This week, Hannah tells us about the horrific crimes of Donald Neilson. Yes, you read that right, Donald!
Donald Neilson was born on 1 August, 1936 as Donald Nappey in Bradford. When he was ten, his mother passed away from breast cancer when she was just 33 years old. A year later, he was caught breaking into a shop, but as he was just 11 years old and had recently lost his mother, police slapped him on the wrist and gave him a caution.
In 1955, at age 18, he marries Irene Tate who was aged 20. Donald was a national serviceman in the army and his wife convinced him to leave this. Irene and Donald had baby, a girl called Kathryn in 1960 and Donald decided to change the family name from Nappey to Neilson four years later.
He had suffered bullying at school and in the army due to his surname. He either took this name from the man he bought a taxi firm from or from an ice cream van. No one knows. We will refer to him as Neilson from now on. The shop breaking incident when he was 11 was the first in what turn out to be numerous criminal acts. He had worked as a carpenter, a builder and that taxi firm he bought failed at any success. He started burgling houses and in the early days it is thought that he committed around 400 burglaries. He had a variety of nicknames from “The Phantom” to “Handy Andy”. He adopts a more sinister nickname as we progress in the story. Neilson wasn’t stupid when it came to these burglaries. He used to adopt patterns of behaviours for a couple of weeks, then switch to another pattern to throw the police off his scent. One example of this was that he would steal a radio from a house and then discard it nearby. Once the police realised this was a pattern, he abandoned it and moved on to another. Burgling houses was a low pay off job though. After one burglary in a house in Cheshire, he stole guns and ammunition and decided that he would up the ante. He started robbing post offices and he committed 18 armed robberies between 1971 and 1974. His behaviour and the robberies became increasingly more and more violent as he realised he needed to both protect himself from being caught or suffering injury and also, a lot of people weren’t exactly happy about being robbed and so tried to protect their belongings.
In 1972, he had a very violent altercation at a small post office in Lancashire. The post office was attached to a house and he broke in at night. The postmaster and his wife were woken up by a man in their bedroom. The postmaster jumps up and tries to tackle Neilson and his wife scrambles to call the police. Neilson presents a sawn off shotgun whilst they are fighting, puts on a West Indian accent, and says “This is loaded”. The postmaster notices that the gun is pointing up at the ceiling and says “We’ll find out if it’s loaded” and the postmaster himself pulls the trigger. It blasts two holes into the ceiling. They continue fighting, the gun is useless now, and Neilson beats the postmaster to the floor. Neilson then flees the scene and leaves with nothing. Again, the violence levels ramp up and he starts killing people.
In February 1974, he murders sub-postmaster Donald Skepper at a post office in Harrogate. In September of the same year, he murders another sub-postmaster, Derek Astin in Baxenden. Just nine weeks later, he murders another sub-postmaster Sidney Grayland and brutally attacks Sidney’s wife. Margaret. Margaret does how-ever give a really good description and is able to produce with the police a very accurate photofit of Neilson.
He has killed three people at this point and after the second, he gains a new nickname. Derek Astin’s wife had a television interview and she described the man who killed her husband as QUOTE “so quick, he was like a panther”. At the end of the interview, the re-porter says “Where is the Black Panther?” And this is where he gets the nickname “Black Panther”.
In 1972, prior to the murders, Neilson read a story in the Daily Ex-press newspaper about a dispute over the Will and estate of a man called George Whittle. George had owned a successful coach company and on his death had left his fortune to his mistress, Dorothy, and their two children Ronald and Lesley. George’s estranged wife didn’t receive a penny and so it reported as news as she began a claim against his estate. George’s daughter, Lesley Whittle received around £82,500, which would have been worth around just under £1m in today’s money. Neilson decided that the family would be a good target for a kidnap plot and intended on kidnapping ei-ther Dorothy, George’s widow or their son, Ronald.
Some three years and meticulous planning later, on 14 January 1975, Dorothy, the mother, returned to the family home at 1:30am. She checked in on her 17 year old daughter, Lesley, took two sleep-ing pills and went to bed. Neilson crept into the Whittle family home, having cut a telephone wire which he believed to be a burglar alarm. He encountered Lesley Whittle by complete mistake. In his eyes, he had no option but to take Lesley. He gagged her, and dragged her to his stolen car where he tied her up. It was freezing cold and she was wearing only a dressing gown and slippers.
