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Donald Neilson: The Black Panther

Crime Files
Donald Neilson: The Black Panther

Donald Neilson was born Donald Nappey on 1 August 1936, and seems to have enjoyed a relatively normal, crime-free childhood, marred only by the teasing and bullying that he was subjected to on account of his surname. National Service, which he enjoyed immensely, was followed by his marriage in 1955. The birth of his daughter, Kathryn, in 1960, prompted him to change his name to Neilson, by deed poll, in order that she would not suffer a similar fate. Neilson was persuaded by his wife to give up a career in the Armed Forces, and they settled in Bradford, where he tried various professions, including the building trade and security work. Financial success was not forthcoming and he branched into house burglary during 1965, to supplement his income. Despite committing hundreds of burglaries, his new trade didn’t provide the income he hoped for, and he graduated to armed post-office robberies by 1967, committing at least 19 of these over a seven-year period. In 1972, one of these raids resulted in the non-fatal shooting of a Lancashire postmaster, who misguidedly put up resistance during the raid. Neilson’s practice of wearing a dark-coloured balaclava during his robberies earned him the sobriquet “The Black Panther” from the media.


Born 1 August 1936The Victims 15 February 1974 - Donald Skepper 6 September 1974 - Derek Astin 11 November 1974 - Sidney Grayland 17 January 1975 - Lesley Whittle 15 January 1975 - Gerald Smith (Died March 1976)Arrested 11 December 1975Trial 14 June 1976Convicted 1 July 1976Died 18 December 2011

The Arrest

Despite the discovery of her body, police made little progress on the whereabouts of the "Black Panther", and it was 9 months later, on 11 December 1975, that he was caught. Having returned to post office raids following the failure of his kidnap attempt, he was finally apprehended by two policemen in Mansfield Woodhouse, near Nottingham, for acting suspiciously in the vicinity of the local post office. A search of his home revealed panther masks, as well as a model of a black panther and, after extensive questioning, Neilson confessed to being the Black Panther. Regarding the murder of Lesley Whittle, however, he claimed her death had been an accident, and that she had been accidentally knocked from the ledge in the drainage shaft.

The Trial

Neilson's trial commenced at Oxford Crown Court on 14 June 1976, amidst a media circus. He was charged with four murders, as well as various other charges of attempted murder, GBH, robbery, kidnapping and firearms possession. Prosecutors were unable to charge him with the murder of security guard, Gerald Smith, as he had survived more than a year and a day beyond the brutal attack, and the law prevented a murder charge being brought, despite his eventual death being a direct result of this attack. The law in the UK has since been changed to prevent this anomaly from recurring.On 1 July 1976 Neilson was unanimously convicted on all charges, with the exception of two charges of attempted murder. He received five life sentences in total, with the judge insisting on a whole of life tariff, with no possibility of parole.

The Crimes

Neilson’s hardened criminal behaviour became more entrenched with each robbery and, on 15 February 1974, during a raid on a Harrogate sub-post office, he shot dead the postmaster, Donald Skepper. Having kept a low profile following the first murder, and the ensuing police hunt, he took another life seven months later, when postmaster Derek Astin was shot dead in Lancashire during the course of another raid. The police quickly came to the conclusion that they were looking for the same killer in both cases.Just 9 weeks later, a third postmaster, Sidney Grayland, was shot dead during the commission of a robbery in the West Midlands. Forensic evidence at the scene linked this death to the first two. Despite the three deaths the media showed little interest in the attacks, and Neilson was dissatisfied with the lack of attention, as well as the relatively slim pickings to be had from the post office raids.Still searching for that elusive big payout, Neilson settled on kidnapping as his best route to success, choosing Lesley Whittle, a 17-year-old heiress to a transport fortune. He gathered as much information about her as he could, and made comprehensive plans for her incarceration, as well as the delivery of the ransom that he planned to demand for her return.On 14 January 1975, Neilson broke into the Whittle family’s Shropshire estate, and abducted Lesley from her bedroom without incident, leaving a ransom note that demanded £50,000. In it, he gave detailed instructions for its delivery by Lesley’s brother, Ronald, and included a warning not to involve the police. Lesley Whittle was held in a drainage shaft beneath Bathpool Park, in Staffordshire.The Whittle family chose not to heed the ransom warning, and informed both the local police and Scotland Yard of the abduction. Poor communication between the different police factions led to a media leak, which convinced police that the kidnapper had been scared off by the media attention. This wasn’t the case, however, and when Neilson called the designated phone box in accordance with his ransom instructions, Ronald Whittle was not there to take his call.Two further ransom delivery attempts were bungled over the next 72 hours, as a result of both poor police coordination and bad luck, but at least police were sure that Lesley was still alive at this time, as it was her voice that recorded the details for the second failed ransom drop, in Bathpool Park itself. On the tape she seemed calm and collected, given the circumstances. It is claimed that Neilson spotted a police vehicle in the area at the time of the second drop, and decided not to risk a police trap, aborting the ransom drop. Unbeknownst to the police, the second failed attempt ended just yards from the drainage shaft where Lesley was imprisoned, but no search of the immediate area was carried out at the time. Furious that his instructions had not been followed, Neilson waited nearby for Ronald Whittle and the police to leave, before entering the drainage shaft and killing Lesley Whittle in a rage. Had police conducted a thorough search before leaving, there was every chance they might have discovered Lesley alive.On the same night as the last aborted drop, Neilson was also involved in a freight train terminal robbery, in which a security guard, Gerald Smith, was fatally injured. Forensic evidence again linked the crime to the “Black Panther” post-office heists, but no connection was made to the Whittle kidnap at that time. It took police more than a week to discover Neilson’s stolen getaway vehicle, which he had abandoned close to the terminal, in which tapes of Lesley Whittle’s voice, and ransom drop instructions, were found.Finally making the connection between the “Black Panther” and Lesley Whittle, and given that 10 days had passed without word from her kidnapper, a proper search of Bathpool Park was instigated, and the news blackout, that had proved so ineffective, was lifted. A televised interview with Ronald Whittle, and public assistance, led to the discovery of Lesley Whittle’s body nearly two months later, on 7 March 1975.  She was discovered hanging naked from a rope tied to the end of a metal hawser in the drainage shaft, and post mortem evidence revealed that she had been killed within days of her kidnapping.

The Aftermath

Successive Home Secretaries have upheld Neilson’s whole life tariff, and he has never sought to appeal his conviction.In November 2002, the Home Secretary’s power to set minimum terms was removed by the European Court, so there was the possibility that Donald Neilson, who was in good health at the time, may have become eligible for release in 2006 as he approached his 70th birthday, having served a 30 year term.But in 2008 High Court judge Mr Justice Teare ruled that Neilson should never be released and that he should die in prison.Neilson died in hospital on 18 December 2011 after being taken there from Norwich Prison whilst suffering from breathing difficulities.