Page last updated at 12:54 GMT, Wednesday, 27 January 2010
Legacy of Black Panther murders
Donald Neilson fought hard for his freedom
The Black Panther was captured after a fierce fight

The nightmare for the Whittle family of Highley began on the morning of 14 January 1975.

Dorothy Whittle went into her teenage daughter Lesley's bedroom to wake her up and found the bed empty.

In the lounge of the house were three ransom notes demanding £50,000 and no police involvement.

Seven weeks later, after a series of misfortunes, which meant the ransom was not delivered, Lesley Whittle's body was found hanging in a drainage shaft.

It was to be 11 months before the man who kidnapped and killed the 17-year-old student was captured and the true horror of what happened emerged.

Early career

In July 1976 39-year-old Donald Neilson was convicted of the murder and kidnapping of Lesley Whittle after a trial at Oxford Crown Court. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Donald Neilson and Irene Tate
Donald Neilson married Irene Tate in 1955

Two weeks later he was given three more life sentences for the murders of three sub postmasters bringing an end to his 10-year criminal career.

In June 2008 his appeal to have his whole life sentence reduced to 30 years was refused by the High Court and he was told he would die in jail.

Mr Justice Teare said: "It is plain from the sentencing remarks of the judge that the applicant was ruthlessly prepared to shoot to kill if he considered such action necessary.

"The murder of the young girl in March 1975 followed upon an abduction of her for gain. The location and manner of her death indicates that she must have been subjected by the applicant to a dreadful and horrific ordeal."

Unhappy childhood

Donald Neilson was born Donald Nappey in August 1936. His surname made him the target of bullies at school and during his National Service which took him to Kenya, Aden and Cyprus.

Gerry Corfield was a childhood friend of Donald Neilson
Gerry Corfield said Donald Neilson loved playing soldiers

It was during this time that he developed a life long love for guns and other military trappings.

His mother had died when he was 11 and his childhood was described as "unhappy".

Gerry Corfield, a boyhood friend of Neilson's said in a BBC documentary: "He was small, wiry, energetic and quite fit. He seemed to enjoy playing at soldiers, fighting, wrestling. Anything where he could show his physical prowess."

Changed his name

He loved the military life, but was persuaded by his fiancee, Irene, to leave the army and pursue a career in civilian life in Bradford.

Neilson's daughter, Kathryn, was born in 1960 while the couple were living in Grangefield Avenue, Thornaby in Bradford.

Lena Fernley lodged with Donald Neilson
Lena Fernley was a lodger with the Neilsons in Bradford

It was then that he decided to change his name, because he did not want Kathryn to be teased as he had been.

Lena Fernley was a lodger with the couple: "He did say one time that he didn't like the name and it might be an embarrassment to Kathryn as she grew older. Neilson's ice cream van used to pass often. He used to get ice cream for Kathy. He said 'I like that name'."

His attempts to make a living were not successful. His businesses as a carpenter, taxi driver and security guard failed to bring the financial rewards he craved. He turned to crime and in 1965 began his career as a burglar to supplement the family's income.

Road to murder

Neilson committed about 400 burglaries without being caught, but wanted more money. He turned to robbing post offices and between 1967 and 1974 he carried out 19 raids in Yorkshire and Lancashire.

Post master Donald Kepper was shot in 1974
Donald Skepper was the first of Neilson's victims to die

He was still dissatisfied with the return from his crimes and became ever more ruthless.

In February 1972 he broke into a sub-post office in Heywood Lancashire in the middle of the night. The hooded Neilson was confronted by post master, Leslie Richardson who was shot and injured during a struggle.

Two years later, Neilson entered a sub-post office in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, and committed his first murder. He was confronted by Donald Skepper, who was shot dead.

More victims

Derek Astin was Donald Neilson's second victim
Derek Astin from Accrington was the second man to die

It was just seven months later that Neilson killed again, this time in Lancashire. Derek Astin ran the sub-post office in Higher Baxenden, near Accrington.

He woke on the night of 6 September 1974 to find a masked man in the flat were he lived with his wife and children.

He grappled with the intruder and was shot and badly injured. He died soon after arriving in hospital.

