Prosecutors today showed jurors what they claimed was footage of a people-smuggling gang trafficking migrants into the UK two weeks before 39 Vietnamese victims suffocated to death in a lorry on the same route.
Gheorghe Nica and Eamonn Harrison are accused of the manslaughter of the group, who died in a trailer transported from Zeebrugge in Belgium to Purfleet, Essex, on October 23 last year.
Along with Christopher Kennedy and Valentin Calota, they were allegedly part of a wider people-smuggling operation behind two earlier successful runs on October 11 and October 18 last year.
Jurors at the Old Bailey today watched CCTV footage from Orsett Golf Club on October 11, which allegedly captured Kennedy’s red lorry in a convoy of dark cars, led by suspect Marius Draghici, who remains at large, with Nica, Alexandru Hanga and Gazmir Nuzi following behind.
The court was told that Nica, an alleged key organiser, had sent a message to Hanga on WhatsApp beforehand to check he was bringing his large Audi ‘funeral car’ with him that morning.
Local residents Stewart Cox and Marie Andrews witnessed the alleged transfer of up to 20 people from the lorry to the waiting cars and dialled 999 to raise the alarm, jurors heard.
CCTV footage from Orsett Golf Club on October 11 allegedly captured Kennedy’s red lorry in a convoy of dark cars, led by suspect Marius Draghici, who remains at large, with Nica, Alexandru Hanga and Gazmir Nuzi following behind
The footage also shows Kennedy arriving at Purfleet Port to pick up the trailer on October 11
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
The 39 Vietnamese victims of the tragedy
Dinh Dinh Binh, a 15-year-old boy from Hai Phong
Nguyen Minh Quang, a 20-year-old man from Nghe An
Nguyen Huy Phong, 35-year-old man from Ha Tin
Le Van Ha, a 30-year-old man from Nghe An
Nguyen Van Hiep, a 24-year-old man from Nghe An
Bui Phan Thang, a 37-year-old man from Ha Tinh
Nguyen Van Hung, a 33-year-old man from Nghe An
Nguyen Huy Hung, a 15-year-old boy from Ha Tin
Nguyen Tien Dung, a 33-year-old man from Quang Binh
Pham Thi Tra My, a 26-year-old woman from Ha Tinh
Tran Khanh Tho, an 18-year-old man from Ha Tinh
Nguyen Van Nhan, a 33-year-old man from Ha Tinh 13
Vo Ngoc Nam, a 28-year-old man from Nghe An
Vo Van Linh, a 25-year-old man from Ha Tinh
Nguyen Ba Vu Hung, a 34-year-old man from Thua Tien Hue
Vo Nhan Du, a 19-year-old man from Ha Tinh
Tran Hai Loc, a 35-year-old man from Nghe An
Tran Manh Hung, a 37-year-old man from Ha Tinh
Nguyen Thi Van, a 35-year-old woman from Nghe An
Bui Thi Nhung, a 19-year-old woman from Nghe An
Hoang Van Tiep, an 18-year-old man from Nghe An
Tran Thi Ngoc, a 19-year-old woman from Nghe An
Phan Thi Thanh, a 41-year-old woman from Hai Phong 24
Tran Thi Tho, a 21-year-old woman from Nghe An
Duong Minh Tuan, a 27-year-old man from Quang Binh
Pham Thi Ngoc Oanh, a 28-year-old woman from Nghe An
Tran Thi Mai Nhung, an 18-year-old woman from Nghe An
Le Trong Thanh a 44-year-old man from Dien Chau
Nguyen Ngoc Ha, a 32-year-old man from Quang Binh
Hoang Van Hoi, a 24-year-old man from Nghe An
Tran Ngoc Hieu, a 17-year-old boy from Hai Duong
Cao Tien Dung, a 37-year-old man from Nghe An
Dinh Dinh Thai Quyen, an 18-year-old man from Hai Phong
Dong Huu Tuyen, a 22-year-old man from Nghe An
Nguyen Dinh Luong, a 20-year-old man from Ha Tinh
Cao Huy Thanh, a 37-year-old man from Nghe An
Nguyen Trong Thai, a 26-year-old man from Nghe An
Nguyen Tho Tuan, a 25-year-old man from Nghe An
Nguyen Dinh Tu, a 26-year-old man from Nghe An
Giving evidence from behind a screen, Mr Cox said he was ‘shocked’ at what he saw as he left for work and called for Ms Andrews to ring the emergency services.
