A lorry driver who discovered the bodies of 39 migrants in the back of his trailer had been “blind to the risks” of people smuggling, a court has heard.
The Vietnamese victims, aged between 15 and 44, had suffocated in the sealed container as it was shipped from Zeebrugge to Purfleet in Essex in October 2019.
Maurice Robinson, 26, was left in shock after he opened the doors and found they were all dead, the Old Bailey was told.
His boss and ringleader in the operation Ronan Hughes, 41, had told him to give them air quickly after collecting the trailer from the docks.
Robinson, who had called Hughes before 999, replied: “I can’t, they are f******** dead.”
Robinson, of Craigavon, and Hughes, of Armagh, had pleaded guilty to the manslaughters and a plot to people smuggle dating back to May 2018.
Robinson, who took cash to Northern Ireland for Hughes, had also admitted a money laundering offence.
They appeared at the Old Bailey to be sentenced with six other defendants.
In mitigation, Tyrone Smith QC accepted Robinson had misled authorities by failing to say that Hughes had sent him a message instructing him to “give them air quickly don‘t let them out” before he found the bodies.
Mr Smith said Robinson had been “brave” in giving full details to police afterwards which not only incriminated himself but others.
Robinson had been a “hard working and well liked young man” whose involvement had shocked those who knew him, the court heard.
Mr Smith said: “We do not seek to blame anybody else.”
“He was blind to the risks we can now say were obvious and should have been obvious to him.”
“It has taken these awful events for the defendant to reflect properly on what he has done.
“If only he had stopped and thought in advance but perhaps for his own reasons he blinded himself to the obvious risks.”
“He is horrified by what he saw.
“He was horrified by his role in bringing about these deaths.”
Coming from a small community, his actions had brought a “stain” on his own family and at the time of the deaths his partner had been pregnant, the court heard.
Tim Moloney QC, for Hughes, said: “The defendant did not intend any harm to migrants.
“It was not obvious to him the actions created the risk of death or serious harm.
“Mr Hughes is clear, prior to the Clementine (ship) setting off, he did not know there were close to 40 migrants in the container.
“He does not say if he had known there were 39 he would have refused to continue.”
If he had known earlier he would still have carried on with the enterprise, but Mr Moloney added: “That’s not because he did not care less what happened to the migrants.”
Eamonn Harrison, 24, from County Down, had transported the migrants to Zeebrugge on the fateful journey and was found guilty of smuggling and the manslaughters.
His lawyer Alisdair Williamson QC said he was an “inadequate young man” with ADHD but not “cynical or greedy”.
Rather, he was working for Hughes to pay off his debt after crashing one of his trucks while drunk.
Mr Williamson said: “He must bear the burden of his actions for the rest of his life.”
Gheorghe Nica, 43, from Basildon, in Essex, was a ringleader responsible for organising onward transport after the migrants arrived in Hughes’s lorries.
Aftab Jafferjee QC, for Nica, referred to harrowing evidence of the victims’ desperate final messages to their families as they struggled to breathe in the sweltering trailer.
He said: “The messages from the victims in this case that were played and the victim impact statements were plainly moving but it is accepted on both sides harm was never in the contemplation of anyone.”
Mr Justice Sweeney is expected to pass sentence on the defendants on a later date.
Prosecutor Jonathan Polnay has argued it was an “exceptional” case.
The maximum sentence for manslaughter is life in prison.