A Northern Ireland lorry driver has pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of 39 people who were found dead in the back of a refrigerated truck in Essex.

The bodies of the Vietnamese nationals were discovered by emergency services at an industrial estate in Grays shortly after the lorry arrived on a ferry from Zeebrugge in Belgium in the early hours of 23 October last.

Among the men, women and children were 10 teenagers, two of them 15-year-old boys.

Five men charged following an investigation by Essex Police appeared for a virtual hearing at the Old Bailey in London before Mr Justice Sweeney.

Maurice Robinson, 25, of Craigavon, had previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and acquiring criminal property.

During the hearing today, the truck driver also admitted 39 counts of manslaughter on or before 24 October last year.

He denied a further charge of transferring criminal property.

Robinson appeared in court via video link alongside four other co-defendants.

British Romanian Gheorghe Nica, 43, of Mimosa Close in Langdon Hills, denied 39 counts of manslaughter.
He also denied one count of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration between 1 May 2018 and 24 October 2019.

Romanian national Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga, 27, of Hobart Road in Tilbury, denied a charge of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

Christopher Kennedy, 23, of Corkley Road in Darkley, Co Armagh, has previously denied conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

Valentin Calota, 37, of Cossington Road in Birmingham, was not asked to enter a plea to the charge of conspiring to assist unlawful immigration.

Prosecutor William Emlyn Jones QC said a human trafficking conspiracy charge was being dropped in relation to Kennedy and Robinson.

He asked for three weeks to decide whether to proceed with a trial against Robinson on the outstanding charge he faced.

The other defendants face a trial at the Old Bailey lasting up to eight weeks from 5 October.

The hearing was conducted virtually with most lawyers and court reporters attending by Skype.