The Legacy of The Black Panther

As co-presenter of true-crime podcast The Six O’Clock Knock, Jacques has recently looked at the The Black Panther case from the 1970s. The Black Panther was a name given to an unidentified armed robber who had targeted sub post-offices in Britain. He had already killed on two occasions.

In 1975, the Black Panther changed his Modus Operandi. He kidnapped a teenage girl named Lesley Whittle and attempted to extort £50,000 from her family. Lesley was taken from her home and kept hostage in an underground drainage chamber in Bathpool Park, near to Kidsgrove in Staffordshire.

She spent three days underground before the ransom plan went awry. The Black Panther had planned it meticulously, but the vital instructions for the ransom drop were badly communicated. Lesley Whittle died at his hands and the police did not have a suspect. It was several months until his chance arrest in Rainworth Nottinghamshire.

Only then did the police have a name for him.

Donald Neilson.

Jacques reflects on the widespread criticism of the police handling of Lesley’s kidnap and the subsequent investigation into her murder.

Now, as a former detective, I can say it was not a proud moment for the police service. Not only was there a lack of coordination to catch the Panther before he turned to kidnapping. It was the tragedy of Lesley Whittle’s death that exposed the police blunders in the worst way possible.

The question has always remained. Could she have been found alive?

Chief Superintendent Booth had been reluctant to hand over the reins to John Morrison of Scotland Yard. He was forced to eventually, for some reason though, all the Panther’s earlier crimes were not brought under one central command. Was this another case of egos getting in the way of proper management decisions? I don’t know, but whatever rivalries there were, there was one simple objective in the days of Lesley Whittle’s disappearance. That was quite simply to Find Lesley Whittle Alive.

Now in my career, I was fortunate to benefit from the lessons learnt from the mistakes of, what now seems like the ‘wild-west policing’ in the Britain up to the 1980s.

I have experience of kidnaps and hostage situations. They are stand-alone investigations, referred to as a Crime in Action. They all have the same objective. The safe resolution and rescue of the hostage. The criminal investigation, nailing the offender, comes second. It is a real time investigation, using every intelligence opportunity possible

A Crime in Action requires specially trained staff, and their work is done when the hostage is found. Regional police forces are now able to deal with these cases. The key to them is to set them up in a covert way, even within the police organisation.

We are now much much better at it, and I have to say for Simon’s credit, so are the journalists. The police put far more resources into Media and Communications now. The days of those conversations in pubs between the police, journalists and lawyers / are long gone.

You have to have some sympathy for Mr Booth. News of the kidnap had been leaked to a freelance journalist and this put Booth ‘on the back foot’ at a critical time. There were even rival press conferences about a linked crime in the West Midlands, and in Staffordshire about Lesley Whittle. It was disorganised to say the least. Nowadays kidnap cases come with a news blackout.

There was also the blame game over why Bathpool Park wasn’t searched, after the failed ransom drop. Mr Booth had ‘assumed’ that the Met Police had searched it. A critical error, particularly when all communication from The Panther stopped at that point. A search could have been made in a reasonably covert way, even in those days. A search of the drainage shaft could have been done without drawing too much attention.

I don’t want to sound critical though. You have to look at the fact that Neilson was a rare type of villain. Extremely dangerous and calculating. Let’s face it, if he aborted the whole operation at Bathpool Park with Lesley being alive, he could have made one phone call to alert the police to where she was. He didn’t, either because he knew she was dead, or didn’t care what happened to her.

My career was made easier by the organisational changes that came from others mistakes. I get the fact that there used to be strong rivalry between departments, not only police forces. It still doesn’t justify the squabble between West Mercia and Staffordshire who took the overall lead in investigating Lesley Whittle’s murder.

There’s an article published in the Police Review magazine from 1984. It reports on the final public humiliation for the police, at Neilson’s trial.

Neilson’s defence to murder was that Lesley must have fallen to her death. The prosecution used the accounts of Staffordshire and Metropolitan police officers, to explain how she was found (weeks after the kidnap) and the interpretation of the scene. Chief Supt Booth who had been the Senior Officer, was expecting to be called to give his evidence. Having waited outside the court for days, in the end he was not called. This is not unusual for a witness not to be called to give their evidence. The prosecuting barristers try to not over complicate how the evidence is put to a jury. They have to find a balance between calling live witnesses, and other evidence from exhibits and documents.

The defence team did call Chief Superintendent Booth though, and it turned out not to be his finest hour. Instead of sticking to his evidence and the facts, he openly criticised other officers. The Judge would later tell the jury that Booth’s opinions were completely irrelevant.’

Do you know, the thing that I find most chilling is that Neilson was behaving like a terrorist. He dressed like a paramilitary, and he behaved with military discipline. And yet the police service as a whole, were unable to stop him. If he’d been a member of the IRA, acting alone, just imagine what havoc he could have caused?

Donald Neilson died in prison in 2011.

Episode 14 of The Six O’Clock Knock titled Donald Neilson ‘The Black Panther’ is published on Spreaker but can be found on all the main podcast platforms.

