Smuggler who drove lorry on which 39 migrants died earned £100,000

People smuggler who drove lorry on which 39 Vietnamese migrants died used £100,000 he made from trafficking to refurbish his girlfriend’s hair salon, court hears

  • Maurice ‘Mo’ Robinson, 26, was part of a million-pound people-smuggling ring 
  • Gang brought people into Britain in back of lorries – earning him £100,000
  • In October 2019, Robinson opened back of his refrigerated trailer in Grays, Essex
  • Was met with a gush of steam and the 39 bodies of people who died on journey
  • Robinson admitted 39 counts of manslaughter and is now facing sentencing 
  • Robinson was ‘just coming into criminality’ so he has larger financial footprint

Human trafficker Maurice ‘Mo’ Robinson, 26, (pictured) who drove a lorry on which 39 Vietnamese migrants suffered agonising deaths used some of £100,000 he made trafficking people on refurbishing his girlfriend’s hair salon, a court heard today

A human trafficker who drove a lorry on which 39 Vietnamese migrants suffered agonising deaths used some of £100,000 he made trafficking people on refurbishing his girlfriend’s hair salon, a court heard today.

Driver Maurice ‘Mo’ Robinson, 26, was part of a million-pound people-smuggling ring who brought between 15 to 20 people into Britain in the back of death-trap lorries on multiple occasions – earning him £100,000.

Their reckless operation came crashing down in October 2019 when Robinson opened the back of his refrigerated trailer in an industrial park in Grays, Essex, to be met with a gush of steam – and 39 bodies.

Robinson admitted 39 counts of manslaughter and is now facing sentencing – alongside seven other smugglers – at the Old Bailey.  

Speaking at the sentencing, DCI Daniel Stoten, the officer who lead the Essex Police investigation into the deaths, said the operation’s ringleader Ronan Hughes, 40, made up to £1million each month and spent some of it on vast expanses of Irish land for him and his family – while the rest remains hidden.

‘Career criminal’ Hughes was ‘brought up on crime’ and had therefore ‘learnt to hide his money,’ DCI Stoten said – but Robinson was ‘a lorry driver just coming into criminality’ so he has a ‘much larger footprint financially’. 

Police at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays after the 39 bodies of Vietnamese migrants were found inside the lorry in October 2019

A photo showing pole marks inside the lorry trailer after migrants attempted to make air holes shortly before they suffocated

CCTV shows police arriving at the scene where Robinson had found the bodies in the back of his lorry (top right)

The group of migrants were were from five provinces in the central, coastal area of Vietnam and two provinces near Hanoi

DCI Stoten said it was the smugglers’ ‘total greed’ and ‘complacency’ that lead to the deaths as their mercenary bid to do two loads in one was ‘doomed to failure.’ 

DCI Stoten added: ‘[Robinson] hasn’t had any money because he’s not been brought up and hasn’t learnt his trade.

‘We can see about £100,000 going through his accounts.

‘They all had their eyes wide open to what they were involved in and they all gained a huge amount of money from this and you can see this from Robinson’s house and his salon. Huge amount of money.

‘His partner has got a salon that has undergone a significant amount of change, upgrade, and he lives in a lovely house.’

The multi-million pound run from Zeebrugge in Belgium to Purfleet in Essex in October 2019 was so well established that Hughes could charge his human cargo £14,000 a head.

Hughes packed as many migrants as he dared into each badly-ventilated container and 28 men, eight women and three children suffocated as temperatures inside soared to 38.5C in October 2019.

Video played to the court showed the moment officers arrived on scene in Essex and (inset) body cam footage shows an officer looking for signs of life inside the lorry. Driver Maurice Robinson called 999 after discovering the bodies in his lorry

Robinson’s trailer and tractor unit after it had been taken into evidence as part of the manslaughter investigation

Some tried to batter their way out with a pole as others wrote final heart-breaking text messages to relatives and partners as those around them sobbed in the darkness.

Nguyen Tho Tuan, 28, told his wife, children and mother: ‘It’s Tuan. I am sorry. I cannot take care of you.

‘I am sorry. I am sorry. I cannot breathe. I want to come back to my family. Have a good life.’ 

A graphic used by Essex Police illustrating location of the 39 bodies found inside a container lorry in Grays, Essex

At 1.07am, Robinson collected the trailer, some 12 hours after it was sealed. He was instructed by Hughes via Snapchat to ‘give them air quickly don’t let them out’.

