Green Bicycle Case

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For the Lucksmiths album, see The Green Bicycle Case.
Light shown after his acquittal

The Green Bicycle Case was a murder investigation and trial over the shooting of a young woman named Bella Wright in Little Stretton, near Leicester, England on 5 July 1919. Wright was killed by a bullet wound to the head. Earlier that evening she had been seen with a man on a green bicycle. Ronald Vivian Light was tried for her death but acquitted.[1]

Ronald Light, 34 years old at the time, was a World War I veteran who had returned from the war with shell shock. He did not voluntarily come forth in response to wanted posters for the man on the green bicycle who had been riding with Wright on the evening she was killed, and he made an attempt to dispose of the bicycle. Once arrested he admitted to being with her shortly before her death, but denied killing her. He was successfully defended in court by Sir Edward Marshall-Hall KC.[2]

Author C. Wendy East in a book entitled The Green Bicycle Murder (1993) concluded that Light did, indeed, murder Bella Wright.[3] In a 1930 book, The Green Bicycle Case H.R. Wakefield came to the opposite conclusion.[4]

Bella Wright[edit]

Bella Wright in a newspaper article

Annie Bella Wright, born 1897, was the eldest of seven children of an illiterate agricultural labourer and his wife. She lived in a thatched cottage in Stoughton, four miles outside Leicester, under what Bill Donahue describes as "essentially feudal conditions". She attended school until the age of 12, then worked as a domestic servant before taking a factory job in Bates' Rubber Mill, about five miles from home.[5]

At the time of her death she had been "keeping company" with Royal Navy stoker Archie Ward, and had at least one other suitor.[5]

Wright may have met Light prior to the night of the murder. She had told her mother of an officer who had fallen in love with her and who may have been Light, although he denied it in court.[5]

Ronald Light[edit]

Ronald Vivian Light grew up the only child of a successful inventor of plumbing devices. According to a prosecution brief from his murder trial, in 1902 he was expelled from Oakham School, at the age of 17, for "lifting a little girl's clothes over her head". The same brief states that in his 30s he "attempted to make love to a girl 15 years of age" and admitted to "improper conduct" with an 8-year-old girl. Two girls, ages 12 and 14, testified at his trial that on the day of Wright's death, Light had chased them as they rode their bicycles through the countryside.[6]

In addition to these sexually-related accusations, Light was fired from a railway job in 1914, suspected of setting a fire in a cupboard, and of drawing indecent graffiti in a lavatory. He was also fired from a farm, accused of setting fire to haystacks. During Light's service as a second lieutenant in the Royal Engineers in the War, his father died, apparently a suicide. Light's mother explained that the probable suicide resulted partly from the father's worries about his son. In 1916, Light lost his commission, but later rejoined the army as a gunner in the Honourable Artillery Company. He returned from the Western Front shell-shocked and partially deaf.[5]

The night of Wright's death[edit]

By all accounts, Wright and Light met on a road 5 July 1919 around 6:45 p.m. She asked him if he had a spanner to help with the loose freewheel on her bicycle. He did not have one, but offered to accompany her, which offer she accepted.[5] He accompanied her to her uncle George Measure's cottage in Gaulby and waited for her outside. The uncle stated that he didn't like Light's looks. They rode away together at about 8:50 p.m. Wright's dead body was found on the Via Devana road by a farmer, around 9:20 p.m.[7]

Police constable Alfred Hall, who came to the scene, initially found "smears of blood on the top bar of the field gate" but no footprints on either side of the gate. A doctor made a cursory once-over by candlelight, and said that Wright had died in a simple bicycle accident. Not accepting this explanation, PC Hall returned at 6 a.m. and found a .455-calibre bullet 17 feet from Wright's body, which had not yet been removed from the scene. He washed the face of the corpse and found the entry wound.[8]

The prosecution's reconstruction was that a mile west of Gaulby, Bella Wright had fled from Light, panicked, and headed south on an inferior road that was a possible route home, but not the shortest one. Light took an alternate route to get in front of her and lay in wait at a cattle gate, where he shot her and fled.[7]

In court PC Hall testified that the blood on the gate came from a dead raven that had "gorg[ed] itself on blood," making six separate journeys from the gate to the corpse. However, there are normally no ravens in the English Midlands.[8]

