Donald Neilson: Murderer known as the 'Black Panther' who killed four people
Belfast-born David McKittrick has been reporting on Northern Ireland since 1971, He has written for the East Antrim Times, the Irish Times and was The Independent's Irish correspondent for many years. He is the author of several books including Making Sense of the Troubles (2000) and Lost Lives (1999).
Wednesday 21 December 2011
Donald Neilson died after spending much of his life in prison for the murders of four people, three men and a teenage girl, which he committed in a two-year killing spree in the 1970s. When he was placed behind bars he was so agile, athletic and ferocious that he was known as the Black Panther. Thirty-six years later, old and infirm, he died without showing any trace of remorse or pity for his victims.
He killed at least three men in the course of armed robberies which he carried out by the score. His teenage victim was Lesley Whittle, who he kept tied up and unfed in a disused underground ventilation shaft. She died from hanging, either because she fell or because he pushed her over the edge into a drain. Three years ago Neilson, suffering from motor neurone disease, took a legal case seeking his release.
Refusing him, a judge said he had subjected Lesley Whittle to "a dreadful and horrific ordeal" and had been ruthlessly prepared to shoot to kill during his robberies. He was described during the manhunt for him as Britain's most wanted criminal, his record of multiple murders placing him among the ranks of the most notorious serial killers.
He was born in Bradford in 1936 as Donald Nappey, a name which attracted some ridicule at school, and later in the army, before he changed it to Neilson. His childhood was said to be unhappy, especially after his mother died when he was 11. During his time on national service in Aden, Cyprus and Kenya he found military life to his taste. According to a one-time friend, "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." This taste for matters military stayed with him: when he was finally arrested police found in his home a collection of guns, masks and other paraphernalia.
After the army he did not settle well into civilian life, working as a builder, taxi-driver and in other jobs. He took to breaking and entering on a large scale, carrying out at least 400 burglaries without being caught. He then moved into more serious crime, committing armed robberies at many post offices in Yorkshire and Lancashire. His practice of carrying a shotgun was to cost three men their lives.
Along the way he acquired the nickname of Black Panther after the wife of one of his victims said he dressed in dark clothes and was "so quick, he was like a panther." While he often carried out detailed planning before his raids he had no compunction about opening fire when confronted, sometimes apparently acting more like a commando than a criminal motivated by money. A detective said of him: "You do what he tells you to do, otherwise you die. He was a determined man in that anyone who challenged him died."
Three sub-postmasters who encountered him during robberies were shot dead in 1974, in Harrogate, Accrington and the West Midlands. In other incidents he meted out savage beatings to those who got in his way. His most notorious killing came in 1975 with the kidnap and murder of teenager Lesley Whittle in a scheme which he conceived after reading that her Shropshire family was well off. He crept into her bedroom and kidnapped her, leaving behind ransom notes demanding £50,000.
He concealed Lesley in a ventilation shaft, where she remained for seven weeks while he attempted to obtain the money. But through misunderstandings and bungles this never happened. Large-scale searches failed to locate her until, nine weeks after the abduction, her body was found hanging in the shaft. Neilson had placed a wire noose around her neck on a ledge, though he always claimed she had not pushed her and she had fallen off.
It was almost a year after the abduction that he was eventually caught after two policemen on routine patrol became suspicious of him. When they questioned him he pulled out a shotgun but was overpowered, after firing his weapon during fierce struggles. Witnesses said he fought "like a wild animal". There was later considerable criticism of the performance of police, with accusations of a lack of efficiency.
It later emerged that a former Chief Constable had destroyed many documents on the case when he retired, maintaining that he had given his word that material not wanted in evidence would never be disclosed – "the reason being it might have been poking our noses into the private lives of people and upsetting families".
Neilson's guilt was quickly established with the discovery of his arsenal of weapons and a fingerprint at the scene of Lesley's death. He spent nine hours giving an 18-page statement confessing to the kidnapping. At his trial he admitted kidnapping and blackmail but denied murder, saying he had carried the girl "like a baby" to her hiding place. "The situation she was in was that she did not know where she was going," he said. "She had to be reassured to let her know I was on her side, as it were." He declared in court: "I disclaim all responsibility for her death. I did not kill her. My conscience is clear as far as the act of killing her. I did not."
He was given life for murder. A few days later he was given three further life sentences for the murders of the three sub-postmasters, with a stipulation that he should never be released. Several years ago he appeared in a documentary in which he said of his nickname: "The public loved it, didn't they? I mean it filled its purpose. If they had called me the Pink Panther you wouldn't have got half the response."
When in 2008 he applied to the High Court for his release a judge described his actions as premeditated and committed for gain against particularly vulnerable victims. Rejecting Neilson's application he said of his crimes: "There are and were no mitigating features."
Donald Nappey (Donald Neilson), murderer and armed robber: born Bradford 1 August 1936; married 1955 Irene Tate (one daughter); died Norwich 20 December 2011.
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