Donald Neilson - The Black Panther

The Black Panther: photographer Eddy Rawlinson recalls the capture and trial of the barbaric Donald Neilson

by Eddy Rawlinson

Donald Neilson

Donald Neilson

In December 2011, the multiple murderer Donald Neilson died in prison. An insignificant man and a failure in life, he gained notoriety in the 1970s as ‘The Black Panther’, killing three sub-postmasters and a teenage girl he had kidnapped. Photographer Eddy Rawlinson, who was one of the Press corps at Neilson’s trial, recalls the crime trail that shocked and revolted the whole country.

When Police Constable Stuart McKenzie and his team-mate PC Tony White started their night duty, they never envisaged it would end the fear every post office sub-postmaster throughout Britain had felt for nearly five years.

The two PCs were parked in a side road leading into a posh residential district of Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, when they saw a man walking into the estate. A copper’s instinct made them think there was something strange about this man carrying a haversack. He just didn’t fit in with the type of resident who would be walking into that sort of district at 10.30pm. There had been a spate of robberies in the area and they wanted to know more about him so he was stopped for questioning.

PC Tony White, who was in the passenger seat of the panda car, lowered down the window to ask the man where he was going. He told them he was John Moxon, a lorry driver, and was walking home. PC White wrote down the details and as he lifted his head both he and PC McKenzie were staring straight into both barrels of a sawn-off shotgun.

PC White was told to get into the back seat and the stranger took his place then told PC. McKenzie to drive. His words were “Take it easy, drive slowly, any tricks and you are dead.”

Take it easy, drive slowly, any tricks and you are dead

With the shotgun pointing in the driver’s ribs they tried to make conversation with the gunman to calm down the situation by talking about their families. As the panda car came towards a fork in a road PC McKenzie saw the gunman had slightly lowered his shotgun. He swerved the car and shouted to his colleague “Get him!” Then he heard a loud bang by the side of his face with a burning feeling and realised the gun had gone off. PC White grabbed the gunman as PC McKenzie went to his aid and the panda car screeched to a halt.

Donald Neilson

Constables Stuart McKensie and Tony White. Credit: Eddy Rawlinson

The car stopped alongside a chip shop where waiting customers heard the shotgun go off and rushed to the aid of the two policemen. One customer, Keith Wood, a karate expert, pulled the gunman, who was still struggling with the two policemen, out of the car. He gave the man a karate chop to the side of his neck and saw the shotgun fall to the ground. A crowd of people had now gathered around the scene as the two policemen handcuffed their now prisoner to some railings. Then they had to protect him from the angry crowd who believed he was an IRA terrorist.

On that night in December 1975 the story of the murderous years of Donald Neilson, a Yorkshire odd-job man, started to unfold. It was to end 35 years later on December 18th 2011 when he died in Norwich prison aged 75 after spending half his life in jail.

The summer of 1976 was our hottest in 350 years and I was on my way to Oxford Crown Court for my newspaper to cover the trial of Donald Neilson, known as the Black Panther. Oxford, described as a city of dreaming spires, was chosen to give Neilson a fair trial. It was well away from the areas where he had committed the horrific murders of 17-year-old Lesley Whittle and three sub-postmasters. My job was to photograph witnesses, which gave me plenty of time to sit throughout the whole three weeks listening to the case for the prosecution and defence. On the first morning Judge William Mars-Jones posed for pictures outside the court then went inside to start the three week trial.

Taking photographs within the court’s precincts have never been defined although it was made clear on the opening day by a burly police sergeant who had gathered together the small group of photographers representing the world’s press. “Right lads don’t go beyond this small wall to take your pictures as you are within the precinct. Across the road is Oxford Conservative Club which opens at eleven o clock” and with a wink he added “where you can get a cup of tea”. And so the trial began of Donald Neilson who was born Donald Nappey on August 1st 1936.

From his first days at school his class-mates ragged him about his name and he hated it. That ribbing continued in the army where he served in Cyprus, Aden and Kenya with the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. It was while he was in the army Nappey learned to live the Spartan life from fighting against terrorists. On leave from the army he married a local girl and on return to “civvie street“ set up a business in making garden sheds at his home in Bradford. Still embarrassed with his birth name he changed it to Neilson by deed poll on seeing it plastered over an ice cream van passing his house and discarded the surname Nappey.Donald Neilson

Mr Justice Mars-Jones entered Oxford Crown Court with five feet seven inches tall Neilson standing before the judge as though he was still on an army parade ground. He was nothing like the picture of a bruised and battered prisoner who was handcuffed to railings by the two policemen who had arrested him some seven months previously. His hair was brushed, he was wearing a well-pressed suit and it was hard for me to believe on seeing Neilson’s appearance that here was a ruthless killer standing before the court.

