Three men found shot dead in a Range Rover in a lonely Essex lane yesterday were victims of a gangland execution. Detectives are working on a link between the professional "hit" and a drugs ring dealing in ecstasy thought to be connected with the death of the teenager Leah Betts.
The three men were named as Tony Tucker, Craig Rolfe and Patrick Tate. Tucker was a close personal friend and sometime minder to the champion boxer Nigel Benn and had led the fighter into the ring for championship bouts.
All three were killed in a vicious drug-gang war that broke out after a police clampdown operation on ecstasy dealers in the Basildon area. The shooting is said by Essex CID sources to have been organised after dealers in the ecstasy trade were "grassed" by informants picked up by detectives.
The three men are thought to have been muscling in on the territory of established dealers who operated at the disco where Leah Betts bought the ecstasy tablet which led to her death.
Leah Betts died last month after taking an ecstasy tablet during her 18th birthday party at a nightclub in Basildon. Detectives investigating her death are working closely with other Essex officers on the triple murder inquiry. Last night detectives from the Betts investigation were being briefed by colleagues from the triple-murder squad.
The teenager was clinically dead within hours of taking the ecstasy tablet, stamped with a distinctive apple motif, during a night out with friends at Racquel's nightclub in her home town. She was taken to hospital and put on a ventilator, but never responded to treatment. After four days, her life support system was switched off.
At first it was thought the fatal tablet was contaminated but an inquest in Chelmsford heard that it was pure. A full inquest will be held early next year.
Following Leah's death, police made a series of arrests, pulling in suspected ecstasy dealers from Basildon and other parts of Essex. The three men found dead yesterday were all criminals and known to have been involved in drug-dealing.
Detective Superintendent Ivan Dibley, who is leading the murder inquiry, said: "They are people who I would put well above the bottom rung of the ladder in the criminal fraternity."
Police believe that the men were either abducted or lured to the lane in the village of Rettendon, near Chelmsford, where they were blasted in the head with a shotgun. Police confirmed that cartridges had been found near the vehicle.
The bodies were found in Workhouse Lane, on the outskirts of Rettendon at 8am yesterday by Ken Jiggins and Peter Theobald, who were on their way to feed pheasants in nearby fields. Two were in the front of the metallic blue Range Rover, registration number F424 NPE, and the third man was in the back. The rear nearside window had been smashed, apparently by a shot.
Mr Jiggins, 47, a bricklayer got out of the Land Rover which Mr Theobald, 44, who farms the land, was driving and approached the Range Rover. He glanced inside, saw the men and not realising they were dead, he tapped on the window. He said: "For all the world they looked as though they had fallen asleep in the car. It wasn't until I looked again that I realised they had been shot.
"I was shocked, it was not something I expected to find. The driver was lying with his head on one side and blood coming out of his nose." Mr Theobald said: "We have had various incidents down that lane but certainly nothing like this."
The two men called police, who sealed off the murder site, which is 250 yards from the main A130 road from Chelmsford to Southend. The lane is well known to the local criminal fraternity and a hijacked cigarette lorry was taken there six years ago. A safe, the proceeds of another crime, was found dumped there recently.
Yesterday afternoon the Range Rover was lifted on to a police low-loader with the bodies still inside it, covered with a tarpaulin. It was taken away for forensic analysis away.
Det Supt Dibley said last night that he did not know whether the three men had been killed by a single gunman or whether several killers had been involved.
He continued: "I believe that the killings took place at the scene. There are no real signs in the vehicle of either a struggle or of an attempt by one or more persons to get out of the vehicle.
"This tends to suggest that they were either surprised or that whoever did the crime was in the vehicle with them. They may have been forced to drive there at gunpoint."