The Downfall of the Essex Boys
"They won't fuck with us again"
On a cold winter morning in December 1995, the bodies of three men were discovered inside a parked Range Rover situated down a small farm track in the village of Rettendon in Essex, England. The victims, who had all been shot dead, were soon identified as three violent drug dealers and members of a notorious gang known as the “Essex Boys”. The subsequent police investigation of the Rettendon Murders was codenamed “Operation Century”, and focused on the lives of the victims, each of whom had been involved in the criminal underworld.
It would prove to be highly controversial for the tactics employed by the Essex Police Special Branch officers working undercover, and because it resulted in no arrests or criminal evidence that led to a conviction. During the police investigation, two suspects were identified and charged with the triple killings, and would go on trial at the Old Bailey in 1998, where they were implicated by an accomplice and received terms of life imprisonment. When details of the heavy-handed methods of Operation Century became public knowledge, Essex Police were forced to defend the unconventional covert operation in the face of mounting criticism.
In the small village of Rettendon, Essex, 47-year-old Ken Jiggins knocked on the door of his friend, farmer Peter Theobald, to help him feed the 800 pheasants kept in fields at the 130-acre farm. Theobald ran a shooting range, and the birds needed to be fed twice a day, and his friend offered to help because of the severe frost that day meant he couldn’t work his regular job as a bricklayer.
The snow had began to settle at 4pm the previous day on December 6, continuing into the early hours when the frost had set in. Theobald had to scrap thick ice from the windows of his Land Rover, and as they drove across the field, situated 300 yards away, they noticed another vehicle. It was metallic blue Range Rover, parked in front of a locked gate leading to an angler’s carp pond near the shooting area.
Despite the ice, the windows on the Range Rover were clear, and they could see two men sat in the front seats. Mr. Jiggins would later say he thought they were asleep, and suspected they might be poachers. As he jumped out to ask them to move, he tapped on the window then shouted, “there are two dead men here.” Whilst he used his mobile phone to alert police, Theobald moved closer to check.
It was then he saw another dead man slumped across the back seat. As he looked more closely at the driver, he noticed both his hands were still on the steering wheel and later he learned, his foot was still pressed on the brake. Familiar with firearms, Theobald noticed a two-inch round entry wound behind his ear that exited out through his mouth. There was some blood seeping out of the car, but not as much as he expected.
At 8:30am that morning, Detective Superintendent Ivan Dibley was breakfasting at home in Chelmsford when he received the call that a triple murder had been committed. Despite the 50-year-old detective enjoying his day off, he quickly assumed the lead in investigation. Dibley had headed more than 25 murder investigations in the previous five years, two of which had remained unsolved.
Throughout 1995, he had cleared up 10 murders in the previous months, but the Rettendon murders investigation would be his first triple murder inquiry, but also his biggest and last case as he was due to retire at the end of April after serving for 32 years in the force. Working out of South Woodham Ferrers police station, DI Dibley’s 40 strong squad descended on Rettendon on that cold winter morning at Workhouse Lane, a regular spot for courting couples.
Arriving on the scene they found the bodies of three men, each of whom had been shot twice in the head at close range with what appeared to be a three round pump action 12-bore shotgun. The man sitting in the passenger seat had suffered a particularly gruesome blast to the head, which had partly obliterated his face, leaving him unrecognisable, whilst the man in the back seat had been shot twice in head and once in the stomach
Rise of the Foot Soldier – Rettendon Murder re-enactment
It was a cold-blooded execution, and detectives attempted to piece together the sequence of events, and determine whether the killer 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.”
Dibley learned the men been planning to go for a meal with girlfriends that evening, at a Basildon restaurant at 8:00pm, and both Tucker and Tate were still holding their mobile phones when they were shot dead. Some suspected it might have been a professional hit, because two of the victims died within two seconds, whilst the third, the back seat passenger had possibly attempted to escape but was killed soon afterwards. None of the victims were wearing seatbelts and there was no sign of a struggle, and they presumably realised their fate.
