Three men found shot dead in a Range-Rover in a lonely Essex lane yesterday are believed to have been the victims of a gangland execution.
Detectives believe the victims 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.
"They are known to us as criminals and certain lines of inquiry are taking place with that knowledge in mind," said Detective Superintendent Ivan Dibley, the officer heading the murder inquiry, last night.
Police will not release the names of the three men until they have been formally identified by relatives but they are aged between 20 and 40 and all come from the south Essex area.
"They are people who I would put well above the bottom rung of the ladder in the criminal fraternity," Det Supt Dibley said.
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 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 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."
The two men called the 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.
Yesterday afternoon the Range-Rover was lifted on to a police low-loader with the bodies still inside it, covered with a tarpaulin, to be taken away for forensic analysis.
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. "I believe that the killings took place at the scene," he continued. "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."
He appealed for anyone who knew of the Range-Rover's movements between 6pm on Wednesday and 8am yesterday or who knew the owner to contact the police.