Donald Neilson: Murderer known as the 'Black Panther' who killed four people

 

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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing