Rough Justice? Drugs, Murder, and Corruption: The Essex Boys Story

This tale of one of the most infamous gangland murder cases in British history continues to endure, and intrigue, more than 25 years later

Disclaimer: There are a lot of voices involved in this case. I have tried to include all of them at various points, along with news sources. There is no intent to offend, just to look at what has been reported, or published. I do not directly reference any of the films, primarily because the only one I saw, bore little resemblance to what has been reported. I cannot speak to any of the others (there are a lot).

Introduction

Based on the title of this article alone, you could be forgiven for thinking that this British triple murder case has all the makings of a film. You would be right, to date no less than 11 films have either been made or are in production, based on this crime.

Today

In March 2021, it was reported that Jack Whomes, one of the two men found guilty of the infamous “Essex Boys” murders in Rettendon in 1995 was released from prison. Whomes was sentenced to three life sentences in 1998, and it was recommended he serve at least 23 years in prison. Since his conviction, Whomes, and his co-defendant, Michael Steele, have insisted they are innocent.[1] Whomes is subject to strict license conditions banning him from entering certain areas or contacting relatives of the victims. Whomes is reportedly awaiting a decision by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, expected later this year. Steele is still in prison after a Parole Board blocked his release or a move to open conditions in 2019.

Background/context

The story appears to have begun on 11 November 1995 when 18-year-old Leah Betts, from Latchingdon in Essex, took an ecstasy (MDMA) tablet and then drank approximately 7 litres of water in a 90-minute period. Four hours later, Leah collapsed into a coma from which she never recovered. Life support was withdrawn on the morning of 16 November 1995. The volume of water consumed had resulted in serious swelling of the brain. Essex Police assigned 35 officers and a significant number of resources to track the suppliers of the tablet Leah had taken. The investigation cost £300,000. Four of her friends were charged, but no drug dealers. It later transpired that Leah had taken the drug at least three times previously and that the tablet was not contaminated.

It has been reported that Leah’s death and the subsequent media interest around the nightclub (Raquel’s) in Basildon in Essex where the tablet was purchased caused rifts between the men.

Police dismissed the idea that the murder was payback for the death of Leah Betts, who was the daughter of a former police officer because it was felt the chosen mechanism for dealing with it would be a prosecution.

The Crime

On 6 December 1995, between 18:48 and 18:59, three members of the Essex Boys Firm were shot 8 times with a pump-action shotgun, at close range while sitting in a range rover[2] on Workhouse Lane, on the outskirts of Rettendon in Essex. The three men who lost their lives were not discovered until the morning of 7 December 1995 by local farmer Peter Theobald and his bricklayer friend, Ken Jiggins. The two men were on the way to feed pheasants on White Horse Farm which was owned by Mr Theobald. They found the vehicle blocking the narrow entrance road. They thought the three men slumped inside the range rover were asleep, then realised they had been shot when they got closer. The murders were reported to the police at 8 am.

Who were the murdered men?

At the wheel, was 26-year-old Craig Rolfe. Born in Holloway Prison, Craig was reportedly addicted to Cocaine and was the “gofer” of the gang. Craig was also suspected of murdering a rival drug dealer by giving him a lethal injection just days earlier.

In the passenger seat, was Tony Tucker, 38, who was the head of a security firm that controlled the drug trade in several Essex nightclubs. Tony was reported to be the leader of the gang, drove a black Porsche with the registration TT9, and specialised in punishment beatings. Tony Tucker was also ultimately responsible for supplying the ecstasy tablet that led to the death of Leah Betts.

In the back seat, was Tucker’s enforcerbodybuilder, and steroid user, Pat Tate, 36. Tate had a long history of violence. The night before his death, Tate attacked a restaurant manager, slamming his head into a glass plate counter following a row over pizza toppings. Tate, who had been released from prison a few weeks before, was reported to be an associate of M25 road-rage killer Kenneth Noye, who he had met in prison.

How were they connected?

Pat Tate met Mick Steele, a known drug importer, and Jack Whomes, a car mechanic and insurance fraudster, while in prison. Tony Tucker, as part of his security business, employed bouncers for nightclubs. He worked with Mick Steele, distributing drugs through local clubs under the control of Tucker. Bouncers would control who could enter the clubs and sell the drugs, taking a portion of the profits to pass to Tucker.

