On JANUARY 14th, 1975, 17-year-old Lesley Whittle failed to appear for breakfast. When her mother went to see what was delaying her she found Lesley’s bed empty. Then three Dymo-tape messages were found in the sitting-room. They demanded a £50,000 ransom for the safe return of Lesley, recently reported by newspapers to be a schoolgirl heiress. Her father had died, leaving her more than £80,000 to be inherited when she came of age.
The kidnapper instructed her family to take the ransom in used notes to the shopping mall phone box in the nearby town of Kidderminster, West Midlands, and await further instructions. “You are on a time limit,” he warned. “If police or tricks, DEATH.”
But the police were informed, and it was decided that Lesley’s brother Ronald should go to the phone box. As instructed, he arrived there at 9.30 p.m. Then the police learned that a reporter had picked up the story, so they told Ronald Whittle to leave the phone box. They feared that Lesley might be harmed if the kidnapper realised his calls to the kiosk were being monitored.
Several subsequent unsuccessful attempts were made by Ronald to contact the kidnapper. The police got their first break when they searched a stolen Morris I300 abandoned in a Dudley car park. It contained a tape-recording of Lesley Whittle’s voice, her slippers and a box of Dymo-tape.
The search also revealed the gun used in the recent shooting of a security guard at a nearby freight depot, and a box of bullets which were found to match those used in three earlier shootings.
From witnesses of those shootings, the police now knew that Lesley’s kidnapper was short, stocky and athletic. Known as the “Black Panther,” he robbed sub-post offices and had shot and killed three sub-postmasters.
Seven weeks after Lesley’s kidnapping two schoolboys handed the police a torch they had found in Bathpool Park. near Kidsgrove. Taped to the torch was a Dyrno-tape message: “Drop suitcase into hole.”
A network of drainage tunnels had been constructed by British Rail beneath the park. They were now searched, and Lesley Whittle was found hanging from a platform in the main shaft, a wire noose around her neck.
Eight months later two policemen on patrol in a panda car in Mansfield Woodhouse, Nottinghamshire, stopped a suspicious-looking man carrying a hold-all. He promptly produced a shotgun and ordered them to drive him to a nearby village.
On the way one of the officers made a grab for the gun which went off, wounding him in the hand. The officer then pulled up outside a fish and chip shop, where two men in the queue ran to help the policemen.
Overpowered after a violent struggle, the gunman refused to give his name, but his implements identified him as the Black Panther. After further interrogation he said he was Donald Neilson, a 39-year-old self-employed joiner living in Bradford with his wife and daughter.
He denied murdering anyone, claiming that in the three sub-post-office killings his gun had gone off accidentally. Lesley Whittle had died, he said, when he startled her on returning suddenly and she slipped and fell from the platform to which she was tethered by the wire round her neck.
In June 1976 he was convicted of Lesley Whittle’s murder and sentenced to 21 years imprisonment. In the following month he was also found guilty of the three sub-post-office murders and given a life sentence for each.