Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Bruce George Peter Lee

Lingering doubts

Peter Sutcliffe
Peter Sutcliffe

Outside Hull and the surrounding Yorkshire area, Lee's arrest and conviction only made brief headlines, despite his 26 killings making him the most prolific serial killer in British criminal history. That's partly because at the same time another serial killer operating only 50 or so miles away was dominating the national news. Since 1975, Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, had targeted the women of Leeds, Bradford and other towns in the North of England with a series of brutal murders, creating a climate of terror among the female population. During 1980 when the manhunt for the Selby Road arsonist was unfolding, the Ripper's reign of terror was at its height, and even when the full scale of Lee's crimes came to light, the fact that no large-scale manhunt had been involved, and the fact he pleaded guilty and a long trial was avoided, meant the story didn't make it into the public consciousness in the same way. Even now, when Britain's most notorious serial killers are listed, Lee's name his rarely included.

However back in 1981, that lack of notoriety didn't stop some sections of both the local and national press from casting doubt on Lee's guilt. The fact that the evidence and Lee's confessions had not been put under scrutiny in court in the same way as if he had pleaded not guilty meant certain questions appeared to go unanswered.

In the months following the trial, The Sunday Times in London published a series of articles casting doubt on some of the convictions. They pointed to the fact that Lee had a physical handicap, and was therefore, they speculated, incapable of such feats as breaking a window or climbing through one to start a fire. They also questioned whether a boy of such low intelligence could cover his tracks in the cunning way that had been made out by the police. They seized upon the early line of inquiry surrounding the Hastie fire, claiming the theory of a gangland revenge attack on the house and the discredited rover car witness had been disregarded prematurely by Sagar and his team in order to base a case around a confession from Lee.

The largest body of evidence challenging Lee's guilt was connected to the fire at Wensley Lodge old people's home in January 1977, which claimed the lives of 11 elderly men.

The Sunday Times claimed that Lee's account of his movements that night did not tally with the known facts about the fire, and they also cast doubt on the ability of Lee, with a deformed hand, to ride a bike for three miles while holding a container full of paraffin, as he confessed to doing.

Lord Justice Ackner
Lord Justice Ackner

The newspaper stories prompted Lee's legal team to launch a full scale appeal against the convictions. However, in court he was refused leave to appeal against any of the convictions except for the Wensley Lodge fire. Finally, in December 1983, Lord Justice Ackner acknowledged 'lingering doubts' as to the cause of that fire, and thus quashed Lee's conviction for the murders of 11 elderly men. Yet he stressed that "We are far from satisfied that he did not set Wensley Lodge on fire." Ackner also dismissed The Sunday Times' assertions that Lee's confessions were unreliable or that Det. Sup. Sagar had altered key witness statements, and he condemned the newspaper's attacks on Sagar as 'totally unwarranted' and demanded a retraction. That was forthcoming, but no apology accompanied it, which prompted Sagar to sue the newspaper for libel, a case which he won in 1987.

To this day, Bruce George Peter Lee remains in a secure mental institution. Sagar has publicly stated that he hopes Lee will one day be deemed fit to be freed, and would make good his pretrial assertion that "I'll never set fire to another house as long as I live." However, it is highly unlikely that he will ever be released to test his promise.


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