Essex migrant deaths: Decision on bail application due for alleged 'ringleader' of trafficking gang

The court was told today that haulier Ronan Hughes is alleged to have "organised, paid for the travel and controlled the drivers who collected the migrants."
Essex migrant deaths: Decision on bail application due for alleged 'ringleader' of trafficking gang
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The High Court has heard that a Monaghan man is alleged to be "the ringleader" and "chief organiser" of an organised criminal group who trafficked 39 migrants found dead in a lorry container in Essex last year.

The court was told today that haulier Ronan Hughes is alleged to have "organised, paid for the travel and controlled the drivers who collected the migrants."

Evidence was heard at today's bail hearing that €200,000 had been frozen in 33 bank accounts linked to Mr Hughes and his family and that the accused had last year bought a 2019 BMW X5, valued at €108,000, which has since been seized by the Criminal Assets Bureau.

Mr Justice Paul Burns will deliver a decision tomorrow on whether the owner of the haulage firm will be granted bail ahead of his extradition hearing.

Mr Hughes, 40, of Leitrim, Silverstream, Tyholland, Co Monaghan is wanted by authorities in the UK to face 39 counts of manslaughter and one count of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

Mr Hughes was arrested on the evening of April 20 at his home in Co Monaghan following the endorsement of a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) issued by the police in Essex.

Mr Hughes and his younger brother Christopher, 34, have been wanted in connection with the deaths since the beginning of the investigation, with Essex Police making an extraordinary live appeal last November for the siblings to hand themselves in. Their trucking firm is based in Tyholland, about 7km from the Armagh border.

The eight women and 31 men had arrived in England last October on a ferry from Zeebrugge in Belgium. The youngest of the victims were two boys aged 15.

The haulier was joined by video-link from Cloverhill Prison today (Wed) and wore a face mask for the two-hour hearing. He is the second man from Northern Ireland to be arrested here on a EAW as part of the Essex police investigation.

At today’s bail hearing, Detective Sergeant Jim Kirwan of the Garda Extradition Unit told counsel for the State Ronan Kennedy SC that gardai were strongly objecting to bail due to the seriousness of the charges.

Reading from the warrant, Det Sgt Kirwan said it is alleged that Mr Hughes had unlawfully killed 39 Vietnamese nationals who were found dead in the back of trailer in UK between October 22 and 24, 2019. It is alleged the migrants had been brought into the UK illegally by Mr Hughes and his co-conspirators. Vietnamese nationals require a visa to enter the UK and given the circumstances in which the victims were transported it followed that those involved were aware that they had no right to enter the UK, he said.

Mr Hughes, it is alleged, had also conspired with others to facilitate the illegal entry of people including the 39 deceased persons into the UK between May 1, 2018 and October 24, 2019. Migrants were allegedly smuggled into the UK from Belgium in commercial trailers owned or operated by Mr Hughes, said Det Sgt Kirwan. He said it was alleged that "Mr Hughes organised, paid for the travel and controlled the drivers who collected the migrants".

Continuing to read from the warrant, Det Sgt Kirwan said: "On October 15 2019 [Ronan] Hughes arranged for his driver Maurice Robinson to deliver trailer number GTR128D to Mr Eamon Harrison in France. On October 16, 2019 Hughes travelled to Essex.

"On October 17, 2019 Harrison collected cakes and biscuits in Belgium and drove to Dunkirk, France. There was no legitimate reason for him to have travelled to France. He then drove to Zeebruge where it travelled by sea to the UK. [A named man] collected the trailer and drove to Collingwood Farm. [A named man] and Hughes also travelled to the farm at the same time. After leaving the farm [a named man] and Hughes travelled together to an industrial site where attempts were made to disguise the fact that people had been in the trailer. When [a named man] delivered the load to the intended recipient it was rejected due to signs that people had been in the container. Later that day Hughes returned to a hotel in Essex where he met Robinson and [a named man]. [A named man] was seen to give Hughes a bag. Later that day Robinson took the trailer GTR128D to Purfleet where it travelled to Belgium and was collected by Harrison.

"On October 22, 2019 Harrison takes the trailer GTR128D to Dunkirk, France where a witness saw people entering the trailer. As on October 17 Harrison had no legitimate reason to travel to France. Before taking the trailer to Zeebruge Harrison makes two stops in Belgium. Temperatures within the trailer suggest that the doors were opened during these stops. The trailer travelled to Purfleet by sea.

"When booking the ferry Hughes falsely declared that the trailer as carrying a load of biscuits. On 22 October 2019 Robinson is waiting in Purfleet and is taken to Collingwood farm. Robinson then collects the trailer from the port in Purfleet. In order to enter the port he used a pin number provided to Hughes by the ferry company. Robinson drives a short distance before opening the rear doors and discovering the occupants. 39 Vietnamese men and women are dead. Robinson first telephones Hughes and the emergency services who arrive at 01.49 and declare that all 39 migrants are dead.

"The deceased died from lack of oxygen caused by being sealed within a container with insufficient air to sustain life. The ferry entered UK territorial waters at 19.43. An expert witness concludes that taking into account the temperature increase and phone usage by the victims, they all died between 20.00 and 22.00 hours," he concluded.

Det Sgt Kirwan said Mr Hughes is alleged to be the "chief organiser" of the organised criminal group involved in bringing illegal migrants into the UK. Essex police said this group was organised for the purposes of financial gain, he added.

