Lorry driver accused of 39 migrant deaths says he did not know he was part of people smuggling ring

Lorry driver accused over deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants says he only agreed to transport cigarettes ‘for a bit of extra cash’ and did not know he was part of people smuggling ring

  • Christopher Kennedy, 24, allegedly picked up trailer-loads of people in Essex 
  • Giving evidence at his Old Bailey trial he denied knowing container had people
  • He denies he was paid for any illegal load and was ‘told not to look in container’  

By Nicole Conner For Mailonline

Published: 18:26, 23 November 2020 | Updated: 20:59, 23 November 2020

A lorry driver accused of being a member of a people-smuggling ring linked to the deaths of 39 migrants has told jurors he only agreed to move cigarettes ‘for a bit of extra cash’.

Christopher Kennedy, 24, of Keady, County Armagh, allegedly picked up two trailer-loads of people from Purfleet in Essex, transported from Zeebrugge in Belgium.

Giving evidence in his Old Bailey trial, Kennedy told how his boss Caolan Gormley, who he knew from County Armagh, asked him to lift cigarettes.

CCTV footage shows Kennedy in his cab arriving at Purfleet Port.

He denies knowledge of people smuggling and says he done it for extra cash 

He denied knowing that a trailer he took to be uploaded in Orsett, Essex, on October 11 last year, contained people.  

In early October last year, the defendant said Mr Gormley told him to get a cheap phone ‘for picking up a load of cigarettes’.

Kennedy said: ‘He was talking to me on the phone asking would I be interested in a bit of extra cash.

‘I asked him what doing, and he said just lifting cigarettes. Obviously I agreed to do it for a bit of extra cash.’

He told jurors he was offered GBP600 a time.

Lorry driver accused of 39 migrant deaths says he did not know he was part of people smuggling ring

CCTV footage of Christopher Kennedy, 24, of Keady, County Armagh, arriving at Purfleet Port, Essex, on October 11, 2019, shown at his Old Bailey trial 

Kennedy, Eamonn Harrison, 23, of Co Down, and Valentin Calota, 37, of Birmingham, have denied being involved in a people-smuggling plot.

On October 23 last year another driver, Maurice Robinson, collected a trailer and discovered 39 Vietnamese people had suffocated on the same route. 

Harrison, and Gheorghe Nica, 43, of Basildon, Essex, deny 39 counts of manslaughter.

Hughes, 41, of Co Armagh, and Robinson, 26, of Craigavon in Northern Ireland, have admitted. 

The court has heard Mr Gormley was arrested but is not a defendant in the case.

James Scobie QC, defending, asked if Kennedy was ever ‘paid for any illegal load’, which Kennedy denies.  

The defendant said he didn’t know where the loads were being brought in from but ‘thought they were just evading duty’.  

On October 11 last year, Kennedy said Mr Gormley told him to go to Orsett after he picked up the trailer in Purfleet using codes he was given.

Mr Scobie said: ‘Did you know what was to happen when you get there?’

Kennedy said: ‘No. I was told go there and stop and wait and that was it.’

Lorry driver accused of 39 migrant deaths says he did not know he was part of people smuggling ring

On October 23 last year another driver, Maurice Robinson, collected a trailer and discovered 39 Vietnamese people had suffocated on the same route. Pictured: Robinson in his lorry cab

He added that he was instructed to wait in his cab and someone would come and unload, and said he ‘was told not to look in the trailer’.  

Jurors were shown CCTV footage of Kennedy’s lorry coming and going from Orsett, along with a number of vehicles.

Mr Scobie said: ‘We now know there was a number of people got into those vehicles.

Did you see that at any stage?’

Kennedy said: ‘No, never.’

The defendant said the name of haulier boss Ronan Hughes only came up on October 11.

Mr Scobie asked: ‘What did you understand was his role in these illegal goings-on?’

Kennedy said: ‘It was his trailer, his load.’

Recalling events of October 14 last year, the defendant said Hughes had called to see if he was ‘happy enough to do the same another day as I had done on the 11th.’

Lorry driver accused of 39 migrant deaths says he did not know he was part of people smuggling ring

In October last year, men, women and children, aged 15 to 44, were found dead in the trailer.

The trial at the Old Bailey is ongoing 

En route to the Channel Tunnel entrance in France with a load of wine, Kennedy said he stopped at a Pidou supermarket to buy Red Bull and a baguette.

When he reached Coquelles, 20 migrants were found by border officials among Kennedy’s wine consignment, jurors heard.

Kennedy, who was sent on his way, later reported that the load was fine, adding in a message: ‘I stopped at Pidou like a clown. Boss man going mad.’

He explained to jurors that the migrants must have smuggled themselves aboard the trailer at Pidou.

After the incident, Kennedy said he ditched his burner phone and got a new one at Lakeside, in Thurrock.

On October 17, Mr Gormley allegedly told him to expect to pick up another load of cigarettes the next day.

Jurors were shown CCTV footage of Kennedy picking up the trailer at Purfleet and driving straight to the pick-up point in Orsett.

Afterwards, Hughes allegedly arranged to meet him at Thurrock services so he could ‘check’ the legitimate load of biscuits.

Lorry driver accused of 39 migrant deaths says he did not know he was part of people smuggling ring

Kennedy, Eamonn Harrison, 23, and Valentin Calota, 37, have denied being part of people-smuggling ring. Pictured: The lorry in October last year

When he inspected the trailer loaded with macaroons and Bakewell tarts, Hughes allegedly said it needed to be ‘cleaned’.

Asked to describe the biscuits, Kennedy said: ‘They were all squashed. The top row of the pallets.

There was like footprints and bottles and stuff.’

When he confronted Hughes about it, he just ‘shrugged it off’, Kennedy said.

Jurors heard that the consignment of Mrs Crimble’s macaroons was rejected on delivery in Kent. 

Kennedy told the jury he grew up on a farm and became an HGV driver at the age of 19, despite driving-related offences dating back to the age of 13.

He was handed an eight-month ban after he was stopped on May 3 2018 driving a lorry with the wrong number plate, in Belfast.

On June 3 2019, Mr Gormley gave him a job as an HGV driver for GBP550 a week.

Kennedy told jurors about typical jobs transporting chickens and milk around England, and doing Amazon delivery work.

The trial continues.  

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