Investigation and trial[edit]

For five months after Wright's death, Light hid his bike in a cupboard. He later claimed he had failed to come forward to avoid worrying his ailing mother. He eventually took the bike to the Upperton Road Bridge in Leicester, dismantled the bicycle, and threw it piece by piece into the River Soar, an act witnessed by Samuel Holland, a labourer.[9]

On 23 February 1920, Enoch Whitehouse was guiding a horse-drawn boat full of coal on the River Soar. The tow-rope snagged the frame of the green bicycle. Police were called to investigate. They saw that the serial number had been filed off both the frame and the seat lug, and the brand name (BSA) had been filed off the fork. However, a faint serial number on the fork proved sufficient to link the bike to Light.[8]

Light was arrested on 4 March 1920 at Dean Close School in Cheltenham, where he had just begun teaching mathematics. On 19 March an additional piece of evidence was found; an Army pistol holster and a dozen live .455-calibre bullets were dredged from the canal. They matched the bullet found at the death scene.[10]

Light was tried at Leicester Castle. Judge Thomas Gardner Horridge presided[10] and the Attorney General, Gordon Hewart led the prosecution. Light was calm and well-spoken in court.[5] His prior offences went unreported by the newspapers of the time, which were generally sympathetic to the "engineer, teacher, and ex-Army officer" who stood accused of the murder of a "factory girl".[10]

On the advice of his barrister, Sir Edward Marshall-Hall, Light admitted essentially everything but the killing. He even admitted that the holster was his, and that he had owned a revolver. Marshall-Hall restricted his cross-examination largely to technical matters. He questioned prosecution ballistics expert Henry Clarke, who said that the bullet could as easily have come from a rifle as a revolver. Marshall-Hall then made the case that the fatal shot could have been an accidental shot from a distance. He argued that this alternative scenario was likely, because a shot at close range would probably have done more damage to the victim's face. This theory and Light's demeanour were apparently enough to convince the jury to acquit.[10]

Aftermath[edit]

After his trial, Light "all but vanished." By 1928 he lived in Leysdown-on-Sea on the east side of the Isle of Sheppey. For at least a time, he assumed the name "Leonard Estelle". In 1934 he married an older woman, Lilian Lester, whose husband Sgt Ernest Lester, also of the Royal Engineers had been killed in 1917. The widow had abandoned her two sons in a Wolverhampton orphanage, fearful of destitution, but kept her younger daughter. Light had no children of his own.[10] He died in 1975 at the age of 89.[3] His stepdaughter had no notion of his trial until after his death.[10]

For decades, the green bicycle hung on the wall of a bike shop in Evington, but its current whereabouts are unknown. An anonymous collector purchased the recovered bullets and holsters for $6,000 in a Christie's auction in 1987.[10]

At least two books have been written about the case: The Green Bicycle Case (1930) by H.R. Wakefield (a defence of Light)[4] and The Green Bicycle Murder (1993) by C. Wendy East (which concludes that Light was guilty as charged).[3] Numerous other writers have put forth other views, including the possibility that Light killed Wright accidentally (showing her a gun that accidentally went off) or that she was killed by someone else entirely.[11] The accidental killing theory is backed by a note supposedly written by Levi Bowley, Leicester superintendent of police, three days after Light's acquittal. Bowley's note claims that Light, while in prison awaiting trial, confessed the accidental death scenario to him. The authenticity of the note has been questioned and even if it is authentic, Bowley could have been lying, or Light could have lied to Bowley.[12]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Donahue (2007), passim.
  2. ^ Donahue (2007), p. 68–69.
  3. ^ a b c Donahue (2007), p. 70.
  4. ^ a b Donahue (2007), pp. 73–74.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Donahue (2007), p. 71.
  6. ^ Donahue (2007), p. 70–71.
  7. ^ a b Donahue (2007), p. 72.
  8. ^ a b c Donahue (2007), p. 73.
  9. ^ Donahue (2007), p. 69.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g Donahue (2007), p. 74.
  11. ^ Donahue (2007), pp. 74–75, 114.
  12. ^ Donahue (2007), pp. 75, 114.

References[edit]

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • C. Wendy East, The Green Bicycle Murder, Sutton Publications, Ltd. (October 1993) ISBN 0-7509-0372-4.