ESSEX BOYS: 'Two landlords saw victims in pubs on day of murders but police never spoke to them'
TWO pub landlords allegedly saw the three victims of one of the country's most notorious gangland murders with a mystery fourth man on the night they were killed, but neither of them were interviewed by police, a team of former detectives independently reviewing the case have claimed. One of the licensees, who ran the former Fortune of War in Basildon, now believed to be dead, even claimed to have seen Pat Tate, Tony Tucker and Craig Rolfe (above left to right) with the other man an hour after the prosecution said they were shot dead in a Range Rover in Workhouse Lane, Rettendon, near Basildon, on December 6 1995. Essex Police did not interview the witness or investigate the sighting further, despite its potential significance, according to the former Met Police murder detectives who have chosen to independently review the infamous "Essex Boys" murders of Tate, 37, Tucker, 38, and Rolfe, 26. Anton Johnson, 80, is a second former pub landlord, of the former Orsett Cock, who also claims to have seen the three leaving his pub with another man on the same evening.
But, although a police action log dated December 15 1995 suggests they tried to speak to him, he told Essex News and Investigations they never did. The three were found shot dead in the Range Rover found parked at the farm track in Rettendon, Essex, on the morning of December 7, 1995.
The grisly murders spawned a series of feature films and were linked to the death of ecstasy victim Leah Betts, 18, as the murdered men were involved in the supply of the drugs that killed her. Three years later Michael Steele, 78, and Jack Whomes, 59, (above left to right) were convicted of the murders on the evidence of supergrass Darren Nicholls, who claimed to be their getaway driver after his arrest over a cannabis importation in May 1996. The prosecution case was that the three were shot dead at just before 7pm the night before, which tied in with Nicholls' account of when he drove the killers. Whomes and Steele have always protested their innocence. The former detectives, who have been given access to defence case files, have also used their own contacts and knowledge and case papers previously uploaded to the internet by Essex doorman-turned author Bernard O' Mahoney, who spent 15 years campaigning for the release of Whomes and Steele before a U-turn in 2015 when he said they were guilty.
Among defence case files they found details of the two alleged sightings of the three victims with another unidentified man in what they say are incident room action logs from the original investigation. They claim the actions were never fully completed with neither landlord spoken to in person. Former Met Police DCI Dave McKelvey (above) said: "On December 15, 1995, a call was received by the Rettendon murder squad from the licensee of The Fortune of War pub, Basildon, stating ‘at about 8pm on the night of the murders all three victims were in the pub with another male well known to the landlord.’ "An action was raised for a detective to make enquiries with the landlord to establish the facts, but there is no record of this ever being carried out or any statement from the landlord. "This enquiry may have proved they were alive after 6.59pm, the time the Crown said they were murdered."
The Fortune of War was demolished in 2003 and it is understood the licensee in question has died. Mr McKelvey said the same day (December 15) a separate action was raised for the same detective to visit Mr Johnson, the landlord of the former The Orsett Cock Public House, in Thurrock, to carry out enquiries into whether the three victims had been in that pub the same evening. A separate police action log said: "Make enquiries re the victims in the Orsett Cock on Wednesday Evening. The licensee saw the victims and a fourth man leaving the pub after meeting there." The log was updated to say the detective visited and spoke to bar staff and Mrs Johnson, who said they had not seen the victims there on the night, but that Mr Johnson was not there, adding that: "Mr Johnson would phone if he had any further information." Mr McKelvey added: "There are no records of any further attempt to speak to him, or any statement from Mr Johnson, to show this important line of enquiry, when coupled with the Fortune of War sighting, was explored."
Essex News and Investigations contacted Mr Johnson, who is now involved in the butchers trade and is currently in Australia, and asked him about the sighting. He said at the time the pub he ran was a "den of iniquity" that was frequented by local gangsters and heavies, including the late Billy Blundell, and was under constant police surveillance to see who frequented it. He insisted seeing Tucker, Tate and Rolfe in his pub with another man on the night they were murdered, but said Essex Police had never spoken to him about the sighting. Mr Johnson also said that he had never contacted the force to say they were in his pub that day, so was unsure why the police were aware about his sighting to create the action log in question. He said: "To be quite truthful the boys were in there and another guy did come in and the week prior they'd been in they'd and had a set to with somebody in my pub. "I went out for dinner and I saw them leave and that was as it was getting dark and the other guy came in and they all went off and... that was it, it was all over. "From my point of view, they had definitely left by about six o’clock." Mr Johnson said he had no idea who the fourth man he said they were with was. He said: "No, I can’t say I did. When they came in the first time, because the last time, the week before, they'd had a ruck in there, they came up and apologised when they came in on the evening and said we’re not here to cause any trouble and we’re only here to have a drink and we're leaving and they sat just inside the door." He said he was familiar with the three and knew them to speak to.
