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My evil dad Donald Neilson kidnapped Lesley Whittle, 17, from her bedroom and held her down a drain before murdering her

 My evil dad Donald Neilson kidnapped Lesley Whittle, 17, from her bedroom and held her down a drain before murdering her

 SHIVERING in the freezing January air, wearing nothing but a dressing gown, 17-year-old Lesley Whittle was forced down a metal ladder into a dark, stinking drain as her masked kidnapper held a gun to her head.

Hours earlier the teenager, who came from a wealthy family, had been abducted from her bedroom in the quiet village of Highley, Shropshire, by serial killer Donald Neilson, known as The Black Panther.

Lesley Whittle was kidnapped in January 1975
Lesley Whittle was kidnapped in January 1975
A battered and bruised Donald Neilson after his arrest
A battered and bruised Donald Neilson after his arrestCredit: News Group Newspapers Ltd

Over the next few days, a series of bungles meant the £50,000 ransom money, demanded by Neilson for her safe return, was never handed over.

And it would be six weeks before her body was discovered, in March 1975, hanging from the metal wire noose her captor had put round her neck to stop her escaping from the pitch black prison.

Neilson - who had already killed three sub-postmasters in armed robberies - was jailed for life for the murders and died in prison in 2011.

Now the teenager’s murder, which shocked the nation, is re-examined in a new Channel 5 documentary on tonight called The Abduction of Lesley Whittle.

Along with contributions from officers involved in the case, the programme also features chilling recordings of Lesley’s voice, assuring her distraught family that she was being “treated very well” and urging them to go along with Neilson’s demands.

There are accounts of Neilson’s home life, in the words of his daughter Kathryn - just two years younger than Lesley - who says he became increasingly controlling over the course of his killing spree.

“He got more and more moody at home. It was as if he was taken over, his mind and body, by a monster,” she wrote in her book, Behind the Panther’s Smile.

“I know now why he got so intolerable at home. No one could live normally with the horrors he had on his conscience.”

Callous murders for cash

Born Donald Nappey, Neilson was bullied at school over his name and, after losing his mum at 10, was raised by a disciplinarian dad who frequently beat him and put him down.

He did National Service in Kenya, Aden and Cyprus and took an avid interest in guns.

After marrying wife Irene at 18, he left the army, changed his name and moved to Bradford with their daughter, Kathryn, but a string of failed business ventures left him increasingly frustrated and resentful at his lack of money.

By this point he'd changed his name and in the early 1970s Neilson - whose motto was “control or be controlled'' - committed a spate of 400 burglaries, always dressed in black, wearing a balaclava, and creeping silently into his victims’ bedrooms without waking them.

But after making just £16,000 in five years, he attempted to up the stakes - using a sawn off shotgun and pistol to stage armed robberies on post offices around the country.

His first murder victim was sub-postmaster Donald Skepper, shot and killed in an armed raid in Harrogate in February 1974.

Shortly afterwards he broke into the home of sub-postmaster Derek Astin in Baxenden, Lancashire, shooting him dead as he lay beside his wife in bed.

Widow Marion Astin described the attacker as being dressed entirely in black and “so quick he was like a panther” - leading to the press naming him the Black Panther.

Two months later, in November 1974, he shot and killed postmaster Sidney Grayland in Langley, West Midlands, before beating wife Peggy so severely she almost died.

As police launched a massive manhunt, Kathryn said her father became obsessed with the coverage.

“I don’t know whether he felt any remorse about his victims,” she wrote.

“We were watching television one night and there was a bit on the news about a sub-postmaster being murdered and my father said, ‘If anyone points a gun at you, I hope you’ll have more sense.’

“Looking back he used to take a lot of interest in the Black Panther news. If I talked when there was something on the telly about the raids, he told me to shut up.”

Targeted after dispute over family fortune

All the time he was carrying out the raids, Neilson had one final pay off in mind - the kidnap of Lesley Whittle.

The teen became a target because of a public family dispute over the will of her father George, who died in 1972.

The head of a successful coach firm in Shropshire, he left a fortune of £300,000 - equivalent to £4million today - to partner Dorothy and their two children, Ronald and Lesley.

But former wife Selena, who was still legally married to him, successfully sued for years of unpaid maintenance.

Having read a newspaper report on the case, Neilson began plotting his heinous crime - watching the family’s home for a year to establish their routines and the best way in and out of the property.

Kidnapped in dead of night

In the early hours of January 14, 1975, Dorothy Whittle returned home after a night out, checked on her sleeping daughter and took a sleeping pill before going to bed.

Shortly afterwards, Neilson cut the telephone wires, entered the house through the garage and let himself into Lesley’s room where he gagged her, tied her hands and forced her out of the house to the Morris 1100 he'd stolen for the kidnap.

He then drove the terrified teen for almost two hours to Bathpool Park, Staffordshire, where he had already identified the perfect hiding place - a maze of drains and tunnels that reached 90ft below ground.

The following morning, when Dorothy took a bowl of cornflakes to Lesley’s room to wake her, she was gone.

She tried to call her 28-year-old son Ron who lived nearby, but the lines were dead so she drove to his house.

On their return Ron searched the house and found a Turkish delight box containing four rolls of Dymo-tape - plastic tape which could be punched with letters and words - with a sinister message, saying Lesley had been kidnapped and demanding a ransom of £50,000 - around £428,000 today.

It contained instructions to go to a bank of phone boxes outside a nearby shopping centre that evening between 6pm and 1am and wait for a call.

It ended with the sinister threat: “No police, no tricks - or death.”

