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Officer recounts grim discovery of bodies of 39 migrants in lorry trailer

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

A police officer has described how he found the tightly packed, half-naked bodies of 39 migrants in the back of a lorry trailer.

Pc Jack Emerson was among the first at the scene in Essex after lorry driver Maurice Robinson dialled 999 early on October 23 last year.

Robinson, 26, had picked up the trailer from Purfleet docks after it was transported from Zeebrugge in Belgium, the Old Bailey has heard.

He opened the doors to the trailer minutes after leaving Purfleet but drove around and spoke to haulage boss Ronan Hughes and alleged organiser Gheorghe Nica by phone before alerting emergency services, jurors were told.

When police arrived on the scene at 1.50am, Robinson was “just standing there” and appeared calm, according to Pc Emerson.

The court was shown CCTV of marked police cars arriving in Eastern Avenue, Thurrock, where Robinson’s lorry was parked with the rear trailer door open.

Describing the scene, Pc Emerson said: “I could see one of the trailer doors was already open and I could visibly see numerous half-naked bodies in the back of the trailer, lying on the trailer floor motionless.

“I approached the door of the trailer to further inspect the bodies and it became apparent as I got closer that the entire trailer was full of bodies, and the individuals appeared to be half-naked. Most of them were wearing clothes on their lower half but they all appeared to not be wearing any clothing on their upper half.

“All of the bodies appeared intact and it was in my opinion that they had not been there for a very long period of time as there was not any visible sign of decomposure.

“There was however a strange smell coming from the trailer that smelt like chemicals.

“There was also smoke condensation coming from the rear of the trailer which suggested to me that the trailer was refrigerated.”

The officer said in a statement read to the court that the driver was arrested on suspicion of murder after a colleague called to “get him in cuffs”.

Another officer radioed control saying there was “potentially 40 people deceased”.

Pc Emerson said he got inside the trailer to search for any signs of life, checking pulses and for breathing.

Bodies found in lorry container
Maurice Robinson stands by the trailer doors after stopping the lorry on Eastern Avenue (Essex Police/PA)

He said the bodies were “closely packed” together, mainly lying on their backs.

“I immediately started scanning the trailer to look for signs of life but there was not. All bodies appeared completely motionless.

“Due to how packed together the bodies were in the trailer it was not possible to check every body so I made an attempt to check the bodies I could reach.”

He said some of them appeared to be “frothing from the mouth” and some were warm.

Jurors have heard that Robinson, 26, and Hughes, 41, have admitted manslaughter of the migrants.

Lorry driver Eamonn Harrison, 23, of Co Down, who dropped the trailer off at Zeebrugge, has denied 39 counts of manslaughter along with Nica, 43, of Basildon.

Harrison, another lorry driver, Christopher Kennedy, 24, of Co Armagh, and Valentin Calota, 37, of Birmingham, have denied being part of a wider people-smuggling conspiracy, which Nica has admitted to.

Jurors heard that the Vietnamese nationals, aged 15 to 44, were pronounced dead at 2.40am on October 23 last year.

Later that morning, Kennedy exchanged a series of texts with a contact about the incident, the court heard.

Bodies found in lorry container
Screengrab from body-worn video showing police arriving at the scene in Eastern Avenue, Purfleet, Essex (Essex Police/PA)

The friend asked: “Who’s is the BG yoke got in Essex with the bodies?”

Kennedy named Ronan Hughes, adding: “Some mess.”

Asked what happened, he replied: “Dunno must have been 2 meany and run out of air (sic).”

The friend wrote: “End of the road for him and drive.”

Kennedy added: “He never see day light again.”

Earlier, the court was told the tragic migrants would have been cut off from the world as soon as the trailer doors were closed.

Some of them repeatedly attempted to make phone calls, with one dialling the emergency number for Vietnamese police, without success as they struggled to breathe during their journey from Zeebrugge, jurors have heard.

Julian Skeith, who analysed cell site data, told jurors that he found the victims’ mobiles could not connect to the network when the trailer doors were shut.

Prosecutor Jonathan Polnay said: “We know one of the handsets in the trailer belonging to one of the deceased was able to connect to the network in Belgium because we have data from the network company.”

Bodies found in lorry container
A snapchat message from Ronan Hughes to Maurice Robinson, which was shown to jurors at the Old Bailey (Essex Police/PA)

Asked to account for that, Mr Skeith said: “I would not say it’s impossible to make a call from the rear of the trailer.

“All I can report to you, when I carried out my survey, I could not.”

The witness also looked at mobile phones attributed to members of the alleged people-smuggling ring.

The prosecution has alleged there were two successful people-smuggling runs on October 11 and 18 last year, before the trip that ended in tragedy on October 23.

Cell site data suggested some of the alleged plotters were in the area of Orsett, Essex, at the time migrants were allegedly transferred from trailers for onward transportation to south-east London on the earlier occasions.

Nica’s phone was placed at the same location around the time Robinson discovered the migrants had died, the court heard.