Mr Johnson said: "I went out for dinner, which I had to be there for at eight or seven o’clock. They left, it was.. I couldn't go and get changed because I was still at the pub (above) until I knew that they had gone, because of the trouble they had caused, but they had gone before I went out. "I left at seven but they left probably about an hour earlier than that. "They came in and subsequently that was it. There were other people in the pub who also knew them. Everybody was a little bit nervy of them because they’d lost the plot really by that time, they were hitting and clumping everybody. They came in, and although there were staff in the bar, I wouldn’t leave the bar while they were there because of the last time they'd been in. They weren’t the sort of people you'd mess about with you know. They came up and apologised and apparently, the guy or whatever, they took him out the week before, whoever he was... they weren't very tasteful." Mr Johnson said he had never called police to report the sighting and that officers had never approached him about it. He said: "I've never spoken to the police about anything, not once did they come to me.
FACE: The late Billy Blundell was a regular at the Orsett Cock, according to Anton Johnson
"They didn’t even contact me. Nobody came near me." He said his wife had not spoken to police either, but the force action log said the pub had been visited by a detective on December 15 1995 and spoken to her and other bar staff, who all said they had not seen the three on that day. Mr Johnson added: "My wife’s here now and she definitely didn't know. I mean I would have thought that if they had have come they would have obviously come back and seen me. "They definitely didn’t come and talk to me." Mr Johnson said his pub was notorious for local faces and heavies. He said: "Unfortunately my pub was a den of iniquity, all the heavy boys all went in there. "I mean, my place, everybody used it, but as I say they (police) used to have a van across the other side with a hole in the side that was recording everyone that came in and out of our place, but strangely enough, they never came and ever even mentioned it, they never came and spoke to me. "The people in the bar, I mean it was a bit like a cowboy Western, everybody goes a bit quiet and shuffles to the end of the bar out of the way." According to phone logs in the case Pat Tate was making a call from his landline at around 6pm, when Mr Johnson said he believes the four left the Orsett Cock. However, he also said that it was getting dark as the four left the pub. According to records, sunset in Essex on December 6 1995 would have been just before 4pm. Mr Johnson said the three were also wearing black trench coats when he saw them. He said: "Yeah, they had the black trench coats on. They came in two, then one, and then the last one came in. The last once came in and called them out and they went." When the bodies were found, none of the three were wearing trench coats. One had a black jacket with two white stripes down the arms, while the two others had plain black jackets on.
Mr O' Mahoney has released a YouTube video dismissing the landlord sightings as not being the three murder victims after earlier speaking to Mr Johnson. He recorded the former landlord saying there were just three of them in the pub and they were wearing "black crombies" and that he saw their "black Range Rover outside." The Range Rover in question (above) was dark blue. He said: "As you've heard Tucker, Tate and Rolfe weren't wearing crombies, their Range Rover wasn't black, it wasn't them. So scratch that one off your list." However, Mr McKelvey said that Mr Johnson's new claims were critical to the case. Whomes was released from prison last May and Steele remains a category A prisoner with a new parole hearing expected soon. The Criminal Case Review Commission has been investigating Whomes and Steele's application for a review of their convictions for four years with no outcome. An Essex Police spokesman would not answer specific questions about the sightings or alleged lack of investigation. She said: “There was an exhaustive police investigation and, following the trial and convictions, the evidence has been further examined by the CCRC and the Court of Appeal. “This case is currently under review with the CCRC who act upon requests made by the applicants or their legal representatives. It would be inappropriate to comment further whilst their review is ongoing. "We of course always fully co-operate with the CCRC and would take direction from them about any investigative action required. Any new evidence identified should be routed through the CCRC for their consideration.”