Smuggler charged with migrant lorry deaths was awaiting UK passport

Romanian people smuggler accused of killing 39 Vietnamese migrants who suffocated in the back of a lorry was awaiting his own British passport, court hears

  • Gheorghe Nica and Eamonn Harrison allegedly caused deaths in Essex last year
  • Nica will claim he was a ‘gofer’ and deny any knowledge of conspiracy’s scale
  • Valentin Calota and Christopher Kennedy also on trial over alleged assistance
  • Victims had paid ‘greedy’ smugglers up to GBP10,000 each for journey to Essex 
  • Court adjourned until Wednesday after a policeman fell ill while giving evidence

By Tom Pyman For Mailonline

Published: 14:23, 12 October 2020 | Updated: 15:14, 12 October 2020

A Romanian people smuggler accused of killing 39 Vietnamese migrants who suffocated to death in a lorry trailer was waiting for his own UK passport, a court heard today.

Gheorghe Nica, 43, and Irish truck driver Eamonn Harrison, 24, allegedly caused the deaths of the non-EU citizens who suffocated in the back of a refrigerated lorry.

Nica will claim he was a ‘gofer’ and deny any knowledge of the scale of the conspiracy, the Old Bailey heard today.

Meanwhile, the court was told that an ‘elusive and sinister’ suspect in the tragedy is still at large. 

Valentin Calota, 37, and Christopher Kennedy, 24, are two other defendants standing trial over their alleged assistance in the global smuggling ring, ferrying ‘desperate’ economic migrants into the UK. 

The judge also questioned the roles of haulage boss Ronan Hughes and two outstanding suspects, including the ‘presence of the elusive and, we say, sinister Marius Draghici’. 

The victims – among them eight women and ten teenagers, including two 15-year-old boys – had paid ‘greedy’ smugglers up to GBP10,000 each for the journey to Grays, Essex, jurors heard.

Today the trial was adjourned after a police officer fell ill while giving his evidence. 

Court artist sketch by Elizabeth Cook of Gheorghe Nica (left) and Eamonn Harrison (right) two of four men to face trial, at the Old Bailey in London, for being part of an alleged people-smuggling ring linked to the death of 39 migrants in a lorry in Essex

