Lone man seen ‘looking for his friends’ after lorry left on fatal run, jury told

A lone man was left “looking for his friends” in northern France the day before 39 Vietnamese people were found dead in the back of a lorry, a court has heard.

Truck driver Eamonn Harrison, 23, allegedly picked up the migrants in his trailer before dropping it off at the port of Zeebrugge in Belgium on October 22 last year.

The container was collected at Purfleet in Essex the next morning by Maurice Robinson, who found the bodies of the men, women and children, the Old Bailey was told.

Jurors heard that the victims, aged between 15 and 44, had suffocated in the sealed trailer in sweltering temperatures of up to 38.5C.

On Friday – the anniversary of the deaths – jurors were told that the lorry was seen making a short stop in Bierne in northern France on the morning of October 22.

Laetitia Mockelyn said in a statement that she was present when Estelle Duyke called Gendarmes about the presence of migrants around her elderly mother-in-law’s house.

Ms Mockelyn said she had been at the address to help the 88-year-old woman in her capacity as carer.

She saw nine people being dropped off by taxi and running to a farm shed.

Five minutes later, a white refrigerated lorry stopped and the migrants got in, she said.

Ten minutes later, a man was dropped off by another taxi, the court heard.

The witness said: “When he got out of the taxi he went immediately round the back of the building. He was very calm and did not hurry.”

When he was approached, he said in English that he was “looking for his friends” before walking off in the direction of a Coca-Cola factory.

Ms Mockelyn added: “Estelle called the Gendarmerie, who went to check the shed. There was no-one there.”

Among the people who got into the trailer was a woman, wearing a padded jacket, white woolly hat and small backpack, and a “slightly-built” man in jeans and classic black cap.

They all seemed young, less than 35 years old, the witness said.

The man who arrived after the lorry departed was described as being of small build and wearing blue jeans, a padded jacket and Adidas backpack.

Ms Mockelyn told French police that she had never seen anything like it before.

Bodies found in lorry container
CCTV image from October 18 2019 of Maurice Robinson (left) and Ronan Hughes at the Ibis Hotel in Thurrock, Essex (Essex Police/PA)

Jurors heard that, during the morning of October 22, the temperature in the trailer had steadily risen from 11.7C to 15.6C by around 10.30am.

Earlier, the court heard that Harrison had a brief brush with police during a boozy night out in Bruges in Belgium on October 18.

At 9.53pm he was stopped by officers, having been helped up by a member of the public, the jury was told.

Prosecutor Bill Emlyn Jones said: “He was intoxicated and was making his way back to where he was staying, in a taxi.”

The following day, at 9.09am, Harrison again came to the attention of authorities.

Mr Emlyn Jones said: “Harrison last night had a drink in Bruges. His trailer was parked illegally since the day before.

“On police attendance the curtains were drawn and Harrison was inside the trailer, changing his clothes. On request he moved the vehicle immediately.”

Meanwhile, haulage boss Ronan Hughes, Robinson and alleged key organiser Gheorghe Nica were caught on CCTV at the Ibis Hotel in Thurrock, Essex, on the evening of October 18.

Jurors previously heard that two successful people-smuggling runs were carried out on October 11 and October 18, days before the tragic journey.

Hughes, 41, and Robinson, 26, have pleaded guilty to 39 counts of manslaughter. Nica, 43, of Basildon, and Harrison, of County Down, Northern Ireland, deny the charges.

Harrison, lorry driver Christopher Kennedy, 24, of Co Armagh, Northern Ireland, and Valentin Calota, 37, of Birmingham, have denied being part of a wider people smuggling conspiracy, which Nica has admitted to.

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