Derry man recalls being hunted as the UK’s ‘most wanted’

John O'Reilly. (1210PG30)
John O'Reilly. (1210PG30)

Almost forty years after being arrested as ‘The Black Panther’ John ‘Beaver’ O’Reilly speaks for the first time about how he became the most hunted man in Britain. Arrested for murder, he believes that it was only by a stroke of good fortune that he escaped a lengthy spell in jail awaiting trial for a murder spree that had gripped the UK and Ireland.

Like many men of his generation, 78 year-old, John ‘Beaver’ O’Reilly, left Derry to find employment in England in 1963.

Despite his efforts at “a quiet life” he was to find himself mistaken as the UK’s most wanted man in 1974. That year police launched a massive man hunt in order to find the man responsible for the murders of two sub-postmasters and the husband of a third.

The North of England was gripped by fear following the murders of Donald Skepper in Harrowgate in February, Derek Astin in Accrington in September and Sidney Grayland in November. Police believed they were hunting a trained caprenter, as, on each crime, the murderer had broken into a rural post office using a brace and bit.

Astin’s wife Marion had witnessed the murder of her husband. Luckily, for both Mr. O’Reilly and her, the killer was unaware of this.

That killer was Donald Neilson, dubbed The Black Panther by reporters due both to his dark clothing and the fact Mrs Astin described him “as so quick he was like a panther.”

Mr. O’Reilly, who now lives in Alexander House, Bishop Street, had worked with Mr. Astin on building sites, as a carpenter. The men knew each other.

“I lived quite close to them as well,” John told the ‘Journal.’

“It really was a nasty, nasty murder. The post offices were all raided during the dead of night. Police had sealed off the roads and escape routes but it later emerged that, thanks to his army training, The Panther escaped to the hills and countryside. God knows how many houses he robbed in total.”

The police were able to compile a photofit from several sightings. One witness, postmaster Leslie Richardson, who awoke to find The Black Panther in his bedroom, fought him off. Neilson fired his shotgun during the struggle and managed to fend off Richardson before escaping.

John was unfortunate in that he was a carpenter, had the same height and build as Neilson and the initial photfit circulated by police was, he admitted, “my double.”

“It was scary how much he looked like me in that picture,” recalls Mr. O’Reilly.

The police initially came calling when John was returning to Ireland for a holiday.

“There were two CID officers waiting for me on the boat. They kept asking me about my brother Sean but I’ve no brother by that name. I was starting to grey at the time, so I had dyed my hair. That too was unfortunate timing,” he said.

The police told John to report to them when he returned to England.

“I knew it wasn’t me so I didn’t bother going back to the police. I knew they were looking for me but I kept giving them the slip. That was until one day when I returned to my then girlfriend’s house and two CID officers were waiting for me. My brother had let the cat out of the bag so that was it, I was arrested.”

John recalls having to answer questions about the IRA. “They said that I was robbing the post offices for the IRA. I was terrified. At that time there was lots of arrests and mad stuff going on because of the Troubles. I really feared that they would just lock me up and that being that. I could have been the Accrington One. Totally innocent just like the Guildford Four or Birmingham Six - but who would have believed me.”

In the end John’s fears were unfounded. He took part in an identity parade and Mrs. Astin confirmed that he was not the man responsible for her husband’s death.

“The police still wanted to keep me inside. I only got released after telling them that they had my photo andmy fingerprints and that I had a job interview the next day.”

There was no interview.

“It certainly was a nervous time. The police hated the Irish so I didn’t know which way it would go.”

Despite his innocence, such was the stigma of being arrested for the murders, John subseqently moved to Blackpool. “People treated me differently after they learned I had been arrested. The killer had used two guns taped together, so some believed that there were two criminals.”

“I was glad when the Panther was caught and, if I’m honest, glad when he died. If that women hadn’t been there and seen her husband killed, I’ve no doubt the police, as was the case with Irish men in England then, would have thrown the book at me.”

Born in The Brandywell’s Southend Park one of Margaret and Edward O’Reilly’s 12 children, Beaver was never bitter over the incident. He has however held onto one grudge. Sixty-two years ago he scored the only goal in the McAlinden Cup Final for Fairview against Wellington Rovers. “Johnny Walker (of the Birmingham Six) was in nets. Perhaps it was an ill-fated game, as not only did I get injured in a clash with their full back and was never able to play again, the ‘Journal’ credited Jamesy McLaughlin with my cup winning goal!”

It is, even after six decades, a travesty we are happy to correct.

Donald Neilson - The Black Panther

Donald Neilson was the UK’s most wanted man in 1974/74. Known by the moniker, The Black Panther, Neilson was to be sentenced to four consecutive life sentences following a decade-long crime spree which involved murder and kidnapping.

The former British soldier had seen active duty in Kenya, Aden and Cyprus.

Arrested in 1975, he confessed to armed robbery, burglary, and aggravated assault, and was convicted of four murders. A fifth ws left on the books due to complications arising from the fact that security guard Gerard Smith died one year after the attack.

Neilson was to turn his hand at kidnapping in 1975 before he was eventually caught and jailed for life in Norwich Prison.

The public in both England and Ireland were horrified in January 1975, when Neilson kidnapped 17 year-old Lesley Whittle (INSET) from her own home. Neilson’s ransom demands were never met and Lesley was found dead, hanged in a sewer drainage shaft, in March.

Neilson had held her prisoner for an undetermined time. He had also shot Security guard, Gerard Smith, six times during an ill-fated ransom run. Mr. Smith died of his wounds one year later. Neilson died in December 2011.

In June 2008 his appeal to have his whole life sentence reduced to 30 years was refused by the High Court and he was told he would die in jail.

Mr Justice Teare said: “It is plain from the sentencing remarks of the judge that the applicant was ruthlessly prepared to shoot to kill if he considered such action necessary.

“The murder of the young girl in March 1975 followed an abduction of her for gain. The location and manner of her death indicates that she must have been subjected by the applicant to a dreadful and horrific ordeal.”