Donald Nappey on August 1, 1936, nicknamed the Black
Panther) was a jobbing builder who turned to crime when his
business failed to make money—and became a murderer, kidnapper
and Britain's most wanted man.
By the time
Neilson kidnapped a teenage heiress from her home in Shropshire
in 1975, he was already a multiple murderer, having previously
supplemented his meagre earnings as a builder by robbing Post
Offices at gunpoint. A decade of robberies had led to three
postmasters being fatally shot, others being wounded and amounts
of money taken, but little of the publicity which Neilson craved
was generated from them.
married at the age of 19 and had a daughter, Kathryn, in 1960 —
it was at this point he changed his surname from Nappey to
Neilson because he had been teased about it while at school and
while doing national service, and did not want his daughter to
suffer the same humiliation.
Neilson had no criminal history in
his youth, but in 1965 he had turned to burglary and then
robbery when his carpentry and building business, plus an
abortive attempt at a taxi firm, hit hard times.
He developed a
technique that was to become familiar to the West Yorkshire
constabulary, using a brace and bit to drill a hole in the
window frame and using a screwdriver or coat hanger to open the
catch. Because of this, they called him the 'Brace and Bit
Robber'. Although he became extremely skilled at getting in and
out of houses, he never managed to hit the jackpot, and the
proceeds from this activity remained small.
combining dishonesty with running his business, Neilson became
obsessed with the discipline and routine of army life. He had
relished his statutory national service when he was a teenager
and, though persuaded by his wife not to join the services
permanently, continued his passion for the military by forcing
his wife and daughter to take part in games of 'soldiers'.
In 1967, he
branched out into robbing sub-Post Offices. The logic of this
was that these smaller Post Offices were usually only lightly
defended and therefore easier to rob, and with over 23,000 in
the UK, there was almost an infinite choice of targets, but of
course, by the same logic, they would not have as much cash on
the premises as main Post Offices, either.
raided a sub-Post Office in Nottingham and eventually 18 others
in Lancashire and Yorkshire, between 1967 and 1974.
16, 1972, Neilson broke into a sub-Post Office in Heywood,
Lancashire. The owner, Leslie Richardson, had woken up and was
wandering out of his bedroom when suddenly confronted by a
hooded man. A struggle ensued, and the man spoke to him with a
West Indian accent.
struggle, the shotgun Neilson was carrying went off, making a
hole in the ceiling. Mr. Richardson managed to remove the hood
and get a good look at Neilson. Neilson managed to escape out
the rear of the building. Mr. Richardson helped the police put
together a photofit picture of the intruder; the first one of
six, none of which managed to resemble any of the others or
Neilson targeted a sub-Post Office in Harrogate, North
Yorkshire. After tying up the sub-postmaster's 18 year old son,
he confronted the sub-postmaster himself, Donald Skepper, as he
lay in bed with his wife. Mr Skepper attempted to apprehend
Neilson, who shot him as he leapt towards him, Neilson then
fled, empty-handed, and Mr Skepper died of his wounds. Police
cautiously made a connection between this robbery and a previous
one two years earlier in Heywood, Lancashire, although photofits
from the two robberies did not bear great resemblance.
following September, more than 30,000 people had been
interviewed in the search for a man whom the media had labelled
the Black Panther.
low for six months before breaking into the sub-Post Office in
the Higher Baxindale locale, of Accrington, Lancashire. The
owner, Derek Astin, woke to find an intruder in the bedroom and
began a tussle with him, waking his wife. As the fight spilled
out onto the landing, the shotgun went off. Mr Astin died in
hospital of his wounds, while Neilson fell down the stairs but
managed to recover and flee.
established that this was the same perpetrator as the killing in
Harrogate, due to identical methods of entry, clothes and
months passed before Neilson struck again, this time choosing a
different and more cunning method of entry after his previous
tussles with sub-postmasters. Sidney Grayland, the owner of the
sub-post office in Langley, West Midlands, went to answer a
knock at the rear door. Neilson was waiting, hooded and carrying
a torch with a bottle of ammonia attached, but he only succeeded
in squirting himself, forcing him to rip off his mask and reveal
his face, just as Mr Grayland's wife entered the scene.
Neilson to attack her, fracturing her skull, while also shooting
her husband. He left with £800 in Postal Orders from the safe,
with Mr. Grayland dead and his wife critically injured. She
survived and was able to give another description, again not
showing huge similarities to previous photofits.
bullets to the previous two killings were recovered by the
police. They knew they were seeking one man in connection with
the crimes, but the photofits were too contrasting to be able to
narrow down potential suspects.
of Lesley Whittle
Neilson had decided he needed to step up his criminal activity
if he was to gain the big payout he wanted and receive the
publicity he craved. He then read an article in the Daily
Express about Lesley Whittle, a teenage schoolgirl who had
been left £82,500 by her deceased father, George, in his will.
