Donald Neilson (born 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.
Neilson 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 woodworking 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.
While 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'.
The sub-post offices
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. He first raided a sub-Post Office in Nottingham and eventually 18 others in Lancashire and Yorkshire, between 1967 and 1974.
On February 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. During the 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.
In 1974, 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.
By the following September, more than 30,000 people had been interviewed in the search for a man whom the media had labelled the Black Panther.
Neilson lay 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.
Police quickly established that this was the same perpetrator as the killing in Harrogate, due to identical methods of entry, clothes and bullets.
Another two 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.
This prompted 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. Identical 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.
The abduction of Lesley Whittle
By 1972, 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.
By the 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.
The ransom demand read:
- 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
When Lesley 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.
Meanwhile, 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.
However, 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 rendezvous.
The same 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. The police 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 some Dymo-tape.
Meanwhile, on 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. At this 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 each other.
Mr Whittle 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. The problem 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.
Neilson had 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.
The grim discovery
Previously, 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.
Almost two 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.
Neilson 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 Panther was. However, on 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 suspiciously.
They called 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 miles away.
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 fish and 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.
Under 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 offences.
A fifth victim
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.
Neilson's 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.
The trial 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.
Immediately 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.
Donald Neilson 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.
Retrospective 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.
Had Neilson decided to end his criminal activity after Lesley's death, it is possible he would never have been caught.
- Donald Skepper - February 15, 1974
- Derek Astin - September 6, 1974
- Sidney Grayland - November 11, 1974
- Lesley Whittle - January 17, 1975
- Gerald Smith - March 1976