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Friday, 4 May, 2001, 11:23 GMT 12:23 UK
'The truth will out', say murder pair
Jack Whomes and daughter
Jack Whomes, pictured with his daughter Lucy before his conviction.
Two men are serving life sentences for the murder of three Essex drug dealers shot dead in a Range Rover parked down a quiet country lane. BBC News Online's Chris Summers went to meet them in prison and found them determined to prove their innocence.

If the story Jack Whomes and Michael Steele tell is true, they are the unwitting victims of a miscarriage of justice which has alarming repercussions for police conduct and the handling of "supergrasses".

Steele, 58, and Whomes, 39, were convicted of the murder of three Essex drug dealers, who were found shot dead in a Range Rover parked in a country lane in Rettendon, near Chelmsford in December 1995.

There is a lot of unease in the legal profession about these convictions and I'm confident that it will be... the next big miscarriage of justice.

Trevor Linn, solicitor
The victims, Tony Tucker, Pat Tate and Craig Rolfe were responsible for supplying the ecstasy tablet which killed teenager Leah Betts. A friend of hers had bought the fatal pill at a nightclub in Basildon which the three men controlled.

Five months after the murders Essex Police appeared to have drawn a blank.

But then Darren Nicholls, a registered police informer, was arrested in possession of 10kg of cannabis.

Given new identity

Facing a lengthy sentence, Nicholls turned Queen's evidence and gave police a statement saying he had taken and picked up Steele and Whomes from the murder scene.

In return for his testimony, Nicholls escaped a long jail sentence, was given a new identity and is now living somewhere in the UK.

Michael Steele
Michael Steele says he is convinced his name will be cleared
Whomes and Steele have always denied they were in the lane. There was little to corroborate Nicholls' testimony save for some complex evidence about mobile phone calls - which appears to have been undermined by new tests carried out since the trial.

There was no forensic evidence linking them to the scene and no witnesses to corroborate Nicholls' story.

At their trial in January 1998 the judge, Mr Justice Hidden, told the jury they should treat Nicholls' evidence with "great caution".

He said: "So much hinges on what he said. You must bear in mind it was in his own interest to become a prosecution witness."

'Convicted on word of a liar'

Since their conviction, a former cellmate of Nicholls at a special prison "supergrass" unit, has come forward and told Daily Mail journalist Jo-Ann Goodwin how Nicholls told him he had lied to police about what happened.

Steele said the prosecution had failed to prove a motive. The nearest they could come was a suggestion that Steele "got his retaliation in first" after hearing from Tate's ex-girlfriend, Sarah Saunders, that Tate planned to kill him.

There is not one piece of evidence enough to convict me of the murders. I was not even near the place.

Michael Steele
But, questioned in the witness box, she denied ever having said it.

Furthermore Nicholls tried to claim the motive was tied up with 40,000 which Tate had borrowed from two IRA brothers, Billy and John.

Nicholls claimed Tate told the Irishmen he could not pay them back because Steele had ripped him off by selling him poor quality cannabis.

But Nicholls had to admit, at the trial, this could not be a motive because "Billy and John" were actually a couple of undercover RUC officers posing as IRA men who had been asked to "smoke out" Steele by Essex Police.

Motive mystery

They made a series of threatening phone calls to Steele in February 1996 - two months after the murders.

As far as Whomes was concerned, the prosecution admitted he had no motive and suggested he had killed the men as a "favour" for his friend.

Jo-Anne Goodwin
Daily Mail journalist Jo-Ann Goodwin unearthed a witness who said Nicholls had admitted lying
Steele, speaking from Full Sutton prison near York, said: "There is not one piece of evidence enough to convict me of the murders. I was not even near the place. There has been a conspiracy."

He has now applied to the Criminal Cases Review Commission - Whomes' application is due in shortly - and is confident the case will be referred back to the Court of Appeal.

So much hinges on what he (Nicholls) said. You must bear in mind it was in his own interest to become a prosecution witness

Mr Justice Hidden, trial judge
Whomes, interviewed at Whitemoor prison in Cambridgeshire, is also desperate to prove his innocence and says: "You don't know how many nights I have wet my pillow at night, crying at the thought of my wife and kids."

His solicitor, Trevor Linn, who handled the M25 Three's successful appeal, said: "There is a lot of unease in the legal profession about these convictions and I'm confident that it will be referred to the Court of Appeal and will be the next big miscarriage of justice. The truth will out."

A spokeswoman for Essex Police said they could not comment while disciplinary proceedings were ongoing in the case of two serving police officers.

She said she could not comment on any connection with the Rettendon case and said the force remained convinced the convictions were safe.

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14 Jul 00 | UK
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