TRANSCRIPT - Donald Neilson: Arrest And Trial Of The Black Panther (Part 2 Of 2)

 [Music] this podcast contains descriptions of death and violence that some listeners may find upsetting. Help me for god's sake he's got a gun pc Stuart McKenzie staggered out of the patrol car two lads stood open-mouthed on the pavement outside the junction fish and chip shop in Rainworth Nottinghamshire time seemed to stand still then 18-year-old Paul Cullen and his friend Derek Smart sprinted to the corner phone box and dialled 999. it took 12 minutes for one day's policeman and a gang of have-a-go heroes to restrain Donald Neilson his coat came open during the struggle revealing knives and the bandolier of shotgun cartridges Paul Cullen remembers the melee outside the chip shop I could just see a load of people gathering around and helping the policeman what was not took in a bishop that was trying to help him to restrain him to the railings like and when we got back down there he wasn't quite at the railings but everybody was trying to get involved the best they could to help the policeman because it was on his own at that point I was just thinking that we were looking to be alive being a double-barrelled sawn off shotgun if that gun would have gone off in our direction we'd have been blown through the wind of me and derry what's the one thing that you'll remember above everything else about what happened that night the one thing that really sticks with you well there's actually two I’ve got the voice of the policeman him for help just disease he slammed his brakes on and also the noise from the gun so we could pick one out of the two there George Collins was an RAF serviceman at the time he left the Robin Hood pub across the road to see what the commotion was about in an email he told the Six O’clock Knock when I arrived on the scene one of the two PCs I think McKenzie was holding the shotgun trying to open the breach I asked if he needed help and he moved it towards me I operated a lever on top of the breach and the gun opened as it did the two cartridges popped out a short way McKenzie kept hold of the gun and I took hold of the cartridges they were placed in bags then put in the boot of the police vehicle along with the gun Neilson was handcuffed to the railings between the toilet block and the chippy he had a Black eye I’m not sure which side I went into the chippy then headed home the next day I travelled back to Edinburgh where I was stationed in the RAF none of my details were taken at the time of the incident some weeks later I had a call from not CID someone had obviously done some leg work and came up with my name I was reported in the local paper as the missing link i.e. how did the gun get in a safe state and the cartridges end up in the boot I had to travel to Nottingham to give a statement and have my fingerprints taken for elimination purposes you're listening to the Six O’clock Knock the true crime podcast that examines historic crimes through a modern lens in part two of our review of the Black Panther case we'll look at the trial of Donald Neilson the prosecution of his wife Irene and the repercussions for policing in the UK were lessons learned from the hunt for the Black Panther remember he was free for 11 months after Lesley Whittle's death and he was caught accidentally by two police officers who were almost certainly being driven to their death by the super fit kidnapper and multiple murderer and last but not least we'll ask how easy it would be for a modern day Black Panther to offend with the impunity that characterized Neilson’s reign of terror so how did Lesley Whittle meet her death Neilson swore that she slid off the platform although he did not see her go over he told the Court he went down the ladder for the last time in order to set Lesley free as I descended I saw Lesley had started to move as she normally did to allow me to get off the ladder onto the platform beside her as I stepped from the ladder I had one foot on the landing I took my foot off the ladder and turned and it was while I was doing this to the look round and she went over the lantern was still lit I grabbed this and stepped across to the other side of the landing I put one foot down on the concrete ledge and went down into a squatting position in front of her with the intention of pulling her back up but her head was lower than the gantry and she was hanging with one shoulder underneath it there was nothing for me to grab hold of the torch was pointed into her face her eyes flickered and stopped there was no movement it was then I realized she was dead later Mr Justice Mars-Jones pressed Neilson the accused replied the difficulty is it all happened so quickly the head went over between the stanchion and the far wall she slid in the bag away from the ladder what I did see was the fact the wire went tight she had been in a lying position she wasn't stood up when I said she moved I didn't mean she walked away from me she slid the pathologist Dr John Brown told the Court there was little sign of violence on Lesley's body suggesting she wasn't fighting for her life when she fell to her