Haulage boss accused of being part of people-smuggling ring tried to stop his mother 'gossiping' after 39 migrants died, court hears

Wednesday 22 November 2023

A haulage boss accused of being part of a people-smuggling ring linked to the deaths of 39 migrants tried to stop his mother “gossiping” after news of the tragedy broke, a court has heard.

Caolan Gormley, 26, denied involvement in an unlawful immigration plot with his former boss Ronan Hughes and one of his own truck drivers, Christopher Kennedy.

Gormley had worked for Hughes after he got his licence at the age of 19 and had been friends with Kennedy since college, the Old Bailey was told.

Giving evidence on Tuesday, Gormley told jurors that he thought they were engaged in smuggling alcohol rather than humans.

He told of his “shock” and “total disbelief” when 39 Vietnamese men, women and children were found dead in one of Hughes’s vehicles in Essex early on October 23 2019.

He said he saw the breaking news on social media then someone sent him a photograph of the truck and trailer on WhatsApp which he sent on to Kennedy.

The defendant 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.

Gormley 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 on October 23, Gormley received 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).”

Asked to explain the message, Gormley said: “My mother works in a doctors’ surgery and is a bit of a gossip, and I didn’t want her gossiping. Perhaps there would be repercussions for her.”

Defence barrister Stephan Alfred asked: “You thought it would be unsafe for her bandying names about?”

Gormley replied: “I mean talking about that in general, you wouldn’t want people going around talking about it.”

He added that he never heard anything bad about anyone in the Hughes family until the migrant deaths.

Mr Alfred suggested the tragedy had sent a “shockwave through the industry”.

Gormley said there was “total disbelief this had happened”, adding: “I was just shocked, to be honest.”

On the evening of October 23, Gormley said he dumped the burner phone he had used to communicate with Hughes.

He said: “I didn’t want any connection between me and Ronan Hughes. I was in the services on the Scottish-English border on the job around 10-11pm. I just disposed of it in the bin.”

Gormley was asked why he had 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 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.

“Me and him and Christopher Kennedy were conspiring with alcohol but I wasn’t conspiring with immigrants. That was the exact reason why.”

Gormley told jurors that he had agreed with Hughes to provide legitimate documents that could be doctored for illicit consignments of alcohol from Europe, and that Kennedy had collected some of it.

The prosecution allege he was involved with three trips on October 11, 14 and 18 2019, and that they were all to do with smuggling people and not alcohol.

Gormley was asked about a run which was scuppered on October 14 when Kennedy’s truck was found to contain migrants at the French border.

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.”

Kennedy told him there were five or six migrants found on board when he was stopped by French officials, the defendant said.

The prosecution allege that some migrants from that failed trip on October 14 were believed to have died days later in the fatal run overnight on October 22-23.

A consignment of biscuits from Belgium was ruined during the October 18 run, the court heard.

Gormley said: “Kennedy called me up and told me the biscuits had been rejected. I just presumed damage.”

Mr Alfred asked: “Were you in any way involved in an agreement to facilitate the entry of migrants to this country?

Gormley replied: “No, not at all.”

Jurors have been told that a number of individuals have already been convicted of their part in the people-smuggling operation.

Hughes and Romanian Gheorghe Nica were said to have been in charge of a network of drivers “willing and able” to take lorry loads of migrants to the UK.

Gormley, of Co Tyrone, denies a single charge of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration. The trial continues.

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