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Essex lorry deaths: Police try to identify 39 bodies as Co Armagh man Mo Robinson quizzed

Police forensics officers at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex, after 39 bodies were found inside a lorry on the industrial estate
Police forensics officers at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex, after 39 bodies were found inside a lorry on the industrial estate
Deputy Chief Constable Pippa Mills
Mo Robinson, who is being questioned by the police
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

Police have begun the grim process of trying to identify 39 bodies found in a lorry that had been driven by a man from Co Armagh.

Mo Robinson (25) from Laurelvale, near Portadown, was last night being questioned by police in England as they launched one of the UK's biggest murder inquiries.

He was quizzed on suspicion of murder after the bodies, including one teenager, were found in an industrial estate in Grays in Essex early yesterday.

There was no answer last night at the Co Armagh home of Mr Robinson's family.

Mr Robinson's partner's brother told Belfast Live they hadn't "heard from him" and "don't know what is going on".

It's believed the victims froze to death in the back of the refrigerated container, which has been linked to a Dublin-based company but registered in Northern Ireland.

It was reported last night that Mr Robinson may have alerted the authorities himself.

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Deputy Chief Constable Pippa Mills

Sources close to the investigation told The Telegraph that it is "very unlikely" that he knew about the plans to traffic people.

Suggestions that the victims had been trafficked through Ireland have been dismissed.

A spokesperson for Belfast Harbour said it "has not been asked to investigate".

"We are available to provide any assistance that may be required to support the investigation and our thoughts are with the families of those who have lost their lives."

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Mo Robinson, who is being questioned by the police

The Irish Department of Justice confirmed the container did not pass through Ireland.

"It is understood that the container was collected in the United Kingdom by a truck cab which had come from Ireland," they said.

"Garda Siochana and the Irish authorities remain willing to assist in any further investigations in regard to the matter."

Gardai also said they are satisfied that the victims were not trafficked through the Republic. While a container did travel with the vehicle cabin from Dublin Port, gardai are working on the assumption that this was not the same one in which 39 people were found dead.

Detectives now say the refrigerated trailer containing the victims arrived at Purfleet, England from Zeebrugge in Belgium at around 12.30am yesterday while the front cab came from Northern Ireland.

Police in Essex believe the driver picked up the container shortly after it docked in Purfleet.

The Scania cab, or tractor, is owned by a company based in Co Monaghan but was registered in Varna in Bulgaria under the name of a company owned by an Irish citizen.

The area is a cigarette and fuel smuggling route which is known locally to have links to republican gangs.

While the bodies have not been identified, UK police believe it is highly unlikely that they are Bulgarians.

It's understood it is not an unusual practice for haulage companies to register their vehicles, which travel across Europe, in eastern European countries.

Police originally thought the lorry had travelled to the UK through Holyhead in north Wales on October 19 but later revealed that the trailer had come directly from the Continent.

The Prime Minister said the perpetrators of the crime "should be hunted down", while local MP Jackie Doyle-Price said the people smugglers responsible must be caught.

Essex Police said in a statement: "We were called shortly after 1.40am by our colleagues in the East of England Ambulance Service to reports that, sadly, 39 people had been discovered dead in the container of a lorry at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Eastern Avenue.

"Originally, we reported that the lorry had travelled into the country through Holyhead on Saturday, October 19.

"After further enquiries, we now believe that the trailer travelled from Zeebrugge into Purfleet, and docked in the Thurrock area shortly after 12.30am this morning.

"The tractor unit of the lorry is believed to have originated in Ireland.

"We believe the lorry and trailer left the port shortly after 1.05am.

"The driver of the lorry, a 25-year-old man from Northern Ireland, remains in custody having been arrested on suspicion of murder.

"This is going be a lengthy and complex investigation and we will continue to work with local partners and international authorities to gather vital intelligence and identify those who have sadly died."

Essex Police Deputy Chief Constable Pippa Mills added: "At this stage we have not identified where the victims are from or their identities, and we anticipate that this could be a lengthy process.

"This is an absolute tragedy and very sad day for Essex Police and the local community.

"We will continue to work alongside many other partner agencies to find out what led to these deaths.

"The lorry and trailer have moved to a secure location at Tilbury Docks so the bodies can be recovered whilst preserving the dignity of the victims."

The National Crime Agency (NCA) has said that it will be trying to identify organised crime groups who might have played a role in the deaths.

Road Haulage Association chief executive Richard Burnett said conditions inside the refrigerated container, where temperatures could have been as low as -25C, would have been "absolutely horrendous".

"It's going to be dark. If the fridge is running it's going to be incredibly cold and would have killed anyone inside pretty quickly," he said.

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