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article imageOp-Ed: The crimes of the Black Panther

By Alexander Baron     Dec 23, 2011 in Crime
A life sentence prisoner died unmourned in a Norfolk hospital earlier this week; his death was reported sparingly, but a quarter of a century ago he was truly notorious.
The term serial killer is usually reserved for the likes of Ted Bundy, men and very occasionally women, who murder for the thrill of it or out of some perverted bloodlust. Donald Neilson murdered four people on separate occasions in pursuit of material gain; such utter ruthlessness must surely deserve that recognition.
In the United States, the phrase Black Panther has political connotations; there was nothing political about this white man and former soldier. David Nappey was born at Bradford in the North of England on August 1, 1936. His surname is said to have led to him being bullied both as a schoolboy and during his army days; his generation saw the long departed institition of National Service, and he appears to have been an enthusiastic soldier, serving in Aden, Cyprus and Kenya in what was then left of the once mighty British Empire.
If he had stayed in the army, he might have earned acclaim for killing people instead of notoriety; instead, he married in 1955 and returned to his hometown. The father of a young daughter, he eked out a living as best he could, but nothing seemed to go right for him. Now known as Donald Neilson, he turned to burglary to supplement his income, and is estimated to have committed something like 400 without being brought to book. Although this represents statistical success, the proceeds of such crimes are typically small. People don't generally keep large sums of money on their property, even commercial premises, and stolen jewellery, consumer goods etc, typically sell at a huge discount wherever and however they are disposed of, so it was probably inevitable that a man who had a certain talent for larceny and a love of guns would graduate to something both potentially more lucrative and deadly.
Neilson's short but bloody career as an armed robber began in February 1972 when he attempted to rob a sub-post office in the Lancashire town of Heywood at dead of night. He nearly bit off more than he could chew when the postmaster leapt out of bed to tackle the hooded intruder as his wife phoned the police.
Neilson was not a big man, but he managed to fight off the spirited counter-attack, blasting a hole in the ceiling, and escaping empty handed. Leslie Richardson's description of his assailant was inaccurate, but at least he didn't identify the wrong person as happened in the tragic case of Thomas Haynesworth.
Such a narrow escape might have discouraged a less determined robber, but whether it was adrenalin or something else, Neilson was anything but discouraged, although it would be two years before he would strike in that fashion again, this time with fatal results.
In February 1974 he murdered the first of three sub-postmasters; the third murder, that of Derek Astin, led to the victim's wife describing him as moving like a panther, and with his black garb, the name Black Panther was born.
The following January, he committed his most notorious crime, kidnapping 17 year old Lesley Whittle, and holding her to ransom. The girl was imprisoned in a drainage shaft with a steel wire around her neck. She never got out alive. At his trial, Neilson would argue that he had not killed her nor intended to kill her, but even if he hadn't, he was as guilty of her murder as much as if he had shot her dead like his other victims.
It may be that the kidnapping of Lesley Whittle provided a bizarre inspiration for Michael Sams, who kidnapped estate agent Stephanie Slater and held her to ransom in 1992. Sams, an amputee, also murdered a young woman named Julie Dart.
Donald Neilson never managed to collect the ransom money from Lesley Whittle's family, and although the net was surely closing in, he was caught by accident.
After being stopped one night by a routine police patrol, he pulled a sawn off shotgun on them and kidnapped them. In view of his utter ruthlessness, there can be little doubt that in due course he would have murdered them both, but the two officers managed to turn the tables on him, and after one of them ran for help, the notorious Black Panther was subdued by them assisted by members of the public after a fierce struggle. The photograph below was taken shortly after his arrest.
Donald Neilson  the notorious Black Panther. This photograph was taken shortly after his arrest. Don...
Donald Neilson, the notorious Black Panther. This photograph was taken shortly after his arrest. Don't feel too sorry for him; the cuts and bruises resulted from resisting arrest. By the time he received them, he had murdered four people. After kidnapping two police officers at gunpoint, Neilson was set about by members of the public who helped subdue him.
British police - public domain
Donald Neilson faced two murder trials; in July 1976, he was convicted of the murder of Lesley Whittle after pleading guilty to lesser charges; two weeks later, he was convicted of the murders of the three sub-postmasters.
Three years ago, suffering from motor neurone disease, the geriatric Neilson applied to the High Court for his whole life tariff to be reduced to 30 years. Although he was obviously no longer a danger to society, the judge ruled that his crimes were so heinous that he could never be released, a lesson that appears not to have be learned by the legal authorities in Scotland.
The 75 year old convicted multiple murderer was admitted to hospital under guard on December 17 after experiencing breathing difficulties. He died the following day.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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