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People smuggler linked to 39 deaths jailed for seven years


By PA News

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The final member of a people-smuggling gang linked to the deaths of 39 men, women and children in Essex has been jailed for seven years.

Haulage boss Caolan Gormley, 26, from Co Tyrone, was driven by “greed” when he plotted to bring migrants into the UK from mainland Europe three times in October 2019, the Old Bailey heard.

One of the trips was scuppered by French border officials, with some migrants from that trip believed to have died days later in a fatal run overnight on October 22-23 2019.

Gormley had denied being involved, claiming he thought he was helping bring alcohol into the UK illegally.

CCTV image showing lorry driver Maurice Robinson, 26, leaving Purfleet port in Essex (Essex Police/PA)
CCTV image showing lorry driver Maurice Robinson, 26, leaving Purfleet port in Essex (Essex Police/PA)

On Monday, a jury deliberated for just over an hour to find Gormley guilty of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

His conviction brings the total number of people to be convicted over the plot to 11, five of whom were also convicted of the manslaughters.

On Thursday, Judge Richard Marks KC sentenced Gormley to seven years in prison.

The judge said the defendant had “succumbed to temptation and greed” when he got involved in the “extremely lucrative business” of smuggling migrants.

Referring to the tragedy of October 23, he said: “But for those deaths, I have no doubt whatsoever that this illegal importation of illegal immigrants would have continued, as would your involvement.”

He noted ringleader Ronan Hughes had twice tried to call Gormley shortly after the bodies were discovered in the back of a lorry container in the early hours of October 23 to let him know what had happened.

Judge Marks told Gormley: “You had built up a good business and were working hard and making good money, but when approached by the ringleader in all of this, Ronan Hughes, succumbed to temptation and greed.”

The judge said Gormley had claimed he was being paid up to £3,500 per load of migrants but the evidence showed they were paying up to £22,500 each.

He added that even though Gormley’s involvement was short-lived, he had been drawn into “a sophisticated and profitable conspiracy, which was well-planned and well-organised” for financial gain.

Previously, prosecutor Ben Holt told jurors the people smugglers exploited the victims’ desperation to get to the UK, charging more than £10,000 a head.

Irish haulier Ronan Hughes, from Co Armagh in Northern Ireland, admitted 39 counts of manslaughter (Essex Police/PA)
Irish haulier Ronan Hughes, from Co Armagh in Northern Ireland, admitted 39 counts of manslaughter (Essex Police/PA)

The migrants would be loaded into a container lorry on the continent and transported across the English Channel to be picked up for onward transfer in the UK.

Gormley was recruited by fellow haulier Hughes and deployed his driver Christopher Kennedy to help move the human cargo.

On the first trip, residents near Orsett in Essex saw migrants jumping out of the back of a lorry before being whisked away by vehicles to their destinations.

Mr Holt told jurors: “The other trip was thwarted by customs officials in France. Remarkably, the driver on that occasion – Kennedy – was effectively given a slap on the wrists and told to go on his way. The migrants were similarly allowed to go.

“Tragically, some of those migrants would end up in the lorry part of the 39 men, women and children who died during the night (of) October 22 and 23.”

On that occasion, another driver, Maurice Robinson, picked up a container at Purfleet docks and found all 39 Vietnamese people aged between 15 and 44 dead.

He opened the doors after being instructed by Hughes to “give them air quick” but not let the migrants out.

Snapchat message from Ronan Hughes to Maurice Robinson on October 23 (Essex Police/PA)
Snapchat message from Ronan Hughes to Maurice Robinson on October 23 (Essex Police/PA)

Following the discovery, Robinson called his boss Hughes before dialling 999.

Giving evidence in his trial, Gormley said he was taking a break at a truck stop in Sandbach, Cheshire, on his way to deliver racehorse bedding to Cambridge when he spoke to Hughes.

He said: “He called me the night before and I was returning the call. I remember when he answered he sounded different, panicked, making no sense at all. It was just mumbo jumbo. He was making zero sense.”

At 3.46pm, Gormley got a text from his mother in Co Tyrone asking if the truck in the news belonged to one of Hughes’s brothers.

He replied: “Don’t know and neither do u (sic).”

Gormley told jurors he was trying to stop his mother from “gossiping” because she works in a doctors’ surgery and thought there might be “repercussions”.

He described his “total disbelief this had happened”, adding: “I was just shocked, to be honest.”

The victims (Essex Police/PA)
The victims (Essex Police/PA)

Later the same day, Gormley dumped the burner phone he used to communicate with Hughes.

Gormley was asked why he denied “to the bitter end” being the owner of that phone when interviewed by police.

He said: “I lied about it because I didn’t want to confess (to) a crime I had committed in relation to alcohol smuggling.

“I had contacted Ronan Hughes on the phone. At that time the news had come out about what happened with the 39 dead and I didn’t want any affiliation with that.”

Gormley also told jurors he had no reason to question Kennedy’s explanation for being caught with migrants in his lorry on October 14.

He said: “Kennedy said he stopped at the supermarket to buy alcohol and cigarettes on his way to the crossing. At that time he was actually covering his tracks for what had happened.

“He just said they must have got in the trailer while he was in the shop. It’s a very hot spot for migrants in the Calais area. It’s very common. I had no reason not to believe his account.”

A consignment of biscuits from Belgium was ruined during the October 18 people-smuggling run, the court was told.

Following the sentencing, Russell Tyner, from the Crown Prosecution Service, said: “Caolan Gormley was involved in an unscrupulous network of organised criminals who profited from smuggling desperate people into the country.

“Not only did this criminal network breach UK border security, but in doing so they also risked the lives of those they transported with their utter disregard for safety. It is devastating that 39 vulnerable people have lost their lives as a result of their greed and recklessness.”

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