When Lesley did not come downstairs for breakfast that morning, her mother went up to her room, saw the empty bed and found a ransom note. Neilson had left a note, on a box of sweets, demanding £50,000 ransom and left some specific instructions on what de-nominations the money should be in and how it was to be delivered. The note had really oddly been typed out on a piece of dymo tape (the stuff used for labelling where you spin a wheel of letters and stamp the tape letter by letter. Like an analogue label maker). This made the ransom note 6ft long.. He wanted a family member to go to a phone box and wait for a call. It was decided that Lesley’s brother, Ronald would go to the telephone box and wait for the call that night. Sadly, this case is littered with blunders. The first being that a local reporter had caught wind of the kidnap plot and provided the story to local news outlet who ran stories on it. The police immediately removed Lesley’s brother, Ronald, from the phone box, in case the kidnapper was watching. The phone box did ring, at midnight, but there was no one there to answer it. That night, Neilson attempted to raid the Dudley Freightliner Terminal and in a fit of rage shot Gerald Smith, a security guard, in the back six times. He had stolen a car but had abandoned a short distance from where a very injured Gerald lay. The police didn’t notice this car for EIGHT DAYS and when they finally looked into it and had it searched, they found a recording of Lesley’s voice on a tape recorder, dymo tape similar to which the ransom note had been typed on along with a gun, ammunition, and a sleeping bag.
They linked the type of gun used, ballistics evidence and fingerprints they found on the gun cartridges in this attack to the Black Panther murders. Basically, if the police had realised the car was suspicious and dealt with it sooner, they could have linked the post office murders to the kidnap of Lesley. They would have then been able to get that really good photofit from Margaret Grayland. Anyway, Lesley’s brother, Ronald Whittle returned to the phone box at 11:30pm on 16 January 1975. The phone rang. He answered it and he was played a recorded message of Lesley telling him to retrieve a note taped to the inside of the phone kiosk. Ronald immediately verified to the police that this was Lesley’s voice and it was agreed that he would be the one to drop off the money. He attended Bridgnorth police station and was delayed as police made their arrangements. He was delayed by two hours. The message he found in the first phone box, again typed on this dymo tape told him to go to another phone box in Kidsgrove, this one was at a post office, where he retrieved a further dymo tape message, to go to Bathpool Park.
As the post office murders and the kidnap were not linked by the police, the police agencies who were in charge of Lesley’s disappearance didn’t liaise with any local police agencies. Ronald was some 60 miles from home at this point and didn’t know the area at all well. He got lost twice on the way to Bathpool Park and arrived an hour and a half late. He drove into the park, flashed his headlights and waited. But no one was there. Bathpool Park was searched by police but nothing was found. Everything goes stone cold. No further messages, no further phone calls, nothing. They had put a media black out on the matter, after the first blunder with the local news station, and this was lifted on 10 February 1975. Still nothing. 5 March 1975, Ronald Whittle and and Chief Superintendent Booth who was running the investigation made appearances on local and national news.
The next day, the headmaster of a local school called the police as one of his students had handed him a piece of dymo tape that had the words “DROP SUITCASE INTO HOLE” and another pupil had passed over a torch which they had found wedged into the grill of a ventilation shaft for the Harecastle Tunnel. This tunnel housed a canal and needed these huge ventilation shafts as the boats that passed through them often chugged diesel fumes. Some of these shafts weren’t just a couple of feet wide, they were huge. They looked more like big circular buildings with grills and gates rather than what you would imagine.
They also housed a connecting series of tunnels which dropped and twisted and turned. One of these smaller shafts was referred to locally as the “glory hole”. The police decided to search Bathpool Park again, starting with the “glory hole”. In it they found more dymo tape and the dymo label maker machine. They searched a second smaller shaft and found nothing. They arranged to search the third, and largest ventilation shaft, but had to get it checked first for gas fumes. When it was deemed safe to enter, they entered. They went 22ft (6.7m) down a vertical ladder to the first landing, they went down a further 45ft (14m) and found a tape recorder. They went down a further 54 feet(16m) to the third landing and found sleeping bag, a foam mattress and survival blanket.
They also found the body Lesley Whittle who was hanging from a wire noose with her feet, 6 inches from the floor. On the fourth landing they found some sticky plaster strips that had been fashioned into a blindfold, some size 7 trainers, more dymo tape, a microphone and its cable, a reporters notepad and some trousers. Of all the items they recovered, police were only able to lift one partial fingerprint. And no match for it could be found on their databases. There is speculation regarding exactly how Lesley died. Whilst she was found hanging by her neck, she did not die of strangulation but rather of something called vagal inhibition.
If she fell from one platform to another, with her neck slightly constrained, it could have caused her to go into shock, triggering the vagus nerve and causing her heart to stop. Lesley weighed only 7 stone (98lbs) when her body was sadly found and it was clear that she had lost a considerable amount of weight and had no traces of food in her stomach or intestines. It is theorised after the two failed ransom drops, Lesley was abandoned in the ventilation shaft.