death the five feet of wire rope looped around her neck was long enough for her to stand in the drain under the platform but the wire snagged on a supporting stanchion rather than landing in the drain Lesley was left dangling by her neck with her toes just a couple of inches off the bottom the ambiguity surrounding her death was the foundation of Donald Neilson’s defence [Music] Oxford Crown Court was chosen for the trial of the century the judge Mr Justice Mars-Jones ruled that one jury would hear the charges relating to Lesley Whittle's kidnap and death then a second trial would be held to tackle the catalogue of other offenses Neilson was accused of committing including the post office murders and hijacking a police car Gerald Smith the freightliner supervisor Neilson gunned down died in march 1976 as a result of his injuries Neilson wasn't charged with his murder because UK law at the time declared that a murder charge could not be brought in respect of a victim who died more than a year and a day after the incident which brought about their death that law changed in 1996. the first trial started on the 14th of June 1976 in the middle of the biggest heatwave in living memory the Victorian Courtroom was like an oven the judge allowed lawyers to remove their wigs and the male jurors their ties it made little difference in the afternoons the Court rose because jurors were falling asleep more than once a spectator fainted but we're jumping ahead it looked like there might not be a trial at all let's face it Donald Neilson was a gangster without a gang the commander-in-chief of his own one-man army the Crown prosecution service had an overwhelming amount of evidence there was the contents of Neilson’s attic lair the stolen car from Dudley and everything including poor Lesley's body recovered from bath pool park in fact the press had to vacate a row of seats to make room for all the exhibits a tunnel 135 metres long connected Oxford prison to Oxford Crown Court the same distance as the tunnel between the glory hole and the inspection shaft at bath pool park the prisoner was led from the cells down the tunnel and then up some stairs into the dock and so Donald Neilson allegedly the kidnapper and killer known colloquially as the Black Panther emerged to face the judge and the jury of his peers wearing a green shirt and tie he had a military air about him but at five feet four inches he appeared a world away from the hooded prowler who terrorized a nation who'd snatched a teenage girl from her cosy bedroom with its teddy bears and peanuts posters and tethered her naked by the neck with a wire cable 18 meters below ground in the middle of winter the clock put the charges to Neilson first stealing and unlawfully carrying away Lesley Whittle against her will guilty replied Neilson secondly demanding fifty thousand pounds with menaces threatening to kill Lesley Whittle guilty replied Neilson this was a moment of high drama most people had expected the Panther to fight all the charges then the clerk read the third charge that on a date unknown between the 13th of January and the 7th of march 1975 at Kidsgrove you did murder Lesley Whittle after a pause the accused man replied loudly not guilty this was Donald Neilson’s joker the last trick up his sleeve he was the only living witness to Lesley's death he reasoned he could avoid a murder conviction because there was reasonable doubt he'd pushed Lesley at the very least in his mind there was insufficient evidence this was a point of principle for Neilson he'd serve a long sentence for the first two offenses then there was the police hijacks three post office murders the attempted murder of Peggy Grayland and the shooting of Gerald Smith to be dealt with separately whichever way you looked at it the Black Panther was going away for a very long time but in his mind generalissimo Neilson wanted to show the world it was wrong and he was right about one thing he hadn't murdered his 17 year old hostage arrogance that was what characterized Donald Neilson’s statement to the police he spent nine hours dictating his version of events it was a litany of screw-ups presented through the rose-tinted lens of a psychopath if Napoleon had written an account of the retreat from Moscow it would have sounded similar the jury heard every word once or twice in the stifling heat a juror nodded off to the continued annoyance of Mr Justice Mars-Jones Gilbert Gray QC defending portrayed his client as a fantasist incapable of murdering Lesley in the dock Neilson looked aghast he was being made to look like an idiot this was absolutely not the case he was a criminal mastermind not a grubby killer of teenage girls the world needed to know the truth and so Donald Neilson all five feet four inches of him took the witness stand you have to feel sympathy for Gilbert Gray he started with a mountain to climb now he was faced with the labours of Hercules his client was volatile and unpredictable he just prayed Neilson would follow the script over his half-moon glasses Gray kept a steady eye on the man in the witness box as if to say no sudden moves Neilson explained