It was strongly suspected they were summoned to a meeting by someone they trusted. But what wasn’t clear was why Workhouse Lane was chosen as the meeting place. Although the area was quiet, it was not deserted, with the farmhouse less than 300 yards away. A nearby pond was often used by drug smugglers to place hidden stashes under the water, so the area may have been familiar to the victims.
None of the men were armed when their bodies were discovered, and Pat Tate travelled almost everywhere with a gun. 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 firing another shot each into the already dead Tucker and Rolfe. Dibley believed Tate was the target, the others were merely collateral damage. A post-mortem examination found Tate had a combination of cocaine, heroin and cannabis in his bloodstream, along with steroids, which the 18-stone bodybuilder often used.
The father of a two-year-old son had only recently been released from prison six weeks earlier and had an extensive criminal record, including convictions for drug offences and armed robbery. Tate had once escaped from a courthouse at Billericay, riding away on a motorcycle driven by an accomplice. He went to Spain, but was soon extradited back when he made the mistake of going to Gibraltar.
When he was released 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. He was rushed to hospital and staff found he had hidden a stash of drugs and a handgun under his pillow. His license was 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 Tucker, who gave him a job upon his release from prison. Tucker was running a drugs franchise operation, and offered him a position. 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 the Rettendon murders, Tate had telephoned the London Pizza Company in Basildon, demanding 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 hung up. Within minutes Tate turned up at the store, where 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.”
It was suspected by detectives that the first to die was the driver, Craig Rolfe. A father to a seven-year-old daughter, Rolfe was a small-time criminal with a cocaine dependency who acted as driver and muscle to his boss, and was not averse to resorting to violence if required. Alongside him was his employer, Anthony “Tony” Tucker, an equally violent individual, who ran a lucrative security business which provided bouncers for clubs around Essex and east London, which netted him upwards of £1,500 a week.
In the first few weeks after the Rettendon murders, tributes were laid at the site by unseen relatives and friends of the dead men, one of which dedicated to Tate said, “A wonderful man… poison did this to you”. However, many locals believed the three drug dealers had got what was coming to them, and DS Dibley said, “The public aren’t too happy either about so much time being spent on such low-life. Buy my job isn’t to moralise. The killers have to be caught. There has been no tit-for-tat yet, and it has surprised me a little. But some intelligence indicates the families are keen to give us a chance to sort it out.”
None the families of the dead men co-operated with police inquiries, and Dibley believed they had a good idea who committed the Rettendon murders, but were scared. The three men had certainly gained plenty of enemies through their criminal activities, and Essex police had several lines of enquiry they could pursue. One such lead was the death of 28-year-old Kevin Whitaker, who died from an apparent drug overdose in November 1994.
It was strongly suspected that his death was related to an alleged drug debt. Tate’s mother said her son told her this when she visited him in hospital after he was shot. Whitaker disappeared from his parents home on November 17, 1994, leaving the house after receiving numerous calls from Craig Rolfe. Thirty hours later his body was found dumped by the roadside, having died from an apparent drug overdose.
This was never disputed because of the needle marks on his right arm, and at the inquest held at Chelmsford, Rolfe was called to give evidence but denied ever knowing Whitaker. But he later admitted he called him when he was presented with an itemised phone bill showing the call history. It was then Whitaker’s parents knew something was not right with their son’s death. Mrs. Tate then began making allegations that Tucker and Rolfe had injected Whitaker in the groin with a drug that acts as a paralyser, which is often used on horses known as Special K or Ketamine.
Once he was powerless, Whitaker was injected with lignocaine which 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. Detectives were certain Tucker and Rolfe were responsible for Whitaker’s death, but believe it had no connection to their own murders at Workhouse Lane.
One arrest was made, that of a 27-year-old decorator from south London, who was held during a joint operation with Scotland Yard and charged with firearms offences. DS Dibley said, “I’m happy with how our inquiry is proceeding, and I’m hopeful of arrests before I retire. It’s how I would want to end a 32-year career.” One month before the murders at Rettendon, a schoolgirl from Latchingdon in Essex was admitted to hospital on November 11, 1995 after falling into a coma.