Det Sgt Kirwan said Mr Hughes faces a life sentence in prison if convicted of the offences and he has the means and ability to flee at the appropriate time. He had been identified by Essex police as the organiser and there was extensive phone and CCTV evidence, he indicated.

He said Mr Hughes has previous convictions in this jurisdiction and the UK for road traffic offences and smuggling convictions. He said Mr Hughes was sentenced to 30 months in prison for evading almost €1 million worth of excise duty for smuggling five million cigarettes into the UK.

The witness testified that Mr Hughes was alleged to have previously visited Maurice Robinson at his home and paid him £25,000. Det Sgt Kirwan said this was what Mr Robinson had told police in relation to the conspiracy.

Det Sgt Kirwan said that very large sums of money are involved in this business and drivers are paid large sums of money to deliver people. He described Mr Hughes as the alleged "ringleader", who had allegedly made a substantial amount of money from this illegal activity.

He said it was believed that the respondent has access to quite a large number of vehicles and has "extensive business interests". Det Sgt Kirwan pointed out that €200,000 had been frozen in 33 bank accounts linked to Mr Hughes and his family. He owns a time-share in a villa in Florida and has an address in Armagh.

Det Sgt Kirwan said Mr Hughes has "huge connections" throughout Europe, has trailer units registered to him and his haulage business is registered in Bulgaria. "Given the nature of his work, he has great familiarity with various ports throughout Europe and how to exit and enter them and he has the whereabouts to flee the jurisdiction at the appropriate time," he indicated. The court also heard that he bought a 2019 BMW X5 valued at €108,000 last year, which is now in possession of the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB).

The witness also indicated that not all vehicles associated with Mr Hughes had been located by CAB and it was believed that vehicles were removed from his yard at Tyholland on October 24, 2019, when the bodies of the migrants were discovered. His family home in Monaghan is on an individual site adjacent to his father's house, finished to a very high standard and it was financed without a mortgage.

Det Sgt Kirwan said Mr Hughes had the ability to abscond and it was the belief that should the High Court grant bail and then order his surrender, he would not present himself to be handed over to the UK authorities.

Under cross-examination, Remy Farrell SC, for the respondent, put it to Det Sgt Kirwan that his client had not left the jurisdiction since he became the subject of the investigation despite having ample opportunity. In reply, Det Sgt Kirwan said that "the bar has been substantially raised" since he was called upon for questioning by police and there was now a "greater incentive" for Mr Hughes to flee the jurisdiction as he was now being sought to be charged.

Mr Farrell said the warrant had not described Mr Hughes as the chief organiser of this operation. "It says he is the organiser and the owner of this company," he replied.

Mr Hughes gave evidence today via video-link. He told Mr Kennedy that he had told his solicitor to make contact with gardai and the PSNI last October to let them know where he was living and that he was ready to cooperate with them through his legal team. He said he knew there was going to be a EAW for him.

The respondent told Mr Kennedy that he looks after his father, who is not well with a lung disease and is not fit to do anything for himself. He agreed that he would surrender his passport, observe a curfew and sign on at Monaghan Garda Station on a daily basis if granted bail.

Mr Hughes said he understood that Det Sgt Kirwan considered him a very significant flight risk and agreed that they were serious offences. He further agreed that he had declined to come forward as part of a public appeal by UK authorities to speak to police.

Mr Hughes said he had been involved in his haulage business since 2009 and he was aware it was a very substantial operation. He said he had travelled extensively as a driver and agreed he had got a Northern Ireland driving licence some years ago. He said only some of the €200,000 which had been frozen by CAB belonged to him. He said his business had turned over €500,000 or €600,000 in 2017 and denied he had a time-share in Florida. Mr Kennedy asked Mr Hughes if he was making a substantial profit from his business and he replied: "The haulage business isn’t very profitable".

Mr Justice Burns will deliver his decision on the bail application tomorrow morning at 10.30am.

Last week, Det Sgt Jim Kirwan told Mr Kennedy that he arrested Mr Hughes as part of a planned operation at 5.15pm on April 20 at Leitrim, Silverstream, Tyholland, Co Monaghan on foot of the warrant and cautioned him.

Eamon Ronald Harrison (22), of Mayobridge, Co Down has already appeared in court here and has been granted leave to appeal his pending extradition to the UK in May under the terms of the EAW. He is wanted to face 39 counts of manslaughter and conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

Last Friday, the Court of Appeal was told by Mr Kennedy that a charge of conspiracy to commit human trafficking under the UK's Modern Slavery Act had been withdrawn by UK authorities against Mr Harrison. The court heard that this would shorten the appeal hearing on May 7.

It is alleged that Mr Harrison delivered the trailer, in which the bodies of eight females and 31 males were found in an industrial park in Grays, Esssex on October 23 last, to a Belgian port before its onward journey to Britain. The cargo was recorded as “biscuits”.

Earlier this month Maurice Robinson (25), of Craigavon, Co Armagh, admitted 39 counts of manslaughter at the Old Bailey. He had previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and acquiring criminal property. He denied a further charge of transferring criminal property. He will be sentenced at a later date.

The High Court in Dublin has heard that the sealed refrigeration unit was not turned on and that the people inside died from oxygen starvation. Temperatures inside the unit rose to 38.5 degrees before it “steadily reduced”, and police discovered “bloody hand prints” inside.

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