21-year-old Bella Wright was considered a very attractive and self-assured young lady. She was the oldest of seven children of an illiterate cow herder and his wife. She lived with her parents in a cottage in Stoughton, England and worked the night shift at Bate's rubber mill. She was often seen riding alone through the country side on her bicycle.
In Saturday July 5, 1919, she set out on her bicycle to post some letters in the village of Evington. She returned home and then proceeded on to the village of Gaulby to visit her uncle, George Measures.
When she arrive at her uncle's she was accompanied by an unknown male. He was riding a green BSA bicycle and wearing a raincoat, even though it was a clear night.
Measures expressed concern about the stranger but Bella did not seem alarmed. When she left her uncle's cottage an hour later she again met up with the stranger and the two rode off together.
Around 9:30 that night, a farmer, Joseph Cowell, came across the body of a young woman lying in the road as he was driving his cattle along the Via Devana. There was a pool of blood around her head and her face was covered in blood. He noticed her bicycle lying nearby. When he lifted her up he quickly realized that she was dead and moved her to the side of the road. He arranged for two farm labourers to guard the body while he left to summon the police.
When the police arrived with Dr. E. K. Williams he made a cursory examination of the body and concluded that the young woman had met with an accident while riding her bike. The body was then taken to a nearby chapel in Little Stetton.
But not all of the police were convinced her death was an accident. Police Constable Alfred Hall returned the next morning around 6:30 to conduct a closer inspection of the scene and discovered a .455-caliber bullet lying approximately 17 feet from where the body had been laying. Next he returned to the chapel where the body was and washed the dried blood from the woman's face. It was then that the real cause of death was determined. She had been shot. The bullet had entered her face just below the left eye and had exited on the right side of her face near the temple.
It was not long before the murdered woman's identity was made known, it was Bella Wright and she had last been seen in the company of an unknown man riding a green bicycle.
The police investigation uncovered few leads and the murder was destined to remain unsolved until the following year when an important clue turned up quite by circumstance.
On February 23, 1920, Enoch Whitehouse was guiding a horse drawn barge full of coal along the River Soar when he noticed the towrope dip below the water and then tighten up as if it had snagged on something. Slowly he noticed an object emerge from below the water. The towrope had become tangled around the frame of a green bicycle.
Soon the banks of the river was crawling with police searching the river for more evidence. When they examined the bike frame they noticed that someone had gone through great pains to destroy any identifying evidence from the bike. However eventually they uncovered a faint serial number inside the front fork. They traced the serial number back to the agent who had sold the bicycle. A search of his records showed that a green BSA bicycle had been sold to a Mr. Ronald Light of Derby on May 18, 1910.
Ronald Light was born in October of 1885. He lived a privileged life. His father was a successful inventor of plumbing devices. Unfortunately, Light's life consisted of a series of misfortune, mostly of his own making. In 1902 he was expelled from Oakham School at the age of 17 for lifting a little girl's clothes over her head. At age 30 he attempted to make love to a 15-year-old and admitted to improper conduct with an 8-year-old. In addition, after graduating from Birmingham University as a civil engineer he was employed at Midland Railway Works in Derby. He was fired in 1914 when he was suspected of setting fire in a cupboard and drawing indecent pictures on a lavatory wall.
When war broke out in 1914, Light was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Engineers in 1915. For reasons not disclosed he was court martialed and relieved of his duties in 1916. During this time his father fell out of a two-story window, an apparent suicide. He returned to Derby to live with his mother but rejoined the army as a gunner in the Honourable Antillery Company. He was demobilized in 1919 and sent home suffering from shell shock.
Light had begun teaching mathematics at Dean Close School when on March 4, 1920 his life changed forever. Police arrived at the school and arrested him for the murder of Bella Wright.
Police continued to drag the River Soar searching for clues and on March 19 they dredged up an army holster and a dozen live .455-caliber bullets. The revolver was never found. When examined the bullets were a match to the one PC Hall had found. They were eventually proven to belong Light.
Press coverage of the trial was sensational but it was clearly biased towards Light. His sordid past never made it into print. He was honored as an ex-Army Officer, an engineer, and a teacher. Bella's character, on the other hand, was reduced to a mere factory girl with questionable morals.
Attorney General, Gordon Hewart opened for the prosecution. He laid out the facts of the case as follows: It was proven that Light bought an enamelled green BSA bike. The day before the murder he took the bike in for repairs. The day of the murder when he picked up the bike the mechanic noticed that he was wearing a raincoat. After the murder he was never seen riding his bike again. He was known to be in possession of a revolver. He contended that after leaving Gaulby, Light made an inappropriate advance towards Bella and she fled. In her haste she mistakenly took a longer route home leaving Light the opportunity to take a shorter route in order to overtake her. He laid in wait until she appeared and then shot her.
The prosecution called ballistics expert Henry Clarke to draw a connection between the bullets found in the river and the one found near Bella's body.
However Sir Marshall-Hall was brilliant in his cross-examination of Clarke. He was able to get Clarke to concede that bullet could have easily come from a rifle. He went on to make the case that the fatal shot had been accidentally fired from some distance away. Base purely on conjecture he cast doubt on the fact that Bella had been shot at close range which would have been necessary if Light had shot her with his revolver. He all but got Clarke to admit that the damage to Bella's face would have been more severe if this had been the case.
Light took the stand in his own defense and admitted that the green bike was his. He claims that after he read about the murder he hid the bike in his closet for 5 months. He didn't want to go public out of fear of worrying his ailing mother. He decided that it was best to get rid of the bike instead. He went to the River Soar, dismantled the bike and threw it into the river piece by piece. Unbeknownst to him the entire event was witnessed by a laborer named Samuel Holland. He also admitted that the holster and bullets were also his and that he had disposed of the clothes he was wearing that day. As for the revolver he claimed he was not in possession of the revolver at the time of the murder because it had been taken from him when he was in France during the war.
According to him he met Bella on his way to Little Stretton. She was stooping over her bicycle and asked if he had a spanner so she could tighten up her loose freewheel. He told her no but offered to accompany her which she accepted. When they reached Gaulby he went to have a flat tire mended while she visited her uncle. He met up with Bella again as she left the cottage and they parted ways shortly after leaving Gaulby when his tire and flattened again and he realized he would have to walk.
Throughout his entire well-rehearsed testimony he remained poised and in control and during his cross-examination the prosecution was unable to rattle him or shake his testimony. A fact appeared that to have impressed the jury.
They deliberated for three hours before returning their verdict, Not Guilty! Immediately afterwards there could be heard loud cheering both inside and outside the courtroom.
When asked about the verdict members of the jury declared that they were confident that Light was innocent. They also expressed the opinion that there had been no murder at all.