Essex lorry deaths: Some victims of tragedy foiled in previous smuggling attempt, court hears

A remote farm in the Essex countryside was used as the drop-off for illegal immigrants smuggled across the English Channel, an Old Bailey jury was told.

Witnesses watched the immigrants jump from the back of a lorry and get into a fleet of waiting cars which then drove them away to a safe house, the court heard.

The driver of the lorry that day was Christopher Kennedy, 23, from Northern Ireland, and allegedly part of a gang smuggling illegal immigrants into the UK, jurors were told.

Kennedy is one of four men on trial over the deaths of 39 Vietnamese men, women and children who were discovered suffocated in the back of another lorry trailer near Purfleet Docks two weeks later on 23 October 2019.

He denies a conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration, but was not there on the night the Vietnamese victims died.

On the second day of the trial, prosecutor Bill Emlyn Jones told jurors how members of a gang “successfully” smuggled a previous group of illegal immigrants into Britain on 11 October.

He said the immigrants, each of whom had paid the smugglers at least £10,000, had arrived by ferry in a lorry trailer shipped from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge.

Kennedy picked up the trailer early in the morning and drove it about seven miles from Purfleet to a farm near a trailer park and golf course.

The prosecutor said: “For no conceivable legitimate reason, Kennedy drove his lorry from the port to Collingwood Farm in Orsett, something of a backwater.”

A couple living at the farm watched what happened after the lorry had parked nearby, jurors were told.

“As they watched they saw the lorry doors open and what they thought were about 15 to 20 people jump out of the back of the lorry and to the waiting cars,” Mr Emlyn Jones said.

“And those cars, fully-laden with migrants, drove away at speed. No messing about. It was a quick turnaround. No-one was hanging around, for obvious reasons.”

He told the court the immigrants were driven south over the Dartford Crossing into Kent and then to south London, “no doubt to a safe house”.

The prosecutor said that four days later Kennedy was stopped in France as he drove a lorry towards the Channel Tunnel and 20 Vietnamese nationals were discovered hidden in his trailer.

They were taken away by border officials but Kennedy was allowed to drive on to the UK.

He said that at least two of the migrants held on 14 October were among the 39 who suffocated in the gang’s trailer a week later.

“These particular victims had secured the services of the organised criminal network to get them to the UK,” he said.

“Travel was provided for 14 October – but they were detected and they were foiled. So what happens? Well, obviously, they need a plan B, they try again. So the organisers arrange a replacement journey – which again involves the same network of people smugglers, drivers, lorries, and so on.”

Kennedy is one of four men in the dock for a trial that is expected to last at least six weeks.

The prosecutor said Eamonn Harrison, 23, from Northern Ireland, drove the trailer with illegal immigrants in it and dropped it off at Zeebrugge on 10 October.

It is alleged he was the driver on the same journey on 22 October on the night the 39 Vietnamese victims died.

He denies 39 manslaughter charges and a conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

Gheorge Nica, 43, from Basildon, Essex, denies the manslaughter charges, but has admitted conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

The prosecutor said Nica was there on the night and his role was to organise transport to pick up the migrants from the lorry and take them elsewhere.

So, too, does Valentin Calota, 37, from Birmingham.

Lorry driver Maurice Robinson, 25, from Northern Ireland, has admitted manslaughter, conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and acquiring criminal property.

Haulier Ronan Hughes, 40, from Ireland, has admitted manslaughter and conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

Gazmir Nuzi, 42, from North London and Alexandru Hanga have admitted conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

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