Donald Neilson Lesley Whittle
True Crime

What happened to Lesley Whittle and where is ‘Blank Panther’ Donald Neilson now?

It's the focus of Channel 5 documentary The Abduction of Lesley Whittle

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The Abduction of Lesley Whittle on Channel 5 retells the horrifying story of a missing teenager, and how she was later found murdered – but where is killer Donald Neilson now?

What happened to Lesley Whittle, who killed her, and what was her cause of death?

Who was the Black Panther, and why was he called that?

Here’s everything you need to know about the grisly crime.

donald neilson
Donald Neilson – aka the Black Panther – killed Lesley Whittle in horrifying circumstances (Credit: Channel 5)

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Who was Donald Neilson victim Lesley Whittle?

Lesley Whittle was a British teenager and the daughter of George Whittle, co-owner of Whittle Coaches, and his girlfriend Dorothy.

Born in 1957, she was a 17-year-old student at Wulfrun College, Wolverhampton.

She had her whole life ahead of her, and was set to be a very wealthy lady when she grew up thanks to her father’s wealth.

Tragically, the heiress was kidnapped from her home in Highley, Shropshire, and never seen alive again.

Who killed Lesley Whittle?

Donald Neilson – born Donald Nappey – kidnapped Lesley Whittle on January 14, 1975.

The ex-British Army soldier had put three years of planning into the kidnapping.

Police subsequently discovered that he had read a news article in 1972 which detailed the wealth of the Whittle family estate.

What did Donald Neilson do to Lesley Whittle?

Donald was a career criminal who had committed over 400 burglaries and three murders.

He targeted the Whittle family as a result of her wealth.

To avoid estate taxes, her dad George Whittle gave his mistress and their two children huge sums of cash.

Lesley received £82,000.

Donald kidnapped Lesley Whittle on January 14 1975.

He planned to kidnap Dorothy, but changed his mind when he found Lesley asleep in bed.

Donald Neilson cut the telephone line (suspecting a burglar alarm) and then entered the Whittles’ home through the garage.

Donald gagged the teenager, and took her to his green Morris 1100 car.

He tied her up and laid her down on the back seat, before driving to Bathpool Park in Kidsgrove, Staffordshire.

There he forced her down into the drainage shaft of the nearby reservoir.

Inside the shaft he placed a hood over her head, and removed her dressing gown, leaving her naked.

He then tethered her to the side of the shaft by a wire noose.

Donald demanded a £50,000 ransom.

Lesley Whittle murder
A newspaper headline of Lesley Whittle’s disappearance (Credit: Channel 5)

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How did they find Lesley Whittle and where did they find her?

Lesley’s brother Ronald did attempt to pay the ransom but failed.

On February 10 1975, Chief Superintendent Booth and Ronald Whittle appeared together on both national and local television.

The next day, a headmaster at a local school told police that a pupil had brought him a piece of Dymotape that read “drop suitcase into hole”.

Other pupils had found a torch wedged in the grilles of what was locally known as the “glory-hole”, one of the capped ventilation shafts of the old Harecastle Tunnel.

The boys who found the torch in Bathpool Park had given it to the headmaster several weeks earlier, but neither had realised the significance of the find until the television broadcast.

After an extensive search of Bathpool Park, police eventually found Lesley’s body hanging in the shaft on March 7 1975.

The police investigation was considered a failure and declared a bungled operation.

What did Lesley Whittle die of and when did she die?

Police believed that Donald Neilson pushed Lesley Whittle off the ledge in the drainage shaft, strangling her.

The post-mortem examination showed that the teenager died instantly from vagal inhibition, though, not strangulation.

The shock of the fall had caused her heart to stop beating.

It is unclear whether Donald Neilson did this deliberately.

An alternative scenario is that Neilson was not present when Lesley Whittle died and that he fled on the night of the failed ransom collection without returning to the shaft.

Either way, he was most definitely responsible.

Shaft where Lesley Whittle was found dead
The drainage shaft where Lesley Whittle was found dead (Credit: Smart/ANL/Shutterstock)

What is vagal inhibition?

Vagal inhibition refers to a condition that can lead to sudden death.

It happens when pressure is placed on the neck where the vagus nerve runs.

If the nerve isn’t able to effectively transmit signals to and from the vital organs – heart, lungs and digestive tract – it can lead them to stop  working.

Where is Lesley Whittle buried?

Six members of the Whittle coach firm carried Lesley Whittle’s coffin during her funeral.

The mourners were led by Lesley’s brother Ronald.

The funeral took place on a snowy day at the churchyard of the parish church of St Mary at Highley.

She is buried in the graveyard of St Mary at Highley.

Where is Donald Neilson now? Is he still alive?

Donald Neilson subsequently became Britain’s most wanted man.

In December 1975, two police officers spotted a man seen acting suspiciously in Mansfield – it was Donald Neilson.

Police arrested him with the help of several customers in a nearby fish and chip shop who beat him.

On July 1976, the Oxford Crown Court convicted Donald Neilson of the kidnapping and murder of Lesley Whittle.

The judge sentenced Donald to life imprisonment.

Three weeks later, a judge convicted him of the murder of three post office workers.

He was given a further three life sentences.

In 2008, Donald Neilson appealed against his sentence after revealing he was suffering from motor neurone disease.

However, Mr Justice Teare ruled that he must never be released from prison.

Neilson died in hospital, still serving his sentence, in December 2011 at the age of 75.

Prison wardens took him from from Norwich Prison to Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital with breathing difficulties.

Doctors pronounced him dead on December 18 2011.

Why did police call Donald Neilson the Black Panther?

The British press called Donald Neilson “the Black Panther”.

This was because he wore a black balaclava while robbing post offices.

Donald Neilson was a convicted armed robber, kidnapper and multiple murderer.

He murdered three men during robberies of sub-post offices between 1971 and 1974, as well as kidnapping and murdering Lesley Whittle,.

Lesley Whittle
Donald Neilson abducted and murdered Lesley Whittle (Credit: YouTube)

What happened to Donald Nielsen’s children?

Donald Nielsen had a daughter named Kathryn Neilson, who was born in 1960 and is now 62.

She has spoken out against her dad, saying he became a “monster” around the time he forced Lesley Whittle into a drain.

Donald became “intolerable” at home, she says, as if he was being controlled by a “monster”.

She says: “He got more and more moody at home.

“It was as if he was taken over, his mind and body, by a monster.”

Writing in her book, Behind the Panther’s Smile, she added: “I know now why he got so intolerable at home.

“No one could live normally with the horrors he had on his conscience.”

The Abduction of Lesley Whittle on Channel 5

The Abduction of Lesley Whittle is a Channel 5 feature-length documentary.

It tells the story of the kidnapping and murder of 17-year-old Lesley in 1975.

Her ordeal began at her home in Shropshire on 14 January, when her mother Dorothy went to wake her daughter and found an empty bed.

In the lounge, there were three ransom notes demanding £50,000 and a warning not to involve the police.

Seven weeks later, police found Lesley hanging from a wire at the bottom of the drainage shaft where Donald Neilson had tethered her.

The Abduction of Lesley Whittle is currently available to watch on My5.

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