how he discovered the bath pool park drainage system while reconnoitring the railway line he thought the ransom money could be thrown from a moving train onto the track but he realized he'd hit the jackpot when he found the access hatch leading to the inspection shaft the stage was set for the big one he told the Court how he read about the disputed will and a fortune of three hundred thousand pounds he thought fifty thousand was a reasonable some they wouldn't miss it that much in his police statement Neilson admitted he didn't really care which family member he snatched from Highley it just happened to be Lesley when did you realize it was a girl Gray asked when she got out of bed what made you think that she had nothing on did you kill Lesley Whittle asked grey no sir did you ever intend or expect harm to come to Lesley Whittle no sir Neilson regaled the Court with his visits to his hostage he took more hot soup puzzles to keep her occupied some of his daughter's old clothes ready for her release he was treating her as well as could be expected in the circumstances and the jury had to take his word for it crucially Neilson insisted he wore his hooded Panther disguise all the time he was with Lesley she never saw his face if she had he would have had reason to kill her the jury had been ordered to forget about the other aspects of the case but the horrible attack on Peggy Grayland had been all over the papers and on television the attacker known as the Black Panther had bashed her head in and left her for dead because she'd seen his face creeping down the ladder one evening Neilson thought Lesley had escaped there was just a bundle of sleeping bags covered by the plastic sheet in the corner of the platform now it turned out Lesley was underneath just sheltering from falling debris how did you register your surprise asked Gilbert Gray there must have been something in my face my expression replied Neilson but did you not have your hood on at the time Mr grey must have sensed his carefully constructed defence falling apart around him then it must have been my manner said Neilson without missing a beat but the jury had picked up on it they weren't going to forget that in a hurry and neither was the prosecuting counsel Philip Cox QC in his dreams Donald Neilson was a warrior king like the Spartan Leonidas that afternoon in Oxford Crown Court he was a target for legal gunnery practice Philip Cox was a former navy man who'd swapped battleships for a career at the bar cross-examining Donald Neilson each word was like an artillery shell slamming into the defendant's beltline was Neilson proud that he'd got away with it scot-free for nearly a year afterwards I did get away scot-free replied the defendant I’m proud of the fact the plan worked I’m not talking about in relation to the dead that was not part of the plan you can't bear the thought of having slipped up can you you can't bear the thought of any of your plans failing can you that's not true sir you subjected Lesley to a terrifying ordeal you would have been a terrifying spectacle for a girl of 17. in no way sir in no way at all has it ever occurred to you Mr Neilson that you were doing this girl irreparable mental harm quite apart from her physical harm rubbish did you say rubbish do you understand what mental damage is it might be better if you enlighten me sir I don't think you would understand if I did by this stage the Panther had been giving evidence solidly for five days he twisted and turned on the stand it would have been psychologically bad for her if he'd removed Lesley's noose he claimed he'd been concerned with her welfare by this stage Neilson was addressing his answers to the judge not Mr Cox or the jury the girl's death was not my doing he pleaded but that seed of doubt was growing when the jury retired to consider its verdict had Lesley Whittle seen the Panthers face did this sign her death warrant had her death been inevitable from that point did Neilson push her knowing the fatal consequences before leaving her body hanging in the dark at the bottom of the inspection shaft within two hours the jury was back their verdict was guilty before sentence was passed Dr Lionel Harwood a consultant psychologist at the university of surrey said he found Neilson to be a man of high intelligence about twenty percent above average he then said that Neilson was suffering from a psychopathological condition of some severity but one that was not sufficient to diminish responsibility on his part Neilson had he said a complex personality showed signs of extreme rigidity and inflexibility and was obsessive to an extremely high degree he was not a man who desired violence but because of his inability to cope with defeat in situations where his plans failed his intelligence broke down Mr Justice Mars-Jones listened attentively before addressing the prisoner the evidence against you was quite overwhelming on all the counts on which you are being convicted the enormity of the crimes in my judgment put you in a class apart from all convicted murderers in recent years you embarked on the ultimate in villainy in the kidnapping