Donald Neilson

Donald Neilson
Donald Neilson

Donald Neilson mugshot
Background information
Birth name Donald Nappey
Also known as The Black Panther
Born 1 August 1936 (1936-08-01) (age 75)
Bradford, West Yorkshire, England, United Kingdom
Number of victims: 4
Span of killings 1974–1975
Country England
Date apprehended December 1975

Donald Neilson (born Donald Nappey, 1 August 1936; also known as the "Black Panther") is a British multiple murderer and armed robber. Following three murders committed during robberies of sub-post offices during 1971–74, his last victim was Lesley Whittle, an heiress from Highley, Shropshire, England, in 1975.


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 bullying and abuse he had endured at school and in the army because of his surname's similarity to Nappy and his lack of height - he was only five feet six inches tall. According to David Bell and Harry Hawkes, Nappey bought a taxi business from a man named Neilson and decided, then, to use that name instead of the former.[1] 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."[citation needed]

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. Before he became notorious as The Black Panther he was sought under a variety of nicknames such as The Phantom and Handy Andy. To confuse the police, he adopted a different modus operandi every few weeks. For example he would steal a radio from each house and abandon it nearby then when that pattern of behaviour was established he would drop it and do something else. Proceeds from simple housebreaking were low however and after stealing guns and ammunition from a house in Cheshire he upped his criminal activity which resulted in him turning to robbing small post offices. Neilson committed eighteen such crimes between 1971 and 1974.(ref: Harry Hawkes, The Capture of the Black Panther, Harrap Books 1978) His phobia about dogs meant that, although they didn't know it, postmasters with guard dogs were safe from his attentions.

His crimes became progressively more violent as he sought to protect himself from occupants prepared to put up a resistance to defend their property. In February 1972 he gained entry to a sub-post office in Rochdale Road, Heywood, Lancashire during the night. Leslie Richardson, the postmaster, and his wife woke to find a hooded man in their bedroom. Mr Richardson leapt out of bed to tackle the intruder while his wife phoned the police. During the struggle, Neilson showed Mr Richardson his sawn off shotgun and snapped in a West Indian accent, "This is loaded." Mr Richardson saw that the gun was pointing up at the ceiling and there was no danger of anyone being shot. He snapped back, "We'll find out if it's loaded," and pulled the trigger himself blasting two holes in the ceiling. The fight continued and Mr Richardson managed to pull Neilson's black hood off to reveal not the West Indian he had expected but a white man with dark staring eyes. Neilson then stamped mercilessly on Mr Richardson's feet breaking several toes and kneed him in the groin. As Mr Richardson collapsed on the floor, Neilson made his escape empty handed. Mr Richardson gave police a description of his masked intruder which turned out to be inaccurate in many respects.[2] Several other photofits of Neilson were similarly unhelpful to the police but one, made by sub postmistress Margaret Grayland, was extremely accurate.

Turn to murder

Neilson's first three murders occurred in 1974. He 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. He killed Donald Skepper in Harrogate in February 1974,[3] Derek Astin of Baxenden near Accrington in September 1974, and Sidney Grayland in Langley, West Midlands during November 1974.[4] The Baxenden murder gained Neilson the nickname The Black Panther when, during an interview with a local television reporter, Mr Astin's wife, Marion, described her husband's killer as "so quick, he was like a panther". Alluding to the killer's dark clothing, the enterprising reporter ended his piece by asking "Where is this Black Panther?" and the soubriquet stuck. The Whittle case made him Britain's most wanted man in the mid-1970s and the kidnapper was irrefutably linked to the post office shootings when he shot security guard Gerald Smith six times while checking a ransom trail and forensics showed the bullets were fired from the same .22 pistol that was used to shoot Derek Astin and Sidney Grayland.

Kidnap and murder of Lesley Whittle

Lesley Whittle (1957–1975) was a 17-year-old girl and was Neilson's youngest victim. On 14 January 1975, Whittle was kidnapped from the bedroom of her home in Highley 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 about a dispute between her father George Whittle's first wife Selina and his second family, common law wife Dorothy, son Ronald and Lesley herself, then a schoolgirl, over George Whittle's will which left all his considerable fortune to be divided between the three surviving members of his second family and nothing to Selina. who had been living in poverty and knew nothing of his wealth. To avoid death duties well before he died in 1970 aged 65, George gifted three houses plus £70,000 in cash to Dorothy, £107,000 to Ronald and £82,000 to Lesley. Selina Whittle began legal proceedings in May 1972 to obtain reasonable provision from her husband's estate. The story was picked up by the Daily Express and read by Neilson who was incensed at Selina's treatment. His kidnapping plan, previously a crime looking to happen, quickly focussed on the Whittles. He decided he was going to kidnap either Ronald or Dorothy Whittle and hold them until a £50,000 ransom had been paid. He had estimated that taking £50,000 from the Whittles would not affect their lifestyle too much because they would still have quite a bit of capital left plus their successful coach business. He got the shock of his life when he walked into Lesley Whittle's bedroom and found her there because he had believed she was away at school. He woke her up and took her anyway.

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 Whittle 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 Whittle 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 Whittle 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 Whittle weighed only 98lbs when found, her stomach and intestines were completely empty, she had lost a considerable amount of weight and was emaciated. 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 13 January 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 17 January 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 the 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 screeched to a halt outside The Junction Chip Shop in Rainworth. The gun went off, grazing White's hand. MacKenzie fell out of the driver's seat, banging his head on the road. He staggered to his feet and ran towards the fish and chip shop screaming for help. Two men (Roy Morris and Keith Wood) ran from the queue outside the chip shop and helped overpower Neilson. Wood subdued 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.

Life Sentence

Neilson received five life sentences[3] 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 whom 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. After the verdicts, his counsel, Gilbert Gray QC, visited him in the cells below the court. He found his client in the corner of his cell curled up in a pre-natal position, totally broken and dejected, filled with immense remorse for Lesley Whittle and her family. 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.[5] Neilson currently serves his sentence at HMP Norwich[6] and is one of Britain's longest-serving prisoners. On 29 June 2008, it was revealed that Neilson has Motor Neurone Disease, a progressive and fatal disease.[7]


Further reading

Adam Mars-Jones, Lantern Lecture - Bathpool Park

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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