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Friday, 14 July, 2000, 08:27 GMT 09:27 UK
Truth is stranger than fiction
by BBC News Online's Chris Summers
When, on a snowy morning in December 1995, farmer Peter Theobald and his friend Ken Jiggins found a Range Rover parked in a little-known track near the village of Rettendon, Essex, they suspected the occupants were poachers.
Warily they approached the vehicle, but the driver and his two passengers were no threat. All three had suffered horrific shotgun wounds which had rendered them not only dead but virtually unrecognisable.
The discovery of the men, who were soon identified by journalists as the three biggest gangsters in Essex and closely linked to the drugs death in Basildon a few weeks earlier of teenager Leah Betts, was splashed all over the national papers.
The murder of Pat Tate, 37, Tony Tucker, 38, and Craig Rolfe, 26, bore the hallmarks of a gangland execution, an event more familiar with Chicago or Sicily than Essex.
Five years later, a film loosely based on the Rettendon murders, has now opened at cinemas across the UK.
Essex Boys stars Sean Bean and Alex Kingston, as well as Tom Wilkinson, who appeared in The Full Monty, and Charlie Creed-Miles, last seen in Nil By Mouth.
It is rare, in British cinema, for an event to inspire a film so soon after it happens.
In the US made-for-TV films are rushed out almost before the blood has dried in a notorious crime (and often before the trial has taken place).
But in the UK there tends to be much more caution. Hence the outcry when films were mooted in the wake of the Yorkshire Ripper and Fred West cases.
In 1998 relatives of the victims of the Shankill Butchers in Northern Ireland protested when a film, Resurrection Man, came out loosely based on the notorious sectarian killings which had taken place 20 years earlier.
Perhaps the disclaimer at the beginning of Essex Boys will assuage the feelings of the relatives of the Rettendon trio.
"This story is inspired by a single true event. It left three men dead, two serving life imprisonment and another living under an assumed identity. The rest is fiction, as are all the characters," filmgoers are told.
In January 1998 Michael Steele, 56, and Jack Whomes, 37, were jailed for life for the murders and a key prosecution witness, Darren Nicholls, vanished into the netherworld of "supergrasses".
The film's co-writer, Jeff Pope, says: "The murder was the spark that started all this off. I always follow things like that in the papers because they are so intriguing. This one was especially interesting - three guys dead, no one knew how they got there, or how had they been killed.
"It didn't look like they had put up a struggle - it looked like they had been executed. But it raised the question as to who would do that? We used that as our starting point."
But he says: "When we looked at the real story we found it was messy and confused. You constantly find that real life is more mundane than you would want your story to be."
'Someone fitted them up'
Chris Bowen, the solicitor working to free Steele and Whomes, says Pope could not be more wrong: "The true story of the Rettendon murders will blow your mind."
He told BBC News Online: "Someone somewhere chose to fit them up and I would love to know how they can sleep at night, knowing that."
Whomes' mother, Pam, told BBC News Online: "The true story has not come out yet. It will be a much better story than the film."
The film's biggest departure from the real story is the creation of a strong, female character in Kingston, who plays Bean's wife, Lisa - the actress worked on Essex Boys during a break from filming ER in the US.
Kingston says: "I chose to give up my break during ER because Essex Boys was the best script I had read in a long time - I thought the characters were wonderful.
"Also, I remember the true incident that fuelled Jeff and Terry's imagination. It was an extraordinary mystery in a sense, seeing this Range Rover with these three men in it in a middle of a field. It intrigued me."
Bean himself says: "Jason is a totally fictitious character and, if anything, is a mixture of people and faces, past and present. I didn't want to pin him down to one particular individual as I felt this would constrict his impact within the confines of the character."
Pete Daly, of distributors Pathe, says Essex Boys is a film noir, with elements of Goodfellas, but in this case instead of the gangsters moving out from New York City to suburban New Jersey, the villains have relocated from the East End to its Essex hinterland.
One of the many puzzling aspects of the case is the fact that the Range Rover was not iced over - unlike Mr Jiggins' and Mr Theobald's own vehicle - despite apparently having been in the lane on a freezing night since 7pm the previous evening.
Mr Bowen is assisting Steele and Whomes in making applications to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which has the power to refer the case back to the Court of Appeal if it feels there is fresh evidence that the convictions are unsafe.
He told BBC News Online: "The prosecution case is crumbling before our eyes."
An Essex Police spokeswoman said the force had no comment about the film, which was essentially fiction.
But she said: "The whole case was fully investigated and the men were sentenced. If anyone has any hard evidence they should contact us.
"But so far nothing has come our way which changes our views on the conviction."
Essex Boys is on general release at cinemas across the UK.
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