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Driver in UK truck deaths charged with 39 manslaughter counts, conspiracy to traffic people

Image: Janelle Griffith

Janelle Griffith

Maurice Robinson, 25, of Northern Ireland, was arrested shortly after the grisly discovery of the bodies was made in southeastern England.

Image: Police officers drive away a lorry in which 39 dead bodies were discovered sparking a murder investigation at Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex

Police officers drive away a lorry in which 39 dead bodies were discovered sparking a murder investigation at Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex, on Oct. 23, 2019.Hannah McKay / ReutersOct. 26, 2019, 9:55 AM PDT / Updated Oct. 26, 2019, 11:32 AM PDTBy Janelle Griffith

U.K. police have charged a truck driver with 39 counts of manslaughter and conspiracy to traffic people in the 39 people found dead in a truck container in southeastern England.

Authorities announced the charges Saturday against Maurice Robinson, 25, of Northern Ireland, who was arrested shortly after the grisly discovery of the bodies was made in southeastern England early Wednesday. He is due to appear in court Monday.

In addition to manslaughter and trafficking, he also faces charges for conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and money laundering.

Authorities said earlier this week all of the 39 victims — 8 women and 31 men — were believed to be Chinese nationals, but at a news conference Saturday, authorities said they are not sure of their nationality.

Essex Police Detective Chief Inspector Martin Pasmore said that his officers had found “very, very few ID papers” among the bodies and appealed to anyone with information to come forward.

It is the largest mass fatality victim identification process in the history of Essex Police, authorities said.

“We don’t know exactly the nationality of our individuals,” Pasmore said. “But at the moment, I’m going to focus and engage as much as I possibly can within the Vietnamese community.”

Pasmore said he met Saturday morning with the Vietnamese ambassador to Britain amid reports that many of the victims are from that Asian country.

“We are getting a large amount of engagement from the Vietnamese population, from communities home and abroad,” Pasmore also said. “And I need to try and separate those.”

In addition to Robinson, three other people have also been arrested on suspicion of human trafficking in the case, British police said Friday. A 38-year-old man and 38-year-old woman from Warrington and a 48 year-old man from Northern Ireland, who were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to traffic people and manslaughter remain in custody.

U.K. authorities have been conducting a sprawling investigation into how the bodies came to be in a truck container southeastern England in what is one of the country’s worst human-smuggling cases.

Janelle Griffith

Maurice Robinson, 25, has been held for questioning since the grisly discovery of the bodies in a truck in Essex, England.

Catholics in Nghe An Province, Vietnam,  praying Saturday for the 39 people found dead early Wednesday in the back of a truck in Britain. Their nationalities were still being determined, but some of them may have been Vietnamese.
Catholics in Nghe An Province, Vietnam,  praying Saturday for the 39 people found dead early Wednesday in the back of a truck in Britain. Their nationalities were still being determined, but some of them may have been Vietnamese.Credit…Kham/Reuters

By Yonette Joseph and Ed O’Loughlin

  • Oct. 26, 2019Updated 5:20 p.m.

LONDON — A 25-year-old man was charged on Saturday with manslaughter and a trafficking conspiracy in connection with the deaths of 39 people whose bodies were found in a refrigerated truck in southeastern England, the Essex Police said.

The man, the truck’s driver, who was identified on Saturday as Maurice Robinson of Northern Ireland, also faces 39 counts of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and money laundering when he appears at Chelmsford Magistrates’ Court on Monday, the Essex Police said in a statement.

Mr. Robinson was originally arrested on suspicion of murder after the grisly discovery in Essex, England, this past week spurred an investigation that stretched beyond Britain’s borders to Belgium, China, Ireland and Vietnam. The case bears all the markings of a global trafficking operation gone tragically wrong.

The charges were announced on Saturday shortly after the police in Ireland said they had arrested another man from Northern Ireland at Dublin Port in connection with an unrelated offense. But local news outlets reported he was wanted for questioning in the investigation of the truck deaths.

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The man, another truck driver identified as Eamon Harrison, 23, of Mayobridge in County Down, Northern Ireland, was detained on a bench warrant on charges of assault and criminal damage in the Republic of Ireland, according to The Irish Times, which cited information from Detective Patrick Flood of the Garda National Immigration Bureau. Mr. Harrison appeared in Dublin District Court on Saturday to face charges.

He was arrested about 1:15 p.m. Saturday on a truck coming off an Irish ferry at Dublin Port, having spent the last three days in France and disposing of a cellphone before traveling to Ireland, according to The Irish Times’s court report.

A spokesman for the Essex Police would not confirm Mr. Harrison’s connection to the trafficking investigation, but the authorities said in a statement on Saturday night, “We are in liaison with the Garda police in relation to an arrest they have made today at Dublin Port.”

The Essex Police initially announced that the eight women and 31 men found dead in the truck container were Chinese citizens. But since then, community groups in Vietnam have said they believe some may have been from that country.

The police in Britain said the identification of the victims and verification of their nationalities would take some time, but the dearth of information has not stopped some Vietnamese from mourning victims they believe were once part of their community.

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The Rev. Anthony Dang Huu Nam, a Catholic priest in the remote town of Yen Thanh in Vietnam’s northern-central Nghe An Province, told the Reuters news agency that many residents feared that relatives who had left home to find better lives abroad may be among the dead.

“The whole district is covered in sorrow,” Father Nam was quoted as saying. Prayers for the dead could be heard over loudspeakers throughout the town on Saturday, Reuters reported.

The rights activist Hoa Nghiem has said that the family of one Vietnamese woman, Pham Thi Tra My, 26, feared she might have been in the trailer. Vietnam’s embassy in London also said it was working with the British authorities after receiving requests for help from some Vietnamese families in verifying whether their relatives were among the victims.

Even as Detective Chief Inspector Martin Pasmore told reporters on Saturday that the police could not definitively confirm the victims’ nationalities, the department said it was undertaking “the largest mass fatality victim identification process” in its history in order to put names to those found in the tractor-trailer.

All the bodies were moved from the truck at Tilbury Docks to Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford for autopsies, the police said.

A Vietnamese community group said it had been in contact with the British police to pass on 20 photographs that families had provided to help in the process. But the Essex Police did not immediately confirm having received the images.

Three other people have been detained in the investigation: a man and a woman from Warrington, England, both 38, who are also believed to be originally from the Republic of Ireland, along with a 48-year-old man from Northern Ireland, taken at London Stansted Airport. They were arrested this past week on suspicion of conspiracy to traffic people and manslaughter, and remain in custody.

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