Bail refused for alleged 'ringleader' of group that trafficked 39 migrants found dead in lorry

Ronan Hughes is alleged to have "organised, paid for the travel and controlled the drivers who collected the migrants".
Bail refused for alleged 'ringleader' of group that trafficked 39 migrants found dead in lorry
Ronan Hughes. Photo: Essex Police/PA Wire

A Monaghan haulier alleged to be "the ringleader" and "chief organiser" of an organised crime group who trafficked 39 migrants found dead in a lorry container in Essex last year has been refused bail by the High Court pending an extradition hearing.

The deaths of the migrants hidden in the refrigerated trailer, inside which police found bloody handprints, was a "tragedy which rightly attracted public revulsion, outrage and anger", Mr Justice Paul Burns said today.

The court was told at yesterday's bail hearing that Ronan Hughes is alleged to have "organised, paid for the travel and controlled the drivers who collected the migrants".

Gardaí gave evidence that Mr Hughes has "huge connections" and familiarity with various ports throughout Europe and had the "wherewithal to flee the jurisdiction at the appropriate time".

Evidence was also given at the 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 (CAB).

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

Returning judgment today, Mr Justice Burns said that the alleged details of the case made out against Mr Hughes indicate he had carried out a "controlling role" in the illegal operation, which had resulted in the tragic deaths of the Vietnamese nationals.

The High Court judge said that a person awaiting trial has a presumption of entitlement to bail unless the prosecution fails to satisfy the court to the standard of proof required.

Furthermore, the State's objections must be satisfied by cogent evidence, he said.

The prosecution do not have to prove Mr Hughes will abscond as a matter of certainty but rather they must satisfy the court that the risk of him absconding is not a possible risk but a probable one, he explained.

The judge said the deaths of the 39 migrants was a tragedy which rightly attracted public revulsion, outrage and anger.

However, the seriousness of the offences cannot automatically disentitle a person to bail, he added.

Referring to Mr Hughes, Mr Justice Burns said that undoubtedly he faced extremely serious charges and he could expect to receive a very significant custodial sentence if he is convicted of the offences.

The maximum sentence for manslaughter in the UK is life imprisonment, he indicated.

"It's common sense that the greater the potential sentence, the greater the incentive to abscond," he said.

The case against Mr Hughes appears to be "a strong one", said the judge, albeit that it has not yet been subject to challenge through a trial.

The judge noted that the Minister for Justice had placed emphasis on the fact that Mr Hughes operates an international haulage business with extensive contacts abroad, has a detailed knowledge of ports, a history of smuggling and access to extensive funds.

Counsel for the respondent had relied on the fact that he had not gone into hiding prior to his arrest, his assets were frozen, he had significant ties in this jurisdiction, had no history of taking bench warrants and previously stood trial when he was prosecuted in the UK, he said.

However, Mr Justice Burns emphasised that Mr Hughes has significant ties outside the jurisdiction, operates an international haulage business for many years, travels extensively and has a business registered in Bulgaria.

The judge said it was difficult to disagree with Detective Sergeant Jim Kirwan's evidence that Mr Hughes would have knowledge to flee through a port without the law knowing and pointed to the fact that the ports were still open despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

He took into account that Mr Hughes has access to considerable funds and said he may still do so as the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) investigation is ongoing.

He uses a Northern Ireland driving licence and did not give any convincing explanation for this, he said.

Mr Hughes had not sought to abscond the jurisdiction since the date of the alleged offences and his recent arrest and this must stand to his credit, observed the judge.

In summary, Mr Justice Burns said there was a risk of absconding in every case, which runs from very low to very high.

An aerial photo of the lorry container in Essex.
An aerial photo of the lorry container in Essex.

He said he was satisfied that the prosecution had met the burden of proof required. Mr Hughes was a probable flight risk if bail was granted and there was a very serious risk of him absconding, he said.

Unfortunately, there were no conditions that could allay the court's concerns, he said.

Mr Justice Burns said he noted Mr Hughes' evidence that he would abide by the terms and conditions set by the court but he said the unfortunate reality was that every person granted bail gives this certainty and some do abscond.

He described Mr Hughes' evidence as unconvincing and lacking in credibility and in particular he noted Mr Hughes' lack of knowledge concerning his business affairs, the previous movement of vehicles from his yard at Tyholland on October 24, 2019 and the fact his driver's licence is registered to an address in Northern Ireland.

"Even if he had not given evidence I would have refused bail in this matter," he said.

Mr Justice Burns remanded Mr Hughes in custody to May 15, when the full hearing of his extradition to the UK will take place.

The haulier was joined by video-link from Cloverhill Prison today and wore a face mask for the short hearing.

He is the second man from Northern Ireland to be arrested here on a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) as part of the Essex police investigation.

Mr Hughes, who owns a haulage firm, was arrested on the evening of April 20 at his home in Co Monaghan following the endorsement of a 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.

Bail hearing

At yesterday's bail hearing, Detective Sergeant Jim Kirwan of the Garda Extradition Unit told counsel for the State Ronan Kennedy SC that gardaí were strongly objecting to bail due to the seriousness of the charges and there were no conditions upon which bail could be granted that would allay concerns.

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 and 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 was 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 had "a serious case to answer" in the UK and it was also alleged that he was 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 explained, adding that "very large sums" of money were involved in the business.

Det Sgt Kirwan said Mr Hughes faced a life sentence in prison if convicted of the offences and he had 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.

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 in 2009, he said.

He described Mr Hughes as the alleged "ringleader", who had allegedly made a substantial amount of money from this illegal activity.

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 pointed out that €200,000 had been frozen in 33 bank accounts linked to the respondent and his family.

Lorry driver Maurice Robinson
Lorry driver Maurice Robinson

He owns a time-share in a villa in Florida and has an address in Armagh, the court heard.

Det Sgt Kirwan said Mr Hughes has "huge connections" throughout Europe, has many 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 wherewithal 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 CAB.

Det Sgt Kirwan indicated that not all vehicles associated with Mr Hughes had been located by CAB and it was believed that vehicles of value 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.

Furthermore, 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 Hughes gave evidence yesterday via video-link.

He told Mr Kennedy that he had told his solicitor to make contact with gardaí 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".

A photo of the scene after 39 bodies were found in a container in the UK.
A photo of the scene after 39 bodies were found in a container in the UK.

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 his home in 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” and the migrants died from a lack of oxygen between 8pm and 10pm after they had entered UK territorial waters.

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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