and holding to ransom and ultimate murder of Lesley witter whenever you thought you were in danger of arrest you show no mercy whatsoever in your case life must mean life if you are ever released it must only be on account of great age or infirmity put him down said the judge and Neilson turned and was led away the second trial to deal with Neilson’s other crimes went ahead a few days later but the outcome was moot the Black Panther would be case indefinitely in 1977 Neilson appealed against his conviction for murdering Lesley Whittle law justice lane upheld the verdict concluding that if ever there was a proper decision by a jury it was this Donald Neilson spent the rest of his life behind bars by all accounts he was a model prisoner who kept himself fit and preferred his own company doctors diagnosed motor neurone disease in 2008 it's a terrifying terminal condition that traps the sufferer in their own body poetic justice Neilson went to a specialist wing at Norwich prison where he could be treated properly he died of pneumonia on the 18th of December 2011 aged 75. [Music] Donald Neilson’s trial exposed the fault lines that hampered the effort to catch him central to it was the inadequate search of bath pool park Gilbert grey QC asked detective chief superintendent Bob Booth if he'd reflected on that part of the operation to the point of distress he replied adding that Scotland Yard had been tasked with making the search did they find anything act great not a scrap Booth replied the police forces came out of this in a poor light I was disgusted using the privilege of the witness box to take a swipe at his brother officers earned Bob boo the reprimand from the judge it didn't matter what he said was true although to be fair the handful of Scotland Yard officers had been up all night and there weren't enough of them to scour the acres of bath pool park with hindsight Booth's expectation was unreasonable either way for showing disloyalty he lost his job as head of west mercy CID and finished his career in uniform eight years later Bob Booth sent his memoirs to police review magazine for serialization there was disagreement over how the series would be presented boo threatened legal action to stop police review publishing its own series of articles about the Black Panther in the end Booth's account was serialized in the Mail on Sunday Jacques you're the expert here how would the police tackle a modern day Black Panther well regional forces now have their own surveillance capability and I don't just mean technical support but also trained surveillance operatives regardless of what tools you have to do the job there still needs to be a clear plan who does what but what if such and such happens now on day one of the kidnap it was confined to West Mercia police and the town of Kidderminster but what if the situation moves into a neighbouring area who needs to know and who can provide support what were the specialists from London actually providing remember there were two jobs here one to ensure the safe return of Lesley Whittle and two to secure the evidence and catch her kidnapper it's interesting that the west midlands police force had only been formed a year earlier taking in bits of West Mercia and Staffordshire Booth as the officer in charge of the investigation would have known colleagues who'd moved to the much larger west midlands force and knew of staff he could draw on surely he must have written down his thought processes and the reason for each of his decisions but there are no reliable accounts of what was actually said and decided going back to day one of the kidnap regardless of the mess with the media that first evening the news flash on the BBC 830 this was just another aspect for Booth and his team to deal with so what did he do he held his own press conference at 10 30. behind the scenes he called off the surveillance on those three telephone kiosks despite the kidnapping instruction to wait for a call up until 1am what was Booth's reasoning behind this had he assumed that the kidnapper was aware that the press were all over it and that the threat to Lesley Whittle's life had increased maybe so but the decision to call off the surveillance could have increased that further if the kidnapper called in but got no answer conducting a surveillance on the kiosks in a town centre would not have been that staff intensive either Ronald Whittle or someone in his place waiting for the phone to ring that would have allowed some serious planning and brainstorming back in the office time for that London surveillance team to get to know the officers with local knowledge time to get hold of a load of maps covering the counters of the midlands did Booth rely on gut instinct did he just assume things were sorted his team could deal with it surely though by day three he would have a contingency for searching areas and a team earmarked to deal with it he must have known a small team from the met weren't able to deal with bath pool park in answer to your question Simon I think this would be dealt with better today to be fair I think it would have been better managed back then if