The 39 Vietnamese victims of the tragedy 

Dinh Dinh Binh, a 15-year-old boy from Hai Phong 

Nguyen Minh Quang, a 20-year-old man from Nghe An

Nguyen Huy Phong, 35-year-old man from Ha Tin

 Le Van Ha, a 30-year-old man from Nghe An

Nguyen Van Hiep, a 24-year-old man from Nghe An

Bui Phan Thang, a 37-year-old man from Ha Tinh

Nguyen Van Hung, a 33-year-old man from Nghe An

Nguyen Huy Hung, a 15-year-old boy from Ha Tin

Nguyen Tien Dung, a 33-year-old man from Quang Binh

Pham Thi Tra My, a 26-year-old woman from Ha Tinh

Tran Khanh Tho, an 18-year-old man from Ha Tinh

Nguyen Van Nhan, a 33-year-old man from Ha Tinh 13

Vo Ngoc Nam, a 28-year-old man from Nghe An

Vo Van Linh, a 25-year-old man from Ha Tinh

Nguyen Ba Vu Hung, a 34-year-old man from Thua Tien Hue

Vo Nhan Du, a 19-year-old man from Ha Tinh

Tran Hai Loc, a 35-year-old man from Nghe An

Tran Manh Hung, a 37-year-old man from Ha Tinh

Nguyen Thi Van, a 35-year-old woman from Nghe An

Bui Thi Nhung, a 19-year-old woman from Nghe An

Hoang Van Tiep, an 18-year-old man from Nghe An

Tran Thi Ngoc, a 19-year-old woman from Nghe An

Phan Thi Thanh, a 41-year-old woman from Hai Phong 24

Tran Thi Tho, a 21-year-old woman from Nghe An

Duong Minh Tuan, a 27-year-old man from Quang Binh

Pham Thi Ngoc Oanh, a 28-year-old woman from Nghe An

Tran Thi Mai Nhung, an 18-year-old woman from Nghe An

Le Trong Thanh a 44-year-old man from Dien Chau

Nguyen Ngoc Ha, a 32-year-old man from Quang Binh

Hoang Van Hoi, a 24-year-old man from Nghe An

Tran Ngoc Hieu, a 17-year-old boy from Hai Duong

Cao Tien Dung, a 37-year-old man from Nghe An

Dinh Dinh Thai Quyen, an 18-year-old man from Hai Phong

Dong Huu Tuyen, a 22-year-old man from Nghe An

Nguyen Dinh Luong, a 20-year-old man from Ha Tinh

Cao Huy Thanh, a 37-year-old man from Nghe An

Nguyen Trong Thai, a 26-year-old man from Nghe An

Nguyen Tho Tuan, a 25-year-old man from Nghe An

Nguyen Dinh Tu, a 26-year-old man from Nghe An

Chris Couves ‘became unwell’ as he addressed the court from the witness stand. 

Mr Couves was in the middle of guiding jurors through tracking data collected from the trailer driven by Harrison through France before it sailed to Purfleet.

He became clearly ill, turning pale before leaving the witness box for a break.

Mr Justice Sweeney told jurors today not to get ‘too comfortable’ after Mr Couves was taken to get a coronavirus test.

The judge said the results should take around 24 hours to show, but that if the officer tested positive the court would need to review its next steps ‘very, very carefully.’

Mr Justice Sweeney added that the officer had never given evidence before and could just be suffering ‘nerves.’ 

Addressing jurors earlier today, Nica’s lawyer Aftab Jafferjee QC asked them to question whether he was an ‘organiser’ as it is claimed or a ‘gofer’ for kingpin haulier Ronan Hughes.

Hughes, 40, has admitted the 39 counts of manslaughter which Nica and Harrison continue to deny and allegedly worked alongside them.

Nica, who has admitted conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration, was waiting for his own British passport at the time of the alleged offending, the court heard today.

Mr Jafferjee, defending Nica, said the accused killer lived a ‘peripatetic’ lifestyle, sofa-hopping and working in various garages as he waited for his and his own family’s British passports.

The barrister said: ‘The purpose is to help you steer a path through a lot of evidence.

‘You will remember that he Nica, accepts participation in relation to migrants on the first two occasions – 11 and 18 (October) – in contrast to the other three defendants on trial.

‘We understand there will be no suggestion from the prosecution of any involvement prior to 11 October.’

Mr Jafferjee suggested that despite Nica admitting conspiring to assist unlawful immigration, he denied any knowledge of the ‘staggering numbers’ of migrants involved.

The QC went on: ‘First, is he an organiser as the crown suggest or an occasional participant as and when required? In order to determine that issue you will need to consider first the reason he was in this country at all.

‘Organising things, or if he was simply waiting for his and his family’s passports to arrive.

‘Second, under this heading, you’ve heard a lot about dirty phones and dirty business. That is another issue.

You will look to see when he acquired what the prosecution say was his dirty phone.’

Mr Jafferjee asked jurors to consider whether Nica could have organised a GBP13,000 criminal enterprise when evidence suggested he lived a ‘peripatetic’ lifestyle.

‘Sofa to sofa, working at various lorry yards and garages in the area.

‘[Was he] an organiser or a gofer for Hughes? Driving him around a fair bit, working for him as he did around 2010.

‘The appalling dreadful loss of 39 human beings [was] the crown say [to do with] greed and exploitation.

‘If so, one of the issues is to whose knowledge were these numbers? Look at the evidence for any connection whatsoever to Nica and what is said to be his team of drivers, and those staggering numbers.

Was he or was he not involved in migrant smuggling on the night of 23?

‘Who was controlling whom in this so-called cabal of people – and why?

