The last man called by one of three gangsters murdered in the 1995 “Essex Boys” killings was never questioned by police, it has emerged.
Retired detective David McKelvey says the suspected villain was linked to a man who has previously been named as the shooter, but was never charged.
Instead Jack Whomes and Michael Steele were jailed for life after being convicted of blasting the drug dealers with a shotgun in their Range Rover 26 years ago.
But Mr McKelvey, and his team of highly experienced former murder detectives, now claim to have found evidence supporting the account of an East End crook who told police he was the getaway driver for the real killer.
Mr McKelvey, who runs private investigation firm TM-Eye, said: “We have done a thorough and detailed investigation which has led us to believe there may have been a miscarriage of justice.
“Compelling new evidence throws the case into doubt and we are appealing for witnesses to come forward.”
The bodies of Pat Tate, 36, Tony Tucker, 38, and Craig Rolfe, 26, were found on a remote, snow-covered farm track in Rettendon, Essex, on December 7, 1995. According to the prosecution, they were shot dead the night before, between 6.48 and 6.59.
The final call made from Tate’s mobile, apart from one to a girlfriend, was at 18.26 and lasted 17 seconds. It was never disclosed at the trial.
Mr McKelvey said the “vital witness” Tate rang is repeatedly named in the police murder file as a person of interest.
Days after the murders an action was raised to interview him but when his solicitor said he was refusing to talk, officers gave up, the papers reveal.
Mr McKelvey said: “How can you not talk to him? He was the last person to speak to Pat Tate on the phone before he was executed – around half-an-hour before it.
“We have requested a meeting with the Chief Constable of Essex on six occasions to ask him about our findings without success. As a result we will be asking those questions in public.”
Mr McKelvey believes the evidence supports the account of East End criminal Billy Jasper, who gave Essex police a detailed account of how he was the getaway driver for a named assassin. Detectives made no inquiries into his story, files show.
Mr McKelvey says he has seen intelligence which links the alleged shooter named by Jasper with the man called by Tate, before he was shot.
He said: “What we have established is the 18.26 call was made to an individual who was connected to that man through an armed robbery in 1989.
“This was known to Essex police in 1995 and 1996 but they never formally interviewed these people about the murders.”
The convictions of Whomes, now 58, and Steele, 76, rested on the testimony of convicted fraudster Darren Nicholls. Mr McKelvey, who arrested Nicholls in connection with drug smuggling in 1996, had believed the pair were guilty.
But he changed his mind after a year going over the files.
He plans to present his findings to the Criminal Cases Review Commission and Essex Police.
An Essex police spokesman said: “There was an exhaustive investigation and the evidence has been examined by the Criminal Cases Review Commission and the Court of Appeal.
“This case is under review with the CCRC and it would be inappropriate to comment further.”
The youngest of the three, cocaine addict and gofer Craig Rolfe, 26, was found slumped behind the wheel.
He was suspected of murdering a rival drug dealer by giving him a lethal injection just days earlier.
Behind Rolfe in the Range Rover was the body of 18st Pat Tate, who was the gang’s enforcer and had a long history of violence.
The night before his death, the 36-year-old steroid abuser attacked a restaurant manager, slamming his head into a glass plate counter following a row over pizza toppings.
Tate, who had been released from prison a few weeks before, was an associate of M25 road-rage killer Kenneth Noye, who he had met in jail.
The leader of the group, Tony Tucker, 38, was a doorman who controlled the drugs trade in a number of Essex nightclubs and drove a black Porsche with the registration TT9.
Pat Tate met Mick Steele, a known drug importer, and Jack Whomes, a car mechanic and insurance fraudster, while in prison.
The prisoners, who were all from Suffolk and Essex, kept in touch after their release.
Tate, a bodybuilder, went on to become an enforcer for Tony Tucker, who was involved in the drugs trade in Essex nightclubs during the explosion of the rave scene in the late 1980s.
Informant Darren Nicholls claimed Steele and Whomes had become angry because an earlier narcotics deal had gone wrong.
He said this was their motive for luring their victims to the country lane, on the pretext of discussing a cocaine shipment.
Whomes, who was cleared for release from prison earlier this year, applied in 2019 to the Criminal Cases Review Commission to have his conviction overturned and the case is still being considered.
His application is thought to include details of a Scotland Yard bugging operation that recorded a gangster offering to “take out” the dealers who supplied Leah Betts three weeks before they were murdered.
Tucker, Tate and Rolfe controlled the supply of ecstasy in the Basildon club where the tablet was bought.
Pictures of Leah in a coma sparked a national outcry.
Details of the bugging operation appear in a 2002 Scotland Yard draft intelligence report called Operation Tiberius, which claimed gangsters had infiltrated the Met
An extract in the report states: “On 16th November 1995 [ex-officer named]… met [crime lord named] who offered the hand of friendship, by offering to take out the supplier of the drugs to Leah Betts, who died of an overdose.”
The Tiberius report also names Jasper and says he was shot in a non-fatal attack, though it does not say when.
Billy Jasper was arrested for armed robbery a month after the murders, on January 15, 1996.
He claimed another criminal, Jesse Gale, who later died in a car crash, gave him £5,000 to drive an accomplice known as Mr D to and from Rettendon, Essex.
He says Mr D was going to do a cocaine deal with the three men.
Jasper testified at the Old Bailey murder trial that he had agreed to the plan, and later spotted Mr D’s 9mm Browning pistol and a sawn-off shotgun when he drove him to the murder scene at Workhouse Lane.
But Jasper did not fit with Essex Police’s theories.
The Essex police log noted on January 18, 1996, that the account did not “fit with the current intelligence, direction and evidence already available”.
Four months later Darren Nicholls told police he was the real getaway driver.
Mr McKelvey said: “It was a blinkered investigation.”
Darren Nicholls made his confession after police stopped him in a car that had cannabis worth £10,000 in the boot.
Such was the significance of his testimony that, while summing up at the Old Bailey trial, Mr Justice Hidden told the jury: “I hardly need stress the importance of Nicholls’ evidence. So much hinges on what he said.”
At the time neither judge nor jury knew that Nicholls had agreed to a “commercial arrangement” with a writer to publish “Bloggs 19” – a book about the killings which made Nicholls several thousand pounds.
He remains in hiding after being given a new identity.