Just before 7pm, another victim, Nguyen Dinh Luong, 20, had desperately tried to call Vietnamese emergency services, dialling 133, but phone signal in the trailer had cut out.

Another male victim recorded a message at 8.02pm apologising to his parents and telling them: ‘I can’t breathe. I’m sorry. I have to go now,’ adding after a long pause: ‘It’s all my fault.’

Moments later, another voice was heard saying: ‘He’s dead.’

A voice in the background can be heard trying to reassure their compatriots, saying: ‘Come on everyone, open up, and open up.’

Moments later, another victim said: ‘He’s dead.’

Who has been convicted in the Essex lorry death case? 

Eamonn Harrison, 23

  • Guilty of 39 counts of manslaughter
  • Guilty of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

Gheorghe Nica, 43

  • Guilty of 39 counts of manslaughter
  • Admits conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

Valentin Calota, 37

  • Guilty of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

Christopher Kennedy, 24

  • Guilty of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

Maurice Robinson, 26

  • Admits 39 counts of manslaughter
  • Admits conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

Ronan Hughes, 41

  • Admits 39 counts of manslaughter 
  • Admits conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

The original tape, which captures the bravery of the migrants as they realised they were dying, was played before prosecutor Jonathan Polnay translated the messages of the victims.

Translating the first recording Mr Polnay said: ‘”I’m so sorry” – that’s him speaking to his wife and his child – “I’m sorry” – that’s to his mother – “I’m sorry” – and that’s addressed to his whole family. “I cannot breathe. I want to come back to my family. Have a good life”.’

Referring to the second message Mr Polnay said: ‘He says I can’t breathe, he says his name, I’m sorry to his parents, I have to go. It’s all my fault.

‘And a voice in his the background says: “Come on everyone, open up and open up.”‘

Frantic heavy breathing and crying can be heard in the background of the audio as the two victims recorded their goodbyes to their loved ones.

Jurors saw horrifying footage of steam gushing from the container as Robinson opened the doors after pulling up in Eastern Avenue, Grays, at 1.13am on October 23, 2019.

Fellow driver Eamonn Harrison – who dropped off the trailer in Zeebrugge before it was sailed to Britain – and Romanian fixer Gheorghe Nica, 43, were convicted of 39 counts of manslaughter.

Lorry drivers Christopher Kennedy, 24, and Valentin Calota, 38, were found guilty of assisting illegal immigration by an Old Bailey jury.

Robinson and Hughes earlier admitted the manslaughter and smuggling charges.

Lorry drivers Christopher Kennedy, 24, and Valentin Calota, 38, were also convicted of their involvement in the international smuggling ring.

Gazmir Nuzi, 42, and Alexandru Hanga, 28, both admitted one count of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration last year.

DCI Stoten said the traffickers viewed the victims as ‘commodities’ rather than ‘human beings’.

The desperate foreign nationals had paid them around £12,000 each for a ‘VIP’ route to the UK – one of two options offered to them – promising success but not safety.

Even migrants who survived earlier trips with loads of around 15 to 20 compatriots suffered life-threatening conditions.

They typically became short of breath and ‘ill’ towards the end of their journey as carbon dioxide in the confined space reached toxic levels, the police chief said.

But the fatal voyage – in which the smugglers crammed 39 people into the trailer to do two loads in one – was ‘doomed to failure,’ said DCI Stoten.

He said: ‘The VIP option is more about getting them through getting through successfully.’

‘If the lorry driver knows they’re less likely to stop and check the load and kick them out. 

‘That’s more what it was about than their safety. Clearly safety wasn’t a particular concern to these people traffickers.

‘We’ve seen that because they were willing to take absolutely unacceptable risks, by putting 39 people in a container. 

‘They knew that 15 to 20 people per container is a huge risk and actually we know that 15 to 20 people at the end of the journey, they’re short of breath and starting to suffer ill effects.

‘So putting 39 people in there is just an unacceptable risk is doomed to failure but because they were motivated by money they were willing to take the risk, and these poor Vietnamese victims were just a commodity.’

The migrants were picked up at a rendezvous in France by one of the lorry drivers and dropped off at the Belgian port of Zeebrugge.

The young couple are posing together here at the airport on the day they left Vietnam. They are standing with two trolleys filled with luggage; clearly unaware they will be forced to leave it behind at some point in their deadly journey

From there, they sailed across the English channel to Purfleet where Robinson collected them and drove them to a remote farm in Essex.

