40 years ago: Bradford’s first serial killer is caged and its second takes to the streets

Donald Neilson
Donald Neilson
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FORTY years ago this week, Bradford was coming to terms with the knowledge that one of its residents was Britain’s most notorious serial killer - unaware that a second, even more determined, murderer was in its midst.

Donald Neilson was beginning a life sentence for the killings of heiress Lesley Whittle and three sub-postmasters. He would never see the outside world again.

Weapons, equipment and clothing found by police in the possession of Donald Neilson.

Weapons, equipment and clothing found by police in the possession of Donald Neilson.

The 39-year-old armed robber, kidnapper and murderer had been Britain’s most wanted man. The police and press called him the Black Panther.

He had kidnapped the 17-year-old Miss Whittle back in January 1975, at her home in Highley, Shropshire, demanding a ransom of £50,000. More than 400 police officers had scoured the Midlands for him.

But he was no Midlander - Neilson was a jobbing builder from Bradford who had turned to crime when his business failed.

At a modest terrace house in Grangefield Avenue, Thornbury, he plotted his crimes. Inside, in his study, police found hoods with eyeholes, a sawn-off shotgun, a bandolier of cartridges and two knives. There was a long brown bag for his gun.

Inside the top floor room in Donald Neilson's house in Grangefield Avenue, Thornbury, Bradford.

Inside the top floor room in Donald Neilson's house in Grangefield Avenue, Thornbury, Bradford.

Eventually pulled over after arousing suspicion in Mansfield, he told two PCs his name was John Moxton of Chapel-en-le-Frith.

Then his manner changed. “Don't move,” he said, and pushed a shotgun towards the officers.

He forced one into the back of his car and told the other to “drive normally or you'll both be dead”.

The two bobbies said later they thought he was “a local nutter”.

But then a shot was fired, grazing one of the officers’ hands. A group of men from a nearby chip shop detained him, and the Black Panther was finally cornered.

But as he was removed from the streets, a second, even more deadly, serial killer began prowling Bradford and the rest of West Yorkshire.

Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, killed Wilma McCann on 30 October 1975. The mother of four, from Chapeltown in Leeds, was struck her twice with a hammer then stabbed 15 times in the neck.

It was the first of the notorious Ripper murders, but Sutcliffe had attacked at least twice before. He lived in the Heaton suburb of Bradford, just a few miles from Thornbury and slightly more upmarket.

It would be another five years before he would be unmasked, by which time 13 women were dead and three more lucky not to be.

Neilson died in prison in December 2011, aged 75, having failed in 2008 to have his term reduced. Sutcliffe is now 70 and in Broadmoor, the subject of a “whole life order”.

Bradford, meanwhile, has moved on, and few in Thornbury have heard the name Donald Neilson. They made a film about him in 1977 but not many remember that, either.

For all but the victims, it is a chapter best forgotten.