The teenager, 18 year-old Leah Betts, 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. In response, Essex Police launched a large inquiry to locate the suppliers of the tablet Leah Betts had taken and were able to pinpoint Raquel’s Club as the venue where it was bought.
The subsequent investigation cost roughly £300,000, and resulted in the arrest of four of her friends who had been present at the house. It has been suggested that Tucker’s gang controlled the supply of ecstasy in the Basildon nightclub where Leah’s tablet had been bought, and the murders of the Rettendon drug dealers were revenge for her death.
Essex Police received information on January 1, 1996, from a detective from Exeter CID, who phoned in and said he had an underworld contact who believed he knew why the three men were killed. The subsequent report said, “(He) has contact with a person who has a good connection with the drugs world in the London and Kent areas. This person is alleged to have taken over the work which Tate, Tucker and Rolfe were running – This work started at Christmas time and is still current. The contact has stated that they were shot because they owe the firm £60,000 pounds.” The document added, “He has lots of phone enquiries in hand which say can be connected with our murder inquiry.”
The man, who was 36 at the time, was described as a “doorman/bodybuilder-type” and an associate of the north London Adams crime family. At the time he was remanded in custody in Brixton prison and, “he is believed to be well connected and involved in the supply of cocaine. He is also known to be a man of extreme violence and suspected of being involved in the shooting murder of a man called Martin in Rothehithe and the stabbing attempted murder of a man called Marcus Williams at a youth club in London.”
Information on another potential suspect was provided on February 1996, by Mrs. Linda Millard, originally from Essex, who detailed for police her suspicions about his involvement in the Essex Boys murder. While staying at a friends house, Mrs. Millard confided to a friend about her suspicions and detailed to her about overhearing the man, who lived in Dorset at the time, on the phone after news broke on the murders. The police report said “she thought he had some knowledge of/involvement in the killings.”
Mrs. Millard claimed the man had four or five properties in Essex and one is Dorset, and would often travel to Portugal. The report added, “Millard believed he was involved in funding drugs, counterfeit perfumes, and pornographic videos.” While at her friends home, she passed evidence on to the police and some ten days after she arrived there, on 1 March 1996, the man in question “found where she was staying”, and she went missing the same day. Her car had been found on top of the cliffs at Battery Point, Portishead near Bristol, with her shoes, handbag and car keys locked inside the boot.
It was nearly three months after the Rettendon murders, and just several days after she had raised her concerns, but no body was found and it remained a missing person case. Her family were convinced she did not commit suicide, and there may have been foul play involved in her disappearance. Essex police were notified by Avon and Somerset Police about the claims of Mrs. Millard two days after she vanished.
A former Essex business associate of the man, not publicly named from the police report, who was involved with him in property development said, “I have not seen him for about 15 years. He was going to join me in a development in Portugal, but pulled out. I know the police spoke to him at the time, but he had done nothing wrong. He would no be involved in anything like that.” The man did say he was aware the suspect had “an interest” in pornography.
A police spokeswoman said “During enquiries we spoke to a man who voluntarily allowed a search of his home and no evidence of wrongdoing was found and no further action was taken. The case Mrs. Linda Millard’s disappearance remains an on-going missing person case.” The father of Leah Betts, a retired Met firearms officer was even pulled in for questioning over the shootings.
Paul Betts said, “I nearly got nicked for the murders. At the time I was running a clay pigeon shooting business and the police took all my guns. But I hadn’t heard of any of the murdered three.” Another London based gangster, Billy Jasper, admitted to detectives he was the real killer’s getaway driver. When he was arrested for armed robbery, he told Met detectives he was given £5,000 to drive a hitman, referred to only as Mr. D, to the murder scene.
But Jasper was never charged. Police suspected a link between the murders and £500,000 worth of cannabis found in a farmer’s pond in West Hanningfield. The drugs, found in 53 black packets that had reportedly been dropped from an aircraft, were found y farmer Jens Haustrup and recovered by Essex Police’s Underground Search Unit. Det Supt. Dibley said, “I strongly believe there was a connection between the cannabis in West Hanningfield and this case.”