Jurors heard Collingwood Farm, near Orsett, was a hotbed for ‘dodgy’ activity, which had been reported to Essex police since the summer of 2019 by concerned resident Marie Andrews.

Victim Pham Thi Tram My, 26, pictured, wanted to work in the beauty industry in the UK

Ms Andrews told the court police ‘had not been listening’ when she repeatedly voiced her concerns with them.

On October 11, she made three calls on the same day to police when she saw a group of migrants jumping out of a lorry and into a fleet of Mercedes cars.

The cars were organised by British Romanian ringleader Gheorghe Nica, who transported the foreign nationals down to their final destination in London.

Officers attended the scene and searched the premises, but did not check CCTV from the farm or the surrounding area as the smugglers drove off undetected.

DCI Stoten said authorities were ‘snowblind’ to the international gang.

When asked whether opportunities had been missed to catch the smugglers, he replied: ‘Yes.

‘I think we’ve got a view that because so many people were trying to sneak onto lorries that [it] almost became an accepted position whereas there are actually a number of criminal groups so people were a bit snowblind in relation to this. 

Tran Hai Loc and Nguyen Thi Van were still huddled together when they were discovered among the 39 dead Vietnamese migrants on October 23, 2019

The couple had left their son, seven, and five-year-old daughter in the care of their grandparents, in order to build a new life for the family in the UK

‘Now nationally, lorry drivers are instantly treated as a suspect, [and that has changed from the Essex incident] purely,’ DCI Stoten said.

Describing the ‘total greed’ of the smugglers, DCI Stoten said: ‘Ronan Hughes and Gheorghe Nica were the heads of the operation, and the rest of them more logistical. They got the lion’s share of the money paid.

‘Hence why, when there was potentially a missed opportunity to bring people into the UK by doubling up the facilitation of 39 people, because they don’t want to lose the money. Total greed.

‘With people like Nica and Hughes, they’re career criminals and they’ve been brought up on crime. They’ve learnt to hide their money.

‘We do know that the Hughes family live on a large plot of land, completely paid for, the whole family live on quite substantial area of land but otherwise the money has been hidden, and it is hidden.

The couple, both 35, were found with their hands entwined, having suffocated in their airtight container as the temperature soared to 38.5C (101.3F)

Timeline of the Essex lorry tragedy 

Here is a timeline of events surrounding the deaths of 39 Vietnamese men, women and children in the back of a lorry in Essex.

