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40 years on: The tragic story of Lesley Whittle remembered

Bridgnorth | News | Published:

Right from the start, things went wrong. With kidnap virtually unheard of in Britain 40 years ago, police initially thought the disappearance of Shropshire teenager Lesley Whittle might be a student prank.

And instead of a media blackout which has since become standard procedure – one of the biggest lessons learned from those tragic events of January 1975 – the story was quickly all over the airwaves.

Lesley, a petite 17-year-old who was barely 5ft tall, was taken from her home in Highley during the night of January 14. Far from it being a prank, it was a carefully-planned operation by a ruthless stop-at-nothing crook and serial killer, who became dubbed the Black Panther by the media.

The Shropshire Star of January 16, 1975

His name was Donald Neilson and he had entered the family home and abducted Lesley from her own bedroom, allowing her to put on only a dressing gown. He left a ransom demand for £50,000 punched out on plastic Dymo tape.

Neilson, who had changed his name from Donald Nappey, came from Bradford and had already killed three people in cold blood in the course of robberies at sub post offices. His motive in kidnapping Lesley, whose family had the well-known Whittle coach firm, was simple – money.

Her abduction was one of the most sensational stories of the time and was not to have a happy ending.

Arrangements were made to pay a ransom but various circumstances conspired against a successful handover. At one stage Lesley was forced to make a tape recording, in which she sounded calm.

Interrupted while laying a ransom trail, Neilson shot a security guard six times near a Freightliner railway terminal in Dudley. Found in a car nearby was evidence which directly linked the driver with the sub post office murders and Lesley's kidnap. The security guard died over a year later.

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The cover of the Black Panther DVD, directed by Ian Merrick in 1977

It was the film that was too hot to handle. It was banned by local authorities across the area, condemned by civic leaders, and only one cinema in Britain bothered to screen it. But Ian Merrick's film about the crimes of Lesley Whittle's killer Donald Neilson still has a following to this day, and has recently been released on DVD.

The Black Panther was released in 1977, little more than a year after Neilson was handed five life sentences, and the memories of his reign of terror were still very fresh in the people's minds.

And this was no Hollywood production. The movie was filmed on location at the scenes of many of the Panther's crimes, including Bathpool Park in Kidsgrove, Staffordshire, where Lesley was murdered, and Dudley freightliner terminal where Neilson shot security guard Gerald Smith.

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The film sparked uproar, and was banned by most local authorities in the region, including Sandwell, Wolverhampton and Worcester.

But the Home Secretary was told he had no powers to stop the film, and the British Board of Film Classification granted it an X-certificate.

Former Star photographer Graham Gough recalls how the film was made in the utmost secrecy, although he still managed to snatch a picture in Castle Hill, Dudley, where Neilson issued instructions to Lesley's family.

Graham Gough's on-set picture of Donald Sumpter playing killer Donald Nielson

"It was not long after the court case, and there was a great uproar about how disgusting it was," says Mr Gough, the author of The Black Country Album.

"They wouldn't allow any pictures to be taken on the set. I just went round the corner, and leaned over a fence to do a shot."

Filming also took place at Dudley Zoo, and two zoo workers -Donna Hodgetts, aged 18, and 23-year-old Kate Hicken - were paid £10 to appear as extras.

Neilson had been Britain's most wanted man, and the Midlands was just recovering from his reign of terror.

But Merrick argued that it would be better to make the film while it was still fresh in people's minds, rather than rake up the memories in years to come.

The notorious killer, who received five life sentences in 1976, was played by 35-year-old actor Donald Sumpter. Film-maker Stanley Long, who worked on the movie, said: "We deliberately chose little-known actors so as not to detract from the story."

The movie was shot in just five weeks, and when crews went to Bathpool Park in Kidsgrove, to film the manhole where 17-year-old heiress Lesley was murdered, they deliberately chose a rainy day when no-one would be about.

Neilson began his murder spree with a string of violent post office robberies, but in 1975 he touched the nation's nerve when he kidnapped Lesley from her bed in Highley, near Bridgnorth, and demanded money from her wealthy family.

Before police could find her, Lesley died suspended from a wire in the sewers which Neilson had turned into a lair.

Merrick recreated the killer's bolthole at London's Elstree studios, where he filmed 19-year-old actress Debbie Parrington, who played Lesley, lying on a ledge with a wire noose around her neck.

Merrick, who produced and directed the film, denied he was making easy money on the back of people's grief.

"What we are trying to show is the ugly environment in which a psychopathic killer can be created, and in which he can exercise his strange domination over his family," he said at the time.

"I was concerned about the Whittle family and I rang them to assure them we were not making an exploitation film."

It appears that Merrick may have had some success in his attempts to win the family over: the British Board of Film Censors invited members of the Whittle family to lodge objections, but none did so, and the film was left uncut.

"Their pain is treated with discretion," said board secretary, James Ferman. But Mr Smith's widow Vera did not agree. She said at the time: "If they were going to cash in on it - that's all it is - they could have left it a reasonable time.

"It's macabre so soon. I haven't heard a word about it from them. I'm surprised they didn't get in touch with me." Other leading figures in the community were also unhappy. Dudley West MP Colin Phipps accused the film-makers of exploiting tragedies.

"Not only must it be very painful to the relatives of the people involved, but it displays the kind of ghoulish preoccupation with murder and serious crime which is becoming all too common in the media," he said.

Kidsgrove Councillor Arthur Martin was furious.

"Documentary films have a valid use in recording our way of life, but it's sick when this film is a money-making enterprise and so close to the event," he said.

Many local authorities stopped the film from being shown, but in reality, there was probably no need.

Despite the inevitable publicity resulting from the controversy, the film did not really take off in Britain.

