Documentary reveals how police took down people smuggling gang linked to NI
Police and forensic officers at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex, after 39 bodies of Vietnamese migrants were found inside the lorry on the industrial estate
It begins with the actual 999 call made from Co Armagh lorry driver Maurice Robinson to report the people he had found “lying on the ground, not breathing” in the trailer he collected from Purfleet port on October 23, 2019. Spanning Britain, Europe and Vietnam, the film shows how detectives disrupted a multimillion pound international smuggling ring with its roots in a haulage business in Northern Ireland. The documentary, which goes out on BBC Two at 9pm on Wednesday, shows interview footage with Laurelvale man Robinson who police initially did not know whether to treat as a witness or a suspect.
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Maurice Robinson was driving the lorry in which the 39 people were found dead
However, when Essex police discovered that Robinson tried to destroy and dispose of a second mobile phone they were able to hone in on those higher up the chain in the human trafficking operation.
Using CCTV footage police were able to track Robinson’s movements and observe him checking the container shortly after making the pick up in Purfleet. He then waited 23 minutes before dialling 999. Other calls made by the NI lorry driver led them to his boss Ronan Hughes, who ran a haulage company in NI.
He became a person of interest as did a mystery man who Robinson called in Tilbury, who turned out to be pulling the strings in the trafficking gang. DCI Ricky Thornton of the PSNI, who was interviewed in the documentary, said: “I became absolutely obsessed with catching Hughes.”
Ronan Hughes came onto police radar after Maurice Robinson revealed him to be his boss
He said that through a PSNI investigation into the importation of class A drugs into NI, he knew that HGVs were being used to facilitate smuggling. “I immediately recognised the lorry [in Essex] as being part of that investigation,” said DCI Thornton, who added that Hughes was hiding his smuggling by carrying out legitimate haulage work.
As well as the investigation in Northern Ireland, detectives were also studying the movements of the trailer in mainland Europe before it was picked up by Robinson in Purfleet. That led them to Eamonn Harrison from Newry, another associate of Hughes, who dropped off trailer at Zeebrugge in Belgium.
Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten from Essex Police pictured during a press conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
With exclusive access to Essex Police, their officers and the evidence, this film reveals how detectives painstakingly pieced together a complex web of evidence, including the extraordinary role of Witness X, whose evidence helped bring down the gang. The film also features interviews with the families in Vietnam of some of those who lost their lives, who tell their heart-breaking stories of losing loved ones on the false promise of a new life in the UK.One of the most harrowing parts of the documentary looks at the messages sent from within the shipping container by the people who were dying due to lack of oxygen.
As they made their way from Zeebrugge to Purfleet in the sealed container, investigators were able to use the internal thermometer to indicate that the temperature inside soared to 38.5 degrees as the ship entered the English channel. It was around this time any attempts to send messages or make calls stopped.
Floral tributes left on Eastern Avenue, Grays, Essex, where 39 bodies were discovered in a lorry.
PA Photo. Picture date: Friday October 25, 2019. Police confirmed that the eight women and 31 men found in the vehicle on an industrial estate in Grays were all Chinese.
See PA story POLICE Container. Photo credit should read: Kirsty O’Connor/PA Wire
During the investigation police found fingerprints inside another of Ronan Hughes’ lorry trailers which led them to a Vietnamese person who arrived a week before his 39 compatriots perished in another human trafficking operation. Known as Witness X he told detectives that each person was paying GBP13,000 to be taken to the UK.
With 39 people in the container that made the fatal trip on October 23, 2019 worth more than half a million pounds to the crime gang. Crucially, Witness X said there had only been 19 people in the container when he was smuggled into the UK. A message from the Editor:
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