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On a cold, iced-up morning in December 1995, Peter Theobald – a farmer from the Essex village of Rettendon – set out with a friend to feed his pheasants. At the end of Workhouse Lane, a quiet, remote farm track, Theobald found a Range Rover parked at the gate. Inside the Range Rover sat the remains of the now-notorious “Essex Boys” drugs gang: Tony Tucker, Pat Tate, and Craig Rolfe.
Theobald later questioned why there was so little blood. They had been killed with close-range blasts from a pump-action shotgun. Tate was shot in the torso and head; Craig Rolfe in the back of the head – just above the ear – splitting his face and forcing one of his eyes out; and Tony Tucker in the side of his head, destroying his jaw and teeth.
The slaying had happened so fast that the two men sat up front – Rolfe in the driver’s seat, Tucker in the passenger seat – had no time to react. The next morning, Tucker was still holding his mobile phone; Rolfe’s hands were still clamped on the wheel and his foot pressed on the brake.
The crime was linked to the Ecstasy-related death of the 18-year-old Leah Betts (she'd suffered water intoxication after taking pills on her birthday) and resulted in a controversial police operation. Two men were finally sentenced for the murders in January 1998 – but questions about what really happened have persisted.
The crimes and murders of the Essex Boys have also fueled one niche corner of the British film industry. Specifically, the gangster ‘n’ geezer genre – low-budget, low-brow, ultra-profane, unabashedly violent crime flicks which are despised or ignored by critics but make a modest killing via supermarket DVD shelves and digital downloads.
The Essex Boys have spawned more than 10 films – a sub-sub-genre in their own right – usually built around the same money shot: the dramatic recreation of the Essex Boys murders.
It began in 2000 with the Sean Bean-starring Essex Boys. Since then, there’s been Bonded by Blood (and Bonded by Blood 2, of course); Fall of the Essex Boys, Essex Boys: Retribution, and Essex Boys: Laws of Survival (one-star reviews all round). But the real Mr Big of Essex Boys films is the Rise of the Footsoldier series, one of Britain’s only non-Bond franchises – the British gangster genre’s own Fast and Furious, starring Terry Stone as Tony Tucker and Craig Fairbrass as Pat Tate.
The first film – 2007’s Rise of the Footsoldier – was based on the memoir by Carlton Leach, about his journey from football hooligan to Essex Boys associate. A fifth installment, Rise of the Footsoldier: Origins, hits on September 3. The series is so popular that it’s jumping from straight-to-DVD to cinema screens.
Craig Fairbrass has been enjoying a critical rebirth, with the shocking, unexpectedly sublime Muscle, and topnotch crime film Villain – both flipping his hardman persona from British B-movies on its rock-solid head. Now he returns as Pat Tate – an 18-stone bodybuilder with a crack-fueled temper – for a fifth time.
“I was in the gym one day and my mate said to me, ‘If they ever made a film about this, you’d make a perfect Pat Tate,’” says Fairbrass. “Fast forward and I’m sitting in the back of a Range Rover – covered in fake blood, soaking wet, and freezing cold.”
He adds: “There’s always been that fascination with gangsters and crime, but there’s a bigger fascination I think with these characters. I can remember taking my kids to school that morning and hearing they’d been murdered. It’s not every day you hear of three men being gunned down.”
Indeed, the Essex Boys have become a self-perpetuating gangland myth – one step down from The Krays – glorified by the cycle of movies.
“They’re icons of gangsterism,” says Nick Nevern. Nevern – best recognised as Diane Morgan’s useless ex in Motherland – starred in 2013’s Fall of the Essex Boys. He’s now circled back to direct Rise of the Footsoldier: Origins. “This film’s definitely better than that one,” he laughs about Fall of the Essex Boys.
Indeed, the various Essex Boys films share actors and talent. Terry Stone plays Tony Tucker in two separate franchises – both Rise of the Footsoldier and Bonded by Blood – and Neil Maskell, star of Kill List and Utopia, has played both Craig Rolfe and Darren Nicholls, the supergrass who testified against the trio’s killers.
Rise of the Footsoldier: Origins adds some heavyweight hard-nuttery in the shape of Vinnie Jones, playing real-life Essex Boys gang member Bernard O’Mahoney.
A former soldier and gangland hardman-turned-true crime author, O’Mahoney has built his own career on Essex Boys stories: he’s written numerous books on the subject. O’Mahoney also has an interesting relationship with the facts. After years of helping perpetuate the myth, O’Mahoney announced in 2015 it was time to tell “the truth”: he wrote Essex Boys: The Final Word, which became a documentary. “I am guilty of being dishonest about the murders,” he wrote, “but I believe my reasons for doing so were both reasonable and honourable.”
After Rise of the Footsoldier: Marbella – the series' fourth installment – sent the boys on a jolly up (the Essex Boys equivalent of a sitcom Christmas special set in Spain), Nick Neven wanted to go back to the hard edge of the first film. He delved into the online world of Essex Boys obsession: forums, social media pages, online conspiracies. One Rise of the Footsoldier fan visited the murder site and posted his pilgrimage on YouTube.
“You go on the internet and there are groups with thousands of people talking about it,” says Nevern. “The films, the murders, the Rise of the Footsoldier. It’s crazy that it’s so fascinating.”
O’Mahoney says what Nevern gets right is portraying the Essex Boys trio as “failures”. “People think we drove around in Porsches, had beautiful girlfriends, and swimming pools at our houses,” he says. “But we were far more Trainspotting than Hollywood.”
Tucker, Tate, and Rolfe were small-time bullies who picked on the weak or vulnerable, he explains, not legends of the underworld.
“At the time they were shot dead, the driver – Craig Rolfe – was disqualified from driving and the car wasn’t taxed,” explains O’Mahoney. “What sort of drug gang goes out doing business with a disqualified driver and no tax? They were absolute amateurs.”
