Some of the world’s most infamous killers have carried out their crimes, sometimes for years, without the police having much in the way of leads or identification. Forensics plays an essential role in capturing felons even when there is little or no substantial information about what they look like, allowing mythology and hearsay to fill the void. It is therefore incredulous that a vital piece of evidence linked to a murderer can be thoughtlessly given away to the public that can hinder arrests and tragically allow more deaths to take place. The notorious and deranged serial killer known as The Night Stalker in the US during the mid-1980’s is such an example. Only identified as a tall man of Latino origin with rotting teeth who terrorised communities in LA, the one closely guarded link to his trademark killings were the imprints of his rare Avia trainers that were assumed by the police to be his ‘lucky’ shoes.
Ricardo Leyva Muñoz Ramírez, known as Richard Ramirez was a serial killer, rapist and burglar who was given the moniker the Night Stalker due to his propensity to violently slay his often middle-aged and elderly victims while they slept. Ramirez would usually invade homes by entering through ground floor windows or back doors. His murderous and cowardly killing spree began in 1984 and involved cruelty, torture, sadism, rape and sodomy. The then 24 year old terrorised communities in greater LA and San Francisco, causing residents to change their sleeping arrangements for fear that the maniac with an interest in Satanism may break into their dwellings.
Night time murders
Ramirez’s reign of terror resulting in 13 known murders, some involving deranged and gruesome mutilations to the corpses such as the gouging of eyes, inspired a range of movies and TV shows. The Texas-born killer’s notoriety with the public was influenced by macabre revelations of his attacks which were often vicious, merciless and sadistic reflecting his obsession with the occult or Satanism.
He represented the archetypal terrifying bogeyman who raped and killed without discrimination or conscience. Ramirez’s reputation as an unstoppable killing machine prompted many residents in LA to even alter their sleeping habits such as one married couple who placed dummies in their bed and spent their sleeping hours separately. The wife slept behind the TV in the lounge with a telephone at hand while her husband stayed in the garage with a gun.
Leaked forensics and capture
When Ramirez migrated from LA to San Francisco continuing his killing spree, his notorious reputation prompted the then Mayor of the city to make a public statement on national television to allay the fears of a terrified public. During the live coverage, she carelessly revealed the only bit of forensic evidence relating to the killer that the police had, Ramirez’s shoes - which he consistently wore during all his attacks. Having watched the TV broadcast himself Ramirez changed to another pair. Despite this set back, Ramirez was eventually brought to book after having been spotted in East Los Angeles on August 30, 1985, by a group of elderly Mexican women in the street. After a frantic chase across the busy Santa Ana freeway and attempting to carjack twice, he was finally subdued by residents, beaten with a crowbar and apprehended by the police.
Having been obsessed with his own notoriety and fame Ramirez was sentenced to death by gas chamber on November 7, 1989. Due to the lengthy appeals process Ramirez which also saw him getting married in San Quentin State Prison in 1996, the unrepentant prisoner was held on death row for 25 years before dying of cancer in 2013 at just 53 years of age.
Ramirez’s past like many mass murderers and serial killers was found to involve a twisted upbringing where he was groomed into normalising death, violence and rape by an older and much-admired relative. The older cousin, who became a mentor to the teenage Ramirez, had served in the Vietnam war and often boasted of his activities which included raping and killing women. He revelled in showing Ramirez obscene Polaroid photos of his beaten, humiliated victims and in one case where he was posing with the severed head of a woman he had raped and murdered. The adolescent Ramirez, already fantasising about sexual violence soon began his predatory activity as a thief after taking up a job at a local Holiday Inn and using his pass key to rob sleeping patrons. It was during one particular break-in that he attempted to rape the occupant until he was caught by her husband and violently beaten. The couple failed to turn up at court to testify allowing Ramirez to escape charges.