The cover to the inspection chamber at Bathpool Park, where Lesley Whittle was taken after her kidnap in 1975. Even today, flowers are left in memory of the teenager from Shropshire

Jacques Morrell – True Crime Podcaster

Jacques Morrell has teamed up with a former journalist Simon Ford to create a new true-crime podcast that takes a fresh look at murder.

The first episode was released earlier this year having been recorded on location in Warwicksire (before the COVID lockdown).

On Location in Lower Quinton

Here’s an introduction:

On Valentine’s Day in 1945 a brutal murder took place which remains unsolved, seventy five years on. This murder was not some gangland killing where people are afraid to speak out. It was not a domestic crime of passion where the suspect got off on some legal technicality. It was not a tragic death where the actual cause is in doubt, or open to interpretation.

It is savage and brutal murder with no apparent motive. Not only that, it occurred in a sleepy village in the heart of England. If that is not enough to get you interested, then let’s throw in some local folklore and superstition, with stories of witchcraft and phantom black dogs roaming the area at night.

Let’s find out more about the location.

Lower Quinton is a small and unassuming Warwickshire village, just six miles from Stratford-upon-Avon. It is also the final resting place of the immortal Bard William Shakespeare, who was buried here in 1616.

There is a mix of the old and the new in Lower Quinton. Tudor period thatched cottages sit side-by-side with modern 1970s houses. English villages like this are not complete without at least one ancient pub or a mediaeval church. Lower Quinton has both, The College Arms and St Swithins.

St Swithins Church dates back to 1100.

It includes the tomb of Sir Henry Knight, who fought with distinction at the Battle of Agincourt.

The village consists of little more than a few streets surrounded by countryside. A place to escape from the rest of the world and find peace of mind and tranquility surely?

The thing is, Lower Quinton has a few dark secrets, and not just what happened on Valentine’s Day 1945. Secrets and superstitions that go back beyond the founding of St. Swithins nine hundred years ago. Events that go back before Lower Quinton was named and even before Julius Caesars armies marched upon these fields and claimed this land as a back-water of the Roman Empire.

If you visit Lower Quinton, you will notice the imposing plateau of Meon Hill.

Meon Hill from Lower Quinton

Meon Hill is 194m above sea level and is visible above the farms and villages in the area. It has an odd look about it that makes it stand out. It has an almost flat top. Imagine a mound of clay with the top sliced off.

Meon Hill has existed here pretty much unchanged since the last glaciers rolled ponderously across the landscape, at the end of the last ice age.

The ancient Britons made their home here. The Druids would have performed rituals on the slopes of Meon Hill. With the arrival of Christianity, there is a local legend that reminds the locals of good and evil. It is said that the Devil tried to destroy the abbey at Evesham by hurling a huge mound of earth at it. The Bishop of Worcester saw the flying mountain and prayed for salvation. His prayers were answered and the missile came down next to Lower Quinton, to form Meon Hill.

Let’s bring ourselves more up to date, to Valentine’s Day 1945 and the events that took place at Firs Farm on the slopes of Meon Hill.

The Second World War had been raging for over 5 years. The war has taken its toll on the country, even in quiet farming communities like Lower Quinton. The farms were providing essential food for the people but farm workers were in short supply. Most young men were serving in the armed forces. Women were taking on roles usually done by the men. There was rationing, and people were struggling. There was also a nearby Prisoner of War camp.

Edith Walton lived with her 74 year old uncle named Charles Walton.

Charles was an agricultural worker and had lived in Lower Quinton all his life.

He had lived at 15 Lower Quinton since World War I.

On the day of the murder, Edith Walton had been working and returned home at 6pm. Concerned that her uncle was not at home, she went to see her neighbour, and together they made their way to Firs Farm to alert the manager Alfred Potter.

Potter had seen Charles earlier in the day, slashing hedges in a part of the farm named Hillground. The three of them set out in the semi-darkness, to check the location where Charles had been working.

When they reached Hillground, Edith was completely unprepared for what she discovered. She was immediately overcome with grief and shock, and began to scream loudly. Harry Beasley tried to pacify her and bring her away from the appalling scene before them.

Charles Walton’s body was lying near to a hedgerow. He was clearly dead. Like all corpses, it take the finder a few seconds for the finder to recognise it as a corpse. Even bodies that have no obvious injuries can appear strangely unreal. The position of their lifeless limbs can often make them not look human. The position of Charles Walton’s body was certainly odd. The injuries told those present that this was a murder, and a savage one.

Charles had been beaten repeatedly over the head with his own walking stick. He had also received horrific injuries from the tools and implements he needed for his work. His neck was cut open with the slash hook. He was also pinned to the ground. The prongs of his pitchfork had been driven either side of his neck and into the earth. The handle of the pitchfork had then been wedged under a cross member of the hedge and the slash hook had been buried in his neck. Charles Walton was not meant to survive this attack. His killer (or killers) had made sure of that.

