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The Green Bicycle Case - UNSOLVED

The Green Bicycle Case is a British murder investigation and trial involving the fatal shooting of Bella Wright near the village of Little Stretton, Leicestershire on 5th July 1919. The case takes its name from the fact that on the evening of her death she was seen cycling in the company of a man riding a green bicycle.






Bella Wright


Annie Bella Wright was born on 14th July 1897, the eldest of seven children. She attended school until the age of 12 before starting work as a domestic servant. She later obtained a job at Bates & Co.'s St Mary's Mills, a rubber factory in Leicester about 5 miles from her home. Bella regularly travelled to work on her bicycle.


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At the time of her death she was 21 years old, described as a girl with good looks and of good character, and was engaged to be married to a Royal Navy stoker named Archie Ward. She is known to have had at least one other suitor, and to have told her mother about an officer who had fallen in love with her. This may have been Ronald Light, but he denied this in court.




Ronald Light


A 33 year old maths teacher, Ronald Light is considered to be the prime suspect in Bella's murder.


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Ronald Light, pictured after his acquittal.


He was born on 19th October 1885. According to a prosecution brief from the trial Mr Light was expelled from Oakham School in 1902, aged 17, for "lifting a little girl's clothes over her head". The same brief states that in his thirties he attempted to seduce a 15 year old girl, and had admitted to engaging in "improper conduct" with an 8 year old girl.


Mr Light was a graduate of the University of Birmingham, where he graduated as a civil engineer and gaining employment as a draughtsman (making detailed drawings or plans for machinery, buildings, electronics, etc.) at the Derby Works of the Midland Railway in November 1906. He was fired from the firm in August 1914, suspected of setting a fire in a cupboard and of drawing indecent graffiti in a lavatory. He was later also dismissed from employment at a farm, accused of setting fire to haystacks.


In May 1910 he bought a distinctive green folding bicycle with an uncommon coaster brake.


Following the outbreak of the First World War Mr Light underwent training at Chatham, Newark, and Ripon. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in February 1915 and deployed to the Western Front. He relinquished his commission in the Royal Engineers on 1st July 1916 on the suggestion of his commanding officer. He returned to the ranks as a gunner in the Honourable Artillery Company. Mr Ronald Light was court-martialled in 1917 for forging moving orders. After three years of active service he was classified as suffering from severe shell-shock and partial deafness and sent back to England to undergo psychiatric treatment.


He returned to live with his mother in Highfield Street, Leicester, after recuperating in various military hospitals. Mr Light was demobilised in January 1919 and later claimed to have been "sent home a broken man".




A Chance Encounter?


Bella Wright and Ronald Light met by chance on 5th July 1919 at around 6:45pm as she rode her bicycle to the village where her uncle lived. In his testimony at the trial Ronald Light said he rode his bicycle towards the cross-roads where Gaulby Lane crosses Houghton Lane, where he saw a young woman bending over her bicycle, and she raised her head in his direction as he approached her, asking him if he had a spanner to help tighten a loose freewheel on her bike. He didn't, but he did what he could to resolve the problem.


During their conversation Mr Light learned of Bella's destination and offered to accompany her. She accepted his offer. He accompanied Bella to her uncle's home and waited for her outside the property. The couple were seen by several independent witnesses on their way to their destination. Bella's uncle told officers that he liked neither the looks nor the mannerisms of Mr Light, and that his niece had told him she had only met Mr Light that evening. When Bella left her uncle's home Mr Light was overheard greeting her "Bella, you have been a long time. I thought you had gone the other way."


The couple rode away from her uncle's home at 8:50pm. According to Mr Light's testimony Bella told him she would have to "bid goodbye" to him as they approached a junction behind King's Norton. He then claimed to have gone directly back to Leicester via Stoughton and Evington.




The Discovery


Thirty minutes after the couple had ridden away from Bella's uncle's home, Bella Wright's body was found on Gartree Road, part of the Via Devana Roman road, by a farmer named Joseph Cowell. She was discovered alongside her bicycle, and her face was bloodied, with deep gouge marks visible on her cheeks and jaw. Guessing the girl may have been run off the road by a motorist, Cowell initially deduced she had fallen from her bicycle and fatally injured herself. Mr Cowell went to nearby Great Glen to report the discovery to the local policeman, Constable Alfred Hall, who phoned a doctor in Billesdon. When Dr Williams arrived at Hall's residence the trio returned to Little Stretton where the doctor gave instructions that the girl's body be moved to a nearby unoccupied house.


At the scene, PC Hall found what he described as "smears of blood on the top bar of the field gate", although he found no human footprints on either side of the gate. A dead carrion crow was discovered in a field close to this gate.


Dr Williams made a cursory candlelight examination of the scene, having agreed with Mr Cowell's assumption that she died in a simple bicycle accident, dying from a combination of blood loss and a head injury. PC Hall didn't accept this and returned to the scene the following day at 6am, to search for any signs of foul play. Curing the careful search a .455-calibre bullet was found 17 feet from where Bella Wright's body was discovered. The bullet was embedded in the ground by the imprint of a horse's hoof, which had not yet been removed from the scene. PC Hall went to the unoccupied house and washed the congealed blood off the face of the corpse, finding a single entry wound beneath the left eye. After being informed of PC Hall's discovery Dr Williams and another doctor performed a full post-mortem upon the body, finding Bella Wright had been shot once beneath the left eye from a distance of six to seven feet, and that the bullet had exited the back of her skull.


Bella Wright was identified by relatives and an inquest into her death returned a verdict of murder by person or persons unknown. 




