Front Page Detective 1940
Magazine covers for the Front Page Detective publication for the year 1940.
The story of Pat Tate is one of violence, drug dealing and murder that continues to intrigue and fascinate decades after the case of the Rettendon Murders, in which Tate’s gang the Essex Boys were found blasted to death in a Range Rover.
But who was Pat Tate, and how did he end up living a life of crime. Considered by one of his victims as a bully who deserved what he got, the fate of Pate Tate was inexorably linked to that of his fellow Essex Boys, who would meet their demise on a freezing and desolate country lane.
The Bodybuilding Bully
Pat Tate lived a violent life, and naturally came to a violent end. But how he came to become associated with the Essex Boys, a drug dealing group who controlled the flow of drugs in Essex, can be answered by the then growing drug trade in the UK.
Born on August 7, 1958 in Rochford Essex, Patrick “Pat” Tate seemed to have a penchant for violence. By the time of death at the age of thirty-seven, Tate, who was 6ft 2″ and weighed 18 stone, often used his size and immense strength to intimidate anyone who stood in his way.
Tate had an extensive criminal record, including convictions for drug offences and armed robbery, and had once escaped from a courthouse at Billericay. On December 30, 1988, the 30-year-old Tate made a dramatic escape from the dock.
Accused of robbery and possession of cocaine, bodybuilder Tate stood before the court. He suddenly lunged at three police officers, who were injured, as he powered his way out of the court towards a waiting motorcycle driven by an accomplice.
One WPC received a black eye in the altercation, and another officer was kicked in the face as police tried to block Tate’s escape. According to police, witnesses inside the courtroom tried to impede the police attempts to restrain Tate.
In the aftermath, roadblocks were set-up but failed to trap Tate, who sporting several tattoos and wearing a fawn top, light blue jeans and a green sweatshirt. Tate subsequently fled to Spain, but was soon extradited back when he made the mistake of going to Gibraltar.
Sentenced to seven years imprisonment, Tate spent his time inside bodybuilding. By this time he had started taking drugs. With his already violent disposition, Tate fuelled his anger with drugs. According to Bernard O’Mahoney, a former member of the Caning Town Firm, Tate suffered from a drug problem. “Tate had a real drug addiction,” he said.
Upon his release on parole, he survived an attempt on his life when a hitman threw a brick through his bathroom window and shot him in the arm. Tate was rushed to hospital and staff found he had hidden a stash of drugs and a handgun under his pillow.
His license was immediately revoked and he was sent back to prison. One man, Stephen Ellis, was questioned over the assault, but soon fled to the West County under a new identity where he took to wearing body armour out of fear of reprisals.
During his incarceration, Tate’s second-hand car business was looked after by his friend Tony Tucker, who gave him a job in his operation upon his release from prison. Tucker was running a drugs franchise operation, and offered Pat Tate a position.
By this time, Tate had a two-year-old son with his girlfriend Sarah Saunders, who herself suffered violence at the hands of her partner. It was known to police that Tate domestically abused his girlfriend, and the couple split not long after his release from prison.
O’Mahoney said, “Look at Tate – he came out after six or seven years inside and within five months he was shot. Six weeks after that, he was shot dead. Six months he’d been out and he was shot twice. I’m 60 and I’ve never been shot.”
Known as a violent bully, Tate was described by his own mother as a liability who was often high on drugs, which made him paranoid and unpredictable. The night before he was murdered at Rettendon, Tate had telephoned the London Pizza Company in Basildon.
He aggressively demanded a specially made pizza with four different toppings on each quarter. The manager, 21-year-old Roger Ryall, was busy and annoyed by the callers attitude and so promptly hung up. Within minutes Tate turned up at the store.
There he picked up the till and smashed it against the wall, then punched Ryall and smashed his head into a glass plate on the sink of the bathroom. Ryall, like many others who encountered Tate, refused to press charges. One associate said of Tate, “A room would darken when he entered it.”
