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

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