Police were now convinced that the same person was responsible for the attack on Leslie Richardson and the two murders.

More clues

Sidney Grayland was murdered by Donald Neilson
Sidney Grayland was the third and last postmaster to die

The police were accumulating more clues, but still had no real idea of what the killer looked like.

The final postmaster to die at the hands of the man known as the Black Panther (because of the dark clothing he wore and his athletic build) was Sidney Grayland, who lived with his wife Margaret at Langley in the West Midlands.

The Graylands were stocktaking in the early evening of 11 November 1974 when Neilson knocked on the back door of their shop. He was shot in the stomach, but not before he had squirted his assailant with ammonia.

Neilson ripped off his mask as Margaret Grayland came into the room. Fearing he could be identified, he beat her savagely, fracturing her skull in three places.

Lights still on

Margaret Grayland survived the Black Panther's attack
Margaret Grayland was badly injured by Donald Neilson

The murder was discovered by two police officers on the beat who noticed that the lights were still on in the post office just before 11pm. They found Mr Grayland dead and his wife badly injured, and £800 in cash and postal orders missing.

Margaret Grayland did recover, but was unable to describe her attacker.

A reward of £5,000 was offered by the Post Office after the murder of Derek Astin, but after the third shooting it was increased to £25,000.

Still Donald Neilson remained at large and unsuspected.

Ransom plan

Lesley Whittle's home in Highley
The home Lesley Whittle shared with her mother

In the meantime, inspired by reading accounts of a kidnapping and ransom plot in America, he was planning his most ambitious crime to date.

He had seen a newspaper article about the legacy Lesley Whittle had received from her father George, a former miner who founded a coach company with his two brothers.

After meticulous planning he made his way to the Whittles' home at Highley in Shropshire and in the early hours of 14 January 1975, the Black Panther cut the phone lines outside the house and broke in through the garage.

He went to Lesley's bedroom, gagged the terrified teenager and took her to his green Morris car where he tied her up and laid her down on the back seat. She was wearing only her dressing gown and slippers.

Underground lair

Neilson drove Lesley to Bathpool Park at Kidsgrove in Staffordshire where he forced her down into the drainage shaft of the nearby reservoir.

Lesley Whittle died in Bathpool Park
Lesley Whittle spent her last days in a drainage shaft

It was here on a platform that she was to spend the last few days of her life - alone, cold and naked, tethered to the side of the shaft by a wire noose.

Neilson had planned to collect the ransom money from Lesley's brother Ronald Whittle, who was to follow a complicated set of instructions culminating in the money being dropped down another drainage shaft close to where Lesley was being held.

Before he left the house in Highley Neilson had left a ransom note on Dymo tape demanding £50,000 and warning the family not to involve the police.

Catalogue of errors

What followed was a series of disastrous misunderstandings and errors that sealed Lesley Whittle's fate.

The family did contact the police, but great care was taken to make sure Neilson was not aware. Scotland Yard were brought into the case and had planned to rescue Lesley and catch the Black Panther at the same time.

The kidnapper instructed Ronald Whittle to take a suitcase containing the ransom money to Bathpool Park. He set off, but he was unfamiliar with the area and got lost, arriving at the spot 90 minutes late. He was also unable to find a torch that Neilson had left as a signal.

West Mercia Police officers put some of the blame for the failed operation onto Staffordshire Police when a patrol car was seen driving through the area. A courting couple in a car had also parked up near to where the ransom was to have been left.

Car dumped

A search of Bathpool Park by West Mercia Police officers revealed no clues, but a week later West Midlands Police contacted the West Mercia Force.

A car had been left near a Freightliner railway terminal in Dudley, where security guard Gerald Smith had been shot and injured. The shooting had happened on the same night as the failed ransom drop at Kidsgrove.

In the car was a cassette tape with Lesley Whittle's voice on it, her slippers and plastic tape, which linked Neilson to the kidnapping. Ballistics evidence also linked him to the shooting.

It was not until early March that a full search of Bathpool Park was carried out.