the right detective superintendent was on call that day sometimes it really is look at the draw his press relations were uncoordinated and he lost the trust of the media he made grandiose statements like we'll catch him in 24 hours when there was no basis for that he even stage managed the tv interview didn't he where he displayed an interest in basketball park SIO don't need to be in front of a camera there's too much to do he should have got someone in for that to be fair the chief constable of West Mercia should probably have overseen things better you know I can hear your frustration Jacques and you know the more I look at Donald Neilson the more I think of him as a domestic terrorist his strategy was personal gain but his paramilitary tactics were terrorism pure and simple weren't they in fact Paul Cullen who helped arrest the Black Panther was surprised to learn that the man they'd handcuffed to the railings wasn't a terrorist on the Friday after the day because we didn't know till the Saturday morning until it went in the newspapers because we got no obviously Facebook then no social media a lot of people within the village were thinking it was somebody from the IRA or UDA or something like that that's all we could put it down to you see because that was the troubles in 70s at north island but nobody would have thought on the Friday it was a Black Panther you know what I mean if you're going to put any bets on you go for an Irish man rather than a Black Panther the one person that's a very good point you know during the 1970s the IRA were waging a terror campaign on the UK mainland in fact in November 74 there were the Birmingham pub bombings weren't there killing 21 people injuring many others and there were similar incidents in 75 and 76 with his hood and gun and ammunition bandolier yeah I guess the Panther looked like he was on active service so my question is if he looked like a terrorist and behaved like a terrorist why with the UK on a state of high alert wasn't he hunted by so13 the anti-terrorist branch or special branch or mi5 I think whilst there's no record of the security services being involved it would have been appropriate for them to have been briefed on his crimes would so13 or mi5 be involved in a similar situation today unlikely for a number of reasons there's no hint of a terrorist or political motive and the MO doesn't fit the types of criminal fundraising that terrorist groups are known for again though the security services have better regional capability now compared to the 70s some advice or expertise could be used maybe particularly for the interception of communications okay the 64 000 question is this were lessons learned from the mistakes made during the hunt for the Black Panther which incidentally was code named operation basket the answer has to be no for the simple reason that as Donald Neilson was being taken into custody the Yorkshire Ripper was gaining notoriety and Peter Sutcliffe murdered 13 women and attempted to murder 13 others between 1975 and 1980. now every investigation is different but the parallels between the Black Panther and the Yorkshire Ripper are chilling we've got a senior investigating officer relying on gut instinct rather than a policy book we've got rivalry between forces leading to miscommunication and distrust and we have powerless relations with the media in fact Peter Sutcliffe in his statement to the police alluded to the Black Panther saying he was inspired by his ability to evade capture and make monkeys of the police another question in my mind and it must have been in the minds of everyone in the UK at the time is how much did Irene Neilson know about the post office robberies her husband would have been away from home one week then back at home for a couple of months one week he'd earn thousands and then nothing that must have made her suspicious especially with the media coverage of the Black Panther then there was the kidnapping her husband had spent three years planning it Irene Neilson must have had some inkling in july 1976 she was charged with handling stolen postal orders you can still buy a postal order at your post office it's used for sending money through the mail to a named recipient Donald Neilson stole both postal orders and the stamps needed to validate them Irene Neilson admitted burning 40 or 50 postal orders after seeing the news of her husband's arrest on television she told the magistrates Donald selected a post office and then gave her postal orders to cash she was so frightened she did what she was told her solicitor Barrington Black told the Court here is a woman who was forced into a situation by an evil man who had exerted an immense influence over her and for whom she had this fear in her heart when Neilson said jump the whole family had to jump it was easier for her to accept her husband's peremptory orders and decisions rather than question his motivation she was more fearful of his angry reactions if she refused rather than being caught to send her to prison as a sop to those who yell for her blood would be totally inappropriate the magistrates were unimpressed