Ringleader closes eyes in dock as court hears container victims’ final calls

Emily Pennink, PA Old Bailey Correspondent
·5-min read

A ringleader of the people-smuggling ring responsible for the deaths of 39 migrants closed his eyes in the dock as his victims’ final agonising gasps were heard for the first time in court.

Haulier boss Ronan Hughes joined seven other defendants at the Old Bailey to be sentenced for their role in the “sophisticated long running” operation when ended in tragedy on October 23 2019.

The 39 Vietnamese men, women and children had suffocated in sweltering temperatures in a sealed container as they were shipped from Zeebrugge to Purfleet in Essex.

Recordings of some of their final desperate phone messages were played in court.

In one message, a man spoke with ragged breaths as he apologised to his family.

Screengrab taken from CCTV dated 23/10/19 issued by Essex Police showing lorry driver Maurice Robinson, 26, leaving Purfleet port, Essex (Essex Police/PA)
Screengrab showing lorry driver Maurice Robinson, 26, leaving Purfleet port, Essex (Essex Police/PA)

He said: “I can’t breathe.

“I want to come back to my family. Have a good life.”

In the background, a voice could be heard pleading: “Come on everyone. Open up, open up.”

The sound of people moaning and gasping in obvious distress as they rapidly ran out of air was evident in the recording.

The migrants had desperately tried to raise the alarm, and even used a pole to try to punch through the roof of the container, the court has heard.

While the recordings were being played, Hughes sat still in the dock with eyes shut throughout as other defendants hung their heads.

Lorry driver Maurice Robinson had delayed alerting emergency services when he made the grim discovery of the bodies at Purfleet in Essex early on October 23 2019.

Instead, he exchanged a flurry of calls with Hughes and fellow ringleader Gheorghe Nica before dumping his burner phone.

Robinson had stopped in Eastern Avenue soon after picking up the trailer at Purfleet docks.

Family handout photo issued by Essex Police of (left to right top row) Dinh Dinh Binh, Nguyen Minh Quang, Nguyen Huy Phong, Le Van Ha, Nguyen Van Hiep, Bui Phan Thang, Nguyen Van Hung, Nguyen Huy Hung, Nguyen Tien Dung, Pham Thi Tra My, (left to right second row) Tran Khanh Tho, Nguyen Van Nhan, Vo Ngoc Nam, Vo Van Linh, Nguyen Ba Vu Hung, Vo Nhan Du, Tran Hai Loc, Tran Manh Hung, Nguyen Thi Van, Bui Thi Nhung, (third row left to right) Hoang Van Tiep, Tran Thi Ngoc, Phan Thi Thanh,Tran Thi Tho, Duong Minh Tuan, Pham Thi Ngoc Oanh, Tran Thi Mai Nhung, Le Trong Thanh, Nguyen Ngoc Ha, Hoang Van Hoi, (bottom row left to right) Tran Ngoc Hieu, Cao Tien Dung, Dinh Dinh Thai Quyen, Dang Huu Tuyen, Nguyen Dinh Luong , Cao Huy Thanh, Nguyen Trong Thai, Nguyen Tho Tuan and Nguyen Dinh Tu, the 39 Vietnamese migrants, aged between 15 and 44, that were found dead in the back of a trailer (Essex Police/PA)
Family handout photo issued by Essex Police of (left to right top row) Dinh Dinh Binh, Nguyen Minh Quang, Nguyen Huy Phong, Le Van Ha, Nguyen Van Hiep, Bui Phan Thang, Nguyen Van Hung, Nguyen Huy Hung, Nguyen Tien Dung, Pham Thi Tra My, (left to right second row) Tran Khanh Tho, Nguyen Van Nhan, Vo Ngoc Nam, Vo Van Linh, Nguyen Ba Vu Hung, Vo Nhan Du, Tran Hai Loc, Tran Manh Hung, Nguyen Thi Van, Bui Thi Nhung, (third row left to right) Hoang Van Tiep, Tran Thi Ngoc, Phan Thi Thanh,Tran Thi Tho, Duong Minh Tuan, Pham Thi Ngoc Oanh, Tran Thi Mai Nhung, Le Trong Thanh, Nguyen Ngoc Ha, Hoang Van Hoi, (bottom row left to right) Tran Ngoc Hieu, Cao Tien Dung, Dinh Dinh Thai Quyen, Dang Huu Tuyen, Nguyen Dinh Luong , Cao Huy Thanh, Nguyen Trong Thai, Nguyen Tho Tuan and Nguyen Dinh Tu, the 39 Vietnamese migrants, aged between 15 and 44, that were found dead in the back of a trailer (Essex Police/PA)

The court heard Hughes had instructed him via Snapchat to “give them air quick don’t let them out” to which Robinson responded with a thumbs up emoji.

On finding the bodies, Robinson rang Hughes who told him to “Open the doors, give them air”, according to his statement to police.

Robinson responded: “I can’t, they’re f****** dead.”

He then telephoned Nica who had shown him the drop-off point near Collingwood Farm earlier.

He told him to “Ring an ambulance” before Hughes ordered him to “get rid” of his burner phone, according to Robinson.

The driver did as he was told and threw the Sim card down the drain and dumped the telephone on the side of the road, the court heard.

A pole inside the trailer of lorry driver Maurice Robinson (Essex Police/PA)
A pole inside the trailer of lorry driver Maurice Robinson (Essex Police/PA)

In his police interview, Robinson admitted he knew he was smuggling migrants and claimed he had stopped in Eastern Avenue because “I wanted to make sure the people inside were comfortable”.

At no stage did Robinson tell police about the real reason – Hughes’ Snapchat message.

A total of seven smuggling trips were identified between May 2018 and October 23 2019.

Prosecutor Jonathan Polnay said: “These defendants were party to a sophisticated, long- running and profitable conspiracy to smuggle (mainly) Vietnamese migrants to the United Kingdom, in the back of lorries, in a deliberate and intentional breach of border control.”

The prosecution could point to seven specific events of people smuggling, but Mr Polnay added: “It is submitted there is an irresistible inference that there were more events than those that were fortuitously detected.”

Migrants would board lorries at a remote location on the continent to be transported to Britain where they would be picked up by a fleet of smaller vehicles for transfer to a safe house until payment was received.

Maurice Robinson’s mobile phone in a drain (Essex Police/PA)
Maurice Robinson’s mobile phone in a drain (Essex Police/PA)

The fee was between £10,000 and £13,000, for the ‘VIP route’ in which the driver was aware of the presence of smuggled migrants inside the trailer attached to his lorry.

Robinson, who admitted involvement in two smuggling trips before the deaths, told police that he was got £1,500 per migrant he successfully smuggled, and thought he had been paid £25,000.

Robinson, 26, of Craigavon and Hughes, 41, of Armagh, had pleaded guilty to the manslaughters and people-smuggling plot while Nica, 43, of Basildon, and the “man on the continent”, lorry driver Eamonn Harrison, 24, from County Down, were convicted following a trial at the Old Bailey.

The maximum sentence for people-smuggling is 14 years in prison, with manslaughter carrying a possible life sentence.

The defendants, who are in custody, will be sentenced over three days by Mr Justice Sweeney at the Old Bailey.