Donald Neilson was one of the UK's most notorious criminals. He left a trail of death and destruction in his wake.
Birmingham Post columnist Harry Hawkes, who was chief crime reporter for the Birmingham Evening Mail at the time, covered the case and went to every day of the trial at Oxford Crown Court.
Subsequently he wrote a book generally acknowledged to be the definitive account of the crime. Here he gives his insight in to the panic which unfolded when the Black Panther reigned in 1975.
The death announced this week of a man hunted and jailed for a series of crimes which brought about one of the biggest British police hunts for raiders specialising in stealing Royal Mail packages and parcels in transit or at postal premises, has closed the final door of a saga of kidnap, death and tragedy.
It was the closure of one of Britain’s most alarming and puzzling multiple murder hunts in modern times.
The man who has died was Donald Neilson, more widely known by his underworld nickname of The Black Panther, who created a reign of terror in the early 1970s.
His targets were sub-post offices in Harrogate, Accrington and Black Country robberies in Langley and Dudley.
In the course of these robberies, he had killed each of the four sub-postmasters and at Langley he also seriously injured the wife of the postmaster. Her life was only saved by the skill of hospital surgeons.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the Black Panther’s raids was that he obviously had obtained details of security at post offices throughout the West Midlands area and detectives could not keep guard over all of them. There was an obvious danger to each of the sub-postmaster’s families.
It was then that the Panther moved in a different direction.
He decided to kidnap the young daughter of a prominent Midland motor coach operator’s family, Lesley Whittle, who was abducted one night from her home at Highley, Shropshire and Neilson lost no time in sending a note to her family demanding a ransom of £50,000.
For the police this posed a real problem of ensuring Lesley’s safety.
Getting her back alive was the prime consideration, so panicking her captor had to be avoided at all costs.
Nevertheless, Detective Chief Superintendent Bob Booth and his colleagues were quick to realise that this was merely a change of target by their quarry and that they had to employ steps which did not endanger innocent lives.
These events underlined the serious difficulties which faced the police. Here was a kidnap criminal prepared to switch his victims to any rich family, whatever their background and occupation.
In other words, if they were rich enough, they could be held to pay a hefty ransom for the safe return of a loved one.
What was more, this plan could be adapted fairly easily to different locations and circumstances, all of which Bob Booth worked hard to exploit in his hunt for his quarry before anything more drastic happened to the public or police.
Scotland Yard was asked to loan Murder Squad detectives to the hunt and the man heading this elite squad, Detective Chief Superintendent John Morrison was despatched to the Midlands to help in tracking down the kidnapper.
The searches of Bathpool Park at Kidsgrove, Staffordshire, had produced nothing significant until two schoolboys discovered some scruffy handwritten notes, one of which was apparently from Lesley Whittle.
A search of Bathpool Park later revealed her dead body already hidden down a manhole in the park’s drainage system.
Police forces throughout Britain were alerted to the possibility that anyone running a prosperous business could be a victim unless the Black Panther was identified and arrested quickly.
Few people with prosperous businesses took the precaution of employing a bodyguard. However, some did, although the cost of hiring a professional protection was expensive.
Donald Neilson’s arrest happened quite out of the blue. On the evening of Thursday, December 11, 1975, police constable Tony White, the “village bobby” in the Nottinghamshire mining village of Mansfield Woodhouse, was out on patrol on foot and headed for a rendezvous with the area’s panda car driver, constable Michael Mackenzie.
After sitting for a few minutes they noticed a man walking along the opposite footpath on the main road. He carried a holdall and as he hurried past he averted his face. Something about his demeanour made them realise he was worth a check.
Swinging the panda car right on to the main road, they asked his name, to which he gave them a false one.
They asked what he was doing and he said that he was a lorry driver and had just finished work. When they looked down to write details on their clipboard, he produced a double-barrelled 12-bore sawn-off shotgun from his holdall.
He ordered PC White into the back of the car and got in beside the driver, pressing the shotgun into his side. He ordered the driver to take him to Blidworth. On the way he was taken unawares and was overpowered from behind and the shotgun went off, injuring one of the policemen in his hand.
The panda car stopped outside a chip shop and customers helped to overpower Neilson. Now Neilson’s career in crime was at an end and he was arraigned on nine charges. The first of these was stealing a double-barrelled 12-bore shotgun and cartridges from Dewsbury, Yorkshire.
There were another eight charges of stealing guns and ammunition with intent to endanger life, four of murder and one of attempting to murder a police officer.
At Oxford Crown Court he was given four life sentences for the murders of the postmasters at Harrogate, Accrington and Langley and Lesley Whittle.
The murder of the Dudley postmaster was left on the file.
He was told that he would spend the rest of his life in prison. For Neilson, a ruthless kidnapper, gunman and multi-murderer evaded numerous police hunts throughout Britain.
The death of Neilson, a killer who provoked one of the biggest police hunts ever carried out in Britain, will be mourned by few and a great relief to many.