Mechanic accused of Essex lorry migrant deaths: 'I never wanted people-smuggling job'

Will Taylor
·News Reporter
·4 min read
Four men are standing trial relating to an alleged people smuggling plot after 39 Vietnamese migrants were found dead. (PA/Essex Police/Elizabeth Cook)
Four men are standing trial relating to an alleged people smuggling plot after 39 Vietnamese migrants were found dead. (PA/Essex Police/Elizabeth Cook)

A mechanic accused of the manslaughter of 39 Vietnamese migrants, found dead in a lorry last year, has told a court he “never wanted to be involved” in people smuggling.

The migrants were found dead on 23 October 2019 in a lorry container that was transported from Zeebrugge, Belgium, to Purfleet, Essex.

Gheorghe Nica denies being involved in that smuggling run, but has admitted helping ex-boss Ronan Hughes transport people from Essex after they arrived in the UK on 11 and 18 October 2019.

The 43-year-old father of three said on Thursday that he was approached by haulier Hughes on 10 October 2019, who asked if he could provide cars to “deliver some people”.

Court artist sketch by Elizabeth Cook of Gheorghe Nica (left) and Eamonn Harrison (right) two of four men to face trial, at the Old Bailey in London, for being part of an alleged people-smuggling ring linked to the death of 39 migrants in a lorry in Essex.
Gheorghe Nica (left) and Eamonn Harrison (second right) are on trial at the Old Bailey. (PA/Elizabeth Cook)

Nica, of Basildon, said he was unaware Hughes was involved in people smuggling.

“I was surprised. I knew him for a long time. I said, ‘I’ll let you know’. I did not know what to do. I never gave him a straight answer,” he said.

Nica picked up 10 migrants from a trailer in Orsett, Essex, and took them to a place in South East London.

Watch: Migrants told families they were taking 'VIP' trip to UK, court hears

Having been paid £6,000 by an Albanian he knew as “the Doctor” for the run, Nica said he gave a friend who helped him £1,000 then offered Hughes the remaining £5,000 when he met him on 16 October last year.

“He (Hughes) said ‘no, no, it’s yours, you helped me, I don’t want the money’. I never expected that,” Nica told the court.

The trailer is taken off the ship at Port of Purfleet. (PA/Essex Police)
The trailer is taken off the ship at Port of Purfleet. (PA/Essex Police)

“He was saying (to) me if I can arrange this time a van driver.

“I said ‘what for, cigarettes?’. He said ‘no no’. He finally told me it’s for people again.”

Hughes told him he would pick up 15 migrants this time, the court heard.

Nica said he paid Valentin Calota – who denies being part of a people-smuggling plot – £700 to transport what he said were cigarettes, because he worried Calota might not take the job if he told him the cargo was people.

Nica told the court that having let him keep the £5,000, Hughes, who jurors have heard admitted manslaughter of the migrants, felt he owned him.

“I never wanted to be involved in this kind of job,” Nica said.

Eamonn Harrison, 23, of Co Down, Northern Ireland, is accused of picking up the migrants in his lorry trailer and taking them to Zeebrugge, Belgium, where he dropped it off on 22 October 2019.

Eamonn Harrison driving his lorry and trailer into a truck stop in Belgium. (PA/Essex Police)
Eamonn Harrison driving his lorry and trailer into a truck stop in Belgium. (PA/Essex Police)

Nica, alleged to be a key organiser, and Harrison deny manslaughter.

Harrison, alongside Christopher Kennedy, a 24-year-old lorry driver from Co Armagh, Northern Ireland, and Calota, 37, of Birmingham, denies being part of a wider people smuggling conspiracy.

Previously, jurors have been told how the container would have become a “tomb” for the migrants, with temperatures reaching 38.5C.

The sealed container, which left Belgium on a ship at 3.36pm on 22 October, would have reached toxic levels of carbon dioxide between 10-10.30pm, the Old Bailey has heard, leaving the migrants to effectively suffocate.

Phone recordings made by the migrants, played in court, show their desperate pleas, with one leaving messages for loved ones while a voice in the background asked for the container to be opened up, and another person attempting to call the Vietnamese police.

A cargo operator noticed a decomposing smell from the container at about 11.50pm, as it was unloaded in Essex.

A Snapchat message allegedly sent from Ronan Hughes to Maurice Robinson. (PA/Essex Police)
A Snapchat message allegedly sent from Ronan Hughes to Maurice Robinson. (PA/Essex Police)

CCTV shows Maurice Robinson, a 26-year-old lorry driver, collecting the trailer and leaving Purfleet port on the morning of 23 October.

He received a Snapchat message, allegedly sent by haulier Ronan Hughes, 41, telling him to “give them air quickly” but not let the migrants out, which Robinson replied to with a thumbs-up emoji, the court heard.

Robinson discovered the bodies at 1.13am and dialled for an ambulance 23 minutes later, telling them: “There’s loads of them, there’s immigrants in the back but they’re all lying on the ground.

“I went and lifted a trailer from Purfleet, the freight terminal, and I got around to where I was going to park up for the night and I heard a noise in the back and I opened the door and there’s a bunch of them lying.”

Jurors have been told Robinson, alongside Hughes, has admitted manslaughter of the migrants.

The trial continues.

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