Truck driver charged over 39 deaths
A driver has tonight been charged with manslaughter after 39 migrants were discovered dead in the back of his lorry.
Dad-to-be Maurice 'Mo' Robinson, 25, was quizzed for more than 72 hours by cops after he picked up the trailer from Purfleet, Essex, in the early hours of Wednesday morning, The Sun reports.
Just 20 minutes later, the grisly discovery of the bodies in the back of a deathtrap refrigerated lorry was made on an industrial estate in Grays at around 1.40am.
Essex Police tonight confirmed Robinson, from Northern Ireland, has been charged with 39 counts of manslaughter, conspiracy to traffic humans, conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and money laundering.
He was arrested shortly after the bodies of eight women and 31 men were found in the trailer attached to his Scania cab.
The 25-year-old will appear at Chelmsford Magistrates' Court on Monday.
Three other people have also been arrested in connection with the tragedy, including haulage boss Thomas Maher and wife Joanna Maher, both 38, from Warrington, Cheshire.
Robinson is said to have opened the container to get some paperwork and passed out when he discovered the victims dead after they reportedly froze to death.
A pal said: "When he opened the container up and saw all the dead bodies, he was absolutely horrified - as anyone would be - and called the ambulance service who in turn alerted the police.
"I heard the container was refrigerated - the temperature was -25 degrees and the bodies were frozen and had been dead for some time."
Cops swooped on three homes on Thursday in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, related to Robinson, who brands the lorry "The Polar Express" on social media.
Joanna allegedly owned the Scania truck, which was registered in the Bulgarian port of Varna in 2018, but claims she sold it last year.
The pair are being held on suspicion of conspiracy to traffic people and manslaughter remain in custody.
A 48-year-old man from Northern Ireland is also being quizzed on the same charges after being detained at Stansted Airport on Friday.
And earlier today another Northern Irishman, aged 23, was arrested at Dublin port.
However, while it was previously reported that the 23-year-old had been detained in relation to the probe into the lorry tragedy, Essex Police has told Sun Online that he is being held on offences "unconnected" with the 39 deaths.
The statement read: "We are in liaison with the Garda police in relation to an arrest they have made today at Dublin Port.
SNIFFER DOGS IN CHESHIRE
"At this point he is only being processed by the Garda in relation to unconnected offences to the Essex Police investigation."
Sniffer dogs were today scouring the £400,000 detached Warrington home of Thomas Maher and his wife following their arrest.
The pair have a second home in Spain but often travel to Bulgaria and Ireland, reports Mail Online.
According to the Mail, Mr Maher visited Bulgaria earlier this month to meet the man, named Ivan Jeliazkov, who registered the lorry there in 2017.
Mr Maher stayed at Mr Jeliazkov's home during the recent trip and the pair are good friends who have also met in Britain, the reports claims.
The Bulgarian businessman runs a haulage registration facilitator and handled the registration of the lorry for a fee reportedly believed to be around £400.
Local police said the truck left Varna the following day in 2017 and never returned.
Mr Jeliazkov told the Mail that he has spoken to Bulgarian investigators and says he knows nothing about the truck's recent activities.
He said: "I have cleared my name and Thomas and Joanna are 100 per cent innocent too."
REGISTERED IN BULGARIA
On his business relationship with the Mahers, he said: "I am an official representative of their company and the taxes are lower here to register a truck but that's no crime and there is nothing wrong in having foreign investment in Bulgaria."
He said the couple have had "nothing to do" with the lorry since they sold it last year.
Speaking from outside his house in Cheshire before he was detained, Mr Maher claimed the couple - who are originally from the Republic of Ireland - had sold the lorry cab 12 months ago.
He told reporters: "It's absolutely disgusting what has happened.
"We owned the cab and sold it on October 3 last year to a company in southern Ireland.
"I've made contact with the police and made them aware that I was the previous owner.
"Seeing the cab on TV wasn't nice and obviously we are not a part of that.
"We still have trucks and immigrants have always been a problem in Dover and Calais."
The distraught family of Pham Thi Tra My, 26, are now frantically scrambling for information after paying £30,000 to smuggle her to the UK.
She sent her family chilling messages saying she was "dying" and couldn't breathe as the doomed trailer was on its way to Essex from Belgium.
Other Vietnamese nationals - including Nguyen Dinh Luong and Bui Thi Nhung - are feared to be among the dead after their relatives reported them missing.
Detective Chief Inspector Martin Pasmore said the nationality of the victims is not yet known, but the focus is now on the Vietnamese community - although "there may be other nationalities involved".
He said there were "very, very few" identity documents recovered and that police will share fingerprints with authorities in Vietnam in a bid to identify the bodies.
Belgian police hunting the other driver who delivered the trailer to Zeebrugge - at 2.49pm on Tuesday - the port 30 minutes drive north of Brugge.
Bodies are being identified by their fingerprints at Broomfield Hospital, where post-mortem examinations are also taking place.
The horror has chilling echoes of a similar case in 2000, when 58 Chinese stowaways died in a lorry travelling by ferry from Belgium to Britain.
In both tragedies, the victims had come from Zeebrugge before arriving in Purfleet port in Essex.
It has been revealed the GPS tracker on the trailer was switched on at 3.06pm on October 15 after travelling from Dublin to Monaghan, near the border with Northern Ireland.
It then stopped at Warwickshire and Kent before crossing the Channel to Belgium, and making its way on to migrant hot spots Calais and Dunkirk.
From here, it went back to the UK via Belgium and then repeated the journey before the victims made the perilous 173-mile journey in the refrigerated container to Purfleet.
Robinson meanwhile was allegedly in the lorry's cab, which travelled from Holyhead on Saturday, and picked up the container at 12.30am on October 23.
Both lorry and trailer then left the port at 1.05am. Less than 35 minutes later ambulance and police made the grim discovery of the 39 bodies in the back.
Varna, where the lorry was registered, is notorious for cigarette and fuel smuggling and has known links to Irish Republican gangs.
Detectives from the National Crime Agency are now investigating whether an Irish people-smuggling gang with links to Bulgaria was behind the horror.
There are also fears the ruthless Chinese "Snakehead" gangs could have masterminded the smuggling plot.
Global Trailer Rentals Ltd (GTR) have confirmed to RTE News they own the container and that they leased it on October 15 from their yard in Co Monaghan for £238.22 a week.
Sources close to Irish police said the lorry's refrigeration unit - which could have plunged temperatures as low as -25C - was turned on, leaving those inside with "no chance of survival".
Even if the trailer was not chilled the victims may have suffered agonising deaths as oxygen slowly ran out.
The Mayor of Zeebrugge, Dirk De Fauw, insist the migrants were dead before they arrived at Zeebrugge, or they would have been detected by heat cameras.
He added: "If you end up in such a box with 39 people, you're going to die."
Cops are investigating whether they were passed between different gangs at borders in Central Asia and Europe before attempting the Channel crossing.
Anyone concerned about relatives following the incident can call a Casualty Bureau on 0800 056 0944 or 0207 158 0010 if ringing from outside the UK.