Neilson, known previously as Donald Nappey, married 20-year-old Irene Tate in April 1955 at the age of 18. His wife persuaded him to leave the army where he was serving as a national serviceman in the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.
Their daughter, Kathryn, was born in 1960.
After his daughter's birth, Nappey changed the family name to Neilson so that the little girl would not suffer the bullying and abuse he had endured at school and in the army because of his surname's similarity to the word nappy.
He was also bullied because of his short stature, five feet six inches.
According to David Bell and Harry Hawkes, Nappey bought a taxi business from a man named Neilson and decided to use that name instead of the former. An alternative theory, proposed by a lodger, Miss Lena Fearnley, who stayed with the Neilson family in the early 1960s, is that Neilson took the name from an ice-cream van from which he and Irene often bought ice-cream for their daughter. Miss Fearnley told the BBC in an interview that he told her, "I like that name."
Turn to crime
A jobbing builder in Bradford, West Yorkshire, Neilson turned to crime when his business failed. It is believed he committed over 400 house burglaries without detection during his early days of crime. Before he became notorious as The Black Panther he was sought under a variety of nicknames such as The Phantom and Handy Andy. To confuse the police, he adopted a different modus operandi every few weeks. For example he would steal a radio from each house and abandon it nearby then when that pattern of behaviour was established he would drop it and do something else. Proceeds from simple housebreaking were low however and after stealing guns and ammunition from a house in Cheshire he upped his criminal activity which resulted in him turning to robbing small post offices. Neilson committed eighteen such crimes between 1971 and 1974. His phobia about dogs meant that he avoided post offices with guard dogs.
His crimes became progressively more violent as he sought to protect himself from occupants prepared to put up a resistance to defend their property. In February 1972 he gained entry to a sub-post office in Rochdale Road, Heywood, Lancashire during the night. Leslie Richardson, the postmaster, and his wife woke to find a hooded man in their bedroom. Richardson leapt out of bed to tackle the intruder while his wife phoned the police. During the struggle, Neilson showed Richardson his sawn off shotgun and snapped in a West Indian accent, "This is loaded." Mr Richardson saw that the gun was pointing up at the ceiling and there was no danger of anyone being shot. He snapped back, "We'll find out if it's loaded," and pulled the trigger himself blasting two holes in the ceiling. The fight continued and Richardson managed to pull Neilson's black hood off to reveal not the West Indian he had expected but a white man with dark staring eyes. Neilson then stamped mercilessly on Richardson's feet breaking several toes and kneed him in the groin. As Richardson collapsed on the floor, Neilson made his escape empty handed. Richardson gave police a description of his masked intruder which turned out to be inaccurate in many respects.Several other photofits of Neilson were similarly unhelpful to the police but one, made by sub postmistress Margaret Grayland, was extremely accurate.
Turn to murder
Neilson's first three murders occurred in 1974. He shot dead two sub-postmasters and the husband of a sub-postmistress as well as brutally battering sub-postmistress Margaret 'Peggy' Grayland in post office robberies. He killed Donald Skepper in Harrogate in February 1974, Derek Astin of Baxenden near Accrington in September 1974, and Sidney Grayland in Langley, West Midlands during November 1974. The Baxenden murder gained Neilson the nickname The Black Panther when, during an interview with a local television reporter, Astin's wife, Marion, described her husband's killer as "so quick, he was like a panther". Alluding to the killer's dark clothing, the enterprising reporter ended his piece by asking "Where is this Black Panther?" and the soubriquet stuck. The Whittle case made him Britain's most wanted man in the mid-1970s and the kidnapper was irrefutably linked to the post office shootings when he shot security guard Gerald Smith six times while checking a ransom trail and forensics showed the bullets were fired from the same .22 pistol that was used to shoot Derek Astin and Sidney Grayland.
Kidnap and murder of Lesley Whittle
Lesley Whittle (1957–1975) was a 17-year-old girl and was Neilson's youngest victim. Whittle was the daughter of noted coach transport business owner George Whittle, who had left his entire fortune to his second wife and their children, Ronald and Lesley. After reading about a family dispute over George's will, and three years of planning, on 14 January 1975 Neilson entered the Whittle family home in Highley, Shropshire, and kidnapped Lesley from her bedroom.
Neilson calculated that the family would not materially miss £50,000 of their fortune, and so made a subsequent demand in a note left at the family home for that sum. A series of police bungles and other circumstances meant that Whittle's brother Ronald was unable to deliver the ransom money to the place and time demanded by the kidnapper.
Whittle's body was found on 7 March 1975, hanging from a wire at the bottom of the drainage shaft where he had tethered her in Bathpool Park, at Kidsgrove, Staffordshire. The subsequent post-mortem examination showed that Whittle had not, in fact, died slowly from strangulation, but instantaneously from vagal inhibition. The shock of the fall had caused her heart to stop beating.
Neilson may have pushed Whittle off the ledge where he had kept her. An alternative to this scenario is that Neilson was not even there when Whittle died and that he panicked and fled on the night of the failed ransom collection without returning to the shaft, believing the police were closing in on him, leaving Whittle alive in the dark for a considerable period of time before she fell to her death.
The pathologist noted that Whittle weighed only 98 pounds (44 kg) when found, her stomach and intestines were completely empty, she had lost a considerable amount of weight and was emaciated. He concluded that she had not eaten for a minimum of three days, the length of time it takes for food to pass through the body, but added it could have been much longer.
