Detectives were waiting to question two women, including the mother of a three-year-old child, who survived a suspected gangland hit which may have been provoked by a drugs debt of just a few hundred pounds.
The two women were under armed guard in hospital last night as the search continued for two young Asian men who forced their way into a semi-detached house in a cul-de-sac in Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire, on Tuesday night and shot dead three men, including a father and son. Each of the men was killed with multiple shots to the head with a weapon which may have been a silenced semi-automatic machine-gun.
Police confirmed the names of the dead men yesterday as an unemployed taxi driver, Keith Cowell, 52, his 17-year-old son, Matthew, who worked as a refuse collector, and Tony Dulieu, 33, from Billericay, Essex.
Senior officers underlined that the killings were "targeted" and sources said that the investigation was focusing on the theory that the triple murder was related to a drugs feud. It is thought it may have been over an outstanding debt of as little as £600.
The two women were Mr Cowell's 54-year-old sister and the 23-year-old girlfriend of Matthew, named only as Claire. She was stabbed as she protected her daughter, Angel, 3, who was the only occupant of the house to escape injury. Mr Cowell's sister is thought to have been shot in the foot. Both women were in a serious but stable condition.
Specialist officers were due to interview Angel. She has been taken into care while her mother recovers from her injuries.
Mr Cowell's wife, Nicole, 46, escaped the bloodbath because she had left for work at Stansted airport nearby, minutes before the killings. Friends and relatives paid tribute to the dead men as at least 30 bouquets piled up outside the home.
Roger Spellane, 55, who is Nicole's brother, said: "We saw each other at family occasions. They were lovely, lovely people. Keith was a lovely man and showed nothing but kindness to my family. They were married for 25 years and in that time I never had any problems with him. Matthew had it all before him at 17."
In contrast, another man, who declined to be named, said: "Believe me, the world is a better place now that he [Keith Cowell] has gone. This is a man who has upset a lot of families ... He was into drugs. There was even talk of some local people taking the law into their own hands – that's the sort of man he was. I suppose you could say he had this coming because if you get involved with drugs this sort of thing can happen."
The gunmen, who were in their twenties, are thought to have spent at least 10 minutes inside the house after Mrs Cowell left for work at a taxi firm at about 9.30pm. The first 999 call from one of the two women inside the house came at 9.40pm.
The killers fled the scene in a small red car and were last seen heading towards the M11 motorway, which passes close to the town.
Mr Cowell and his family had lived for nearly 20 years in the Bishop's Stortford area. He owned a wine bar in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, in the early 1990s but had moved to his latest home after his previous house was repossessed.