The ladder and narrow platform where Lesley spent her last days
The ladder and narrow platform where Lesley spent her last daysCredit: PA:Press Association
The top of the drain where Leslie was hidden
The top of the drain where Leslie was hiddenCredit: Wikipedia
Neilson used this wire noose to keep her prisoner
Neilson used this wire noose to keep her prisonerCredit: News Group Newspapers Ltd

Deadly blunders over ransom

Despite the chilling warning, the family contacted the police and Chief Superintendent Bob Booth, of West Mercia police, took on the case.

They hatched a plan for Ron to withdraw £50,000 from the bank and go along with the instructions with the police covertly in tow.

When the story of the kidnap was leaked to the press, at 8pm, Booth called off the operation but Ron wasn’t there to take the call.

The following day a Whittle employee took a call in the office and heard Lesley’s voice delivering a message to Dorothy.

“There’s no need to worry Mum, I’m OK,” she says on the tape. “I got a bit wet but I’m dry now. I’m being treated very well.”

She also directed Ron to a phone box in Kidsgrove, near Stoke-on-Trent, to find instructions, which told him to drive to Bathpool Park with the ransom and stop at a low wall, flashing his headlights.

Ron, with a policeman hiding in the back of the car, did as he was told - but missed the wall and drove a quarter of a mile too far before frantically flashing his lights and shouting for the kidnapper to “come and get the money” - but no one came.

The following morning, a police search team combed Bathpool Park with sniffer dogs, but no trace of Lesley or her kidnapper were found.

Kathryn Neilson wrote a book about her evil dad
Kathryn Neilson wrote a book about her evil dadCredit: Collect

New shooting leads to breakthrough

On the night of the failed ransom drop, security guard Gerald Smith was shot six times by a trespasser at the Dudley Freightliner Terminal, and survived.

The cartridges recovered from the scene linked the shooting to the post office murders and, days later, a Morris 1100 abandoned nearby was searched.

Inside was another tape of Lesley’s voice, her slippers and a roll of Dymo-tape, along with fingerprints linking the driver to the shootings.

Police now knew Lesley’s captor was the Black Panther - and that he was ruthless enough to kill.

Still no closer to finding Lesley, six weeks after she disappeared, DCS Booth and Ron Whittle put out a TV appeal. The following day, a piece of Dymo-tape that read "Drop suitcase into hole" and a torch wedged in the grilles of a ventilation shaft, found by local schoolchildren in Bathpool Park, were handed in.

Police once again searched the park, this time finding the drainage system and the ventilation shaft. Climbing down three ladders to a platform, 60ft below ground, they came across a horrific scene.

Lesley’s blue dressing gown was hanging above the platform, which was just 2ft wide, and a sleeping bag and survival blanket lay on the cold steel floor.

A wire was fastened to the bottom of the ladder and, when an officer shone a torch below the platform, he found Lesley’s body, hanging from the wire noose around her neck, just 7 inches from the ground.

Former officer Alec Salt says the memory will never leave him.

“I’d seen the body and it was the body of a young woman,” he says.

“She was just an ordinary college girl. She shouldn’t have been treated like that by anybody.”

Dorothy  and Ron Whittle heard Lesley's last words on tapes made by Neilson
Dorothy and Ron Whittle heard Lesley's last words on tapes made by NeilsonCredit: News Group Newspapers Ltd
Distraught Ron pleads for the public help after his sister vanished
Distraught Ron pleads for the public help after his sister vanishedCredit: ITN/Getty

Read more true crime

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My mum was raped and murdered by the shoe fetish killer - and I have to fight to keep him behind bars

My 15-year-old sister went out to post a letter and two hours later dad found her with her throat cut in Nuneaton park

Secret 'operation room' in attic

Evidence found at the scene - including Neilson’s trousers, a note pad and tape recorder - provided only a partial fingerprint which didn’t match any on the police database, so a massive manhunt was launched and over 200,000 men questioned.

But it was Neilson’s return to crime which finally led to his capture in December 1975.

Seeing him acting suspiciously near a post office in Mansfield, two eagle-eyed bobbies stopped him and he pulled a shotgun.

The brave officers managed to overpower him, despite being shot and injured in the struggle.

After a fingerprint check, they realised they had caught the Black Panther.

Kathryn admitted she and her mum were oblivious to her father’s “terrible secret” before the police arrived.

“The secret of my father’s locked attic was revealed that night, when police burst through its locked door,” she said.

“I felt stunned as I realised he’d used it as a headquarters for his raids. He spent more and more time locked away in there. If you asked what he was doing he’d say ‘mind your own business.’”

Neilson confessed to the post office murders and the kidnap of Lesley Whittle but told his lawyer: “I did not murder her. I had no intention of murdering her.”

He claimed Lesley had died on the third day of captivity, after accidentally falling off the platform when she moved to allow him to sit down.

“I saw her face, her eyes seemed half closed, I froze and I panicked,” he said.

But Neilson was convicted of Lesley’s kidnap and murder, as well as those of the three sub-postmasters, and sentenced to life. He died in jail in 2011.

In an emotional interview after the body was found, DCS Bob Booth summed up the horror felt by the nation at the horrific murder of an innocent teenager.

“How evil, how ruthless, how terribly wicked this man is,” he said.

“God above, I never dreamt in my wildest dreams he’d do such a thing to a girl. It’s terrible.”

The Abduction of Lesley Whittle airs tonight at 9pm on Channel 5

Neilson had a selection of masks, weapons and other murder tools in his secret room
Neilson had a selection of masks, weapons and other murder tools in his secret roomCredit: News Group Newspapers Ltd
Police and frogmen search the drains
Police and frogmen search the drainsCredit: News Group Newspapers Ltd
Lesley's funeral in Highley, Shropshire
Lesley's funeral in Highley, Shropshire

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