People-smuggling accused was ‘in the loop’ over 39 migrant deaths, jurors told

A lorry driver was “in the loop” within minutes of the discovery of 39 dead migrants in the back of a trailer in Essex, a court has heard.

Christopher Kennedy, 24, is accused of being a member of a team behind the people-smuggling operation which went disastrously wrong on October 23 last year.

Prosecutor Bill Emlyn Jones asked Kennedy about a flurry of calls on burner phones after lorry driver Maurice Robinson opened the doors to haulier boss Ronan Hughes’s trailer and saw 39 Vietnamese people were dead inside.

Bodies found in lorry container
CCTV image of Maurice Robinson in Eastern Avenue, Thurrock. Vapour is seen rising from the trailer where the bodies of 39 migrants were found on October 23 2019 (Essex Police/PA)

The victims had all suffocated as the sealed container they were in was shipped from Zeebrugge in Belgium to Purfleet in Essex.

Just at the moment Robinson made the dreadful discovery, Hughes was on the phone to Kennedy, jurors heard.

Then while Robinson was relaying the news to Hughes at 1.19am, Kennedy was trying to get hold of him too, the court was told.

Exactly 46 seconds after that call ended, Hughes rang Kennedy, who was on the continent with a load of wine.

Mr Emlyn Jones said: “Bearing in mind the situation Hughes found himself in at that particular time, can you help us why it was that he felt it necessary to speak to you?”

Kennedy said: “He was phoning me back.”

Bodies found in lorry container
CCTV showing Christopher Kennedy in his cab arriving at the port of Purfleet in Essex to pick up a trailer on October 18 2019 (Essex Police/PA)

The prosecutor asked: “So it’s business as usual for him, is it?

“As far as you are concerned nothing in this phone call gave you any impression something unusual, terrible, disastrous had happened?”

The defendant replied: “He was with me, yes.”

Mr Emlyn Jones went on: “Seven minutes or so have passed and Hughes finds the time to give you another ring. What’s this about?”

Kennedy said Hughes told him there was a “problem” with his booking to travel by boat from Zeebrugge with the wine and he should go by train instead.

The prosecutor said: “I suggest to you, Mr Kennedy, you are making this up and Mr Hughes, dealing with 39 dead unlawful migrants, is not at the time calmly carrying on with you about your load of wine and whether you are on the boat or on the train.

“You have had to dream up an excuse for this call.”

Bodies found in lorry container
Officers arriving at the scene in Purfleet, Essex, where the bodies of 39 Vietnamese migrants had been found (Essex Police/PA)

The defendant insisted he was telling the truth.

The court heard that was the last time either Kennedy or Hughes used their burner phones.

Mr Emlyn Jones suggested: “Is it that Hughes was telling you: ‘There’s been a crisis for God’s sake, get rid of your burner phone’?”

As news of the tragedy began to spread, Kennedy texted a friend that it was Ronan Hughes’s trailer.

He also told him that there “must have been too many and run out of air”.

Mr Emlyn Jones said he was “absolutely spot on” in his assessment of what went wrong.

He suggested that demonstrated a clear understanding of the dangers because he was a people smuggler himself.

Kennedy denied it.

Bodies found in lorry container
Maurice Robinson, 26, leaving Purfleet port, Essex (Essex Police/PA)

Earlier, the defendant told jurors he thought he was picking up cigarettes and not migrants from Purfleet on October 11 and 18 last year.

The first he knew of people smuggling was when Hughes asked him to help tidy up a consignment of macaroons which had been trampled in transit during the October 18 run, he said.

When he confronted Hughes, he just “shrugged it off”, the defendant said.

But Mr Emlyn Jones said: “You are a member of the team, aren’t you?

“That’s why you signed up for that following the people smuggling. It just goes with the territory.”

The defendant denied it.

The prosecutor added: “It would appear he was not in the least bothered about you knowing the truth.”

Kennedy of Co Armagh, Eamonn Harrison, 23, of County Down and Valentin Calota, 37, of Birmingham, have denied plotting to people smuggle.

Harrison and alleged organiser Gheorghe Nica, 43, of Basildon, Essex, have denied 39 counts of manslaughter.

Jurors have heard that Robinson, 26, of Craigavon in Northern Ireland and Hughes, 41, Co Armagh, have admitted the manslaughters.

Read Full Story Click here to comment

FROM OUR PARTNERS