When police frisked armed robber, kidnapper and murderer Donald Neilson, aka the ‘Black Panther’, they uncovered a terrifying array of equipment, including hoods, a shotgun, an ammunition belt of cartridges, knives, reels of sticking plaster and gloves.
Searches at his Bradford house found an ‘Aladdin’s cave of evidence against him’, consisting of a double-barrelled shotgun, rifle, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, two crossbows – and, more bizarrely, a 6in ceramic model of a panther whose stealth and speed were said to impress Neilson. This evidence amounted to a sizeable cache, explains Gordon Lowe in this impeccably researched and sharply written horror story tracing the kidnap and death of Neilson’s last victim, heiress Lesley Whittle, and the killing of three people in post-office raids.
As well as Neilson’s nine-hour police statement on Whittle, and shorter statements on other murders and attempted murders, magistrates were presented with 245 witness statements and details of 848 exhibits. At Neilson’s Oxford Crown Court trial in 1976, 20 press seats had to be vacated to accommodate evidence. This included a scale model of the drainage system at Bathpool Park, Kidsgrove, where 17-year-old Whittle had been imprisoned 60ft underground on a narrow metal platform. Here she was found naked and hanging from wire around her neck. Neilson denied murder.
Author: Gordon Lowe
£18.99, The History Press
The three years of planning and £50,000 ransom demand – kindled by media coverage of George Whittle’s disputed £300,000 will – epitomised Neilson’s love of the military. Though he initially failed basic army training, Neilson went on to fight in Kenya and Cyprus. In the witness box he also affected a military demeanour, never taking his jacket off despite the heat and referring to his ‘masterplan’.
Lowe, who taught law for 10 years, deftly describes the challenge for defence barrister Gilbert Gray QC. This was that the jury ‘had already gasped at the audacity of this little man in the dock, posing as a military commander’; while prosecutor Philip Cox QC said ‘the decision to murder Lesley Whittle is… totally consistent with the cold, logical, military approach adopted by the accused’.
Neilson’s military obsession also pervaded his home life. When his wife Irene was charged with seven offences of handling stolen postal orders, her solicitor Barrington Black told the court that ‘at home Neilson became a strict disciplinarian… who barked like a sergeant major and told his wife and daughter what to do’. At the appeal against her sentence, Neilson told the court: ‘I was the boss at home and there was no doubt about it… What I said went and if this involved knocking about, it had to be.’
As in his previous book The Acid Bath Murders, Lowe brilliantly portrays the criminal mind and, in Neilson’s case, draws out the central irony that for all his planning and paraphernalia – the fake car number plates, weaponry and 800 vehicle ignition keys found by police – he was eventually picked up by chance by young police constables on a routine patrol.
Nicholas Goodman is a sub-editor at the Law Society Gazette