The Rettendon Murders
On the morning of December 7, 1995, Ken Jiggins and his friend, farmer Peter Theobald came across a metallic blue Range Rover, parked in front of a locked gate on Workhouse Lane in the small village of Rettendon, Essex.
Initially the two men suspected the seemingly sleeping occupants might be poachers, however as they neared, they could see that two men inside were dead. While Jiggins phoned police, Theobald got a closer look and saw that another man was dead in the back seat.
At around 8:30am that morning, Detective Superintendent Ivan Dibley received a telephone call that a triple murder had been committed. A forty-strong squad descended on the crime scene that cold winter morning, which had been a regular spot for courting couples.
The passenger was identified as Tony Tucker, Pat Tate’s 38-year-old friend and business partner. He suffered a catastrophic facial injury, caused by a shotgun blast, that almost completely obliterated his features.
In the driver’s seat was 26-year-old Craig Rolfe, the third member of the firm known as the Essex Boys, who had also be hit by a shotgun blast to the side of his face, leaving a large hole in the side of his head. Taken by surprise, he still had his foot on the break pedal.
The man in the back seat was Pat Tate, his head smashed through the back window after he was shot once in the head and once in the stomach. It had all the hallmarks of a cold-blooded execution, and none of the victims had time to react.
Detectives began to piece together the sequence of events, and determine whether the killer or killers had been seated in the Range Rover with the victims, or had ambushed the men from outside the vehicle, blasting them to death before they realised what was happening.
Det Supt. Dibley said “This is not an ordinary murder. It looks as if they were enticed down there. As far as murders go, you don’t get anymore serious than this.” The killer fired off eight rounds, leaving the spent cartridges where they fell, possibly because it was too dark to retrieve them.
Three shots were fired off in quick succession, killing Rolfe, then Tucker. It was surmised that before he could react, Tate was shot in the abdomen. The gunman then reloaded the shotgun, before shooting him twice in the head and for good measure then fired another shot each into the already dead Tucker and Rolfe.
It was strongly suspected that Tate had been the prime target, the others were merely collateral damage. A post-mortem examination found Pat Tate had a combination of cocaine, heroin and cannabis in his bloodstream, along with steroids.
Investigators began looking for an potential leads, that might explain why these three men, who were considered low level criminals, were apparently lured to late night rendezvous where they were ambushed and shot to death.
Detectives soon learned there were many reasons why certain people might want to cause harm to the three Essex Boys. Tate in particular had made many enemies because of his violent manner, use of force and explosive temper.
Bernard O’Mahoney said, “It was obvious to everyone who knew them what was going to happen. I was aware of it at the time and kept my distance. It wasn’t hard.” Several instances, in the months and years leading up to the Rettendon murders were possible contributors to their deaths.
Pat Tate and the Essex Boys were suspected in the death of 28-year-old Kevin Whitaker, who died from an apparent drug overdose in November 1994. Whitaker was apparently murdered because of an alleged drug debt, and Tate’s mother said her son told her this when she visited him in hospital after he was shot.
Whitaker was found on November 17, 1994, thirty hours after going missing, his body dumped by the roadside. First indications were he died from an apparent drug overdose. It was Pat Tate’s mother who began to make allegations, claiming that Tucker and Rolfe had injected Whitaker with a drug that caused his death.
Marie Tate strongly believes her son was the innocent party in the crime, and that Whitaker’s friends had taken revenge by killing her son and his criminal associates. However, detectives were certain it had no connection to their own murders at Workhouse Lane.
Another death associated with the Essex Boys was that of 18 year-old Leah Betts. The teenager, a schoolgirl from Latchingdon in Essex, was admitted to hospital on November 11, 1995 after falling into a coma.
This occurred one month before the murders at Rettendon. It was found she had four hours previously taken an ecstasy (MDMA) tablet and then drank approximately 7 litres of water during a 90-minute period.
Five days later she died after her life support machine was switched off. Her death was used in the British media as an example of the dangers of illegal drugs, and ecstasy in particular, something that had become common in nightclubs in Essex.
