A mechanic accused over the deaths of 39 migrants has told jurors he was roped into people-smuggling, and insisted: “I never wanted to be involved in this kind of job.”
Gheorghe Nica, 43, has admitted helping his former boss Ronan Hughes, 41, transport migrants from Orsett, Essex, following their arrival in Britain on October 11 and 18 last year.
But he has denied having anything to do with the deaths of 39 Vietnamese people during a third run overnight on October 22 last year.
The victims, aged 15 to 44, suffocated in a sealed trailer en route from Zeebrugge in Belgium to Purfleet in Essex, the Old Bailey was told.
Jurors have heard that Irish haulier boss Hughes, and 26-year-old lorry driver Maurice Robinson, who found the bodies, have admitted manslaughter.
Giving evidence in his trial, father-of-three Nica said he had been staying with friends while waiting for British passports to arrive after his wife and children travelled ahead to Romania in September last year.
The family had been in the process of emigrating to get treatment for Nica’s disabled daughter, the court has heard.
On October 4 last year, Nica said another acquaintance, Marius Draghici, had asked him if he could use his friends’ yard in Orsett to park a lorry.
Nica said he did not know what the truck would be carrying, adding: “I thought alcohol, vodka or cigarettes.
“He (Draghici) says, ‘I have expensive import and I want you to help me’.”
When Nica said he could not park there, Draghici allegedly became aggressive and pushed him, saying: “Stop being on Irish side all the time.”
On October 10 last year, Nica said he was approached by Hughes to provide a “couple of cars”.
He told jurors: “I thought cigarettes. I never (thought) anything else. He told me (to) deliver some people.”
Aftab Jafferjee QC, defending, asked: “Did you have any idea before then he was involved in anything like this?”
Nica replied: “No. I was surprised. I knew him for a long time. I said, ‘I’ll let you know’. I did not know what to do. I never gave him a straight answer.”
The defendant said Hughes had also asked him if he knew anyone who wanted to come to Britain.
He told jurors that an Albanian he knew as “the Doctor” agreed a price of £6,000 for one Albanian passenger.
On October 11 last year, Nica and his friend Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga picked up around 10 migrants from a trailer at Orsett and drove them to an address in south-east London provided by the migrants, the court heard.
The fee for the job was £1,000 – £100 per person – which Nica said he gave to Hanga because he was letting him stay at his house.
Nica said: “I gave him £1,000. I gave him my part, my £300.”
On October 16 last year, Nica said Hughes approached him to help with transporting people again after his former boss picked him up from Stansted Airport.
He told jurors: “As soon as I came out of the airport I just gave him the rest of the £5,000 because £1,000 was going to Hanga. I paid Hanga from my money.
“He (Hughes) said ‘no, no, it’s yours, you helped me, I don’t want the money’. I never expected that.
“He was saying (to) me if I can arrange this time a van driver.
“I said ‘what for, cigarettes?’. He said ‘no no’. He finally told me it’s for people again.”
Hughes allegedly told him this time there would be 15 migrants to pick up from Orsett.
Nica said he got in touch with Valentin Calota and offered him £700 for a job transporting cigarettes.
He said if he had told Calota it was people “he might not accept the job”.
The defendant said because Hughes had given him £5,000 he felt he owned him.
“I never wanted to be involved in this kind of job. Because he came himself from Ireland and me and him face to face, it’s different.”
Nica, from Basildon in Essex, has denied 39 counts of manslaughter along with lorry driver Eamonn Harrison, 23, of Co Down, who dropped off the trailer containing the victims at Zeebrugge on the afternoon of October 22.
Harrison, lorry driver Christopher Kennedy, 24, of Co Armagh, and Calota, 37, of Birmingham, have denied being part of a wider people-smuggling conspiracy, which Nica has admitted to.
Hanga, 28, from Essex, has also previously admitted being involved in people-smuggling.
The trial continues.