The investigation into the Rettendon murders soon took a darker turn when Essex Police launched a sting operation known as ‘Operation Century’, which was masterminded by Detective Superintendent Ivan Dibley and assisted by the Royal Ulster Constabulary Special Branch. The purpose of the operation was to bring pressure to those people who were suspected of having knowledge about the triple murder.
The operation was timed to coincide with the February 1996 bombing of Canary Wharf, which was a renewal of the Irish Republican bombing campaign in mainland Britain. While the Rettendon murders had no connection to the IRA or the bombing, Essex and RUC Special Branch used it as a pretext for issuing threats and intimidation as part of their undercover operation.
Essex suspects and their families were subjected to harassing telephone calls, which were made by Belfast Special Branch officers from Ireland, who would pose as Republican drug runners claiming they had funded the criminal activities of the Rettendon murders victims, and were still demanding payment from their families. This deception failed and the suspects refused to meet with undercover officers. The phone-calls contained extremely foul-mouthed and threatening language, and could have been interpreted by the suspects as death threats.
One of the victims subjected to this was the live-in partner of one of the murdered men, with whom she had a young child. Donna Jaggers, the girlfriend of Craig Rolfe, would later admit that she had no idea these terror tactics were not being utilised by Belfast-based Republicans, and so she sought assistance from Essex Police, who informed her the calls were made from Belfast and that the terrorists had crossed into mainland Britain and they were unable to track their movements. This had a profound effect on a woman who was already distraught and grieving.
In May 1996, a break in the Rettendon Murders 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. During the investigation, the three men were linked to the Rettendon murders of Tate, Tucker and Rolfe. Facing a murder charge, the third man, convicted fraudster Darren Nicolls began confessing to police his role in the murders.
He 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 where he purchased hundreds of kilos of cannabis which he drove to the Belgian coast. From there he would meet up with Steele’s speedboat, and there drugs were taken across the Channel and deposited on the Essex coast.
Steele was described as 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. But the quality was 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 he protested, Tate threatened to shoot Steele 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, heard of the threats and decided he would move first. On the pretence of making amends, Steele offered Tate a share in a lucrative cocaine deal. Six weeks before the murders, Whomes contacted Nicholls and asked him to get him a gun, he said Jack had a couple but they didn’t want to use those, and so Nicolls said he asked a few people but failed to come up with anything.
Tate, Tucker and Rolfe were invited to looks at the farmer’s field where the alleged drug plane would land. Nicholl’s claimed that 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.
Seconds later, Whomes was calling Nicholls on his mobile and asked him to pick them up. He said it was only when they climbed into the back of his car, spattered in blood, that he realised what had happened. In his testimony Nicholls claimed that during the journey home Steele had said “they wont fuck with us again”, and 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.”
After the crime, Nicholls said he stop smuggling in an attempt to distance himself from Steele and Whomes, but fearing he was an accessory to the Rettendon murders, felt he had to continue selling drugs on Steele’s behalf. He said when they realised he was becoming a weak link, they insisted he become more involved or face the consequences. Several says before their arrest, Nicholls said both men had issued him with a particularly nasty threat.
In late 1997, Michael Steele and Jack Whomes went on trial based on the testimony of supergrass Darren Nicholls. Charged with murder, Nicholls said he knew the only way out was to tell the truth. He said, “when giving evidence at the trial, I couldn’t look at them in the dock. I really felt like I was letting them down. I really liked Mick and I though he liked me. But in fact they were just using me. And now they hate me.” The trial lasted four and a half months, and the court proceedings were believed to have cost well over £1 million.
The court heard that Essex detectives spent 30 hours questioning Nicolls, but with the tape recorded turned off, while Whomes and Steele’s lawyers claimed he had fabricated his story. Towards the end of the Rettendon murders trial, the court heard details of Operation Century, the code-name for the sting operation conducted by Essex police in conjunction with RUC Special Branch officers. It was called “bizarre and intimidatory” for having bombarded the victims families with death threat phone calls from Northern Ireland claiming they were owed money one of the Rettendon murders victims.