In response, Essex Police launched a large inquiry to locate the suppliers of the tablet Leah Betts had taken. They were able to pinpoint Raquel’s Club as the venue where it was bought. The subsequent investigation cost roughly £300,000.
This inquiry resulted in the arrest of four of Leah’s friends who had been present at the house. It has been suggested that Tony Tucker and Pat Tate’s gang controlled the supply of ecstasy in the Basildon nightclub where the tablet had been bought. This led to the theory that the murders of the Rettendon drug dealers were revenge for the death of Leah Betts.
The killers of Pat Tate and the Essex Boys
In May 1996, a break in the case was made when three men were arrested during a police and customs drugs operation. 52-year-old Michael Steele, 33-year-old Jack Whomes and a third man were arrested and held on suspicion of importing drugs.
These three men were soon linked to the Rettendon murders of Pat Tate, Tucker and Rolfe. Facing a murder charge, one of the men, Darren Nicholls, started to confess the role he played in their deaths.
Nicolls claimed to have met Steele, Whomes and Tate a few years earlier while serving a prison sentence for distributing counterfeit currency at Hollesley Bay Prison in Suffolk. Upon his release, Nicholls joined Steele’s smuggling organisation, making trips to Amsterdam.
Michael Steele was considered a sophisticated Essex drug smuggler, and in November 1995, he supplied a consignment of cannabis with a street value of around £350,000 to Tate, Tucker and Rolfe. This is considered the catalyst for the subsequent Rettendon murders.
It turns out the quality of the drugs were so poor that Steele agreed to take back the cannabis and return a deposit of around £70,000. The money was paid but Tate denied getting it and also failed to return one-third of the drugs haul.
When Steele protested, Tate threatened to shoot him after making him beg on his knees. A furious Tate boasted he would kill the smuggler in revenge for the incident, and Steele, who had developed a close relationship with Tate’s ex-girlfriend, who told him of the threats and cause him to make the first move.
The Murders on Workhouse Lane
Six weeks before the murders, Steele contacted Nicholls and asked him to get him a gun. Shortly after, Pat Tate, Tucker and Rolfe were invited to look at the farmer’s field where, as part of their smuggling operation, the alleged drug plane would land.
Nicholls told police what happened next. As Rolfe’s Range Rover approached the locked gate at the bottom of Workhouse Lane, Steele jumped out to open it. At the same moment Jack Whomes, known as Steele’s right hand man, leant in with a pump-action shotgun and began blasting the three men inside.
Moments later, Nicolls was called by Whomes, asking to pick them up. As the two men got into the back of his car, he noticed they were spattered in blood, and realised what had happened. Steele apparently said, “they wont fuck with us again”.
Nicholls said Steele went on to say he felt like an “Angel of Death” because he felt he had done everyone a favour by getting rid of these three men. “I think I knew all along that they were going to do it.”
With Nicolls turning supergrass, Michael Steele and Jack Whomes went on trial in late 1997 based on his testimony. Charged with murder, Nicholls said he had little choice but to help the investigation and point the finger of blame at his former friends.
The trial lasted four and a half months, and the court proceedings were believed to have cost well over £1 million. Whomes and Steele’s lawyers claimed Nicolls had fabricated his story. On January 20, 1998, the jury started deliberation for four and a half days.
When they returned, guilty verdicts for both defendants were handed down. The weight of evidence had been mobile phone records used to corroborate the informants testimony, the reliability of which were raised afterwards.
Michael Steele and Jack Whomes were convicted of the three murders and given triple life sentences. Darren Nicholls was placed in the Witness Protection Programme, with new identities for him and his family.
The murders of Pat Tate, his boss Tony Tucker and their fellow Essex Boy Craig Rolfe have influenced several movies about their time as one of the criminal gangs supplying drugs and exploits as dangerous hard men in the Essex criminal underworld.
Magazine covers for the Front Page Detective publication for the year 1940.
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