The Essex Boy
"This was not a whodunnit but a who-didn't."
On the evening of December 6, 1995, a group of young men arrived at a small farm located in the village of Rettendon in Essex. The group were headed by Tony Tucker, a businessman who provided security for clubs around Essex, who along with his associates, was involved in drug dealing. By the morning, all three would be dead, blasted to death inside their Range Rover in what would become known as the Rettendon Murders.
The investigation into Tuckers death, and those of his fellow Essex Boys, as the group were known, would take many years before a supergrass came forward with information on what happened that fateful night, and why the three men were murdered. After the conviction of the killers, doubt still lingers over who exactly pulled the trigger.
The Essex Businessman
Little is known of Tucker’s early life and childhood, however what is known is that he held aspirations from a young age of being a tough guy, someone who could hold their own in a fight and who people came to fear. With a taste for expensive things, Tucker strove to get what he wanted in life, even if that meant acquiring it through illegal means.
As the leader of the Essex Boys, the drug dealing gang who operated throughout Essex during the 1990’s, Anthony “Tony” Tucker was a feared figure in the criminal underworld. He operated a security business that provided personnel for clubs around Essex. It was through this line of work that Tucker came to meet boxer Nigel Benn.
A bodybuilder who regularly frequented the gym, Tucker started acting as a bodyguard for Benn, alongside minder David “Rolex Dave” King. This provided Tucker with the opportunity of meeting other celebrities, ensuring the expansion his business. He was often see at ringside during Benn’s fights, as part of his entourage.
A close associate of Pat Tate, another violent Essex criminal, who spent time in prison for drug offences and robbery. Although the pair were know for their violence, they held a measure of respect for one another. While Tate was in prison, his second-hand car business was run by his friend Tucker, who then gave Tate a job upon his release. Known for his large physical presence and violent temper, Tate was instrumental in Tucker’s drugs franchise operation.
Other members of Tuckers new drugs venture included Craig Rolfe, a petty criminal with a heavy cocaine habit, who acted as muscle and driver to his boss Tucker, and Carlton Leach, a former football hooligan connected with the Inter City Firm, who worked as a bouncer at Essex nightclubs, becoming involved in the large scale ecstasy dealing during the rave era of the later 1980’s.
It was the Tucker/Tate partnership that ensured the Essex boys eventual dominance over the drug trade. There were few who could stand up to their combined strength and very often the opposition were too intimidated to defy the pair. Together they handed out punishment beatings to keep people in line and frequently used tortured against anyone who crossed them.
The flow of drugs from the gang into nightclubs through out Essex, earned the Essex Boys hundreds of thousands in illicit revenue. Most of that money went on to fund the lifestyles of Tucker, Tate, Rolfe and Leach. Although Tucker earned around £1,500 a week from his security business, he and his associates were soon enjoying lavish lifetyles. At the time of his death, Tucker was living in a £250,000 house and driving expensive cars.
The sale of ecstasy pills funded the gang’s drug empire, however it proved fatal for those who consumed the deadly drug. One month before the deaths of the Essex Boys, schoolgirl Leah Betts, from Latchingdon in Essex, was admitted to hospital on November 11, 1995 after falling into a coma.
Only hours previously, the 18-year-old had 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. Although four of her friends who had present were arrested, no-one was ever charged with supplying the deadly drug.
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. Leah had bought the tablet from Raquel’s Club, a Basildon nightclub, where Tucker’s gang allegedly controlled the supply of ecstasy.
The Murder of the Essex Boys
On the morning of December 7, 1995, two men discovered a seemingly abandoned Range Rover, parked in front of a locked gate leading to an angler’s carp pond near the shooting area on the land of farmer Ken Jiggins, in the small village of Rettendon. That cold December morning was frosty, however the windshield of the vehicle was clear.
When Jiggins and his friend Peter Theobald got closer, they could see two men in the driver and passenger seats. Thinking the men were asleep, they went to inspect and found the two men, and a third in the back seat, all dead. The two men called police, who arrived shortly to seal-off the crime scene and preserve evidence.
Detective Superintendent Ivan Dibley was soon on the scene, and the task of identifying the three men was the top priority. Each of the victims had been shot twice in the head with what appeared to be a three round pump action 12-bore shotgun. The passenger had suffered a particularly brutal shot to the side of the face, while the passenger had received a direct hit to the back of the head, which obliterated the lower-half of his face.
The passenger was soon identified as 38-year-old Tony Tucker, while the other two were found to be 26-year-old Craig Rolfe in the driver’s seat, and 37-year-old Pat Tate in the back seat, who had suffered a shot to the stomach before being hit twice in the head. Police knew each of the victims as local hardmen and small-time gangsters.