  • May 9 2018: Eamonn Harrison is stopped at Coquelles in France driving a lorry into the Channel Tunnel. It is found to have 18 Vietnamese nationals hidden in the back sitting on boxes of waffles. He is issued with a fine which is never paid.
  • May 1 2019: Harrison is caught drink-driving in Drantum, Germany, after he lost control and his lorry toppled over. He is convicted and ordered to pay 855 euro.
  • October 9 2019: At 9.04pm, Harrison’s GPS tracker places his truck in La Chappelle d’Armentieres in northern France. He beds down for the night in Bailleul.
  • October 10: Harrison makes a series of stops in Nieppe, La Chapelle d’Armentieres and Lissewege before he delivers a human cargo to Zeebrugge in Belgium to be transported to Purfleet in Essex.
  • October 11: At 7am, the trailer containing the migrants is picked up in Purfleet by lorry driver Christopher Kennedy and taken to a drop-off point near Orsett Golf Club.
  • At 8.18am, Gheorghe Nica, Alexandru Hanga, Marius Draghici and Gazmir Nuzi are caught on CCTV allegedly arriving in convoy.
  • At 8.22am, Marie Andrews and Stewart Cox, who live on Collingwood Farm, Orsett, see a red lorry with a white trailer pull up, together with four black Mercedes vehicles. As they watched, 15 to 20 people jump out of the lorry and run to the Mercedes.
  • October 14: At 7.25am Kennedy travels from Dover to Calais with the same lorry, but a different trailer.
  • At 11.50pm, Kennedy is stopped at Coquelles, en route to Folkestone via the Eurotunnel. Twenty Vietnamese nationals are discovered in his trailer and taken away by the border authorities, but Kennedy is allowed to continue with his journey. It later transpires two of the migrants are among the victims.
  • October 17: Harrison makes a second successful run, dropping off a container load of migrants at Zeebrugge with a consignment of biscuits.
  • October 18: At 7.24am, Kennedy picks up the trailer and takes it to the same pick-up point at Orsett. Valentin Calota is one of the drivers brought by Nica to collect the new arrivals and drive them over the Dartford crossing and into south-east London.
  • In the afternoon, Barbara Richmond-Clarke, warehouse manager at Lenham Storage, in Kent, rejects the delivery of crushed and dirty biscuit boxes.
  • In the evening, haulier boss Ronan Hughes, lorry driver Maurice Robinson, Draghici and Nica – now carrying a heavy bag full of cash – meet at the Ibis Hotel in Thurrock.
  • At 9.53pm, Harrison is found drunk in Bruges, Belgium, and is stopped by police.
  • October 19: At 9.09am, police find Harrison’s truck has been parked illegally and ask him to move.
  • October 22: From 5.47am, five of the victims’ phones are used in Paris.
  • Around 9am, more are detected on the Belgian border between Dunkerque and Lille.
  • From 9.21am, CCTV shows three taxis arriving at Bierne, northern France, followed by Harrison’s lorry.
  • At 1.41pm Harrison’s lorry arrives at Zeebrugge port.
  • At 2.52pm, the trailer containing 39 people, aged between 15 and 44, is loaded onto the MV Clementine which sails late, at 3.36pm.
  • At 7.37 pm, young father Nguyen Tho Tuan records a message for his family saying: ‘It’s Tuan. I am sorry. I cannot take care of you. I am sorry. I am sorry. I cannot breathe. I want to come back to my family. Have a good life.’
  • Between 9.42pm and 10.42pm, the temperature in the trailer peaks at 38.5 Celsius.
  • Between 10pm and 10.30pm the atmosphere is estimated to have reached toxic levels, killing all 39 victims.
  • October 23: At 12.18am, the Clementine docks at Purfleet.
  • At 1.07am, Robinson collects the trailer, some 12 hours after it was sealed. He is instructed by Hughes via Snapchat to ‘give them air quickly don’t let them out’.
  • Robinson drives out of Purfleet, stops and opens the doors at the back. He stands for 90 seconds before getting back in the cab.
  • From 1.15 am, Robinson drives around for seven minutes before returning to the same location on Eastern Avenue. He opens the rear doors again, calls Hughes for one minutes and 42 seconds and takes a minute-long call from Nica.
  • Over 15 minutes, there is a flurry of telephone contact between Hughes, Robinson, Kennedy and Nica, who leaves the area of Collingwood Farm.
  • At 1.36am, Robinson telephones 999 and requests an ambulance.
  • At 1.50am, police arrived on the scene and find Robinson looking ‘calm’ by the trailer.
  • Later that morning, Kennedy tells a friend via text: ‘must have been 2 many and run out of air.’
  • Nica takes an evening flight from Luton to Romania.
  • October 24: Draghici flies to Bucharest, in Romania, and remains at large.
  • November 22: Kennedy is arrested after the lorry he is driving on the M40 in Oxfordshire is stopped.
  • February 7, 2020: Nica is extradited to the UK after being detained in Frankfurt under a European Arrest Warrant.
  • March 14: Calota is arrested on arrival at Birmingham airport from Romania.
  • April 8: Robinson pleads guilty at the Old Bailey to 39 counts of manslaughter.
  • June 23: Hughes is extradited from the Republic of Ireland to the UK and pleads guilty to the manslaughter in August.
  • July 22: Harrison is extradited to the UK having been detained at Dublin Port, Ireland, under European Arrest Warrant, on October 26 2019.
  • October 5: Nica and Harrison go on trial at the Old Bailey for manslaughter. Harrison, Calota and Kennedy are accused of being involved in a wider people-smuggling conspiracy, which Nica, Robinson, Hughes and two others have admitted.
  • December 21: they are convicted of manslaughter

‘But because of this things have massively changed.’

The officer said CCTV was not checked after Ms Andrews reported the migrant sighting, adding: ‘But what I do know is we responded really quickly. Officers attended the farm.

‘The number plates on Kennedy’s lorry do not activate ANPR so I think they’ve been adapted so they don’t activate ANPR so we were on the backfoot straight away.’

DCI Stoten said that the protocol of officials was previously to arrest the migrants and treat the lorry drivers as ‘victims,’ waving them along.

