999 call made about suspicious lorry two weeks before 39 deaths, court told
A member of the public dialled 999 to report an alleged people-smuggling drop a fortnight before the deaths of 39 migrants in Essex, a court has heard.
Gheorghe Nica and Eamonn Harrison are accused of the manslaughter of the group of Vietnamese people who suffocated in a trailer transported from Zeebrugge in Belgium to Purfleet in 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.
The Old Bailey heard how Harrison had transported a trailer-load of migrants to Zeebrugge on October 10 which was picked up by Kennedy on arrival at Purfleet at 7am the next morning.
CCTV footage from Orsett Golf Club 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.
Jurors were told 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.
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 dial 999.
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 and 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”.
Cross-examining, Aftab Jafferjee QC asked about activities around the area.
He asked: “Would it be fair to say there is all sort of things going on there at various times, day and night?
“Was it your understanding that not only is there a case of lots of people coming and going, there can be 20 to 30 vehicles a day.
“To use the vernacular – dodgy activity.”
The witness agreed.
Giving evidence, Ms Andrews said she was inside their mobile home in a dressing gown when she saw the red lorry and Mercedes cars blocking the lane on October 11.
She said: “I saw the legs of the people jumping out the back of the lorry running into the cars. To me it looked like 15 to 20 people.
“I remember seeing one with a rucksack. It all happened so quick and in my mind I cannot believe it’s happening here because it’s my father’s land. It’s wrong that it’s happening.
“I said to Stewart, ‘get the number plate of the lorry’ while I was on the phone to the police.”
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, including haulier Ronan Hughes and lorry driver Maurice Robinson.