Policing issues/allegations of corruption

Operation Century

In early February 1966, Essex Police mounted an undercover operation code-named Operation Century, which was alleged to have principally targeted Michael Steele and Sarah Saunders, who was the mother of Pat Tate’s young child. During the operation police officers contacted the targeted individuals claiming they were IRA terrorists with the goal of leading the suspects to believe their lives were being directly threatened. Operation Century did not result in any incriminating evidence and was subsequently abandoned. Steele raised it as part of his defence during the trial.

Operation Tiberius

Operation Tiberius was a Metropolitan Police Service secret strategic intelligence scoping exercise that was tasked with determining the extent of police corruption and its links with organised crime within East and North East London. It commenced in October 2001. The draft report was leaked to The Independent newspaper in 2014. The report was relevant to the Rettendon murders because contained within it was detail relating to a bugged conversation where a member of an organised crime syndicate offered to “take out the supplier of the drugs to Leah Betts”. The report is legally available online in a redacted form.[3]

The Supergrass

In early 1996, Darren Nicholls was arrested and charged with conspiracy to import Cannabis. It is reported that seeking to avoid a lengthy prison sentence, he began to tell the police his version of what happened on the night of the murders. According to Nicholls, he was the getaway driver[4] for Michael Steele and Jack Whomes, who he claims committed the murders. Nicholls became a “supergrass”, testifying against his former partners in return for a reduced sentence of 15 months which he had already served on remand. Nicholls was given a new identity under the Witness Protection Programme.

The Trial

Nicholls, Steele, Whomes, and Tate had been in prison together in 1993. In August 1995, Nicholls agreed with Steele that he would play a part in the importation of Cannabis, which would be supplied by John Stone in Amsterdam. These importations took place between August and November 1995. The drugs were imported from Amsterdam by sea to locations on the East coast.

The Essex Boys Firm was a six-man gang. It was three against three when an importation that took place 7/8 November 1995 resulted in complaints about the quality of the Cannabis. The process of returning the Cannabis for a refund created a rift between Steele and Tate. Nicholls believed that Steele and Tate were falling out, not only because of the Cannabis but also because Tate and his girlfriend, Sarah Saunders, had split up and Steele was quite close to her.

Nicholls drove Steele and Whomes to the scene unaware they were going to commit murder. They were there to discuss a drug deal with Tate. Nicholls was told to go elsewhere and wait for a call to pick them up. When Nicholls returned, Whomes had what looked like blood on his gloves, and Whomes and Steele subsequently had a conversation in the car about a gun falling apart when fired.

The defence argued that Nicholls had the motivation to lie because if he was involved, he would also be guilty of murder under the joint enterprise principle.

There were two mobile telephone masts not far from the scene and the pub nearby named The Wheatsheaf. The police argued that a mobile phone call picked up on the records from one of the communications masts was made by Whomes shortly after the killings to Nicholls and lasted 4 seconds. [5] It was alleged that this was Whomes calling Nicholls and asking him to come and collect him.

It was the defence of Whomes that he was in The Wheatsheaf Pub when the murders happened and that the communications mast evidence proved that. He had called Nicholls but that was to ask for a meeting. The mast nearer the pub was the one that picked up that call. Had Whomes been at the murder scene, the call would have been routed through the other mast. This defence was dismissed on the grounds that they were in the area at the time of the murders and the fact the communications mast evidence was not considered to be an exact science. The evidence is dependant on atmospheric conditions, weather conditions, and the amount of traffic on the network. Areas are often covered by more than one mast.

The case against Whomes was based on the following:

· The rift with Tate

· He was in the area at the time of the killings

· His getaway driver, Nicholls, testified that he was the killer

Although it was one person’s word against another with no forensic evidence putting them at the scene, by testifying Nicholls would have to spend the rest of his life in the Witness Protection Programme. Nicholls spent 13 days in the witness box and was subjected to vigorous cross-examination. The centrepiece of the case was his evidence.

The original trial found them guilty.

The Appeal

New evidence was provided about Nicholls. The evidence was largely based on the fact that he was manipulative, told lies, and had cobbled together a false story with the assistance of servicing police officers. Nicholls had done so to cover up or minimise his own criminality in relation to the drugs importations and the murders to receive a lenient sentence. Nicholls had been selling his story, undermining the case against Whomes and Steele.