Mr. Whittle had run a successful coach company. Neilson
continued with his sub-post office raids while also concocting a
way to kidnap Lesley and extract a large ransom from her family.
beginning of 1975, Neilson was ready to carry out his plan. On
January 14th, he drove to the Whittle home in Highley,
Shropshire, and silently broke into the 17-year-old sixth
former's bedroom. There was neither struggle nor noise, and he
allowed Lesley to put on a dressing gown and slippers before
quietly taking her with him at gunpoint. On the lounge table,
Neilson left a ransom demand on a box of chocolates which he'd
punched out on a roll of Dymo-tape.
NO POLICE £50000 RANSOM TO BE READY TO DELIVER
WAIT FOR TELEPHONE CALL AT SWAN SHOPPING CENTRE TELEPHONE BOX 6
PM TO 1 PM IF NO CALL RETURN FOLLOWING EVENING WHEN YOU ANSWER
GIVE NAME ONLY AND LISTEN YOU MUST FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS WITHOUT
ARGUMENT FROM TIME YOU ANSWER YOU ARE ON A TIME LIMIT IF POLICE
OR TRICKS DEATH
SWAN SHOPPING CENTRE KIDDERMINSTER DELIVER £50000
IN A WHITE VAN
£50000 IN ALL OLD NOTES £25000 IN £1 NOTES AND
£25000 IN £5 THERE WILL BE NO EXCHANGE ONLY AFTER £50000 HAS
BEEN CLEARED WILL VICTIM BE RELEASED
failed to come downstairs for breakfast the next morning, her
mother went to her room and saw the empty bed. She then went
into the lounge and found the note and immediately raised the
alarm. Lesley's brother Ronald Whittle cautiously brought in the
police, bearing in mind the threat on the ransom demand, and it
was agreed that he should take the ransom as directed.
Neilson had taken Lesley to a disused drainage shaft in a beauty
spot (see Bathpool Park), in the town of Kidsgrove,
Staffordshire. There he left her with a rope round her neck,
basic food requirements and some bedding.
during the next few hours, a freelance reporter had heard that a
kidnap incident was underway and gave the story to a radio
station which, with some disregard for Lesley's safety,
broadcast it. The police duly withdrew Mr. Whittle from the
ransom scene to avoid panicking the kidnapper into believing it
was a honeytrap. The phone in the phone box rang at just before
midnight, but there was no one to answer it. The next night, a
hoax call sent Ronald Whittle on a wild goose chase to a false
night, an angry Neilson shot security guard Gerald Smith while
attempting to raid a security depot.In the hurry to escape the
scene, Neilson left his stolen green Morris 1300 just a few
hundred yards from Mr Smith’s body.
failed to notice the car for eight days, but when it was finally
discovered and searched, a number of relevant items were
discovered in the boot, including a sleeping bag, a tape
recording of Lesley’s voice, torches, a gun and ammunition and
the third night of the kidnap, Ronald Whittle waited at home for
the phone to ring. When it did, a recording of Lesley’s voice
told him to go and wait by a phone box in Kidsgrove. Mr Whittle
drove to Bridgnorth police station, where he was briefed by
Detective Chief Superintendent Lovejoy of Scotland Yard.
point police had not realised the connection between the wanted
Black Panther (who did the Post Office murders) and this kidnap,
and so Scotland Yard were in charge of the Whittle kidnap
investigation. They did not think to exchange information with
then drove to Kidsgrove, followed by several unmarked police
cars. Whittle twice got lost, and it was nearly 3am when he
finally got to the location, and then another 30 minutes to
locate the hidden message. The message instructed him to go to
Bathpool Park and wait for a flashlight signal. He did so, and
waited, but no signal came.
was that Neilson had driven the route and worked out that
Whittle should arrive at Bathpool Park at 2.30am. A couple in a
car had already arrived and were baffled by the flashing light
they saw. The couple also said they saw a police car in the car
park, a claim strenuously denied by local police.
watched it all happen and, convinced that Mr Whittle was
co-operating in a police trap, went into a rage. Received wisdom
suggests that he went back to the drainage shaft to where Lesley
Whittle was held and pushed her off the ledge, throttling her.
However, a conflicting report on a more emotive scale said she
died from shock and terror.
