There are examples all over the web of how not to use a label printer (we were responsible for one of them), yet Donald Neilson’s usage has to be the most sinister. With a string of violent offences to his name, who was he and what made him one of the most dangerous men in 1970s Britain?
Donald Neilson (his birth name was Donald Nappey – he changed it when his daughter was born so she could avoid the same humiliation he endured whilst at school and serving in the military – nappy of course being the British word for what Americans call a diaper) was born in 1936 in Highley, Shropshire. He failed to make it in his career as a builder and later as a taxi driver (the previous owner of the car was called Neilson, the source of Donald’s new surname), and consequently embarked on his new-found career.
Throughout the 1960s, he made a string of burglaries spanning the Midlands, Yorkshire & Lancashire, though presumably these small bounties were not enough to satisfy his greed. In 1972, Neilson broke into a sub-Post Office in Heywood, Rochdale, Greater Manchester where he’d awoken the owner, Leslie Richardson. A struggle had ensued causing Neilson’s shotgun to go off, which was enough of a deterrent for him to escape from the building empty handed.
Two years on in February 1974, Neilson targeted a similar sub-Post Office in Harrogate, Yorkshire. After tying up the postmaster’s son, he entered the bedroom of Donald Skepper and his wife, who were asleep. As he awoke he tried to tackle Neilson, who replied with a shotgun blast that proved to be fatal; Donald Skepper was killed. Police naturally made a connection between this burglary and the Heywood attempt, two years previously. A media frenzy erupted, and Neilson had earned the moniker “The Black Panther”.
Neilson kept a low-profile for six months, given the levels of suspicion and with the constabulary on full-alert. He could not wait much longer though, and on the 6th September he struck at a sub-Post Office at Higher Baxenden, near Accrington. The events that unfolded near-mirrored what went on Harrogate; Derek Astin was awoken by Neilson and consequently shot him dead in front of his wife and children.
9 weeks later, it was early evening and Sydney Grayland was with his wife stocktaking at their post office in Langley, Worcestershire. Sydney went to answer a knock at the door, where Neilson was lying in wait, armed with a torch attached to a bottle of ammonia. When attempting to spray Grayland, Neilson inadvertently sprayed himself meaning he had to reveal his mask, just as Grayland’s wife had arrived on the scene. In a moment of panic, he shot Sydney dead and then attacked his wife, leaving her critically injured with a fractured skull. Neilson fled with £800 in postal orders.
Grayland’s wife survived and was able to provide police with a description, although this had very little correlation with the previous photofits. Police did however, find bullets identical to those found at previous robberies. They were now certain one man was behind all of this.
With Neilson still desperately seeking that elusive payout, on January 14th 1975, he broke into a home in Kidderminster and kidnapped Lesley Whittle, a 17 year old girl and heir to a fortune left by her father George (he ran a successful coach company and died 8 years prior to this incident). Lesley’s mother had gone to her room when she failed to appear for breakfast. It was here she found a ransom note that had been embossed onto Dymo labels. It read:
NO POLICE £50000 RANSOM TO BE READY TO DELIVER WAIT FOR TELEPHONE CALL AT SWAN SHOPPING CENTRE TELEPHONE BOX 6 PM TO 1 PM IF NO CALL RETURN FOLLOWING EVENING WHEN YOU ANSWER GIVE NAME ONLY AND LISTEN YOU MUST FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS WITHOUT ARGUMENT FROM TIME YOU ANSWER YOU ARE ON A TIME LIMIT IF POLICE OR TRICKS DEATH
SWAN SHOPPING CENTRE KIDDERMINSTER DELIVER £50000 IN A WHITE VAN
£50000 IN ALL OLD NOTES £25000 IN £1 NOTES AND £25000 IN £5 THERE WILL BE NO EXCHANGE ONLY AFTER £50000 HAS BEEN CLEARED WILL VICTIM BE RELEASED
Lesley’s brother Ronald alerted the police, despite the severity of the threat on the ransom note. Things became more problematic however, poor communication between different police departments lead to the situation being leaked to the press. It was assumed that the media frenzy would scare the kidnapper from calling, but as the telephone box rang, Ronald was not there to take the call.
Later that night, a security guard named Gerald Smith was on patrol at a depot in Dudley, and shot dead after he’d approached a man to find out what he was doing hanging around. Of course, this was Neilson again.
It was now 11:45pm on January 16th. Ronald received a call that instructed him to take the money to a phone box in Stoke-on-Trent. On arrival, there was another embossed Dymo label waiting for him; the instruction was to go to Bathpool Park, near their family home. It is believed that Neilson spotted a police car in the area, which is why he never provided Ronald ‘the signal’ for where to drop the cash.
Meanwhile, the police had examined the cartridges from where Gerald Smith was shot dead. They matched those used in the robberies and killings committed by the Black Panther. Neilson’s stolen car was also here, where they found tapes with a recording of Lesley Whittle’s voice, her slippers and ransom drop instructions.
10 days had now passed and there had been no more contact from the Black Panther, with police now certain he was culpable. Ronald had gone on television to make an appeal for the return of his sister. A local school headmaster had contacted police after a boy had given him a torch, bearing a Dymo label with the words “drop suitcase into hole” embossed. It had been in his possession for several weeks, but the significance wasn’t obvious until the TV appeal. A proper search of Bathpool Park was needed.
The following day, a body with wire attached to its neck was discovered in a drainage shaft, along with a sleeping bag, police had found Lesley Whittle but sadly it was too late.
Police were now looking for the killer nationwide, and bewilderingly they discovered him by pure accident . Two policemen were driving through Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, when a suspicious male was spotted outside a post-office, carrying a bag.
Police stopped to question him, and the man brandished a shotgun, forcing the officers in the vehicle with the man and his weapon. He instructed them to drive to a place called Blidworth and asked one of the officers to find some rope. The policeman noticed the gun was no longer being pointed at him. He used this opportunity to force the gun upwards and then slammed on the car brakes.
As the car came to a stop outside a chip shop, the shotgun went off and two men from inside the chip shop ran to the police’s assistance. They were enough to overpower Neilson and handcuffed him to the railings outside. Several photographs were taken that were to dominate newspapers the next morning:
Neilson was searched; and found to be carrying 2 panther hoods, had police finally caught their man? His house was also searched, where guns, panther hoods and tools used for break-ins were found.
The trial started June 14th and carried on until July 1st, where he was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Lesley Whittle, three sub-postmasters and the attempted murder of a security guard and a policeman. The trail judge recommended that Neilson should serve a whole life tariff, meaning he would spend the rest of his life in prison (which he unsuccessfully appealed against in June 2008). Last year, it was also revealed Neilson has Motor Neurone Disease.