Nicholls was in the protective custody of the police while he gave evidence against Whomes and Steele, and not the ordinary prison estate. Nicholls was kept in different police cells across East Anglia and while there he was receiving visits from journalists. There was also a successful attempt to smuggle in a camera for him to document some of the goings-on while he was in protective custody. This was all going on under the noses of the police despite them maintaining they were not involved in it.

The police stated that they knew they were not allowed to facilitate the exchange of money. The defence response was that by controlling access to Nicholls they did just that. There was no way they could not have known what was going on. The defence argued that had the jury known this, it would have given them pause.

The appeal was not successful because the Judge felt that Nicholls’ credibility was fully explored at trial and he had remained consistent in his testimony throughout. The Judge was satisfied there was no evidence of police corruption and felt the new evidence did not undermine Nicholls’ testimony.

Conclusion

It is difficult to draw conclusions when the case is as complicated as this one is/was. There are questions that remain, however.

1. The rumours of police corruption are persistent. This article states the evidence of Nicholl’s testimony was lost. After being interviewed for 30 hours, detectives realised the tape that was recording Nicholls’ questioning had stopped recording.

2. Nicholls received a substantial financial benefit for testifying when he sold his story, a lesser sentence, and appears to have returned to crime under his new identity. How credible is he?

3. What about Billy Jasper? Jasper told police four months before Nicholls made his statements that he was the getaway driver and that Brink’s Mat money launderer Patsy “Bolt Eyes” Clark had ordered the hit.

4. What about Steve “Nipper” Ellis? Ellis stated has stated his father, Sid, carried out the murders after his family had been the subject of threats from the murdered trio. Ellis claims the gang had said they would cut off his sister’s fingers. Ellis then went on to claim his dad used his shotgun to carry out the shootings, adding “everyone knew” Steele and Whomes were innocent. He continued: “I’m telling this story now because my dad is dead. He died four years ago, and my dad wouldn’t care about me telling people”. Essex Police says it is aware of the claims made by Ellis. A spokesman added: “This case sits with the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) and while it remains with them, we are unable to provide further comment so as not to prejudice any potential legal proceedings”. According to Bernard O’MahoneySteve “Nipper” Ellis, had already tried to shoot Tate once.

5. What about Kevin Whitaker? He was a drug courier, an associate of Rolfe. His parents, and Tate’s mother, believe he was murdered over a drug debt. His killers: Tucker and Rolfe. After the deaths, Mrs Tate claimed Tucker and Rolfe had injected Whitaker in the groin with a paralysing drug, often used on horses, known as Special K. The victim is powerless but conscious. Whitaker was then injected with lignocaine and died. Mrs Tate thinks Whitaker’s friends avenged his death. Although police now believe Rolfe and Tucker murdered him, they feel it had nothing to do with the events at Workhouse Lane.

6. Retired detective David McKelvey claims to have found evidence supporting the account of Billy Jasper. The final call made from Tate’s mobile, apart from one to a girlfriend, was at 18.26 and lasted 17 seconds. It was never disclosed at the trial. Mr McKelvey said the “vital witness” Tate rang is repeatedly named in the police murder file as a person of interest. Days after the murders an action was raised to interview him but when his solicitor said he was refusing to talk, officers gave up.

Are there any innocents in this case? Probably not, but there are questions to be asked about how it was handled, at the very least.


[1] Peter Corry was also a defendant but as it has never been suggested that Corry had any involvement in the murders, I have not included any information about him in this article. Corry, who was described as a Courier, received 4.5 years for conspiracy to import Cannabis.

[2] The Range Rover registration is F424 NPE. The last vehicle logbook was issued on 18 December 2020. It is SORN. It was originally believed to have been on finance and returned to the finance company but there is much debate on forums as to what happened to the vehicle.

[3] There are also unredacted versions circulating online.

[4] Billy Jasper claimed that another criminal, Jesse Gale, who later died in a car crash, gave him £5000 to drive an accomplice known as Mr D to and from Rettendon in Essex. Mr D was allegedly going to do a Cocaine deal with the three men. Jasper testified at the Old Bailey murder trial that he had agreed to the plan, and later spotted Mr D’s 9mm Browning pistol and a sawn-off shotgun when he drove him to the murder scene at Workhouse Lane. The Essex police log noted on January 18, 1996, that the account did not “fit with the current intelligence, direction, and evidence already available”.

[5] This mobile communications mast evidence has been called into question.

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