It was a murder that shook Baxenden to its very core and sparked one of the biggest manhunts ever in East Lancashire. Here we look at how the Observer reported on the horrific murder of sub-postmaster Derek Astin and the investigation leading to ‘Black Panther’ Donald Neilson’s arrest.
On September 7, 1974, the day after the horrific murder of Derek Astin, we broke the news of Mr Astin’s death and a tribute from his young daughter Susan saying ‘my daddy was very brave’.
Leading the investigation, CID Detective Chief Spt Joe Mounsey told the Observer he could not rule out the possibility there was more than one man involved after Mr Astin was shot by two firearms. Mr Mounsey also said he could also not rule out a connection between the attack on Mr Astin and a similar attack in Harrogate earlier in 1974.
In the Observer’s next issue on September 10, 1974, we asked the question was Mr Astin’s death a ‘carbon copy’?
The night before police had produced more evidence of armed raids on sub-postmasters by hooded gunmen.
It was reported that two senior detectives were liaising with Lancashire police on a similar case in Mansfield in March 1971.
We also published an artist’s impression of an armed raider who was foiled at Heywood two-and-a-half years earlier asking borough residents: "Look for this man. He may be the vicious killer of Baxenden sub-postmaster, 44-year-old Derek Astin."
The following week the Observer reported on the funeral of Mr Astin at St John’s church in Baxenden, only a few yards away from where he died.
Friends, neighbours and officials filled the church for a service conducted by Rev Brian Harding.
The cortege made its way to the grave in the churchyard and crowds of villagers filed past the flowers on the church lawns.
In the streets of Baxenden curtains were drawn as a mark of respect to Mr Astin ‘who used to have a joke and a smile for everyone’.
In July 1976 the Observer front pages were dominated by reports from Neilson’s trial.
We reported how Neilson broke into the Baxenden post office to get into the safe and how he made a night run to Accrington to familiarise himself with the place and to check if there was a dog.
Black Panther timeline
- August 1936 – Born in Bradford as Donald Nappey.
- 1960 – Changed his family name to Neilson after the birth of his daughter so she would avoid the bullying and abuse he endured at school.
- 1960s – Believed to have committed over 400 house burglaries without detection.
- February 1972 – Broke into sub-post office in Heywood. Postmaster Leslie Richardson survived gunshot wounds after confronting Neilson.
- February 15, 1974 – Began his murderous spree when he gunned down postmaster Donald Skepper at a sub-post office in Harrogate.
- September 6, 1974 – Killed sub-postmaster Derek Astin in Baxenden. He was then given the nickname ‘Black Panther’ after Mr Astin’s wife Marion described her husband’s killer as ‘so quick, he was like a panther’.
- September 13, 1974 – The funeral of Mr Astin at St John’s Church in Baxenden. His family are joined by dozens of friends, neighbours and officials. Flowers covered the church lawns and curtains in the streets were drawn as a mark of respect.
- November 1974 – Shot dead postmaster Sidney Grayland in Langley, West Midlands.
- January 14, 1975 – Snatched 17-year-old coach company heiress Lesley Whittle from the bedroom of her home in Highley, Shropshire after reading a newspaper article about her inheritance. Tried to collect £50,000 from her brother Donald.
- March 7, 1975 – Lesley Whittle’s body found hanging from a wire at the bottom of a drainage pipe in Bathpool Park, Kidsgrove, Shropshire.
- December 1976 – Police officers Stuart Mackenzie and Tony White arrested Neilson after spotting him on the A60 leading out of Mansfield.
- July 1976 – Sentenced on his 40th birthday to four life prison sentences at Oxford Crown Court.
- June 12, 2008 – Mr Justine Teare at the High Court ruled Neilson must never be released from prison.
- March 2009 – Diagnosed with motor neurone disease and moved to a special prison hospital unit.
- December 18, 2011 – Died in Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital after being taken from Norwich Prison in the early hours of December 17.
- December 21, 2011 – Inquest opened into Neilson’s death at Norwich Coroner’s Court.