By this point,
the police had matched the findings in the abandoned car to the
sub-post office murders and realised, to their horror, that
Lesley had been kidnapped by the Black Panther. Until this
point, they had not been convinced that the abductor was
dangerous enough to carry out his threat of killing his hostage.
senior crime officers from Scotland Yard had discounted a full
search of Bathpool Park, claiming there would be nothing to
find. However, on the discovery of the Morris 1300, a search was
immediately ordered, and the shaft was found where Lesley's
naked body was discovered hanging from a wire cable. Her feet
were only a few inches from the ground.
months had passed since the day she was abducted, though the
post-mortem suggested she had been killed within 48 hours of her
capture. Had the police conducted a search when Neilson issued
his first demand, Lesley might well have been found alive.
As a result,
there were recriminations within the two police forces
investigating the kidnapping of Lesley — not least the demotion
back to uniformed beat officer of the detective in charge of the
case. Certainly Ronald Whittle, in an interview he gave outside
the police station after being informed that Lesley's body had
been found, laid the blame for his sister's death squarely on
the considerable publicity garnered by the kidnap.
remained at large for much of 1975 and returned to Post Office
robberies, though he committed no more killings in the raids he
carried out. He was finally arrested at the end of the year with
the investigation nowhere near knowing who or where the Black
December 11, two uniformed police officers were patrolling the
streets of Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, when they spotted a man
in black outside a post office, carrying a holdall and moving
him over to their car and asked him what he was doing. Keeping
calm and friendly, Neilson said he was on his way home from work
and gave a false name. One of the policemen asked Neilson to
write his name down. At this point, Neilson produced a sawn off
shotgun. Neilson forced one officer into the backseat and then
got into the front passenger seat. He pointed the shotgun at the
policeman driving and told him to drive to Blidworth, about six
At one point,
the rear seated officer spotted that the gun was pointing away
from the driver and lunged at the gun, pulling the muzzle up. At
the same time, the driver slammed on the brakes, and the gun
went off into the roof of the car. The car stopped outside a
chip shop, in Rainworth, and as the two policemen fought with
Neilson, two customers in the shop joined in.
The four men
struggled with Neilson, who fought like a wild animal, but
eventually was subdued and handcuffed to a handrail. At the
police station, Neilson gave a false name and deliberated at
some length before answering any question put to him.
Eventually, he gave his real name and address.
It was only
when Neilson's home in Bradford, West Yorkshire, was searched
that police realised that the man who had violently struggled
against them was the Black Panther, responsible for the
murder of Lesley and three sub-postmasters. All his Army
accessories were discovered, along with a range of knives, guns
and ammunition, some wire which matched that used to strangle
Lesley, and even a model of a black panther.
questioning, Neilson admitted after 12 hours to kidnapping
Lesley but said her death was an accident. He also claimed that
he never intended to kill any of the postmasters. He was charged
with four counts of murder, as well as numerous related
In March 1976,
Gerald Smith, the security guard whom Neilson shot during the
hunt for Lesley, died as a result of his injuries and the
after-effects of the incident. However, Neilson could not be
charged with his murder under UK law at the time, which declared
that a murder charge could not be brought in respect of a victim
who dies more than a year and a day after the incident which
brings about their death. The law has since been changed.
trial at Oxford Crown Court, which started on June 14, 1976, was
a massive public event, with queues stretching out on to the
street as people tried to catch a glimpse of him.
On July 1,
Neilson was unanimously convicted. He was given a life sentence
for each murder committed—four in total, plus another life term
for causing grievous bodily harm to Mrs Grayland, the wife of
one of the sub-postmasters killed. He was also convicted of
kidnapping, blackmail, making threats to kill, burglary and
possessing firearms with intent to endanger life. The shooting
of the security guard was ordered to lie on file. He was
acquitted on two charges of attempted murder.
judge told him that in his case, life must mean life; only great
age or infirmity should be used as reasons to release him. The
judge also sympathised with the jury over the amount of evidence
they were forced to hear and sift through before reaching their
verdict—he later recommended to the Home Office that each of the
jurors should be declared exempt from further jury service for
the next ten years.
after the trial, police released two photographs of Neilson; one
taken during his spell on remand, complete with blank
expression; and one more infamous photograph, taken immediately
after his arrest, with bruises and cuts plain for all to see as
a consequence of his struggle to stay free. This photograph
appeared on the front of every national newspaper the morning
after his conviction.
became one of Britain's most notorious and infamous criminals
and remains incarcerated in a high-security prison to this day.
He has only ever appealed against one conviction - that of the
murder of Lesley, which was rejected in 1977 - has never tried
to gain his freedom and has been assessed by medical experts as
of above average intelligence and highly obsessional.