sentencing her to a total of 12 months in prison the chairman told her we can only consider Mrs Neilson took a deliberate course we take a very serious view as she knew full well what she was doing Irene Neilson appealed the sentence at Crown Court where Gilbert Gray QC called Donald Neilson himself to give evidence I was the boss at home and there was no doubt about it Neilson told the Court adding what I said went and if this involved knocking about it had to be a clear admission of coercive control you wouldn't wish to hear Irene Neilson was clearly acting under duress she suspected her husband was a murderer if she disobeyed him what would he do to her and her daughter Kathryn added to which she'd admitted the charges against her indeed but you know this was 1976 the judge was having none of it he upheld Irene Neilson’s sentence saying it was neither wrong in principle nor excessive in degree she served eight months before being released for good behaviour [Music] let's reflect on what we've heard so far the Black Panthers post office robberies how he escalated in violence and became a murderer embarking on a killing spree that culminated in the kidnapping and murder of Lesley Whittle the case was chilling and controversial so much so that Ian Marwick’s film The Black Panther was suppressed on release in 1977. Jacques if a modern day Black Panther were to emerge from the shadows do you think they'd be able to get away with it for as long as Donald Neilson did I mean I suppose it would be more difficult given modern surveillance techniques the internet all kinds of forensic advances but if someone is really determined and really well trained could they still give the police a run for their money you know are there recent cases that hint at it I suppose the Manchester arena bombing by Salman Abadi might be an example although he had help from his brother what do you think in principle I suppose a lone wolf could operate for a long period of time depending on what crimes they were committing I can't think of any examples in the last 20 years though maybe our listeners know the case I’d be interested to hear about it if the Panther was operating today modern surveillance and forensic techniques would make the Panthers plots even more complicated and more room for error let's not forget we all leave a trade of data behind us when we don't i.e. when we turn our phones off even that may stand out as unusual if the Panther avoided leaving a digital footprint if he was really determined and really well trained he could still give the police a run for their money without a doubt the thing is though there is a digital footprint for every moment in time we don't just rely on witness accounts to give that snapshot of a particular occurrence we have so much data now take the actual kidnap of Lesley Whittle he must have done at least one run through in the days before maybe exactly a week to the day of the crime even this trial run or recce would be available as evidence what I would really like to know about the Panther case is this did the investigators at the time have his name suggested to them if not then his crimes were even more remarkable our examination of Britain’s most wanted criminal of the mid-1970s is drawing to a close it's at this point we metaphorically mop the blood off the stage turn off the lights and lock up until next time but before we go there's a wee post script to the Black Panther saga remember the 25 grand reward for information leading to the arrest of the Panther well those have a go heroes from the junction chippy in Rainworth weren't forgotten in September 1976 Paul Cullen Derek Smart Gordon Henry and the rest got an invitation from the post office Paul Cullen takes up the story they organized two 53 seater coaches at the post office social club on brook street to Nottingham and we could take two people with us and I took my mom and dad at the time and then we had a buffy and we had a reward of when I got a reward in a brown envelope for brand new five pound notes 15 pounds some of those brave men and women have passed on their children and grandchildren helped us piece together the story they fetched press cuttings and souvenirs from attics and cupboards to show us the story of the Black Panther is a horror story but the chapter written in Rainworth resonates with selflessness and courage in the face of extreme danger and telling it it's restored our faith in human nature and with that we're off to get some fish and chips thanks for listening the Six O’clock Knock is available on Spreaker iTunes Spotify and wherever you get yours we're on Patreon too and if you'd like to contribute we'd be ever so grateful we might even buy the producer a bag of chips a good point and well made by the governor we're gonna keep turning over those stones so please do join us again soon for another episode of the Six O’clock Knock the Six O’clock Knock is presented by Simon ford and Jacques Morrell and produced by paul bradshaw and is available on every major listening app please help us spread the word by giving us a five star review and telling your friends to subscribe.