Richard Ramirez’s brutal reign of depravity as the sadistic Night Stalker terrorising communities at night has parallels to British counterparts whose murderous activities in the UK also created a sense of paranoia amongst citizens feeling powerless to protect themselves in their own homes. One such man from Bradford, began his nocturnal excursions into violent crime at the same time the Yorkshire Ripper was beginning to keep police forces in the north of England busy.
The Black Panther
If one name conjured up feelings of terror amongst home dwellers and post office owners in the north of England during the mid-70s it was the armed robber given the moniker The Black Panther by the media. Donald Neilson, originally born with the surname Nappey began his life of violent crime at 35 years of age and was initially referred to as ‘Brace & Bit’ because of his techniques to get into properties through windows.
The Panther alias came about later due to a comment from a witness that the robber was ‘so quick, he was like a panther’ and also because of the way Neilson dressed in black clothing with a sinister looking hood masking his face. From 1971 to 74 the mystery night prowler’s bold and frightening invasions of private homes shifted to robbing sub-post offices throughout Lancashire, Yorkshire and the West Midlands, which resulted in three violent deaths of innocent people. But it was the Panther’s decision to kidnap 17-year-old ‘heiress’ Lesley Whittle from Shropshire in 1975 that brought about global news coverage and a massive manhunt which shocked the nation when the kidnapped girl was eventually found hanging.
Born in Bradford in 1936 Neilson married his girlfriend Irene Tate in 1955 who at two years his senior persuaded him to leave the army life he loved in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry when he was just 18. It was possibly around the time of the birth of their daughter Kathryn in 1960 that Neilson decided to change his surname ‘Nappey’ as he hated the thought of his young daughter experiencing the same bullying and teasing that he had suffered as a child at school due to his comical birth name. Arrested for minor shoplifting as a teenager, Neilson’s unhappy childhood was exacerbated by the loss of his mother from cancer when he was just ten years old. But if a difficult childhood shaped Neilson’s antisocial behaviour it would be decades before the Bradford born decorator and taxi driver would become a violent killer and kidnapper and one of the most sought after criminals in British police history.
Post Office Fiend
Neilson’s infamy as a one-man crime spree involved robbing up to 400 homes while enjoying the notoriety of various aliases given to him by the police and press. From 1971 he switched from house burglaries to sub-post offices across three counties of which there were thousands to choose from. The shift in target eventually saw him become a killer and one without conscience when his armed break-ins resulted in three murders when he shot dead two sub-postmasters and the husband of one sub-postmistress in 1974. Despite these callous acts of brutality Neilson never made great financial gains from robbing country sub-post offices where he often bungled his raids. During one break in a violent struggle between Neilson and the sub, postmaster saw him fleeing the building.
All the murders committed by Neilson and which he later claimed were accidents, took place in succession during 1974. The middle-aged victims, Donald Skepper in Harrogate, Derek Astin of Baxenden in Lancashire and Sidney Langley in the West Midlands were all killed within nine months of each other, while sub-postmistress Margaret Grayland, who probably put up a fight, was savagely beaten by Neilson but survived the brutal attack.
It was possibly the failure to steal large amounts that encouraged Neilson to focus on another target, this time the young heiress Lesley Whittle from Shropshire whose father George Whittle, a transport business owner, had revealed in a newspaper article that she was to inherit £70,000 in his will. The callous abduction with a £50,000 ransom was three years in the planning. But far from being the daughter of a tycoon with a Beverley Hills style mansion, Miss Whittle came from a working-class background where the family lived in a modest and unglamorous detached house in the village of Highley. On the night of 14 January 1975 Neilson broke into the Whittle home and kidnapped the terrified teenager allowing her to take her dressing gown before bundling her in the back of his car.
Neilson’s destination was 70 miles away at Bathpool Park at Kidsgrove in Staffordshire where he forced Lesley down a drainage shaft that linked to dark damp tunnels built decades before. It was here that Neilson’s ruthless and inhuman streak revealed itself when he tied the terrified girl with a wire noose around her neck secured with two clamps. Leaving her alone in the dark on a narrow ledge with a few items of food and bedding Neilson made her make several recordings on a tape machine to be used as part of the ransom instructions.