A Murder Investigation was launched, and the Chief Constable sent the following message to Scotland Yard:

I would like Scotland Yard to assist in a brutal case of murder that took place yesterday.
The deceased is a man named Charles WALTON, age 75, and he was killed with an instrument known as a slash hook. The murder was either committed by a madman or one of the Italian prisoners who are in a camp nearby. The assistance of an Italian interpreter would be necessary, I think.
Dr Webster states deceased was killed between 1 and 2 pm yesterday. A metal watch is missing from the body. It is being circulated.

Find out more about the case by listening to the Six O’Clock Knock, a brand-new true-crime podcast, taking a fresh look at murder.

More recording in the grounds of St Swithins Church

Image of Charles Walton from an article in the Coventry Telegraph

What’s Jacques Up To Now?

Since the launch of his debut novel in 2017, we though it was time to find out what Jacques Morrell has been up to since.

Having described himself as a ‘Jacques of all trades and master of none’, who knows what he might have got himself into?

A quick check of his social media accounts, he seems to have added a podcast to his repertoire, although this seems to have started in February this year (2020).

We asked Jacques to reflect on his status as ‘a published author’ and where his writing has taken him since The Showman was published.

Apart from the countless requests from the media for interviews, and the daily fan mail through the door, it’s been fairly steady.

Joking aside, what it has done is to allow me to meet other writers on an equal footing. Writing is about learning to create pieces of work. It is about finding a style of writing that suits you.

The Showman came naturally and organically. It was always going to be a suspense thriller with an atmosphere of the paranormal. I think most people expected it to be a crime thriller. Some people have in fact encouraged me to write for that genre. These people are academics and professional in the business. They see the advantage that I have with my policing experience.

So have you taken that on board?

Not yet. I have also attended a few workshops for writers and literary people. I learnt a few things from them. In particular, I learnt to play around with ideas and words. I was encouraged to try writing in different styles, poetry, short stories, vignettes, comedy, script-writing etc. This taught me to be open minded about my writing. It helps to focus on how I write. To make the best use of it and to make it more meaningful.

I went to a talk by Henry Normal about comedy script writing. Henry is a comedian who went on to write and produce some of the finest English comedy shows of the last 30 years. He gave us advice on script ideas for sit-coms. He advised on what the production companies will look for, such as the ideal number of characters, the setting, the target audience, even the cost of producing it. I had already been playing around with an idea for a comedy, centred around a group of retired police officers.

I went away and worked on it. I got talking to someone in the pub who was also writing a comedy script. We shared ideas. It is almost ready as a script, but there is one character who hasn’t quite found her identity yet. There is something missing and I am not ready to release it yet. It could equally be a short story too.

So apart from those ‘media interviews’, have you been telling your story to people?

Yes, I suppose so. I have spoken to reading groups and book groups about my career and my writing. I was also interviewed by Giorgia, one of the young ambassadors at the Nottingham City of Literature. The interview is online here

I have learnt that The Showman seems to be well received by the younger generation of reader. Initially I though it was the context of it being set in 1978, but I also think it may be down to the style it was written. This review probably explains it better.

The words this person has used makes me feel proud that they have understood the innocence of the characters in The Showman. That is exactly how I see them, a wholesome and naive family caught up in a very difficult situation.

What else have you been working on?

I have made a good start on my memoirs. The story of my police career, starting with ‘First Shift’..

I don’t want you to confuse my first shift with ‘First Shift’, which is the morning shift. When I first wore the uniform, this was from 6 am to 2 pm.     It was the first shift of the policing day, followed by days, afternoons, evenings and nights. I suppose the night shift could have been called ‘Last Shift’, but working through the night was dangerous enough, without the added connotation of it being your last shift.                                     My very first shift was an afternoon shift. 'Afters' is always a busy time for the police. I have no idea what day of the week it fell on. Days of the week are immaterial to police officers. The police rota covers seven days in a week, and apart from some quieter periods, it is the ‘same shit’ that goes off.                                                                  Burglars don’t look at the calendar and say to their partners,‘Blimey it’s Friday already. We’re at the theatre tonight with Oliver and Abigail. I think I’ll screw a couple of houses this morning and knock off at lunch-time.                                     Drug dealers don’t send a text to their customers saying, ‘Have a great weekend everyone and stay safe. Back Monday from 9 am’.                  People in crisis do not limit their psychotic episodes or cries for help to office hours.

So when will the memoirs be published?

I have paused it for the moment due to the podcast taking up quite a lot of time?

This is a true crime podcast isn’t it?

Yes. It’s call The Six O’Clock Knock. This term is police jargon for the dawn raid.

It’s going well. There are three of us involved, me and a couple of guys who used to work together at the BBC a few years ago. One is the producer and the other the presenter. They are both very bright and professional. I suppose I bring the authentic voice of a copper. We take a fresh look at cases.

I think we are all enjoying it for what it is, a serious bit of fun. Looking at old cases helps me keep my detective brain ticking over.

That sounds good fun. So what else is new?

There is a new apartment block where my first police station used to stand. I took a few photos before it was developed.

Oh, and I forgot to mention, those media interviews did happen