Donald Neilson


Donald Neilson

Born: Donald Nappey

A.K.A.: "The Black Panther"

Classification: Serial killer
Characteristics: Robberies - Kidnapping
Number of victims: 5
Date of murders: 1974 - 1975
Date of arrest: December 11, 1975
Date of birth: August 1, 1936
Victims profile: Donald Skepper (sub-postmaster) / Derek Astin (sub-postmaster) / Sidney Grayland (sub-postmaster) / Lesley Whittle (female, 17) / Gerald Smith (security guard)
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: England, United Kingdom
Status: Sentenced to life imprisonment in July 1976

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.

Criminal beginnings

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 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:




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 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.

Press Opinion

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

Donald Neilson (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.

Early life

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 former.

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.

Turn to murder

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 and Kidderminster.

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 Mackenzie's armpit.

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 Mansfield.

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 prison.

Now in his seventies, Neilson continues to serve his sentence at HMP Norwich and remains one of Britain's longest-serving prisoners.

Motor Neurone Disease

On 29 June 2008, it was revealed that Neilson has Motor Neurone Disease, a progressive and fatal disease.

Neilson, Donald

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 Panther',

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 tools.

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 kidnapping.

Donald Neilson, the Black Panther

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...

There are distinct similarities between Neilson and another callous killer, Michael Sams who, in 1992, kidnapped Birmingham estate agent Stephanie Slater after murdering Leeds prostitute Julie Dart.

Both were 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

Donald Neilson 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.

Their daughter 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 experienced.

Neilson started 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 daughter.

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 and ruthless.

Meanwhile his 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 make-believe grenades.

Shotgun fire

In February 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.

Richardson was 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 confronted him.

Seven months 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".

Despite killing 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.

The heiress

Neilson had 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.

Neilson left 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 alerted.

Fatal mistakes

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.

Detective Chief 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.

Direct appeal

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 Whittle case.

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.

A gruesome discovery

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 the ledge.

"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.

Neilson decided 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 Panther" panicked.

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.

PC McKenzie, 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 overpower him.

The penny drops

Neilson's home 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 the ledge.

In July 1976, he went on trial at Oxford Crown Court and was given five life sentences.

The Black Panther's victims
15 Feb 1974: Donald Skepper
6 Sep 1974: Derek Astin
11 Nov 1974: Sidney Grayland
15 Jan 1975: Gerald Smith
17 Jan 1975: Lesley Whittle

British serial killer Donald Neilson, aka The Black Panther

British serial killer Donald Neilson, aka The Black Panther, with his new wife Irene on their wedding day, 1955.
(Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Black Panther

A police mugshot of British serial killer Donald Neilson, aka The Black Panther, 1975. Neilson was
sentenced to life imprisonment in 1976 for the murders of 17-year-old Lesley Whittle and three
sub-postmasters, as well as a number of attempted murders.
(Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Neilson, bearing the injuries he received during his eventual arrest

The Black Panther's trademark masks were found at his home

Guns were found in Donald Neilson's attic in Bradford

The victims

Donald Skepper was the first of Neilson's victims to die.

Derek Astin from Accrington was the second man to die.

Sidney Grayland was the third and last postmaster to die.

Margaret Grayland was badly injured by Donald Neilson.

Lesley Whittle, 17, an heiress from Highley, Shropshire, England.

Lesley's body was found after two ransom drops failed.



Lesley Whittle spent her last days in a drainage shaft.

Police discovered Lesley Whittle's body in the park.

Mourners at the funeral of Lesley Whittle, including her mother Dorothy, who is being supported between
her son Ronald and her sister Sandra Dorrell, March 1975. 17-year-old Lesley was murdered by
serial killer Donald Neilson, aka The Black Panther.
(Photo by Aubrey Hart/Evening Standard/Getty Images)