Capture and arrest
In December 1975, two police officers, Tony White and Stuart Mackenzie, were in a panda car in a side road keeping a watch on the main A60 trunk road leading out of Mansfield in North Nottinghamshire when they spotted a small wiry man scurrying by carrying a holdall. As he passed the police car he averted his face, drawing Mackenzie's attention. As a matter of routine, they called him over to question him. The man said he was on his way home from work, then produced a sawn-off shotgun from the holdall. He ordered White into the back of the car. The policeman opened the car door but the gunman snapped,"No time for that, climb the seat"! The officer did so with alacrity and the gunman settled himself in the passenger seat, jamming the gun into Mackenzie's armpit.
He ordered them to drive to Blidworth, six miles away and told them not to look at him. This presented PC Mackenzie with a problem. Gently he explained to the gunman that they were going the wrong way and he would have to turn the car round. The gunman agreed but warned both officers if there were any tricks they would both be dead. As they were driving along Southwell Road the gunman asked if they had any rope. As White pretended to look, Mackenzie reached a junction in the road. Turning the steering wheel violently one way then the other, he asked,"which way, left or right"? causing the gunman to look toward the road ahead. White saw the gun drop a few inches and realised this was his chance; he pushed the gun forwards and Mackenzie stamped on the brake. They screeched to a halt outside The Junction Chip Shop in Rainworth. The gun went off, grazing White's hand. MacKenzie fell out of the driver's seat, banging his head on the road. He staggered to his feet and ran towards the fish and chip shop screaming for help. Two men, Roy Morris and Keith Wood, ran from the queue outside the chip shop and helped overpower Neilson. Wood subdued the gunman with a karate chop to the neck before Morris grabbed his wrists and held them for White to snap the handcuffs on. The locals attacked him so severely that in the end the police had to protect him.
They hauled Neilson to iron railings at the side of a bus stop and handcuffed him there before calling for back-up, and when they found two panther hoods on him, they realised that they had probably caught the most wanted man in the U.K. In the subsequent investigation, Neilson's fingerprints were found to match one of those in the drain shaft. In the interview at Kidsgrove police station when he confessed to the kidnap of Whittle, Neilson gave an 18-page statement to DCS Harold Wright, head of Staffordshire CID, and Commander Morrison of Scotland Yard, with the statement handwritten by DCI Walter Boreham.
Trial and conviction
During his trial at Oxford Crown Court, Neilson's defence lawyer Gilbert Gray QC contended that Lesley Whittle had accidentally fallen from the ledge and had hanged herself, and that Neilson had fed her chicken soup, spaghetti and meatballs, and bought her fish and chips and chicken legs. These claims were contested by the prosecution as lies. Neilson had provided his victim with a sleeping bag designed to prevent hypothermia, mattresses, survival blankets, survival bags, a bottle of brandy, six paperback books, a copy of the Times, the magazines Vogue and Home, a small puzzle and two brightly coloured napkins. These items were found in the shaft, and in the subterranean canal running below it, by the police. While on remand, Neilson was interviewed by a forensic psychiatrist, Dr Hugo Buist Milne. Dr Milne's examination found no evidence of insanity. The psychiatrist told the defence team, "I've examined him and he's the classic psychopath of all time." After the case Milne said he was convinced of Neilson's truthfulness when he said he had not murdered Lesley Whittle. However, his claims that the other four deaths were accidental were dismissed by the psychiatrist as excuses for aggressive behaviour. Neilson's defence team, solicitor, Barrington Black, junior counsel, Norman Jones and leading counsel Gilbert Gray all remained convinced of their client's innocence of murder in the Whittle case believing his conviction was simply a reflection of public opinion, a backlash of the publicity given to the hunt for the kidnapper and killer and that he should have been convicted only of the lesser charge of manslaughter.
In July 1976, Neilson was convicted of the kidnapping and murder of Lesley Whittle, for which he was given a life sentence. Three weeks later he was convicted of the murders of two postmasters and the husband of a postmistress. In total Neilson received five life sentences. The judge also gave Neilson a further 61 years: 21 years for kidnapping Lesley Whittle and 10 years for blackmailing her mother. Three further sentences of 10 years each were imposed for the two burglary charges from which he stole guns and ammunition and for possessing the sawn off shotgun with intent to endanger life. All the sentences were to run concurrently. The judge told Neilson that the enormity of his crimes put him in a class apart from almost all other convicted murderers in recent years.
Neilson was found not guilty of the attempted murders of sub-postmistress Margaret "Peggy" Grayland and PC Tony White but guilty of the lesser alternative charges of inflicting grievous bodily harm on Mrs Grayland and possessing a shotgun with the intent of endangering life at Mansfield. A charge of attempting to murder a security guard named Gerald Smith whom he shot six times while checking the Whittle ransom trail was left on file because of legal complications due to fact that Mr Smith died more than a year and a day after being shot. Had this charge gone ahead, he would have told the court that the six bullets had been fired at a dog but instead accidentally hit the unfortunate Mr Smith. The trial judge recommended that Neilson receive a whole life tariff.
After the verdicts, his counsel, Gilbert Gray QC, visited him in the cells below the court. He found his client in the corner of his cell curled up in a foetal position, totally broken and dejected, filled with immense remorse for Lesley Whittle and her family.
Following subsequent legal judgements in various other cases, and the implications of European Union Human Rights laws, Neilson was confirmed on numerous occasions to be on the Home Office's list of prisoners with whole life tariffs, as a succession of Home Secretaries ruled that life should mean life for Neilson.
|“||This is a case where the gravity of the applicant's offences justifies a whole life order. The manner in which the young girl was killed demonstrates that it too involved a substantial degree of premeditation or planning. It also involved the abduction of the young girl. The location and manner of Lesley Whittle's death indicates that she must have been subjected by the applicant to a dreadful and horrific ordeal.||”|
In 2008, Neilson was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, a progressive and fatal condition. He was taken from Norwich Prison to Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital in the early hours of 17 December 2011 after developing breathing difficulties and was pronounced dead the following day