A teenage girl, snatched from her bed in the dead of night by a masked man. She would spend weeks, tethered underground in pitch darkness, naked, freezing, hungry and terrified. Then she would meet her death…
On the morning of 14 January 1975, Dorothy Whittle went into her daughter Lesley’s bedroom to wake her, but found her bed empty. In the lounge were three ransom notes demanding £50,000 – and warning that the family must not involve the police.
Student Lesley Whittle was just 17 when she was kidnapped that icy night. The teenager was to become the fourth victim of the killer Donald Neilson, dubbed the Black Panther. But who was the man behind this heartless abduction?
Donald Neilson was born Donald Nappey, in 1936. His childhood was described as ‘unhappy’ – his mother died when he was 11 and, at school, his surname made him the target of bullies.
Donald Neilson, the Black Panther
After school, Neilson went into the Army for National Service. During this time, he served in Kenya, Aden and Cyprus. And it was while in the Forces that he developed a passion for guns.
However, despite being happy in the Army, Neilson was persuaded by his fiancee to leave for a civilian life in Bradford, where the couple would live. They married in 1955, and went on to have a child – and, at this time, he changed his surname.
But his various jobs as a carpenter, taxi driver and security guard all failed. So, in 1965, Neilson began his 10-year career of crime.
Neilson carried out about 400 burglaries without being caught, but still wanted more money. He began robbing post offices and, between 1967 and 1974, carried out 19 raids in Yorkshire and Lancashire.
He became ever more ruthless and, in February 1972, broke into a sub-post office in Heywood, Lancs, in the middle of the night. There, the hooded Neilson was confronted by the postmaster, whom he shot and injured during a struggle.
Two years later, Neilson broke into a sub-post office in Harrogate, North Yorks, where he shot and killed the postmaster. Then, seven months later, on the night of 6 September 1974, Neilson broke into the flat above a sub-post office near Accrington. The postmaster 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 first attack and the two murders.
Although the police were gathering evidence, they still had no real idea of what the killer looked like – although he was now being called the Black Panther by the Press, because of the dark clothing he wore and his athletic build.
The final postmaster to die at the hands of the Black Panther lived with his wife at Langley, in the West Midlands. The couple were stocktaking in the early evening of 11 November 1974, when Neilson entered their shop. Neilson shot the postmaster in the stomach, but not before the man managed to squirt Neilson with ammonia.
Neilson ripped off his mask as the postmaster’s wife came into the room. Fearing he could be identified, he attacked her, fracturing her skull in three places. She survived and was able to give a description.
By 1972, Neilson had decided he needed to step up his criminal activity if he was to get the big payout he wanted and the publicity he craved. He hatched his kidnap plot after reading newspaper reports of a family squabble over a will – and spent three years perfecting his sick plan.
In the early hours of 14 January 1975, Neilson made his way to the Whittles’ home at Highley, Shropshire. Cutting the phone lines outside the house, he then broke in. He went to Lesley’s bedroom, gagged the terrified teenager and took her to his car, where he tied her up and put her on the back seat. She was wearing only her dressing gown and slippers.
Neilson drove Lesley to Bathpool Park in Kidsgrove – a 178-acre area of woodland with several ponds, popular with walkers and cyclists – where he forced her down into the drainage shaft of the nearby reservoir. It was here, on a platform in the shaft, that she was to spend the last few days of her life – alone, cold, naked and terrified, tethered to the side of the shaft by a wire noose, a hood over her head. Neilson forced Lesley to record a heartbreaking message to her parents, with his ransom demands.
Seven weeks later, after a series of misfortunes – Neilson had planned to collect the ransom money from Lesley’s brother, who was to follow complicated instructions, with the money being dropped down another drainage shaft close to where Lesley was being held – the body of the petite teenager, barely 5ft tall, was found hanging in the drainage shaft in Bathpool Park.
It would be 11 months before her killer Donald Neilson was captured and the true horror of what happened would emerge.
It was thought that, when his plans misfired, Neilson pushed Lesley off the ledge in the drainage shaft, strangling her. Another theory is that Neilson was not present when Lesley died – that he fled without returning to the shaft, believing the police were closing in on him, leaving Lesley alive in the dark for a considerable time before she fell to her death.
The pathologist reported that the teenager weighed only just over 6st when found. Her emaciated body suggested that she had not eaten for at least three days, probably more. A post-mortem examination showed that Lesley had not died from strangulation, but from the shock of the fall, which caused her heart to stop.
Caught at last
After the discovery of Lesley’s body, her killer was to remain at large for many months. It was not until 11 December 1975 that Neilson was caught by chance, by two policemen near Mansfield, who saw him acting suspiciously near a sub-post office. Neilson pulled a gun and forced the pair to drive with him. However, after a struggle, they managed to overpower him.
Neilson’s trial for the kidnap and murder of Leslie Whittle began at Oxford Crown Court in June 1976. His defence was that Lesley had accidentally fallen from the ledge and had hanged herself.
In July 1976, 39-year-old Donald Neilson was convicted of Lesley’s kidnapping and murder, and sentenced to life in prison. It was reported at the time that, in court, there was almost applause when the guilty verdicts came back and a great feeling of relief.
Two weeks later, Black Panther Donald Neilson was given three more life sentences for the murders of three sub-postmasters, bringing an end to his decade of crime.
In June 2008, Neilson’s 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. Suffering from motor neurone disease, he was moved to a specialist lifers unit at Norwich.
Donald Neilson died in prison in 2011.