Cockle deaths gangmaster 'tried to blame two victims'

By Ian Herbert, North of England Correspondent
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The Independent Online

Lin Liang Ren, 29, who drove the cockle-pickers to the Warton Sands bed on the night of 5 February last year, fled the scene when the tide engulfed his countrymen, leaving them to die, Preston Crown Court was told. When approached by police he used a bogus identity, lied about his movements and instructed the Chinese survivors to say that Lin Li Shui and Tian Long - who had both died - were the gangmasters.

Lin Liang Ren had also ignored warnings when told that the rising tide threatened to cut off his workers in an earlier scare at Southport, Merseyside, the court heard. He told an associate: "Leave it to God."

Lin Liang Ren, 29, who denies 21 counts of manslaughter through gross negligence, span an elaborate cover for his lucrative operation organising illegal Chinese immigrants, the court heard. Arriving in England in 2000, he enrolled as a student at a Manchester college, paying £1,500 in cash to do so. He provided details of the courses to secure an extension to his student visa in November. But the details were bogus and he had not attended the college.

Instead, he was paying £770 rent a month to house dozens of Chinese cockle-pickers in Liverpool, busing them to Morecambe Bay from December 2003 when the lucrative Warton Sands cockle-beds were reopened. Lin Liang Ren's outlay was deducted from cocklers' income, which meant they took just £5 for bags of cockles that earned their employers £15. During a cockling trip to Scotland in October 2003, police stopped him with some of those who were to die at Morecambe.

His girlfriend was in possession of £4,100 in cash, which she could not account for. "[Lin Liang Ren] was the boss," said Tim Holroyde, for the prosecution. "He owed a duty of care to [them] because he was in control over them [but] he completely failed to take proper care for their safety as they worked in the cold and the dark."

Tony and David Eden, who ran a Liverpool fishing company which bought the cockles, allegedly in the knowledge that they were being harvested by illegal immigrants, deny facilitating a breach of immigration laws, as do Lin Liang Ren's girlfriend and interpreter, Zhao Xiao Qing, and his cousin Lin Mu Yong, 31.

The Chinese collected more cockles than local fishermen and were prepared to risk perilous "double tiding" - going out twice a day to work, the court heard. Torch batteries found in cockle bags proved the Chinese were working at night. They were transported in Lin Liang Ren's cheap vans, which were sometimes unroadworthy. One impounded by police a month before the disaster had no hinges on the side door.

The Chinese worked Warton Sands at night to avoid British cocklers who were angered by the profits they were making, the court heard. Days before the tragedy, Chinese cockles had been set on fire by locals. Diesel was poured on one lorryload and Tony Eden received a death threat for employing them.

On the night of their deaths, the Chinese would have had little appreciation of the tides in Morecambe Bay, which do not move in a straight line over flat terrain, the court heard.

"You can be standing on dry sand looking out to sea... only to find the tide has.. come in behind you, cutting you off from the shore," said Mr Holroyde.

"[The Chinese] were not there simply looking around. They were hard at work, heads down in the wind and rain."

The trial, which is expected to last six months, continues today.