But attitudes have shifted in the wake of the tragedy so that ‘the people in the back’ are viewed as witnesses while the drivers are now immediately treated as suspects, he said.

‘When this happened, if a lorry [was] stopped with migrants in the back the migrants get arrested and the lorry driver is almost treated as the victim.

‘Whereas with people like Robinson he was a lorry driver just coming into the criminality and so we can see a much larger footprint financially for him.

‘He hasn’t had any money because he’s not been brought up and hasn’t learnt his trade.

‘We can see about £100,000 going through his accounts.

‘They all had their eyes wide open to what they were involved in and they all gained a huge amount of money from this and you can see this from Robinson’s house and his salon. Huge amount of money.

‘His partner’s got a salon that has undergone a significant amount of change, upgrade, and he lives in a lovely house.

‘Hughes’ family history is in the haulage industry. His dad runs a haulage company and him and his brother run separate haulage companies.

‘Between 60 and 80 people that we know were brought into the UK in October. You’re talking not far off £1million [made by Hughes] just for October.’

Ronan Hughes was stopped by French border officials a decade ago when he tried to cross the channel with illegal goods.

His people-smuggling trade is likely to have been operating for ‘many many years’ before the 2018 date listed on the official indictment, DCI Stoten said.

‘It’s difficult to say but we’ve seen these defendants on the outskirts of other investigations.

‘I think this has been going on for many, many years. They’re certainly very sophisticated but that has actually led to a lot of complacency, and complacency is what’s led to this happening.

‘It’s almost like they thought we’re always successful, so why not?

‘I don’t know if they lost sight of the fact that they were human beings or they didn’t care from the outset – these human beings were a commodity to them.

‘They and their lorry drivers have been stopped a number of times.

‘Ronan Hughes has been stopped for other commodities in the UK.

‘This is going back a decade. He’s been involved in very similar crimes for the last decade.’

Branding the killers ‘merciless’ DCI Stoten said: ‘Even with the convictions it’s not a cause for celebration.

‘The starting point for this was an utter tragedy that will stay with everyone who was involved and I think we’re just pleased to bring a sense of justice to the families, albeit they will never get over it.

‘None of them have shown remorse.

‘The early guilty pleas were purely because of the amount of evidence against them – no other reason.

‘Merciless is the word I would use.’

Van driver Calota was the first to appear in the dock this morning, speaking only to confirm his name as his legal team argued he had been ‘misled’ by Nica.

Abdul Iqbal QC, defending, said Calota had played an ‘unsophisticated’ role in comparison to the kingpins.

Mr Iqbal said the 38-year-old had no previous convictions and was recruited at ‘short notice’ to drive a load of non-EU citizens from Essex to Dulwich in south London on October 18.

The smugglers would typically transport the migrants from the English border to a drop-off on a remote farm in Essex where Nica and his fleet of drivers would take them to the capital.

‘[Calota] has two criminal cautions 2011 and 2015 when he acted dishonestly in a supermarket when he told the jury his work was sporadic and he was trying to make some money in order to survive,’ the barrister said.

‘Calota was recruited by Nica at relatively short notice on October 17 when they needed a driver for 18 October.

‘At least at that stage of recruitment Nica was misleading Calota about the car he would be transporting.

‘One thing Nica did accept is that he had misled Calota at least initially.

‘This was a single isolated offence.

‘The arrangement of insurance in relation to the white van that he drove at Nica’s instructions were given by Nica to him.’

During the trial Calota claimed he had been unable to hear the load of people in the back because wearing earphones and listening to the radio on the hour-long trip.

The jury rejected the account and convicted him of his involvement in the conspiracy last month.

Harrison, from Mayobridge, County Down, denied but was convicted of 39 counts of manslaughter and conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

Nica, of Mimosa Close, Langdon Hills, Basildon, Essex, denied but was convicted of 39 counts of manslaughter. He had admitted one of conspiring to assist unlawful immigration.

Kennedy, of Corkley Road, Keady, County Armagh, Northern Ireland, and Calota, of Cossington Road, Birmingham, each denied but were convicted of conspiring to assist unlawful immigration between 1 May 2018 and 24 October 2019.

Hughes, from Leitrim, Silverstream, Tyholland, Co Monaghan, admitted manslaughter in respect of the 39 deaths and conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

Robinson, from Craigavon, County Armagh, admitted manslaughter and conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and acquiring criminal property.

The sentencing continues.

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