The Lord Chief
Justice set a 30-year minimum term for Neilson soon after his
conviction, but successive Home Secretaries then imposed a whole
life tariff. The Home Secretary was later stripped of his powers
to set minimum terms in November, 2002, after a Law Lord's
ruling relating to a case taken to the European Court of Human
Rights, and therefore the original 30-year tariff was restored.
This means that Neilson is eligible for parole in July, 2006,
one month before his 70th birthday. Details of his prison
record, conduct and current location are firmly under wraps, but
it is understood that he is in good health as he nears the end
of his recommended tariff.
documentaries on the capture of Neilson would later lay heavy
blame on the police, who didn't take Neilson's initial demands
and threats seriously enough to order a press blackout, or
thoroughly search Bathpool Park when Neilson first ordered a
ransom drop-off there.
There was also
much denouncement of the police's inability to identify or
locate the Black Panther by the time Lesley's body had been
found and Neilson had vanished. Ultimately, the police were
saved further pressure by the actions of alert uniformed patrol
officers which led to Neilson's arrest.
decided to end his criminal activity after Lesley's death, it is
possible he would never have been caught.
Skepper - February 15, 1974
Astin - September 6, 1974
Grayland - November 11, 1974
Whittle - January 17, 1975
Smith - March 1976
(1 August 1936; also known as the "Black Panther") is a
British multiple murderer, whose most notable victim was Lesley
Whittle, an heiress from Highley, Shropshire, England.
Neilson, known previously as Donald Nappey,
married 20 year old Irene Tate in April 1955 at the age of 18.
Their daughter, Kathryn, was born in 1960. After his daughter's
birth, Nappey changed the family name to Neilson so that the
little girl would not suffer the humiliation that he had endured
at school and in the army because of his surname. According to
David Bell and Harry Hawkes, Neilson bought a taxi from a man
named Neilson and decided, then, to use that name instead of the
An alternative theory, proposed by a lodger,
Miss Lena Fearnley, who stayed with the Neilson family in the
early 1960s, is that Neilson took the name from an ice-cream van
from which he and Irene often bought ice-cream for their
daughter. Miss Fearnley told the BBC in an interview that he
told her, "I like that name."
Turn to crime
A jobbing builder in Bradford, West Yorkshire,
Neilson turned to crime when his business failed. It is believed
he committed over 400 house burglaries without detection during
his early days of crime. Proceeds were low, however, which
resulted in him turning to robbing small post offices.
His crimes became more and more violent and
already having shot dead two sub-postmasters and the husband of
a sub-postmistress as well as brutally battering sub
postmistress Margaret "Peggy" Grayland in post office robberies,
(Donald Skepper in Harrogate, Sidney Grayland in Langley, West
Midlands, and Derek Astin of Accrington) the Whittle case made
him Britain's most wanted man in the mid-1970s.
Kidnap of Lesley Whittle
Lesley Whittle (1957–1975) was a 17-year-old
girl and was Neilson's youngest and best-known victim.
On 14 January 1975, Whittle was kidnapped from
the bedroom of her home in Shropshire, England. Neilson demanded a
£50,000 ransom from her family for her release. Her mother was
asleep in the house at the time. The kidnapper had read that
Whittle had been left a considerable sum of money (£82,000—almost
half a million pounds compared to 2007 figures) by her late father
George (who died in 1967 at the age of 62), who ran a successful
coach company, one of the largest in the country, based at Highley
A series of police bungles and other
circumstances meant that Whittle's brother Ronald was unable to
deliver the ransom money to the place and time demanded by the
kidnapper, who, it is widely believed, pushed Whittle off the
ledge in the drainage shaft where he had tethered her in Bathpool
Park, at Kidsgrove, Staffordshire, strangling her. An alternative
to this scenario is that Neilson was not even there when Lesley
died and that in fact he fled on the night of the failed ransom
collection without returning to the shaft after he panicked,
believing the police were closing in on him, leaving Lesley alive
in the dark surrounded by rats and other vermin to slowly starve
for a considerable period of time before falling to her death. If
the police had searched the park and the shaft the morning after
Ron Whittle's attempt to deliver the ransom the story might have
had a very different ending.
