded that the fire at the residential home was accidental and that Lee was not responsible for it, nor therefore its consequences of killing eleven men. Senior fire investigation officers backed the inquiry's conclusions. Lee's eleven relevant manslaughter convictions were duly later quashed on the grounds that such contrary evidence made the convictions uneasy. This reduced Lee’s killing record to a total of 15 people, still more than any other British killer of similar time, and he never ceased to claim responsibility for the residential home blaze.
Whenever retrospective articles or documentaries discuss the UK’s worst killers, Lee’s name still never comes up, possibly due to his own youth and mental restrictions; the lack of any murder convictions; and the fact that nobody doubted that most of the fires were started for fire’s sake, i.e., he wouldn’t have cared if most of the dwellings he ignited had been unoccupied. It’s also for this reason that people are reluctant to place Lee in the category of serial killers, in that it was the cause rather than effect which gave him his thrills.
The following people all died as a result of either burns or asphyxiation due to fires started by Bruce Lee at dwellings where they were either a resident or guest. At each fire and subsequent inquest, arson was never considered. Misadventure verdicts were recorded by the coroner in each case.
- June 23 1973 - Richard Ellerington, aged six
- A pupil at the same special needs' school as Lee, he died when he was trapped in the front bedroom of his home when his parents, siblings and two guests were all escaping from a less-damaged bedroom, unaware he wasn't with them. No definite conclusion was reached at the inquest, although there was a suspicion that there had been a leak from a gas oven.
- October 12 1973 - Bernard Smythe, aged 72
- A reclusive bachelor on the borders of senility, he died when paraffin was ignited in the lounge of his squalid house, trapping him as he rarely left the room, even to sleep at night. Paraffin - Lee's favoured accelerant - was detected in the room but this was put down to two paraffin heaters, one of which was overturned, leading to an unconfirmed suspicion that it had come into contact with the flame of a candle which Mr Smythe used for lighting, as the electricity was cut off.
- October 27 1973 - David Brewer, aged 34
- A bachelor, partly incapacitated by a work accident, he died after falling asleep on the settee of the flat he shared with his mother (who was not at home) and woke up on fire. He was doused down by wet towels fetched by a neighbour but died in hospital eight days later, never able at any point to speak about the incident. No other fire damage beyond the settee and surrounding linoleum was found. There had been unconfirmed reports of clothes drying by the fire and the inquest concluded that these had caught light, but Lee later confirmed that he was friends with the son of the woman in the next flat, and he sneaked in to set fire to his victim because he had struck him two days earlier in a row about the pigeons he kept.
- December 23 1974 - Elizabeth Rokahr, aged 82
- A widow with weak legs and bad eyesight, she died when fire engulfed the living room of her terraced home, where she also slept at night. Although relatives and neighbours said she was a careful smoker and always made sure drying clothes were at the side of the fire rather than in front of it, the inquest concluded she had unwittingly started the blaze herself through smoking in bed.
- June 3 1976 - Andrew Edwards, aged one
- A baby taken upstairs to bed by his great-grandmother, who was babysitting for him and his elder brother and sister while their parents were out, only to discover a fire in the understairs cupboard where two more of her great-grandchildren were playing as she returned from the bedroom. She grabbed both children and took them to a neighbour and waited for the fire brigade, only then remembering the baby upstairs when someone casually asked if anyone else was in the house. She was unable to get back in at this point. The inquest concluded that as the fire had started in the understairs cupboard, the little boy therein must have started it himself with some matches he had secreted away. The great-grandmother was so traumatised by the incident afterwards she was committed to a mental hospital
- January 2 1977 - Katrina Thacker, aged six months
- A baby who died in her cot in the living room of her home when fire broke out while her mother was taking her half-sister to the toilet. A toddler, asleep upstairs, was rescued. The fireplace was stacked with fuel but no flame, but the inquest still concluded that a spark from the fire had set the living room alight. Lee knew the family through an interest in pigeons but had recently fallen out with them over his habit of walking in uninvited.
