HULL, ENGLAND — On June 23, 1973, Bruce George Peter Lee, one of the UK’s most prolific serial killers, ignited a six-year arson campaign that would eventually take 26 lives and cause countless thousands of dollars of damage.
Six-year-old Richard Ellington proved to be the first victim of Lee’s fatal flames. He attended the same special-needs school as the 13-year-old Lee, and the two often rode the bus together. That early summer evening, Lee torched Ellington’s family home and killed his schoolmate by way of smoke inhalation. Investigators initially blamed the tragedy on a broken gas meter.
Lee later recounted how he reacted upon first hearing about Richard:
“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 [nothing] … I’ve kept it secret from everybody for years.”
Born Peter Dinsdale to a prostitute mother in 1960, the future firebug grew up in a series of state homes and suffered from a physical affliction that crippled his left arm.
People in his life, unkindly but not without reason, took to calling the boy “Daft Peter.” Perhaps in reaction, Dinsdale legally changed his name to Bruce George Peter Lee, after martial-arts movie star Bruce Lee. Everybody continued to call him “Daft Peter” anyway.
Lee next lit up the home of Bernard Smythe on October 12, 1973. The 72-year-old shut-in who had two gangrenous legs burned to death in his armchair. Officials believed Smythe fell asleep and knocked over a kerosene lamp.
In fact, though, Lee had randomly broke into Smythe’s house, squirted kerosene all over the living room, and tossed a match.Related: 6 Black Southern Churches Burn Within A Week, At Least 3 Due To Arson
Two weeks later, Lee poured kerosene directly onto David Brewer, 34, a neighbor with whom he’d argued over the man’s pigeons a few days earlier. Lee set Brewer alight and the flaming man ran into the street screaming. It took him nine days to finally die.
Again, police figured a lamp had tumbled over.
Shortly after Brewer went to the hospital, Lee snuck back into the burned man’s home and wrung the necks of all his pigeons.
Two days before Christmas in 1974, Lee killed 82-year-old Elizabeth Rohahr. This time, the cops thought she’d been smoking in bed.
On June 3, 1976, Lee burned down the home of an elderly woman looking after her great grandchildren. Among them was one-year-old Andrew Edwards, who succumbed to smoke in his crib. Police actually blamed one of the surviving kids, theorizing that he’d been playing with matches.
The year of 1977 proved to be Lee’s single most infernal. He created three firestorms that killed a total of 14 victims, including a six-month-old baby, a seven-year-old boy, a 13-year-old girl, and 11 residents of an old age home (although the last blaze was eventually ruled “accidental”).
Lee’s fire of January 6, 1978 left the public heartbroken. Christine Dickson, a 24-year-old mom, attempted to rescue three of her four sons from the flames, but they all died. One baby survived. Stunningly, investigators also wanted to pin this on the dead five-year-old, accusing him of messing with matches.Finally, on December 4, 1979, Bruce George Peter Lee burned his last building, a home belong to the Hastie family. Fifteen-year-old Charles Hasting saved his mother’s life by pushing her out a window. He died, though, before he (or anyone) could rescue his brothers Paul, 12, and Peter, 8.
The Hastie fire, at last, drew proper outrage over the fact that an arsonist had been at work.
The police drew Lee out of hiding by claiming they had three other suspects. When he came forward, the now 19-year-old murderer admitted causing the fire, but claimed, “I didn’t mean to kill them.”
During questioning, Lee stunned detectives by confessing to each of his crimes. Officers drove him around to the various sites, and Lee pointed out in detail how he had set off each blaze.
When asked why he did it, Lee said: “My master is fire.”
On January 20, 1981, Lee pleaded guilty to 11 counts of arson and 26 counts of manslaughter, rather than murder, on the grounds of “diminished capacity.”
The court accepted the plea and sentenced Lee to be held in a psychiatric facility. He has since remained in Rampton Secure Hospital which, so far, has not burned to the ground.
Main photo: Bruce George Peter Lee [Hull Police Department]