When I was a boy I remember being scared of two monsters out there who might get me: Peter Sutcliffe the Yorkshire Ripper murderer and The Black Panther. I was too young to know I was of no interest to them but was frightened anyway. I can remember walking home from my friend Vincenzo’s house and starting to run so that The Black Panther couldn’t catch me.
For years The Black Panther was unknown and the police couldn't catch him. He was Donald Neilson, an ice-hearted failure who'd burgled 400 properties and then progressed to robbing sub-post offices between 1971 and 1974. He'd murdered three postmasters by shooting them at point blank range. He progressed to kidnap when he read about an 17-year-old heiress called Lesley Whittle in Shropshire who’d inherited a pot of cash from her dad who’d owned Whittles Coaches. He dragged Lesley from her bed one night in January 1975 and hid her down a underground drainage shaft until the ransom was paid. The ransom collection was bungled and Lesley’s body was found hanging the drain shaft. Here I at the former Whittle family home where the poor girl was kidnapped and the drain shaft where her decomposing body was found.
I drove to Highley in Shropshire to find Beechcoft, a large detached house where Lesley’s living nightmare began. I had an old photograph of the house which had been in all the newspapers after Neilson had been caught. It showed lots of space around it so I thought it maybe in a rural setting but I drove passed it, ignoring the Sat-Nav. Beechcroft was smaller than I’d expected and that space around it had been - like most of Britain’s towns - ruined by development. Some small relief came from school fields but it all seemed built-up. I walked up to the house as far as decency allowed. Neilson arrived here in late darkness in January 1975 to break in. He was expecting to kidnap Lesley’s mum or brother having read about their hefty inheritance. Round the back I could see the garage and it was through that Neilson accessed the house. Lesley’s mum was out and by accident Neilson found the 17-year-old Lesley asleep in bed. He gagged her and forced her out of the house wearing only her dressing gown and slippers. He tied her up and lay her on the back seat of his Morris 1100 car. When he drove away unnoticed he must have been elated - the Whittle’s were rich: Lesley’s dad had died five years earlier leaving her £82,000 (he also left three houses and £70,000 to her mum and £107,000 to her brother Ronald.)
Neilson drove the terrified college student southward for 90 minutes to Bathpool Park in Staffordshire. He had been planning this kidnap for three years and knew exactly where to store his bargaining tool. Normally kidnap victims are kept in remote rural buildings or the kidnapper’s home but Neilson was poor and had a wife at home. He chose Bathpool Park as there’re labyrinthine railway and drainage tunnels beneath it. I pulled up in the car park and had a walk around. First I went down to a disused railway tunnel to get a feel for the place. The tunnel was blocked off and the railways tracks gone. I saw random grids and thought there was a sort of Teletubby feel to the place. I strolled round the park and found it’s not really a recreational park. The car park promises some outdoor pursuits but there wasn’t much there; it’s the kind of place you’d walk dogs or go joggings.
I soon found the shaft about 50m from the car park. The aerial photos I had suggested a more rural place and in 1975 it was however houses now encroach on the periphery. Over the years paths have been laid, trees have grown and others have been cut down. I stumbled onto the lid of the shaft, now obscured by dirt and leaves. Dead flowers confirmed this was the head of the shaft. I brushed dirt aside and saw concrete had been dumped and spread across it. I had some photographs of the shaft in 1975 but it looks different now. A thick padlock topped off the security that said “No weirdos are allowed to open the lid.”
Here - probably at about 4am - Neilson forced Lesley down the shaft, put a blindfold on her head and wire noose around her neck. About 2.5m down was a platform on which he’d put a mattress and sleeping bag. Later that morning at Beechcroft the living nightmare began for Lesley’s mum. She found a ransom note demanding £50,000, a threat not to contact the police and an instruction to await a telephone call. Oddly another ransom note had been pushed inside a box of Turkish Delight in the lounge. The Whittles contacted the police who planned to rescue Lesley and catch Neilson simultaneously. The ransom telephone call came from Neilson in which a message recorded by Lesley told her family that she was alright. That night Lesley brother Ronald was to take a suitcase of ransom money to Bathpool Park where I’m stood. He was unfamiliar with the area, got lost and arrived 90 minutes late. This meant he was unable to find a torch that Neilson had left as a signal. Had he found it he’d have been directed to a car containing details of a ransom run all over the Midlands where the money would be dropped at Dudley Zoo.
A week passed with Lesley down the shaft before a breakthrough came. Police examined an abandoned car found in Dudley which contained a cassette tape with Lesley Whittle's voice, her slippers and plastic tape. The kidnapping was leaked to the press and the Whittles appealed for help. As the weeks passed the police returned to Bathpool Park and two drain shafts were examined. In one they found a grisly discovery: on a platform was a mattress and a sleeping bag. Climbing down they found Lesley emaciated body hanging below the ledge.
The kidnapping was big news for months and the nation soon found out the kidnapper was someone already in the news - The Black Panther, wanted for savagely killing four sub-post office workers in bungled robberies. How did they make the link? On the night of the ransom Neilson was waiting at Dudley Zoo but a guard saw he was acting strangely so he shot him dead instantly. Later police found the bullets were the same as those used by a wanted criminal the nation knew as The Black Panther.
Nearly a year passed before Neilson was eventually arrested by a couple of police officers on routine patrol outside a post office near Mansfield in 1975. A man scoping out a post office roused the suspicion of the policemen on patrol in the car. When they spoke to him he pulled out a shotgun and hijacked the patrol car. He was eventually overpowered and at the police station his finger prints matched one from the shaft at Bathpool Park. The Black Panther's reign of terror was over. He died aged 75 in a Norfolk hospital after suffering from motor neurone disease.
I stood over the shaft where Lesley died and pondered a little. I never thought I’d stand where The Black Panther had stood, the man in a black hood who’d I’d been scared of as a boy. In the seventies he was Britain’s most wanted criminal and the hunt for him made all the papers (Peter Sutcliffe - the Yorkshire Ripper - was only just starting murdering in 1975.) Neilson must have known Lesley’s skinny body was hanging by a wire down the shaft (she wasn’t found for about seven weeks.) The shaft may never have been opened so must have hoped her skeleton would rot itself out of existence.
How did the 17-year old Lesley die? She died of vagal inhibition - a medical term for shock which causes the heart to stop but how did she go over the edge? Neilson probably pushed her off while seething with anger. On the night the ransom was to be paid a nightclub DJ was parked in the car park with his girlfriend. He guessed the torchlight flashing in the trees was someone walking their dog but it was probably Neilson. When a Panda car parked up next to him and a bored policeman smoked a cigarette Neilson - incandescent with rage - probably climbed down the shaft and pushed Lesley off the platform. He’d successfully committed about 400 burglaries and 19 post office raids without being caught but this time he’d failed and there’d be no money.
I got back in the car and had a coffee. Four women returning from a dog walk seemed to be looking in the trees where the shaft was but they gave up. I got out and asked if they were looking for the shaft “where Lesley died.” They were all about 60 and knew exactly who I was talking about. “How did you find it?” one asked and I thought to myself “A bit sickening.” I did a salute and left.
Later I went to the church in Highley where Lesley was buried but I'm not sure if I found the grave. I found two Whittle graves. One was old and withered and one wasn't so perhaps she's in there with her mum and dad. Perhaps this murder was so well-known the Whittles don't want to broadcast their burial location.
Neilson accessed the house through the garage shown here...