My life as a supergrass

Darren Nicholls, petty criminal turned key witness in a notorious triple murder trial, has a new identity. But he's in constant fear of his life, he tells Tony Thompson

The Observer

Sunday January 30, 2000

I CANNOT name the pub, the street, the town or even the county where the meeting with the supergrass takes place. I cannot talk about his car, describe his physical appearance, dress or the sound of his voice. I am forbidden from revealing details about his wife, family or place of work.

All I am allowed to say is that the man I am talking to was once an Essex-based petty criminal called Darren Nicholls and that today, more than three years after joining the Witness Protection Programme, he is still struggling to come to terms with his new identity. 'Sometimes, when I'm at work,' he says between gulps of Jack Daniels, 'some of my colleagues call out my name and I just ignore them. It takes a while before it clicks that it's me they want to talk to. Getting used to a new name is the hardest thing in the world.'

The villain formerly known as Darren Nicholls ceased to exist in spring 1996 after agreeing to break the ultimate criminal code: the unwritten law that you never grass on your mates. Eighteen months later, with a 250,000 price on his head, Nicholls gave evidence at an Old Bailey trial for one of the most notorious murder cases in British history.

The victims, Patrick Tate, 37, Tony Tucker, 38, and Craig Rolfe, 26, were found in a Range Rover in a country lane in the village of Rettendon, Essex, in December 1995. Each had been shot in the head with a shotgun at point-blank range, leaving their faces so badly pulped they could be identified only by their fingerprints. All three were well-known Essex 'faces': Tucker ran security for pubs and clubs, including Raquels, where the Ecstasy tablet that killed Leah Betts had been obtained a month before the murder. Tate had been released from prison six weeks before he was killed, having narrowly survived an assassination attempt the previous year. Rolfe, a small-time drug dealer and thug, featured regularly on local police intelligence reports.

The trio had fallen out with Michael Steele, a sophisticated Essex drug smuggler, whom they had paid 70,000 for a consignment of cannabis. When the drugs arrived, the quality was so bad they could not even be given away. A furious Tate boasted he would kill the smuggler in revenge, but Steele, who had developed a close friendship with Tate's ex-girlfriend, heard of the threats and decided attack was the best form of defence.

On the pretence of making amends, Steele offered Tate a share in a massive cocaine deal. Tate, along with Tucker and Rolfe, were invited to look at the farmer's field where the drug plane would land. As Rolfe's Range Rover reached a locked gate at the bottom of Workhouse Lane, Steele jumped out to open it and at the same instant Jack Whomes, Steele's right-hand man, leant in with a pump-action shotgun and began blasting.
Seconds later, Whomes called Nicholls on his mobile and asked him to pick the pair up. It was only when they climbed into the back of his car, spattered in blood, he realised what had happened.

'I think I knew all along that they were going to do it. Six weeks before the murder, Steele had asked me to get him a gun. He said Jack had a couple but they didn't want to use them. I asked a few people but didn't come up with anything. Then, as soon as it happened, I said to myself: "You stupid bastard, that was really fucking obvious." I know if I hadn't turned up that evening, it would probably not have happened. I suppose I just didn't want to believe they were capable of that.'

Nicholls had met Steele, Whomes and Tate a few years earlier while serving a prison sentence for distributing counterfeit currency. On his release, he joined Steele's smuggling organisation, making trips to Amsterdam and purchasing hundreds of kilos of cannabis which he drove to the Belgian coast. From there, he would meet up with Steele's speedboat. The drugs would be whisked across the Channel and landed on the Essex coast.

After the murder, Nicholls stopped smuggling, to distance himself from Steele and Whomes but, fearing he was an accessory to the killings, felt he had to continue selling drugs on Steele's behalf. As Whomes and Steele realised Nicholls was becoming a weak link, they insisted he got more involved or faced the consequences. A few days after a particularly nasty threat, the gang were arrested by a police and customs drugs operation. Nicholls was charged with murder and knew the only way out was to tell the truth.

'When I was giving evidence in the trial, I couldn't look at them in the dock. I really felt like I was letting them down. I really liked Mick and I thought he liked me. But in fact they were just using me. And now they hate me.'

Whomes and Steele are both serving triple life sentences for the killings. For Nicholls a threat remains. 'There's not much point in them killing me now. If I'm dead that won't get anybody off. What they might try to do is scare me into saying I was lying in court, so keeping my true identity secret is as important as ever.

'You start off with your new life and it's fine because no one knows anything about you.
'But if you've spent all your life hanging around with low life, and they are the people you feel most comfortable with, then wherever you go you end up drifting into the same circles. In some ways this new life is better than what we had before, but we liked what we had before. My little boy keeps saying: "Why can't we have our old name back? Why can't I call my friends? Why can't we go back to Essex?"

'One day he's going to want to get married. One day he's going to want to know why he doesn't have a birth certificate. And when it all comes out and he finds out his dad's a grass, he'll probably end up hating me too.'
Tony Thompson's book Bloggs 19: the story of the Essex Ranger Rover triple murders (Little Brown 6.99) is published this week.

Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 2000