His solicitor was snappy dresser Barrington Black from Leeds, who made a good picture outside the court standing beside his magnificent Jensen Interceptor car. Neilson’s counsel was Gilbert Gray QC, who was a rising star in his profession with chambers in York, and a magnificent orator.

Black Panther

Credit: Eddy Rawlinson

The two men leading Neilson’s defence lived worlds apart from the prisoner standing before the court. Barrington Black was educated at Roundhay School, Leeds, and had been president of Leeds University union in 1952. Gilbert Gray had also been to Leeds University where initially he was reading theology before switching to law. Neilson had left school at 15 years of age to work as an apprentice joiner and didn’t finish his apprenticeship when he came out of the forces. He was described as a failure by those who knew him.

They were to defend a fellow Yorkshireman who had shot dead three post-masters and brutally murdered a 17-year-old girl. During the case, Scarborough-born Gilbert Gray told the jury: “You have heard much about Mr Neilson and the Black Panther but you may when you have heard of this man’s pathetic attempts to make it big, think rather of the Pink Panther and Mr Peter Sellers”. He went on to describe Neilson as a Walter Mitty character with fantasies of military supremacy. The name “Black Panther” had been given to Neilson by a Daily Mirror reporter, Gordon Hughes, after he killed Baxenden sub-postmaster Derek Astin and was described as being dressed all in black.

Donald Neilson

Neilson’s final victim Lesley Whittle

The court heard how Neilson shot dead Harrogate sub-postmaster Donald Skepper in February 1974. Seven months later he killed again, shooting sub-postmaster Derek Astin at Higher Baxenden, Accrington, Lancashire. Seven weeks after the second killing in November 1974, Neilson’s third victim, sub post-master Sidney Grayland, suffered the same fate when he was shot and killed in the West Midlands. On the 14th January 1975 Neilson staged his most audacious and brutal crime, kidnapping 17-year-old Lesley Whittle from her bed while her mother slept in an adjoining room at their home in Shropshire.

Neilson had read about a family dispute in which the young girl had been left an £82,000 fortune by her late father. He broke into her house, bound and gagged the young girl who was of a similar age to that of his own teenage daughter, and held her captive in a ventilation shaft at Bathpool Park, Kidsgrove. Neilson all that time was living in Grangefield Avenue, Thornbury, Bradford, with his wife and daughter. On the 7th of March 1975 Lesley Whittle was found hanging from a wire at the bottom of the sixty foot shaft. She had either fallen or was pushed from the platform where she had been held prisoner after several botched attempts to deliver Neilson the £50,000 ransom he was demanding.

I sat in Oxford Crown Court to hear the prosecution put forward their case and I could not comprehend how a father of a girl who was of similar age as Lesley Whittle could be so outrageous and cruel. While on remand Neilson had been interviewed by a forensic psychiatrist who found no evidence of insanity. The court was told of the ordeal the young girl must have gone through when she was held captive with a wire around her neck on a small platform in a cold, dark and damp ventilation shaft. My own daughter, Gillian, was of the same age as the girl Neilson was accused of murdering, and the defence were asking for manslaughter to be considered in the young heiress’s case. My thoughts were otherwise.Donald Neilson - The Black Panther

What turned this petty thief into a life of murderous crime will never be known. In November 1970 he broke into a house in Dewsbury and stole two shotguns and a quantity of ammunition. After that he took £3,000 from a sub-post office in Barnsley and in the same month stole £3,700 in a similar raid from a sub-postmaster in Rotherham. The same month he raided a house in Cheshire and stole two automatic pistols and three rifles with ammunition then went on to steal £2,900 from a Mansfield sub-post office. In three months he had stolen over £9,000 at gunpoint and crime started to pay then turned into a killing spree for this little man standing before Justice Mars-Jones.

Neilson was given four life sentences for the murders of Lesley Whittle and the three sub- postmasters and was told by the judge he would never be released from jail. A charge of killing another man, security guard Gerald Smith, was left on file as his victim died from gunshot injuries after one year and a day, and it could not be termed as murder.

I watched Neilson’s face as the sentences were read out and there was no sign of emotion as he left for a lifetime to be spent in jail. That life sentence for Neilson, born Donald Nappey on 1st August 1936 in Morley, Yorkshire, ended in December 2011.

His death was announced by the prison authority which read: “HMP Norwich prisoner Donald Neilson was taken to outside hospital in the early hours of Saturday December 17 with breathing difficulties. He was pronounced dead there at approximately 6.45pm on Sunday December 18th 2011.”

Neilson had spent nearly half of his 75 years in jail, starting after two brave policemen apprehended a stranger “who didn’t look right” walking into a residential estate late at night. Scotland Yard and police forces throughout Britain had been looking for an unidentified murderer for nine months.

It was a case of good old fashioned “bobbying” that nearly ended up with the two policemen themselves being victims of Bradford’s Black Panther, who at the time was Britain’s most wanted man.