Essex lorry deaths: Co Armagh driver told to lift cigarettes not people, court hears

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Screengrab taken from CCTV footage showing Christopher Kennedy in his cab arriving at the port of Purfleet in Essex, England. Photo: PA Media
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By Emily Pennink, PA Old Bailey Correspondent

A lorry driver accused of being a member of a people-smuggling ring linked to the deaths of 39 migrants has told jurors he only agreed to move cigarettes “for a bit of extra cash”.

Christopher Kennedy (24), of Keady, Co Armagh, allegedly picked up two trailer-loads of people from Purfleet in Essex after they were transported from Zeebrugge in Belgium on October 11th and 18th last year.

On October 23rd last year, another driver, Maurice Robinson, collected a trailer and discovered 39 Vietnamese people had suffocated on the same route.

CCTV of Christopher Kennedy arriving at Purfleet Port to pick up the trailer on the morning of October 11th, 2019. Photo: Essex Police/PA

Giving evidence in his trial at the Old Bailey in London, Kennedy told how his boss Caolan Gormley, who he knew from Co Armagh, asked him to lift cigarettes.

He denied knowing that a trailer he took to be uploaded in Orsett, Essex, on October 11th last year contained people.

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Kennedy said he grew up on a farm, the oldest of four siblings, and became an HGV driver at the age of 19, despite three driving-related offences, dating back to the age of 13.

He was handed an eight-month ban after he was stopped on May 3rd, 2018, driving a lorry with the wrong number plate in Belfast.

On June 3rd, 2019, Mr Gormley gave him a job as an HGV driver for £550 (€620) a week.

Kennedy told jurors about typical jobs transporting chickens and milk around England and doing Amazon delivery work.

In early October last year, the defendant said Mr Gormley told him to get a cheap phone “for picking up a load of cigarettes”.

Kennedy said: “He was talking to me on the phone asking would I be interested in a bit of extra cash.

“I asked him what doing and he said just lifting cigarettes. Obviously I agreed to do it for a bit of extra cash.”

He told jurors he was offered £600 a time.

CCTV footage from Orsett Golf Club, issued by Essex Police, of a lorry driven by Christopher Kennedy, on the morning of October 11th, 2019. Photo: Essex Police/PA

James Scobie QC, defending, asked: “Were you ever paid for any illegal load?”

Kennedy said: “No.”

The lawyer said: “Did he tell you where these loads were coming from?”

The defendant said: “No, he didn’t say.

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“I thought they were just evading duty, being smuggled in.”

On October 11th last year, Kennedy said Mr Gormley told him to go to Orsett after he picked up the trailer in Purfleet using codes he was given.

Mr Scobie said: “Did you know what was to happen when you get there?”

Kennedy said: “No. I was told go there and stop and wait and that was it.”

He added that he was instructed to wait in his cab and someone would come and unload.

“I was told not to look in the trailer. Just cigarettes and that was it,” he said.

Jurors were shown CCTV footage of Kennedy’s lorry coming and going from Orsett, along with a number of vehicles.

Mr Scobie said: “We now know there was a number of people got into those vehicles. Did you see that at any stage?”

Kennedy said: “No, never.”

The defendant said the name of haulier boss Ronan Hughes only came up on October 11th.

Mr Scobie asked: “What did you understand was his role in these illegal goings on?”

Kennedy said: “It was his trailer, his load.”

Kennedy, Eamonn Harrison (23), of Co Down, and Valentin Calota (37), of Birmingham, have denied being involved in a people-smuggling plot.

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Harrison, and Gheorghe Nica (43), of Basildon, Essex, deny 39 counts of manslaughter, which Hughes (41), of Co Armagh, and Robinson (26), of Craigavon, Co Armagh, have admitted.

The court has heard Mr Gormley was arrested but is not a defendant in the case.

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