It was considered by Det Supt. Dibley to be an appropriate tactic after something similar had been used against Colin Stagg during the Rachel Nickell murder case, and although it had not been described as illegal by the trial judge, he had scathingly dismissed the prosecution because police had used such disgraceful tactics of the grossest kind. At the Old Bailey on January 20, 1998, the jury deliberated the evidence for four and a half days before returning guilty verdicts for both men.
The weight of evidence had been mobile phone records used to corroborate the informant’s 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.
Nicholls had broken the ultimate criminal code: that unwritten law that you never grass on your mates. A £250,000 price was placed on his head, and he would later say “There’s not much point in them killing me know. If I’m dead that won’t get anybody off. What they might try to do is scare me into saying I was lying in court, so keeping my true identity secret is as important as ever.” In 2001 the Metropolitan Police commissioned an internal investigation into corruption codenamed Operation Tiberius.
Completed by 2002, the official documents were leaked to the Independent newspaper in 2014. The operation was launched to investigation the evidence that certain “organised criminals” had infiltrated Scotland Yard through bribery. During the course of the inquiry, 42 serving and 19 former officers were investigated for alleged corruption, which resulted in few convictions.
Criminal gangs were suspected of using their contacts inside Freemasonry to recruit corrupted officers, and the report concluded this was “the most difficult aspects of organised crime corruption to proof against.” The Metropolitan Police had long suffered “endemic corruption,” and because of the relatively small number of convictions, doubt has been expressed over the effectiveness of the investigation.
With the revelations of Operation Tiberius, the Independent reported that “Some of Britain’s most dangerous organised crime syndicates were able to infiltrate New Scotland Yard ‘at will'”. A similar covert operation was set-up in 1993, codenamed Operation Othona, which gathered intelligence on corruption within the Metropolitan Police Service.
However, the work and findings of that operation were kept separate from other intelligence operations, and almost all records of the operation were destroyed in 2001 or 2003. Operation Othona was a covert operation, gathering intelligence on corruption within the Metropolitan Police Service, set up in 1993. The work and findings of the operation were kept separate from other intelligence gathered by the Metropolitan Police. Nearly all records from the operation were destroyed in 2001 or 2003.
The epidemic of Metropolitan police corruption is believed to have existed for decades, and would be brought to public attention with the complex criminal investigation into the grisly murder of private investigator Daniel Morgan, who was attacked with an axe in the car park of the Golden Lion pub in South London on March 10, 1987.
That case, as well as that of John ‘Goldfinger’ Palmer, a criminal who was protected by corrupt officers, highlighted police collusion with criminal organizations, along with the involvement of Freemasonry within the police force and the impunity of criminals in concealing their activities with the help of serving police officers.
Michael Steele and Jack Whomes have both professed their innocence of the crimes, and have continued to unsuccessfully challenged their convictions. In 2018 the Criminal Case Review Commission (CCRC) began the fourth review of the case, this time looking at fresh evidence the two men claim supports their innocence. The first of these reviews was referred for appeal against their convictions in 2006, which was rejected.
Earlier in the year, Whomes’ minimum sentence was cute from 25 to just over 22 years, allowing him to apply for parole as early as 2020, due to his “exceptional progress” in prison. Michael Steele has claimed that police corruption was to blame for him being wrongly convicted of the notorious triple murders.
The case has generated intense interest in both the media and public, while over the years since the triple murder, there have been various films and TV programmes made about the case, which is often described as “The Essex Boys Murders”.
In July 2000, the film Essex Boys was released by Miramax Home Video and Pathe-UK, starring Sean Bean and Tom Wilkingson. The plot was loosely based on the events that culminated in the December 1995 Rettendon murders of the three drug dealers at the isolated farm. A further five movies, all based to varying degrees on the Rettendon murders have been released from 2007 to 2019.