Whittle's body was found on 7 March 1975,
hanging from a wire at the bottom of the shaft. The subsequent
post-mortem examination showed that Lesley had not, in fact, died
slowly from strangulation but instantaneously from vagal
inhibition. The shock of the fall had caused her heart to
literally stop beating. The pathologist, Dr John Brown, reported
that this would have been induced by high blood pressure in her
carotid artery, caused by the constrictive wire loop around her
neck triggering an alarm to her brain via the vagus nerve. The
brain's response to this urgent signal for a reduction in artery
pressure would be to slow down radically the heart and when that
failed, her heart stopped altogether and she died. The pathologist
noted that Lesley weighed only 98lbs when found, her stomach and
intestines were completely empty and she had lost a considerable
amount of weight. Even if Neilson's assertions that he fed her
chicken soup, spaghetti and meatball and bought her fish and chips
and chicken legs were callous lies and the last time she actually
ate was around 7 o'clock on the evening of January 13th this would
only leave a window of around 80 hours for her to have lost the
weight if the allegation that Neilson pushed her to her death in
the early hours of January 17th is to stand scrutiny.
Capture and arrest
In December 1975, two police officers, Tony
White and Stuart Mackenzie, were in a Panda car in a quiet side
road keeping a watch on the main A60 trunk road leading out of
Mansfield in North Nottinghamshire when they spotted a small wiry
man scurrying by carrying a holdall. As he passed the police car
he averted his face drawing Mackenzie's attention. As a matter of
routine, they called him over to question him. The man said he was
on his way home from work, then produced a sawn-off shotgun from
the holdall. He ordered White into the back of the car, the
policeman opened the car door but the gunman snapped,"No time for
that, climb the seat"! The officer did so with alacrity and the
gunman settled himself in the passenger seat, jamming the gun into
He ordered them to drive to Blidworth, six
miles away and told them not to look at him. This presented PC
Mackenzie with a problem. Gently he explained to the gunman that
they were going wrong way and he would have to turn the car round.
The gunman agreed but warned both officers if there were any
tricks they would both be dead. As they were driving along
Southwell Road the gunman asked if they had any rope.
As White pretended to look, Mackenzie reached a
junction in the road. Turning the steering wheel violently one way
then the other, he asked,"which way, left or right"? causing the
gunman to look toward the road ahead. White saw the gun drop a few
inches and realised this was his chance; he pushed the gun
forwards and Mackenzie stamped on the brake. They were outside The
Junction Chip Shop in Rainworth and called for help. The gun went
off grazing White's hand. Two men (Roy Morris and Keith Wood) ran
from the queue outside the fish and chip shop and helped subdue
Neilson. Wood quietened the gunman considerably with a karate chop
to the neck before Morris grabbed his wrists and held them for
White to snap the handcuffs on. The locals attacked him so
severely that in the end the police had to protect him.
They hauled Neilson to iron
railings at the side of a bus stop and handcuffed him there before
calling for back up, and when they found two Panther hoods on him,
they realised that they had probably caught the most wanted man in
Britain. This was confirmed when a fingerprint was found to match
a single partial one found in a notebook in the drainage shaft
with the body of Lesley Whittle, the only fingerprint evidence he
ever made the mistake of leaving.
Neilson was sentenced to life imprisonment in
July 1976 for the murder of Lesley Whittle, two sub-postmasters
and the husband of a sub postmistress. He was found not guilty of
the attempted murders of sub postmistress Margaret "Peggy"
Grayland and PC Tony White but guilty of the lesser alternative
charges of inflicting grievous bodily harm on Mrs Grayland and
possessing a shotgun with the intent of endangering life at
A charge of attempting to murder a security
guard named Gerald Smith who he shot six times while checking the
Whittle ransom trail was left on file because of legal
complications due to fact that Mr Smith died more than a year and
a day after being shot.
The trial judge recommended that Neilson
receive a whole life tariff. He has since been confirmed on the
Home Office's list of prisoners issued with whole life tariffs, as
a succession of Home Secretaries have ruled that life should mean
life for Neilson. The European Court of Human Rights legislation
saw politicians lose that power in November 2002.
In 2008, Neilson applied to the
High Court to have his minimum term reverted to 30 years. On 12
June 2008, however, Neilson's appeal was rejected, and he was told
by the court that he will have to spend the rest of his life in
Now in his seventies, Neilson continues to
serve his sentence at HMP Norwich
and remains one of Britain's longest-serving prisoners.
On 29 June 2008, it was revealed that Neilson
has Motor Neurone Disease, a progressive and fatal disease.
Donald Neilson was 39-years old married man
with a daughter. He lived in Grangefield Avenue and was a man
who liked to keep to himself. Neilson liked to keep himself fit.
He had been a juvenile delinquent and blamed everyone for this
except himself. ied with a teenage daughter and lived in
Grangefield Avenue, Thornaby, Bradford. Between 1972 and 1975 in
northern England a spate of break ins were recorded into sub
post offices. The culprit sooned earned the nickname ' The Black
In the early hours of the morning on the 16th
February 1972 Leslie Richardson, the sub-postmaster at Heywood,
Lancashire, was woken up by a noise that he heard. Going to
investigate he came face to face with a masked intruder. They
fought and during the scuffle the shotgun that the intruder was
carrying was discharged. The shot blasted a hole in the ceiling,
and during the confusion the Sub Postmaster managed to snatch
off the man's hood. The raider broke free and escaped.