The Investigation


Police inquiries revealed no one but Bella Wright and her riding companion had been seen in the vicinity of Gartree Road at the time of her death. Investigators were able to get a detailed description of the individual seen with Bella as several people had seen them riding together. The person was described as being 35 to 40 years of age, with a broad full face, and between 5ft 7in and 5ft 9in tall.  He'd been wearing a grey suit, grey cap, collar and tie, and black boots. The Chief Constable issued appeals in local and national press, urging the man to come forward to assist them with their inquiries, but these appeals were unsuccessful. 


Checks of premises where bicycles were bought, sold or repaired, for the distinctive green bicycle failed. Then on 10th July a bicycle repairman informed the police that he had repaired a bicycle matching the description the previous day. He also informed police the man riding this bike had told him of his intentions to go for a "ride in the country" that day.


Mr Ronald Light later claimed not to have known about Bella Wright's death until he read a Leicester Mercury article on 8th July. He worried over the matter for "some time" before deciding to do nothing beyond removing his bicycle from where he normally stored it to the attic. He said he failed to come forward in response to the police and media appeals to avoid worrying his mother. In October 1919 Ronald Light took his bicycle from the attic and filed the serial numbers from the frame. He then took the bicycle to the Upperton Road Bridge in Leicester, where he detached the rear wheel, then dismantled the rest of the bike. Each section, except the rear wheel with its coaster brake, were thrown into the River Soar; an act witnessed by a labourer named Samuel Holland who had been walking to his night shift at a nearby mill.


The distinctive green bicycle was discovered when Enoch Whitehouse was guiding a horse-drawn barge, laden with coal, along the River Soar. The tow-rope of the barge snagged the frame of the bicycle, bringing it to the surface of the canal. Whitehouse informed the police and they decided to drag the canal. More pieces of the bicycle were discovered. Police examined the frame and found that while the serial number had been filed off both the frame and the seat lug, a faint serial number was still visible on the inside of the front fork. Inquiries revealed the bike had been bought by Mr Light nine years previously.




Arrest & Trial


Mr Ronald Light was arrested on 4th March 1920 at Dean Close School in Cheltenham, where he had secured a position teaching mathematics. He was brought to Leicestershire to be charged with the murder of Bella Wright.


At first Mr Light denied ever being in or near Gaulby on 5th July, or meeting Bella on that date. He also claimed he never owned a green bicycle. When he was told of the link between him and the bicycle he claimed he had sold the bike years ago to an individual whose name he could no longer recall. However Mr Light was identified by eyewitnesses as the person who had been riding alongside Bella Wright on the evening of her death. Mr Cox, the bicycle repairman, identified Ronald Light from a police identity parade as being the person who had had repairs conducted on a distinctive green bicycle on the day of Bella Wright's death. Mr Light's mother's maid, Mary Elizabeth Webb, told investigators that on 5th July Mr Light hadn't returned home until around 10pm, claiming his bicycle had broken down, and he had had to push it home. He had also sold or destroyed all the clothing he had worn that day.


On 19th March, additional pieces of evidence were found. An Army pistol holster, identified as having been issued to Mr Light, and a dozen live .455-calibre bullets were dredged from the same canal in which the sections of the bicycle had been retrieved. The bullets were found to match the spent bullet found at the crime scene.


The trial of Mr Ronald Light opened in Leicester Castle on 8th June 1920. He was tried before Mr Justice Horridge and entered a plea of not guilty. He was defended by Sir Edward Marshall Hall, and the prosecution team consisted of Sir Gordon Hewart, Norman Birkett, and Henry Maddocks.


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Image sourced from Leicester Mercury.


The prosecution suggested that a mile west of Gaulby, for unknown reasons, Bella Wright had fled from Mr Ronald Light, panicked, and headed south on an inferior road that was a possible route home, but not the shortest one. Mr Light took an alternative route with the intention of ambushing her and had waited at a gate where he shot her once before fleeing the scene. To support the theory eyewitnesses and other individuals testified to having seen Mr Light in the company of Bella Wright on the evening of her murder, to his ownership of the bicycle, and his later efforts to remove identifying marks on the bike, and dispose of the bicycle, the revolver holster, and unspent bullets of the same calibre as the bullet used to kill Bella Wright in the River Soar. Furthermore, upon his arrest, Mr Light had told police numerous lies until confronted with proof or inconsistencies in his claims.


Two girls aged 14 and 12 years old testified for the prosecution that roughly three hours before Mr Light had encountered Bella Wright, he had had pestered them as they rode their bicycles close to where Bella Wright's body was subsequently found.


Mr Ronald Light testified in his own defence. He had a well-spoken demeanour and admitted to having lied to the police upon his arrest and admitted to everything testified to by other witnesses. He did not admit to possession of the service revolver, or Bella Wright's murder, claiming they had parted company at a junction close to King's Norton soon after she had left her uncle's cottage in his company.


During cross-examination Mr Light admitted the holster, bullets, and bicycle were his, but claimed he had disposed of them in a "panic" after reading the press coverage surrounding Bella Wright's murder, and noting the general public and media consensus that the man seen riding alongside her on a green bicycle had been responsible for her death. Mr Light's version of events, as he presented them to the court, couldn't be contradicted or disproved in any detail. Despite being subjected to five hours of cross-examination, Mr Light didn't contradict himself on a single occasion. 


Marshall Hall restricted his examination of Mr Light to technical matters. He questioned the testimony of the expert witness on ballistics, introducing the possibility that a stray shot fired from a distance could have killed Bella Wright. Mr Hall also contended that a person shot at close range from a service revolver would have much greater damage to their face, and that a stray shot fired by an individual from a distance could've inadvertently killed Bella Wright. This theory, and Mr Light's demeanour, were enough to install reasonable doubt within the minds of the jurors, and after deliberating for three hours they returned a verdict of not guilty. The verdict on 11th June was cheered by spectators present within the courtroom.

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