- January 5 1977 - Harold Akester, aged 95; Victor Consitt, aged 83; Benjamin Phillips, aged 83; Arthur Ellwood, aged 82; William Hoult, aged 82; William Carter, aged 80; Percy Sanderson, aged 77; John Riby, aged 75; William Beales, aged 73; Leonard Dennett. aged 73; Arthur Hardy, aged 65
- The Wensley Lodge residential home was leased to the local council and provided accommodation to elderly men of various ages and states of mind and mobility. The care assistant on night duty saw smoke coming from a first-floor corridor and, having yelled for his colleague to phone the Fire Brigade, found the bedroom where the fire was sourced and managed to escort the sole resident from the room. Despite this, the fire spread through the first floor and to the second, trapping more residents. Much was made later of work done by a plumber earlier that day which had involved the use of a blowtorch directly below the room where the fire started, although experts said that there were no faults with the plumber's work or tools and the plumber himself vehemently denied any errors on his part.
(The 11 convictions were later overturned on appeal, though Lee maintains his guilt)
- April 27 1977 Deborah Hooper, aged 13; Mark Jordan, aged seven
- A mentally-handicapped girl and the son of a friend who was staying the night who died when fire engulfed the lounge and sent smoke to the bedroom area upstairs. The little boy's father was asleep on the settee when the fire began and he ran upstairs to warn the other inhabitants, before returning down to escape through the front door. The man of the house woke his wife, their two daughters and their guest's two sons, all of whom were asleep in the back bedroom, and ushered them into the front room to leave via the window. Two of the children were helped out, but then there was no sign of the others. The little boy, with considerable thoughtfulness, had gone back to try to help the handicapped girl and both had become overcome by the smoke as a consequence. The inquest supposed that the man asleep in the lounge had left a cigarette burning, despite there being little evidence to support this. The little boy was later recommended for a posthumous bravery award.
- January 6 1978 Christine Dickson, aged 24; Mark Dickson, aged five; Steven Dickson, aged four; Michael Dickson, aged 16 months
- A mother who died with three of her four sons as she tried to rescue them from the flames and smoke of their terraced house. She had been chatting outside to a neighbour, with her four sons (including a baby) in the house and her unwell husband in bed upstairs when she noticed smoke coming from the window and instinctively ran inside through the smoke. She came out with her baby son and handed him to the neighbour and then went back inside to fetch the other three, but was trapped and eventually engulfed by the blaze. Her husband escaped from the stairs and the front door. The inquest suspected that the eldest two boys had somehow found matches and lit the fire themselves, although this was vehemently refuted by their father and the neighbour. The mother was later given a posthumous bravery award, and the baby she saved was brought up by his grandmother.
- December 4 1979 Charles Hastie, aged 15; Paul Hastie, aged 12, Peter Hastie, aged eight
- See The Hastie fire]] above.
Lee also caused grievous bodily harm to 27-year-old Rosabell Fenton and her daughter Samantha, eight, after setting fire to their maisonette on June 21, 1979. Both suffered serious burns, and Fenton miscarried her unborn baby. He also is known to have set fire to numerous unoccupied dwellings and outbuildings.
The detective in charge of Lee’s case, Superintendent Ronald Sagar, later launched a libel action against The Sunday Times after they published articles suggesting Lee’s statements had been not entirely voluntary. The paper later withdrew the allegations and offered an apology, with the case finally settling out of court in 1987. Mr. Sagar, now retired and awarded with an MBE, publicly stated in his critically-acclaimed book on the case, Hull, Hell & Fire, his hope that Lee will one day be deemed fit and safe enough to be freed. That said, it seems very unlikely that Lee will ever be released.
In 2005, Lee was permitted to marry his fellow Rampton patient Anne-Marie Davison, which caused dismay to his victims' families, who were subsequently assured that while Lee was legally entitled to marry, he and his new wife were not entitled to consummate the marriage.