Leslie Richardson had been lucky not to have
been hurt. David Skepper was not so lucky. Almost exactly two
years later after a long line of burglaries history repeated
itself. Donald Skepper had tackled the intruder only this time
he was shot and not the ceiling. Donald Skepper died instantly,
the panther had moved up a league and now there was no turning
back. Police recognised the handiwork of the same man from the
distinctive method of gaining entry.
At Higher Baxenden, near Accrington, on 6
September 1974 sub-postmaster Derek Astin went to tackle an
intruder and was shot dead in front of his wife and children.
Sidney Grayland and his wife, Margaret, were
stocktaking at about 7pm in their post office at Langley,
Worcestershire. After Sidney had gone into a storeroom Margaret
heard the sound of a shot. She ran into the store to find her
husband lying on the floor. As she bent over her husband she was
struck over the head and suffered a fractured skull. Several
hours later, two policemen on patrol noticed a light on in the
post office and, on investigating, found the couple. The panther
had got away with about £800. Perhaps he was disapointed with
the return for a nights work or maybe it was the result of
increased confidence, whichever it was the Black Panther decided
to raise the stakes even further.
At Highley, Shropshire, Dorothy Whittle was
puzzled when her 17-year-old daughter, Leslie, failed to appear
for breakfast on 14th January 1975. When her mother went to her
bedroom she found a ransom note demanding £50,000 which had been
punched out on a piece of Dynotape. The tape instructed the
family not to contact the police but to wait for a telephone
call at a call box in Kidderminster that evening. Ronald White,
Leslie's brother, called the police and news of the kidnapping
leaked to the press. The story was carried on the evening
television news and no call came to the telephone box.
The next evening Gerald Smith, a security
guard at a transport depot in Dudley noticed a man hanging
around the depot and asked what he wanted. When he said he was
going to ring the police the man shot him in the back six times.
The assailant was Neilson who had stolen a car and had intended
to leave another ransom note at the depot.
At 11.45pm on 16th January Ronald Whittle
received a telephone call telling him to take the ransom money
to a telephone box in Kidsgrove, Stoke-on-Trent. When he got to
the kiosk he found another Dynotape message that told him to go
to Bathpool Park. When he got there he was to flash his car
lights and the kidnapper would reply by flashing a torch. He
followed the instructions but the kidnapper never turned up.
Meanwhile, police had examined the cartridge
cases from the Smith shooting. It was determined that they came
from the same weapon that had been used in the Black Panther
killings. The car Neilson had stolen had been found and in it
were Leslie Whittle's slippers and a tape recorded message from
the girl asking her relatives to co-operate with the kidnapper.
Chief Superintendent Booth, in charge of the
case, and Ronald Whittle appeared together on television on 5
March. The next day a headmaster at a local school told police
that a pupil at his school had brought him a torch with a
Dynotape message stuck to it that read, 'Drop suitcase into
hole.' The boy who found the torch in Bathpool Park had given it
to the headmaster several weeks before but neither had realised
the significance of the find until the television broadcast.
The police decided to search Bathpool Park.
The following day a policeman examining a drainage shaft in the
park discovered the body of Leslie Whittle. On a narrow ledge
was a sleeping bag and hanging below that, with a wire around
her neck, was the kidnapped girl.
A nationwide manhunt was launched but it was
not until 11 December that the killer was apprehended, and then
by accident. Two policemen in a patrol car, Stuart Mackenzie and
Tony White, were driving through Mansfield Woodhouse,
Nottinghamshire, when they noticed a man with a holdall standing
outside a post office. When they stopped to question them he
produced a shotgun and forced them into their car with Mackenzie
driving and White seated in the back. He told them to drive to
Blidworth, six miles away. As they drove along he told White to
find some rope. When White noticed that the gun was no longer
pointing at Mackenzie he made a grab for the weapon and forced
it upwards. Mackenzie braked, the car coming to a stop outside a
chip shop. The gun went off and two men ran from the queue at
the chip shop to assist the officers. They subdued the man,
whose face looked a mess in photographs taken immediately
afterwards, and handcuffed him to some railings. When they
searched him they found two Panther hoods. When police searched
the attic at Neilson's home they found guns, hoods and house-breaking
Neilson's trial for the kidnap and murder of
Leslie Whittle began at Oxford in June 1976. His defence was
that the girl had accidentally fallen from the ledge and had
hanged herself. He was found guilty. A trial for the killing of
the three postmasters followed immediately, where the defence
was again one about how they were all a series of tragic
accidents. Again, a guilty verdict was returned. He received
four life sentences for the murders and 61 years for the
Donald Neilson, the Black Panther
BBC – Crime Case Closed
For a criminal
determined to outwit the police, kidnap offers a unique chance
to show off your cunning and guile.
