Essex lorry deaths: Haulier pleads guilty to manslaughter of 39 Vietnamese migrants

Old Bailey told he played a leading role in people-smuggling operation, with trailers and drivers used

Jane Dalton
Friday 28 August 2020 16:05
The 39 bodies were found inside a lorry container at Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex, last October
The 39 bodies were found inside a lorry container at Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex, last October

A haulier from Northern Ireland has pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of migrants who were found dead in the trailer of a lorry in Essex.

Ronan Hughes, 40, of Co Armagh, was one of six men accused of being part of a people-smuggling ring linked to the deaths of the 39 Vietnamese people last October.

The bodies were discovered on an industrial estate in Grays, shortly after the lorry arrived at Purfleet on a ferry in the early hours.

Among the men, women and children were 10 teenagers, two of them 15-year-old boys.

An inquest heard their medical cause of death was asphyxia and hyperthermia – a lack of oxygen and overheating – in an enclosed space.

Hughes also pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey to conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration between 1 May 2018 and 24 October 2019.

It was alleged he played a leading role in the operation, with his trailers and drivers used to transport migrants.

He appeared in the dock alongside Eamonn Harrison, 23, of Mayobridge, Co Down, who is alleged to have taken the lorry trailer to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge before it sailed to Purfleet in Essex.

Harrison denied 39 counts of manslaughter and one count of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

Harrison and Hughes were extradited from the Republic of Ireland in July.

On 8 April, lorry driver Maurice Robinson, 25, of Craigavon in Northern Ireland, who discovered the bodies after transporting the container from Purfleet to an alleged pick-up point in Grays, also pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey to 39 counts of manslaughter.

In addition, he admitted conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration of non-European Union citizens and acquiring criminal property, but denied transferring criminal property.

In June, Romanian Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga, 28, of Hobart Road in Essex, admitted conspiring to assist unlawful immigration between May 2018 and October 2019.

During Friday’s hearing, Gazmir Nuzi, 42, of Barclay Road, Tottenham, north London, appeared at the Old Bailey by video link and pleaded guilty to assisting unlawful immigration.

Harrison now faces an Old Bailey trial on 5 October, with three other defendants.

Gheorghe Nica, 43, of Langdon Hills, Basildon, Essex, who is alleged to have been a key player, has previously denied 39 counts of manslaughter and conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration. Valentin Calota, 37, of Birmingham, and Christopher Kennedy, 23, of Co Armagh, have denied being part of a people-smuggling conspiracy.

Remanding the defendants into custody, Mr Justice Sweeney said the trial would last for five weeks.

A hearing was fixed for 21 September for a pre-trial review.

Reporting by PA