Failed ransom delivery
Neilson’s telephone warnings to the Whittle family not to contact the police were eventually ignored as officers set up surveillance in the hope of arresting Neilson at the point of delivering the ransom. But after a botched attempt by Lesley’s brother to deliver the £50,000 ransom by driving from telephone box to telephone box to receive instructions, a series of unfortunate incidents contributed to Neilson believing that the Whittle family had contacted the police and that he was being observed. When the arranged delivery of money was delayed at the final drop off location due to the brother getting lost, Neilson it is believed returned to his kidnap victim’s subterranean prison. What happened during these final moments as Neilson was angry, agitated and consumed with paranoia is still a subject of conjecture. Whatever the true explanation may be, the end result was one that shocked the nation.
Lesley Whittle was eventually found by the police after an extensive search of Bathpool Park on 7th March 1975. The emaciated girl was discovered hanging over the ledge in what must have been a harrowing sight for all concerned. It was later suggested that Neilson in a pique of anger after not receiving the ransom had returned to the drainage shaft and deliberately pushed Lesley off the ledge to her death. Neilson protested his innocence during his trial claiming that Lesley had simply fallen after making room for him. But as the ruthless kidnapper had already taken the lives of three sub-postmasters while also shooting security guard Gerald Smith six times while planning the ransom there was little reason to believe Neilson would show compassion to a 17-year-old girl. A year after Neilson’s arrest Smith died of complications due to his injuries.
Post mortem shock
During his confession, Neilson insisted he had never meant to kill Miss Whittle and had supplied her with life-saving amenities. But one tragic and disturbing detail about Lesley’s cruel end was that according to post mortem evidence it was believed she had actually died from shock (vagal Inhibition) rather than strangulation. The coroner’s findings revealed that despite the food Neilson claimed he had given her from spaghetti to fish and chips, she had not eaten for at least three days, possibly due to being terrified. The conclusion being that the slim 17-year-old may have died because of the shock falling off the ledge, causing her heart to stop beating. The tragic irony being that Lesley’s feet were only two feet from the ground. Had she not been tethered by the neck she could have landed on her feet at the bottom of the shaft and survived.
Neilson’s violent arrest
In December 1975 Neilson’s reign of terror as the notorious Black Panther came to an end in a dramatic and violent hijacking of a police car with police officers Tony White and Stuart Mackenzie after they had stopped Neilson as part of a routine check near Mansfield off the A60.
Neilson, suddenly brandishing a shotgun ordered the officers to drive him to Rainworth in Nottinghamshire when a few miles further officer White, sat in the back, seized his opportunity to grab the gun. In a violent struggle between White and Neilson, Officer Mackenzie fell out of the police car and managed to attract help from two men who helped to overpower the gunman. The two citizens punched and hit Neilson in a manner so violent and severe that the police had to protect Neilson who at this stage was still not known to be the Black Panther or the kidnapper of Lesley Whittle.
Neilson’s wife’s conviction
At his trial in Oxford in 1976 Neilson was convicted of Whittle’s kidnapping and murder receiving a life sentence. In total, for the murders of the three sub-postmasters and attacks on other victims the once much feared Black Panther was given five life sentences. His wife Irene was later convicted of cashing eighty stolen postal orders that her husband had stolen from the post offices he raided and that she claimed she had been forced to cash. In a bizarre turn of events, Neilson himself acted as a surprise witness for his wife in court but she received eight months in prison instead of probation. Donald Neilson was placed on a list of prisoners who were to serve life tariffs. He died at 75 years of age from breathing problems on 17 December 2011 after having been moved from Norwich Prison to hospital.
Like the US serial killer the Night Stalker, Donald Neilson’s reign of terror, creating fear and dread across whole communities at night has put him in a class apart from other convicted murderers.