So when petty
thief Donald Neilson decided, around Christmas 1974, to step up
into the big league he chose kidnap as his means of promotion.
But his master
plan fell to pieces and he ended up being jailed for life...
distinct similarities between Neilson and another callous
killer, Michael Sams who, in 1992, kidnapped Birmingham estate
agent Stephanie Slater after murdering Leeds prostitute Julie
brought up in West Yorkshire - Neilson in Bradford, Sams in
Keighley - and both were manual workers. Neilson was a jobbing
carpenter, while Sams ran his own workshop. Neilson and Sams
both had scrapes with the law and enjoyed military-style
planning. They were determined to outwit the police and show
their own intellectual superiority.
Trained to kill
was born Donald Nappey in August 1936 and his surname made him
the target for bullies both at school and during his National
Service in Kenya, Aden and Cyprus.
He relished army
life and picked up an interest in guns and survivalism, which he
was to maintain throughout his life. However, his fiancé Irene,
who he married in 1955, persuaded him not to pursue a career in
the services, but to come back to Bradford and settle down.
Kathryn was born in 1960 and it was at this time he decided to
change his name by deed poll to Neilson. This was partly to
protect his own child from suffering the bullying he had
work as a carpenter, but he struggled to make ends meet and also
failed to make a success of a taxi firm and a security guard
business. As financial success continued to elude him, he became
more and more over-bearing and domineering towards his wife and
Turning to crime
In 1965, he
began a career as a burglar in order to supplement his income.
He managed to carry out around 400 burglaries without being
caught, but the financial returns were low so he turned to
robbing sub-post offices. Between 1967 and 1974 he carried out
19 such robberies in Yorkshire and Lancashire but the cash taken
was not enough for Neilson, who became more and more embittered
wife and daughter were kept on a tight leash. Neighbours noticed
how poorly dressed his wife was whenever she was spotted out of
the house. A photograph album found in Neilson's home also
revealed how he would force his wife and daughter to play
"soldiers", dressing up in combat gear, camping underneath
camouflage nets and having battles using soft drink cans as
1972, Neilson broke into a sub-post office in Heywood,
Lancashire in the middle of the night. Postmaster Leslie
Richardson, who lived upstairs, was woken by noises from below
and when he went to investigate he was confronted by a hooded
Neilson, who shot him during the ensuing struggle.
lucky to survive and was able to give police a description, the
first of six photo fits, none of which proved to be a realistic
likeness of Neilson. It was two years before Neilson fired his
shotgun again in anger and this he time took a life.
On 15 February
1974 he broke into a sub-post office in Harrogate, North
Yorkshire and shot dead Donald Skepper when the sub-postmaster
later the Neilson claimed another victim, Derek Astin, in almost
identical circumstances during a robbery at Higher Baxenden,
near Accrington, Lancashire. The police quickly linked the two
murders, and they added a third on 11 November when Sidney
Grayland, 55, was shot dead at his sub-post office in Oldbury,
West Midlands. This time he got away with £800 in cash and
postal orders. The police interviewed thousands in the search
for, what the media called, "The Black Panther".
three people Neilson's exploits had failed to raise much
interest in the national newspapers. All that was to change two
months later, when he turned to kidnap as a means of getting his
hands on the financial jackpot he craved.
first got the idea of kidnapping Lesley Whittle in May 1972,
when he read an article in the Daily Express which gave details
about the £82,500 she had inherited when her father George (who
ran a coach company) died.
He had also read
about a kidnap in the United States in which another heiress had
been imprisoned in an underground cell. Neilson set about
finding all he could about 17-year-old Lesley Whittle and also
looked for a suitable location to her captive in, while he
obtained the ransom.
On the night of
14 January 1975 Neilson broke into Lesley's home in Highley,
Shropshire and quietly abducted her from her bedroom, allowing
her to put on only a dressing gown. It is not known where
Neilson took her initially. In tape-recorded messages made by
her, she sounded calm and not unduly scared. But within days of
her kidnap she is believed to have been taken to the place where
she would eventually die - a deep drainage shaft beneath
Bathpool Park, near Kidsgrove, Staffordshire.
detailed instructions for the Whittle family on a piece of Dymo
tape that he left in the family's lounge. He demanded a £50,000
ransom and told Lesley's older brother, Ronald, to take the
money to a telephone kiosk in Kidderminster, Worcestershire. He
also said that Lesley would be killed if he suspected the police
had become involved. The family did contact the police but
elaborate measures were made to make sure the Neilson was not
A series of
police bungles were now about to put Lesley's life in danger.
