Serial killer captured 40 years ago today in Notts
Donald Neilson, known under his tabloid title as The Black Panther because of tendency to wear a black balaclava, had left a trail of terror across the north of England by killing four people in the 1970s.
But after being randomly stopped by police in Mansfield, he was eventually taken down in Rainworth on the evening of December 11, 1975, helped by a handful of brave locals.
After desperately taking two Nottinghamshire police officers hostage at gun point, he was eventually overpowered by the pair and several bystanders in Rainworth when the car came to a screeching halt outside The Junction Fish Bar on Southwell Road East.
The gun went off as the car stopped with the bullet grazing one of the officer’s hands.
A group of men from the chip shop then set about detaining Neilson.
Suffering cuts and bruises to his face and sporting a black eye after the melee, it was a pitiful and embarrassing end for a psychopathic killer who had revelled in spreading fear across the country.
For those involved in apprehending him, it lives long in the memory.
Rainworth resident Paul Cullen had been just 18 at the time, and was with his friend Derrick Smart outside the chip shop when the drama unfolded.
The 58-year-old former postman who still lives on Southwell Road East, told the Chad: “The Ford Escort police car had been coming down the road when it slammed on its brakes and must have slid about three or four yards.
“Then there was this loud gunshot and one of the officers either wound down the window or opened the door and shouted ‘we’ve got an armed man here’.
“Our fish and chips went up in the air and I ran up the road to the phone box to ring 999.
“It was all out of the blue, and by the time I’d got back he was still struggling on the floor.
“He had been overpowered and had been handcuffed to the railings next to the fish shop, but he was still trying to get away.
“The buttons of his jacket came undone and I saw bullets strapped to his belt and knives inside his jacket.
“There was also a big sawn-off shotgun lying in the middle of the road, an inspector picked it up with a white handkerchief.
“I think about how lucky everyone was, it was frightening when that gun went off, it could have killed anyone.
“Nobody knew who he was. This happened on the Thursday night and it wasn’t until the Saturday that we were told. There were journalists everywhere.
“Everybody was shocked, but with the amount of police that turned up we knew it was big.”
Indeed, Nielson, a 39-year-old builder from Bradford in West Yorkshire had become headline news across Britain when his taste for burglary turned into armed robberies and then murder.
During the robbery of three post offices in 1974, he shot dead two sub-postmasters and the husband of a sub-postmistress.
But it was his final meticulously-planned crime that ensured his reputation as one of Britain’s most evil killers, when he kidnapped 17-year-old Lesley Whittle from her Shropshire home.
An heiress to a fortune, Neilson had been hatching his plan for three years and demanded a £50,000 ransom for her safe return.
He kept her at the bottom of a drain shaft in a park in Stafford, naked with a hood over her head and tethered by a wire around her neck.
After the ransom drop failed, Lesley’s body was found still hanging from the wire nearly two months later.
Following his arrest in Rainworth, his fingerprints matched those found in the shaft.
Neilson was convicted of all four murders and given a whole-life tariff.
He died in prison in 2011 aged 75.
For Mr Cullen though, the maximum jail sentence did not provide closure.
“Even when he was in jail, he still made threats that he would come and get everybody so I thought about it quite a bit,” he said.
“He was in jail but we were worried he’d get out, or if he had an accomplice.
“Nobody ever knew what he did with the money he stole, so nobody knew if there was somebody else outside of jail. I think we were all sort of relieved when he died in 2011. I used to have nightmares about it after it all happened, but not so much now.
“I feel both lucky and unlucky to have been there that night.”