It was not until March 1975 that police began a thorough search of Bathpool Park, Kidsgrove, the scene of a failed ransom drop. Lesley was found dead, with a noose around her neck, in a deep drainage shaft.

During the twists and turns of the case, the Shropshire Star's man on the spot – literally, as a newspaper hut was permanently stationed on a car park in the village – was reporter Andy Wright, then living in Bridgnorth.

"I ended up doing nothing else for about two years. I was pretty well on it full-time until the conclusion of the court case at Oxford Crown Court.

"Kidnapping was almost unknown in England. I think at first the police thought it was some kind of prank being played by Lesley or her college friends (Lesley was a student at Wulfrun College in Wolverhampton), but they pretty soon did realise it was serious and turned all kinds of resources onto it."

In Highley, the reaction was one of shock.

"It had been until quite recently a mining community and was quite tight-knit. There was a deal of suspicion surrounding everyone really."

The investigation was led by Chief Superintendent Bob Booth, who hitherto had an excellent record in solving murders, but whose career was to be broken by the failures of the Lesley Whittle case.

"I think you have to feel fairly sorry for Mr Booth. He and his colleagues had never handled anything like that before. The major error that they made was that they didn't take the Press into their confidence.

"As you know, it all went wrong. On more than one occasion there were a number of Press vehicles chasing people in the hope that they would get a lucky break about the story."

After the discovery of Lesley's body, her killer was to remain at large for many months. It was not until December 11, 1975, that Neilson was caught – essentially by chance – by two police constables near Mansfield.

They saw him acting suspiciously near a sub post office. Neilson pulled a gun and forced the pair to drive with him. However, after a considerable struggle, they managed to overpower him, with the help of people from a fish and chip shop.

For Andy this was the most momentous moment of the whole affair as it was to land him and the Shropshire Star an international scoop.

"I got a phone call from our news editor, Warren Wilson, saying we had had a tip-off that somebody who was linked with the Lesley Whittle kidnap and the post office murders had been apprehended at a place called, I think, Mansfield Woodhouse, and he asked us to go there.

"I remember saying to him: 'Have you any idea how far that is and what the conditions are like?' – it was snowing heavily.

"Me and photographer Dave Bagnall drove through the snow and eventually got to Mansfield where some comedian had turned all the direction signs round so we couldn't find our way.

"We were driving the wrong way down a one-way street when a police car came behind us with its blue light flashing. It turned out that these were the two coppers who earlier that evening had apprehended Donald Neilson. Purely by chance we got an exclusive interview with them.

"They were Tony White and Stuart Mackenzie and they were really nice blokes.

Grappled

"Although it was not confirmed, they were pretty sure they had just caught the Black Panther. One was driving, and the other had grappled with the Black Panther in the car. The gun went off and blew a hole in the roof. They bailed out into the road and some guys in a queue outside a fish and chip shop ran to their assistance including, I seem to recall, a bloke who was a karate expert.

"If you remember seeing the pictures of Neilson after his capture, he was battered.

"I filed my story first thing in the morning when the copytakers came in and Dave got pictures of the two coppers. We had got ourselves an exclusive."

Andy covered the trial at Oxford Crown Court.

"There was a scary moment which is still imprinted on my mind.

"The first two rows were full of evidence bags. At one point, I think it was his defence who handed him the sawn-off shotgun and asked him to show how he stood with this gun during the post office raids. He went all the way round the court in an arc with the gun levelled. He trained it round to everybody in court. As one, they went to the floor. Almost as a reflex action, you went down as it came towards you. The ammunition was in a bag not far away.

"He was quite a menacing man. He was not big, but had a menacing stare."

Neilson received five life sentences. In 2008 a judge ruled that he should never be released. Neilson developed motor neurone disease and died as a prisoner in 2011, aged 75.

Another journalist who covered the kidnapping was Tony Bishop, the district chief reporter for our sister paper, the Express & Star.

"I had a call out of the blue summoning me to a press conference at Kidderminster police station at 10 o'clock at night, which was a bit strange. I beetled over there and there was a whole crowd of pressmen there already," recalls Tony.

"News of the kidnap had been put out on local radio in Birmingham. The information had been filed by a Kidderminster freelance journalist, Bill Williams. His office in Kidderminster was next to the Whittle company offices and obviously he had got some good contacts there. He disclosed the news of the kidnap before anything had been put out by the police.

"Bill, being a good journalist, asked the police for confirmation but all he got was the usual reply – No Comment. Bill decided to market the story, and did it to local radio, which rather thwarted any plans the police might have had for a complete news blackout."

Beechcroft, the home from which Lesley Whittle disappeared

As the investigation continued, police inexperience in dealing with the media in such situations continued to have unfortunate consequences.

"A press conference was called in which Detective Chief Superintendent Bob Booth said he was still hoping that the kidnapper might get in touch. There was a 1am deadline at a rendezvous which he was not going to reveal. Unfortunately Bill Williams got the location of the rendezvous which was a telephone kiosk at the Swan Centre in Kidderminster and pushed out the location to the evening press, which was used, much to the annoyance of Bob Booth.

"Bill died a year or two ago and one of my friends told me he was still a bit troubled about his involvement in the Lesley Whittle kidnap, but if the police had been a bit more co-operative and said, 'Look Bill, hold on for 24 hours', he would have complied."

Tony said three police forces were involved in the investigation and did not seem to be co-operating particularly, and a commander from Scotland Yard was brought in to co-ordinate the inquiry.

As for the police handling of the affair, Tony said: "They got off to an unfortunate start. I felt a bit sorry for Bob Booth at the end of the day. He had solved 70 murders and was a very accomplished detective.

"At the end of the day he was relegated to being a uniformed Chief Superintendent at Malvern."

Detective Chief Superintendent Bob Booth by the Black Panther's stolen car

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