Initial attempts to find the kidnapper proved fruitless. But in December 1975, two police officers sat in their panda car by a main road in Mansfield, North Nottinghamshire. This is about 60miles east of where Lesley’s body was found. They see this shifty looking male carrying a holdall. He turns his face away as he walks past. The police officers – Tony White and Stuart Mackenzie – think this is suspicious, so they call him over and begin questioning him. The man then pulls a sawn off shotgun from his bag and orders the police into their own car by gunpoint. He jams the gun under Stuart’s armpit and orders them to drive to a location 6 miles away. Stuart starts driving but says to the man, we’re facing the wrong direction so I will have to turn the car around. The man is like fine and they carry on driving. The man asks Tony if he has any rope. Whilst Tony feigns looking for some, Stuart jerks the steering wheel one way then the other, asking the man which way should he turn at the approaching junction. This makes the man drop the gun slightly as he looks up to the junction. Seeing this as the perfect opportunity, Tony grabs the gun and yanks it forward and Stuart slams on the brakes. The gun fires, the bullet grazing Tony’s hand.
The sound of the shotgun inside a little panda car must have been deafening. Stuart falls out of the drivers seat, banging his head on the road and shouts for help. They are outside a fish and chip shop. Two men, who were queuing at the fish and chip shop, run over and help to restrain the man. When we say restrain, they beat the man to the ground, then beat the ever loving hell out of him. To the point where the police had to step in to protect him. There is a mugshot of the man and his face is in pieces. They handcuff the man to the railings and call for back up. An investigation was launched into the armed carjacking but they found that the man’s fingerprints matched the partial fingerprint found in the ventilation shaft. The man was Donald Neilson.
He confessed to the kidnap of Lesley in an 18 page statement. The case for the murder of Lesley Whittle goes to trial. The defence argued that Neilson hadn’t killed Lesley, she had fallen from one landing to another. The length of wire that was used to restrain Les-ley was looped around her neck and then was five feet long. The distance from her neck to her feet was four feet. The length of the wire and Lesley was therefore nine feet – the gap between the landings was 6 feet 11 inches. As Lesley left one landing (whether she fell or was pushed), the wire snagged on something, leaving her feet six inches from the floor. If the wire hadn’t snagged, she probably would have landed on her feet. The defence argued that Neilson had provided comfort for her, the mattress, the survival blanket, a sleeping bag, books, magazines and a newspaper. He had also bought her food.
The prosecution argued against everything and in July 1976, Neilson was found guilty of the murder of Lesley. He received a life sentence. Rather than leave it at this like a lot of judges do, he was also found guilty of the murders of Donald Skepper, Derek Astin and Sidney Grayland. He received a further 21 years for the kidnapping charge, 10 years for the blackmailing of Lesley’s mother, three ten year sentences for two burglary charges and one for possessing a sawn off shotgun. He was acquitted of the attempted murder of Margaret Grayland and PC Tony White.
However, was found guilty of the slightly lesser charges of inflicting grievous bodily harm on Margaret Grayland and possessing a shotgun with the intent of endangering life after the incident with the two police officers in Mansfield. The security guard that Neilson shot six times died a year and one day after the attack. A charge of attempted murder was laid on Neilson but due to some legal complications, the charge was not pursued. The charge was left to ‘lie on file’ which basically means there is enough evidence to make a case but it wouldn’t be in the public’s interest to pursue, although it could be resurrected at a later date. Due to the severity of his crimes, the brutality and just general prick behaviour, it was deemed that Neilson should receive a whole life term. Something reserved in English law for truly the worst of the worst.
After receiving this sentence, apparently his defence lawyer went to see him and he was curled up into a ball in the corner of his cell, just crestfallen, morose and filled with remorse about his crimes. What happened to Irene Neilson? Donald’s wife? Well, they were still together. Irene was arrested for cashing loads of stolen postal orders obtained during the robberies. The night of Neilson’s arrest, Irene became worried that he had not returned home and tried to burn a wad of postal orders in their fire. She tried to argue that Neilson had forced her to do it but in the end she was sentenced to twelve months in prison. She was released after eight months for good behaviour. Later in an interview, she said that had she not been Neilson’s wife, she wouldn’t have received such a harsh sentence. She said everyone had wanted blood after her husband’s trial. Neilson tried to appeal in 2008 but his whole life term sentence was upheld by a High Court Judge.
On 17 December 2011, he is taken from his cell in Norwich Prison to hospital suffering from breathing difficulties and died the next day.