He said a red and white lorry had pulled up with four Mercedes vehicles all facing the same way.
He told jurors: ‘I noticed there was a lorry out there, which was a very strange time in the morning to be parked out there.
‘As I looked I was shocked to see people jumping out the lorry.
‘I started to panic, a bit shocked to see what I could see. I ran to Marie and said ‘call the police, it ain’t right’.
‘I just see people getting out the back of the lorry with rucksacks. They was running towards the cars to get in the cars.’
He said there were between 10 to 20 people, one a man aged around 30 with black hair and a rucksack.
He said it was very difficult to describe what they looked like, suggesting they might have been Eastern European.
After the cars left, the lorry pulled forward and then reversed ‘sharply’, he said.
‘The lorry was in a real hurry to get away. I could see he was panicking.’
The witness said he wanted to take a picture but panicked and saw the number plate on the lorry was covered up.
On hearing of the deaths of 39 people on October 23, Ms Andrews contacted the police again to remind them of the report she had made on October 11, the court heard.
Mr Cox also told jurors he had contacted police on October 4 about another alleged incident involving one of the Mercedes cars he saw on October 11.
On that occasion he allegedly saw two Eastern Europeans arguing about ‘import export’.
The trial resumed today, three days after being halted on Monday when police intelligence officer Chris Couves turned pale and had to leave the witness box in the middle of his evidence to take a coronavirus test.
Jurors were told on their return by Mr Justice Sweeney that Mr Couves’ co-analyst, Catherine Taylor, was able to replace him.
Ms Taylor took the stand where she will take jurors through GPS and cellsite data tracking Harrison’s journey through France and Belgium on October 10.
On this occasion, he allegedly arranged a rendezvous at Chemin Noord-Straete in France, where he picked up 15-20 migrants and dropped them off at Zeebrugge.
They later sailed to Purfleet, Essex, where they were picked up by Kennedy, matching the route that the 39 migrants took a fortnight later when the journey went ‘dreadfully wrong,’ the court heard.
There had been ‘enough oxygen’ and ‘fewer people’ in the trailer during that trip – preventing temperatures from reaching the ‘unbearable’ highs they did on 23 October.
Prosecutor Bill Emlyn Jones has asked jurors to consider whether heat in the container soared to 38.5C on the fatal journey because the smugglers got ‘greedy’ and tried to do two loads in one.
One of the Vietnamese migrants who was successfully ferried over on the 10 October trip will later give evidence in the trial anonymously, jurors heard.
Migrants were routinely taken to Collingwood Farm, near Orsett, from the port of Purfleet where they were collected by Nica and ferried down to Dulwich, southeast London, prosecutors claim.
Jurors were played footage of a convoy of cars driven by Nica along with his alleged associates Hanga, Draghici and Nuzi.
The ring conspired with haulier boss Ronan Hughes, 40, who has admitted the 39 counts of manslaughter which Harrison and Nica deny, it was said.
Police and forensic officers at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex, on October 23 last year after 39 bodies of Vietnamese migrants were found inside the lorry
Pham Thi Tra My, pictured left and right, was one of the victims of the tragedy in Essex last year
Nguyen Dinh Luong, pictured left, and Nguyen Huy Hung, pictured right, were among the victims
Intelligence analyst Ms Taylor said Hughes had sent a text to Caolan Gormley – who allegedly employed Kennedy – on the 11 October trip, reading: ‘Well lad that trailer will be with you in the morning.
‘Still OK to collect?’
Within two seconds Gormley allegedly replied: ‘Yes that’s no problem bud’ before calling Kennedy.
Nica, 43, of Basildon, Essex, and Harrison, 23, deny the manslaughters of 39 Vietnamese people, aged between 15 and 44.
Harrison, of Mayobridge, Co Down, Northern Ireland, Kennedy, 24, of Co Armagh, Northern Ireland, and Calota, 37, of Birmingham, deny being part of the people-smuggling conspiracy, which Nica has admitted.
Jurors have heard that four others have admitted a role in the people-smuggling ring.
The trial continues.