‘You remember Mr Emlyn Jones talking about my client coming with a bag that looked full and leaving with a bag that looked not so full. Let me help you, it was money.

‘Money is not paid in advance – it is only paid on successful completion.’

The defence barrister said Collingwood Farm was a hotbed for ‘lucrative illegal activities’ and asked jurors to consider whether illegal immigration was the only plausible enterprise in the area.

Mr Justice Sweeney, presiding, told the jury it was ‘not compulsory’ for defence barristers to introduce issues at this point in the trial, but that two teams had chosen to do so.

The judge said: ‘It’s not compulsory for [defence barristers] to say anything. As it happens, we have two teams who are going to say something and two who have chosen to not.’

Smuggler charged with migrant lorry deaths was awaiting UK passport

Police and forensic officers at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex, on October 23 last year after 39 bodies of Vietnamese migrants were found inside the lorry

Prosecutors claim Harrison drove the trailer to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge before it sailed to Purfleet in Essex and was picked up by trucker Maurice Robinson, 26, from County Armagh.

Robinson made the horrific discovery when he opened the rear doors of the truck moments after leaving the English dock to find the bodies in what had become their ‘tomb,’ jurors heard.

Temperatures in the refrigerated trailer had allegedly soared to an ‘unbearable’ 38.5C as its cooler was turned off during the journey.

The smuggling plot operated on a ‘payment on delivery’ basis and he had been sent a message by Hughes saying: ‘Give them air quickly, but don’t let them out,’ the court heard.

Prosecutor Bill Emlyn Jones has told jurors that the conspirators had carried out the journey successfully on numerous occasions until it went ‘dreadfully wrong.’

Harrison had been caught with illegal immigrants in the back of his truck in 2018 and issued a fine – which he never paid.

And Kennedy had been waved on by French border officials when he tried to smuggle two of the Vietnamese migrants who returned on the fatal journey on 23 October, the court has heard.

The 20 foreign nationals were taken away by authorities during the trip on 14 October – while he had been allowed to continue along the Eurotunnel, jurors heard.

At least two of those on board tried again and were killed in the tragedy nine days later.

But despite temperatures reaching highs of 25.2C, a load of migrants was delivered alive to a remote drop-off point at Collingwood Farm in Essex during a second attempt on 18 October.

Mr Emlyn Jones earlier asked jurors to question whether – just six days later – the team had been greedily ‘trying to do two loads in one’ to square their losses from Kennedy’s botched attempt.  

Adjourning court until Wednesday, due to the ill police man, Mr Justice Sweeney told jurors: ‘Don’t get too comfortable in your seats.

You will all have observed how Mr Couves who I’m sure was displaying no symptoms of anything before he began evidence.

But who clearly as I’m sure you observed became unwell while giving his evidence is going to be taking a Covid test at 3 o’clock this afternoon and we’re hoping for a result within ’24 hours’.

‘The court is set up so that none of you are close enough to him to be concerned within rules.

‘If the test is negative obviously that’s no problem.

‘If the test is positive I will have to review very very carefully where we go from there.

‘Having discussed the matter with counsel we’ve all reached the conclusion that the sensible thing is to stop now and send you home until Wednesday morning, by which time we can all be confident that one way or the other all will be entirely clear.

‘None of you should be overly concerned about this but the court should be overly cautious in these difficult times.

‘It was as I understand the first time he’s ever given evidence and so it may be that nerves have played a considerable part in making him unwell.

Only time will tell.’

The trial was adjourned until Wednesday.

Harrison, from Mayobridge, County Down, denies 39 counts of manslaughter and conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

Nica, of Mimosa Close, Langdon Hills, Basildon, Essex, denies 39 counts of manslaughter but admits one of conspiring to assist unlawful immigration.

Kennedy, of Corkley Road, Northern Ireland, and Calota, of Cossington Road, Birmingham, each deny conspiring to assist unlawful immigration between 1 May 2018 and 24 October 2019.

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