Essex drug murders case may go to appeal  

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The case of one of Britain's most notorious gangland murders could be referred to the Court of Appeal because of the emergence of "new evidence" casting doubt on the credibility of the key witness.

The shooting of three drug barons in a Range Rover in the Essex countryside six years ago was one of the most ruthless killings in modern British criminal history.

The story of the deaths of gangsters Pat Tate, Tony Tucker and Craig Rolfe was later made into the film Essex Boys, starring Sean Bean.

Mick Steele, a known drug importer, and Jack Whomes, a car mechanic and insurance fraudster, were jailed for life for the murders in January 1998.

But yesterday the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) said it was preparing to have the case reviewed. A decision will then be made on whether the case is put back before the courts.

A solicitor acting for the two men claimed to have uncovered evidence that undermined the credibility of Darren Nicholls, a supergrass whose testimony was central to the prosecution case.

Nicholls, a police informant and drug dealer with convictions for dishonesty, testified that he had been the unwitting getaway driver in the killings after being called to a remote country lane by Whomes. He said Whomes and Steele had been covered in blood.

Nicholls made his confession after being stopped by police in a car that had cannabis worth £10,000 in the boot. He is now in hiding, having been given a new name under the police witness protection scheme.

Richard Hill, a solicitor, said: "When the evidence, or 95 per cent of the evidence, is from somebody who has been arrested in possession of a massive quantity of drugs, one has to be worried about that. New evidence has emerged which suggests there is a credibility issue over Nicholls."

Steele, 58, and Whomes, 39, have always maintained their innocence, although there are links between them and the murder victims. Whomes had met Tate and Steele while serving a 16-month sentence for fraud in Hollesley Bay prison. The prisoners, who were all from Suffolk and Essex, kept in touch. Tate, a bodybuilder, went on to become an enforcer for Tucker, who ran a security firm that controlled the drugs trade in clubs across Essex and parts of south London. Rolfe was also a violent underworld figure and drug dealer.

Nicholls alleged that Steele and Whomes, angry because an earlier drug deal had gone wrong, had lured their victims to the country lane in Rettendon, Essex, on the pretext of discussing a cocaine shipment. Tate, 37, Tucker, 38, and Rolfe, 26, were all shot through the back of the head. Their bodies were discovered in the Range Rover on a snowy December morning in 1995.

The police investigation that followed became high-profile because the murders were only a month after the death of Leah Betts, a policeman's daughter who had taken ecstasy at an Essex nightclub.

Two Essex officers, said to be linked to the Range Rover case but not to the police investigation, were suspended, pending disciplinary hearings. Detective Constable Wolfgang Bird resigned earlier this year and Detective Sergeant Phil Stimpson remains suspended.

An Essex Police spokesman said: "We shall co-operate with the CCRC should they decide that this is a case which warrants further action."