West Mercia Police had failed to order a press blackout and when
news of the kidnap leaked through to radio and newspapers in the
Midlands it was immediately picked up. The officer in charge of
the ransom drop decided to call it off, convinced that the
kidnapper would be too spooked to appear. But just after
midnight the phone rang in the kiosk that the kidnapper had
specified. There was no one to answer it.
Superintendent Bob Booth, was leading the inquiry and had an
unblemished record of having solved every one of the 70 murders
he had investigated. He was gutted, "I felt sick that it should
have happened. We had let her down. I had let her down. I'm in
charge, it was my fault," he said in a recent documentary.
A second ransom
drop the following night failed because of invasive press
coverage. Another 24 hours passed and then the "Black Panther"
called the Whittles' home and played a tape-recorded message by
Lesley, in which she gave instructions on another ransom
exchange, this time in Kidsgrove. The directions led Ronald
Whittle to Bathpool Park, but heavy traffic and difficulty
finding more Dymo tape further delayed him. He was 90 minutes
late when he arrived at the park, where he was supposed to wait
for a flashing light. It never appeared.
There were later
severe recriminations between West Mercia Police and the
Staffordshire force with the former claiming the latter had
blundered by sending a Panda car into the park at a key moment.
The following morning Mr Booth wanted to search the park, but he
was over-ruled by a team of Scotland Yard officers who decided
there was nothing to find. Little did they know that only a few
yards from the car park where Ronald Whittle had stopped to drop
the ransom was the top of the shaft where Lesley was imprisoned.
As the days went
by Lesley's mother Dorothy became desperate for the kidnapper to
contact them again. But she was to be disappointed.
A week went by
and then Mr Booth was contacted by West Midlands Police. There
had been a shooting at a Freightliner railway terminal in Dudley
the same night as the ransom drop. A security guard, Gerald
Smith, was fatally injured. The police found an abandoned car.
When they searched it they realised it was connected to the
Inside the car
was a cassette tape and four envelopes that contained detailed
instructions for the ransom drop leading to the Freightliner
terminal. It appeared Neilson's plans had come unstuck when Mr
Smith challenged him in the railway yard. He had been forced to
leave the car and the tape and had abandoned his attempt to
contact the Whittle family. Ballistics evidence also linked the
Gerald Smith shooting with the "Black Panther's" previous
murders, which underlined the danger that Lesley was in.
Mr Booth decided
to mount a proper search of Bathpool Park. This time the police
found a Dymo tape message, which read "Drop the suitcase in the
hole". Nearby was the entrance to the drainage shaft. Detective
Constable Philip Maskery was lowered down the shaft and his
worst fears were realised. As he shone his torch down it picked
out a metal hawser that dangled over a ledge. On the end of that
hawser was Lesley, her naked body dangling. She had been
strangled by the rope after either falling or being pushed off
"To imagine a
17-year-old having to endure that and finally to succumb to it
and die in that horrible cold, damp place beggars belief," said
Mr Maskery. But the discovery of Lesley's body provided few
clues for the police to go on and the "Black Panther" remained
at loose for another nine months. Neilson may have got away with
her murder but for his own greed.
to go back to post office robberies and one night in December
1975 he was spotted by two police officers acting suspiciously
near a sub-post office in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. The "Black
As PC Stuart
McKenzie asked him some routine questions Neilson pulled out a
double-barrelled shotgun and forced the officer and his
colleague, PC Tony White, to drive off at gunpoint.
fearing for his life, took drastic action. He swerved the car,
slammed on the brakes and skidded into the kerb outside a fish
and chip shop. As PC McKenzie and PC White fought with Neilson
they were joined by passer-by Roy Morris, who helped them
The penny drops
in Yorkshire was searched and police found guns, ammunition and
even a model of a black panther. For several days he refused to
answer any questions. But he finally cracked and made a full
confession, claiming that he had accidentally knocked Lesley off
In July 1976, he
went on trial at Oxford Crown Court and was given five life
The Black Panther's victims
15 Feb 1974: Donald
6 Sep 1974: Derek Astin
11 Nov 1974: Sidney
15 Jan 1975: Gerald Smith
17 Jan 1975: Lesley
This profile of
Donald Neilson, the Black Panther, was written by BBC News
Online's Chris Summers.