O’Mahoney first met Tony Tucker while working as a doorman for Basildon nightclub Raquel’s. Tucker ran a large security firm and the pair formed a partnership. It was the rave scene era. “Every club was hit with an avalanche of drugs,” says O’Mahoney.
Tucker’s doormen controlled the drugs in the Essex clubs and supplied the dealers. But Tucker, according to O’Mahoney, was not the career criminal seen in the films. “I’ve spent more time in the back of police cars than he spent in prison,” says O’Mahoney. “Ninety-five per cent of people in Basildon had never heard of Tony Tucker until he got shot.”
Pat Tate’s on-screen interpretation is perhaps closer to the mark. “An absolute mental case,” says O’Mahoney.
As he also describes in his documentary, Essex Boys: The Truth, Tate once made a daring escape from court: “He beat up the officers guarding him, vaulted the dock, and jumped onto the back of a waiting motorcycle. He later surfaced in Spain and was sent to prison in Britain.”
Craig Rolfe, rather grimly, was born in prison. He had a serious cocaine habit – it was in his best interests to latch on to Tucker and Tate.
Pat Tate made connections in prison, including Mick Steele and John Whomes – the two men later convicted of Tate, Tucker, and Rolfe’s murders.
Back on the outside, Tate and Tucker fell out with local villain Steve “Nipper” Ellis. When they made threats against his family, Ellis shot Tate in the arm. Tate went to Basildon hospital but was discovered to be concealing a gun. He was sent back to prison and released again in November 1995 – just weeks before his murder.
Tate and Tucker spiraled out of control on drugs. They spent weeks smoking crack cocaine – up to £1,000’s worth a day. “Tate introduced Tucker to crack cocaine,” says O’Mahoney. “They were like zombies – smoking that s__––– then going to sleep, smoking then going to sleep. It just totally transformed them into psychotic bullies. They physically changed as well. Like they were from another planet. There was just no reasoning with them.”
In one notorious incident – often recreated in the movies – Tate beat up a pizza shop manager for not doing the right toppings (this later turned into Fairbrass slicing up the manager’s face with a pizza cutter).
Tate even threatened his own mother. She carried around a note pointing police towards him in case anything happened to her while she was out walking the dog.
O’Mahoney recalls how Tucker and Tate decided to import drugs themselves. They asked if he wanted to invest, along with car dealers and shady characters. “I thought, ‘F__ hell, are you for real? I wouldn’t trust going through a drive-thru with you, never mind importing drugs,’” he says.
He was right: the deal was a mess, and lumbered them with poor-quality cannabis from Amsterdam. There was another problem: the death of Leah Betts, who died after taking an Ecstasy pill supplied through Tucker’s dealers at Raquel’s. The death made national headlines, led by an emotional press conference with Betts’s parents and photos of her in a coma.
The media surrounded the club. “A drug dealer’s worst nightmare,” says O’Mahoney. Police asked him to get them a pill from the same batch which killed Leah Betts. O’Mahoney didn’t hesitate to comply, which turned Tate and Tucker against him – they threatened to kill him.
Crossing the wrong people and out of control, Pat Tate’s death was inevitable. But hitting Tate meant hitting Tucker and Rolfe too.
On December 6, 1995, Mick Steele rode with the trio to Workhouse Lane. He’d lured them there under the pretense of planning the heist of a cocaine-filled aeroplane. Steele’s real motivation was the fallout from their botched Amsterdam deal, and apparent threats made by Tate to have Steele “ironed out”.
According to O’Mahoney’s account, Steele talked Jack Whomes into carrying out the hit with him. When the Range Rover reached the gate, Steele got out to open it – at which point Whomes emerged from the bushes with two shotguns. Tate – the cause of the trouble – was last to be killed. A third man, Darren Nicholls, helped plan the shooting and drove them away from the murder scene.
Even in the immediate aftermath the legend began to grow. A Channel 4 Dispatches documentary described their gang as an 80-man organisation. The Guardian described Tony Tucker as “friend to the stars” (perhaps inspired by the fact he was minder for boxer Nigel Benn).
The police launched Operation Century. They attempted to scare suspects by calling them and pretending to be IRA terrorists. It was unsuccessful, but Darren Nicholls later flipped on Steele and Whomes, turned informant, and went into witness protection.
That the Essex Boys continue to fuel their own mythology is perhaps down to the ongoing mystery. Steele and Whomes protested their innocence, and John Whomes, Jack's brother, launched an attention-grabbing campaign.
O’Mahoney accepts some blame – he admits that he and John Whomes spun various conspiracies to help Jack Whomes’s appeal. “Every time I look in the mirror I want to slap myself,” says O’Mahoney. “I’m responsible for the majority of that.” In truth, he says, Steele and Whomes’s alibis were equally ridiculous.
But even this year, Nipper Ellis claimed his father was the real assassin; elsewhere, a former detective claimed the trio were killed over heist money. Interest was stirred up again as Jack Whomes was finally released from prison in March.
There is a weird moral quandary at the centre of the Essex Boys’ infamy on film: real people – and not very nice people – posthumously co-opted as icons of straight-to-DVD crime capers.
“It’s the strangest thing,” says Craig Fairbrass. “There was some backlash when the first film came out about glorifying these kinds of people.”
But this is a genre that prides itself on wanton violence and C-words. Corruption of morality is a badge honour. “Fans say it’s such a release,” says Fairbrass. “It’s the same s__on all the time. There’s nothing for white van man. People write to me and tell me they have a Footsoldier night – they’ll get in a load of beer and all the boys and watch the whole lot. It’s an escape.”
Rise of the Footsoldier: Origins is in cinemas now