Body found

The spot in Bathpool Park where Lesley Whittle's body was found
Police discovered Lesley Whittle's body in the park

Questions were asked about why police took so long to search the park. Valuable evidence came to light, some of it handed in by members of the public who were unaware of its significance.

Then the first of two shafts along the Bathpool drainage system was opened. That was where the ransom was to have been dropped. It yielded nothing, but the second shaft soon revealed its terrible secret.

On a ledge part way down was a mattress and a sleeping bag. Lesley Whittle's body was found hanging below the ledge. A post mortem examination concluded she had died shortly after her abduction of shock or strangulation.

The police were now convinced that the same man was responsible for the post office shootings and the kidnap and murder of the 17-year-old student from Highley. The search for the Black Panther became frantic, but it was to be months before Neilson was captured.

Pure chance

He was eventually arrested by a couple of police officers on routine patrol outside a post office near Mansfield in Nottinghamshire in December 1975.

Tony White one of the officers who arrested the Black Panther
Tony White one of the officers who arrested Donald Neilson

They had noticed Neilson acting suspiciously and spoke to him. He pulled out a shotgun and tried to hijack the patrol car.

Tony White was one of the officers involved. He told a BBC documentary: "It all happened very quickly but I got the gun off him and he was still struggling and I had my left arm cross his throat... I began to hit him in the face with my left elbow, still clutching the shot gun in my right fist."

As the gun went off the other officer, Stuart McKenzie, who was driving, jumped out of the car. Pc White thought his colleague had been killed: "I thought I'd cocked it up. I thought to myself 'I've cocked it up: He's gone'."

Wild animal

He then noticed Neilson was groping in the pocket of his coat: "I thought he was going to pull a gun, so I got to my feet and kicked him in the stomach."

The action took place outside a chip shop in the village of Blidworth. Customers rushed to help the officers subdue and handcuff him.

He fought so fiercely onlookers described him as "like a wild animal".

He was taken to the police station and searched. Then his finger prints were taken. They matched one from the shaft at Bathpool Park and the Black Panther's reign of terror was over.

House searched

The tools of Donald Neilson's trade were found in the attic of his home
The Black Panther's trademark masks were found at his home

When officers searched the house in Bradford, where Neilson lived with his wife and daughter, they discovered a large number of guns and other paraphernalia used by the man known as the Black Panther.

The attic at the house was full of weapons, masks and gloves and evidence linking him to the post office murders and the death of Lesley Whittle.

Ray Wagg was a detective with West Mercia Police and worked on the Lesley Whittle murder.

In an interview for BBC Shropshire he described Neilson as merciless: "You do what he tells you to do, otherwise you die. He was a determined man in that anyone who challenged him died."

Planner in the extreme

Guns found in Neilson's attic in Bradford
Guns were found in Donald Neilson's attic in Bradford

Mr Wagg said although Neilson was a family man, he was really a loner and used his military background to plan his crimes: "He was a planner in the extreme in this particular case."

He explained how Neilson had positioned himself so that he could watch Ronald Whittle following his instructions to make sure the police were not involved.

Mr Wagg described Neilson in the witness box at his trial as, "Calculating: He was a small man, a very fit looking man... He always tried his best to deceive but in an apparently pleasant way while giving evidence."

Notes destroyed

Alex Rennie, West Mercia's Chief Constable at the time of Lesley Whittle's murder
Alex Rennie was Chief Constable of West Mercia

Alex Rennie, who is now 92, was the Chief Constable of West Mercia Police when Leslie Whittle was murdered. He explained why some of the notes taken during the enquiry were destroyed when he retired.

He said none of the notes had been used at the trial, and he had given his word that what was not wanted in court would never be disclosed: "The reason being it might have been poking our noses into the private lives of people and upsetting families."

Mr Rennie said journalists and others had virtually demanded to be given the information: "That would have been dishonest and might have caused irreparable damage to families."

Donald Neilson remains in prison. He is suffering from motor neurone disease and has been moved to a specialist lifers unit at Norwich.

Profile: Donald Neilson
12 Jun 08 |  England
Black Panther 'to die in prison'
12 Jun 08 |  England
Chief had Panther notes destroyed
17 Jul 09 |  Shropshire


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