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Life for men who killed dealers in Essex drug sting

The murders of three drug dealers in a Range Rover in a quiet Essex lane led to massive publicity. Yesterday, their killers were convicted at the Old Bailey. Kim Sengupta charts a tale of drugs, greed and retribution.

At the trial of two of the men charged with murdering Pat Tate, Anthony Tucker and Craig Rolfe, prosecutor Andrew Munday declared the three victims "were not angels", but "not withstanding their past they had the right to live". Yesterday, at the Old Bailey, Michael Steele, 55, and Jack Whomes, 36, were both given three life sentences for the murders - which they denied - with a recommendation that they serve a minimum of 15 years.

By any social yardstick the three drug dealers shot dead in a Range Rover on a deserted farm track in Essex in December 1995 were bad men. They took professional pride in violence, meted out savage beatings and maimings, and are strongly suspected of carrying out at least one particularly sadistic murder. Tate, 37, Tucker, 38, and Rolfe, 26, all of Essex, made vast amounts of money from drugs, often using as a network a security business run by Tucker which provided bouncers for nightclubs in Essex and east London. One of these clubs was Raquel's, where the ecstasy tablet which killed teenager Leah Betts was bought in November 1995.

Tucker boasted of being a friend of the stars. He had acted as a minder for boxer Nigel Benn who said after his death: "I have known him since I came out of the Army - it is very tragic." Tucker and Rolfe both had minor convictions. Tate had a much more serious criminal history, including drugs offences and armed robbery.

The trio were well placed to take advantage of a tide of narcotics pouring in from the Continent through Essex and East Anglia. Tucker and his men were not averse to ripping off fellow villains. Their violent reputation was normally sufficient to ensure others swallowed the losses.

The feud that led to the Range Rover murders at Rettendon was over drugs. Tate had met Michael Steele and Jack Whomes while they all served time at Hollesley Bay Prison in Suffolk.

In November 1995, Steele supplied a consignment of cannabis with a street value of around pounds 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 pounds 70,000. The money was paid, but Tate denied getting it and also failed to return one-third of the drugs haul. He threatened to shoot Steele after making him beg on his knees.

In retaliation, Steele enticed Tate, Tucker and Rolfe to a meeting in the quiet country lane on a cold, snowy night with the promise of a cocaine consignment. Tate and his friends had plans of their own: they intended to seize the drugs and, if necessary, eliminate the courier. Instead, they were killed.

At the Old Bailey one of the men charged with the murders, 31-year-old Darren Nicholls, of Braintree, Essex, gave evidence for the Crown. He claimed he picked up Steele and Whomes after the murders, and Whomes had specks of blood on his gloves. Steele reportedly said: "They won't fuck with us again", and he said he had "felt like an angel of death - done everyone a favour and got rid of the sort of people you would not want around".