All three were known drug dealers with criminal records, who used their physical strength to intimidate and cause fear to their enemies. And these men had many enemies in their line of work. For all intents and purposes it appeared to be a gangland reprisal. 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. It is possible the killings had been a professional hit, because two of the victims died within two seconds, while the third, the back seat passenger Pat Tate, had possibly witnessed what happened to his two companions and attempted to escape but was killed soon afterwards.
After the murders were announced in the press, there was little out pouring of grief, except from the families and friends of the deceased, with many suggesting the three men had gotten what they deserved. Professional boxer Nigel Benn said of his death, “I have known him since I came out of the Army… it is very tragic.”
DS Dibley said, “The public aren’t too happy either about so much time being spent on such low-life. But 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.” None the families of the dead men co-operated with police inquiries, and Dibley believed they had a good idea who committed the murders, but were scared.
Who murdered the Essex Boys?
The number of suspects in the Rettendon Murders, which the murders of Tony Tucker and his associates became known, is long and varied. Owing to the animosity towards the three men, the lead detective said “This was not a whodunnit but a who-didn’t.” One line of enquiry concerned the death of Leah Betts, and whether or not the murders had been retribution for the death of the teenager.
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 theory concerned the north London Adams crime family. 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.”
“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 Adams crime family.
It wasn’t until May 1996 that a break was made in the case. 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. Through dedicated police work, a link of made between the three men and the murders of the Essex Boys.
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.
Mick Steele and Jack Whomes
While there Nicholls purchased hundreds of kilos of cannabis on behalf of Steele and Whomes, which he then drove to the Belgian coast. From there he would meet up with Steele’s speedboat, and the drugs were then taken across the Channel and deposited on the Essex coast, where they would be distributed later.
The mastermind of this operation, Mick Steele, was described as a sophisticated Essex drug smuggler. He soon became involved with the Essex Boys. 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 subsequently paid, however 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. Animosity had already developed between the two men, after Steele had started a close relationship with Tate’s ex-girlfriend.
A furious Tate boasted he would kill the smuggler in revenge, and when Steele heard of the threats and decided to make the first move. On the pretence of making amends, Steele offered Tate a share in a lucrative cocaine deal he was involved in with his friend Jack Whomes. But Steele was secretly plotting the Essex Boys demise.
Six weeks before the murders, Steele 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 look at the farmer’s field where the alleged drug plane would land.
Nicholls went on to claim that when Rolfe’s Range Rover approached the locked gate at the designated spot, located at the bottom of Workhouse Lane, Steele jumped out to open it. At the same moment Jack Whomes, who acted as Steele’s right hand man, leant in with a pump-action shotgun and began blasting the three men inside.
Mere seconds later, Nicholls got a call from Whomes on his mobile asking him to pick the two men 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”.
Fearing he would become an accessory to the murders, Nicholls continued to sell drugs on Steele’s behalf, but decided to come forward with information on the killings after he received threats from Steele. In late 1997, the two men went on trial charged with the murders of Tony Tucker, Pat Tate and Craig Rolfe.
On January 20, 1998, the jury at the Old Bailey 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 informants testimony, the reliability of which were questioned only afterwards.
Mick Steele and Jack Whomes were given triple life sentences. Darren Nicholls was placed in the Wintess Protection Programme, given a new identity along with his family. Even now, Nicholls has said he fears revenge for breaking the criminal code and ratting on his friends. Subsequently a £250’000 price was put on his head.
The Brinks Mat Connection
Early in the investigation, London based gangster Billy Jasper admitted to detectives he was the real killer’s getaway driver. When he was arrested for armed robbery, he confessed to Met detectives that he was given £5,000 to drive a hitman, referred to only as Mr. D, to the murder scene. Jasper even gave evidence at the trial, asserting he was the real getaway driver, but was prevented by the Judge from giving any names.
The real mastermind behind the Rettendon Murders was, according to Jasper, money launderer Patsy “Bolt Eyes” Clark, who laundered money from the infamous Brinks Mat Robbery, carried out in November 1983, during which £26 million worth of gold bullion, diamonds and cash was stolen from a warehouse operated by Brink’s-Mat.
One of those arrested over the heist was Patsy Clark, who in 1992 was jailed for six years for helping to launder £4.2 million of the proceeds from the Brink’s-Mat robbery. According to Jasper, it was Clark who ordered the murder of Tony Tucker. Met Police DCI Dave McKelvey said “They had the name of a major criminal, said to be behind the murder, the gunman, a credible motive and intelligence linking Tucker and money from the robbery.”
However, this line of inquiry was never seriously considered by investigators. DCI McKelvey added, “They also had the account of a man claiming to be the getaway driver, but chose to dismiss what he said because it did not fit with their theory about Whomes and Steele.” Patsy Clark, a former scrap dealer and nightclub owner was never questioned by police.