25/10/2019 12:39 BST | Updated 25/10/2019 16:51 BST

Essex Lorry Deaths: Two Arrested On Suspicion Of Human Trafficking And Manslaughter

A man and a woman, both aged 38, were held in Warrington on Friday, two days after 39 people were found dead in the refrigerated container.

Police have arrested two more people over the deaths of 39 people found in a truck in Essex.

A man and a woman, both aged 38, were arrested in Warrington, on suspicion of human trafficking and manslaughter, Essex police said.

The former owners of the vehicle, Joanna and Thomas Maher, claimed on Thursday they had sold the Scania lorry cab, which is registered in Bulgaria, to a company in Ireland.

Mrs Maher, who is reportedly the last known owner of the vehicle, told MailOnline: “We did own it but sold it 13 months ago.”

Police officers could be seen at the couple’s home address in Warrington, with a police van and two squad cars parked outside.

Officers carried evidence bags inside the four-bedroom property, which had two grey Range Rovers with personalised number plates and a white Chevrolet sports car parked on the drive.

The bodies were found in the early hours of Wednesday morning in Grays, Essex 

The house was bought by the couple, originally from southern Ireland, for £255,000 in March 2017, according to Land Registry records, before the couple undertook extensive renovations on the property, according to neighbours.

Locals said Mr Maher is the owner of a haulage firm and his wife works as a hairdresser.

The driver of the truck, a 25-year-old man from Northern Ireland, was arrested on suspicion of murder on Wednesday. 

Thirty one men and eight women were confirmed as victims in the incident, with initial reports suggesting they were Chinese nationals. 

But on Friday the Vietnamese Embassy in London confirmed it had contacted the police in regard to a missing woman feared to be one of the dead. 

A spokesman for the embassy said they had been contacted by a family in Vietnam which claimed their daughter had been missing “since the lorry was found.” 

The spokesman added: “We have contacted Essex Police and we are waiting for an answer.” 

A statement from the force said: “We have carried out warrants in Cheshire as part of the investigation into 39 bodies being discovered in a lorry trailer in Grays.

“As a result, a 38-year-old man and a 38-year-old woman from Warrington have been arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to traffic people and on suspicion of 39 counts of manslaughter.

“A 25-year-old man, the driver of the lorry, remains in custody on suspicion of murder. A warrant of further detention was granted yesterday, Thursday 24 October, by local magistrates.”

Press Association Images

The trailer arrived at Purfleet at around 12.30am on Wednesday, and the front section to which it was attached, known as the tractor, came from Northern Ireland via Holyhead in North Wales on Sunday.

The lorry and trailer left the port at Purfleet shortly after 1.05am, and officers were called to the Waterglade Industrial Park on Eastern Avenue in Grays at 1.40am.

On Thursday evening, the first 11 bodies were moved by a private ambulance with a police escort from the port of Tilbury to Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford. A day later a further three ambulances left the port under police escort.  Post-mortem examinations will now be carried out. 

Police have not confirmed whether the driver raised the alarm after finding the eight women and 31 men, while his supporters have set up petitions online calling for his release.

People living close to Purfleet – the port where the container entered the UK – said illegal migrants were a familiar sight.

“It’s a magnet for illegals,” said Janet Lilley, 61. “People would come strolling out of the docks, get in the vans and that’s it, they drive off.”

Lee Tubby, 45, who lives opposite the port, said he has seen people “climbing out the top and out the back” of lorries and cutting the plastic roof covering to climb through.

Peter Nicholls / Reuters
Private ambulances arrive at the Port of Tilbury to transport the remains of the 39 people found dead in a lorry container 

“We’ve had people just come out of the port knocking on the door asking for shoes, asking for water,” he said.

It is not yet known when the victims entered the sealed refrigerated trailer, where temperatures can be as low as -25C, or the exact route it travelled.

Mike Gradwell, a former Lancashire Police detective superintendent who worked on the probe into the Morecambe Bay cockling tragedy in which 23 Chinese illegal immigrants drowned, told BBC Breakfast that those inside could have been trafficked by a so-called Snakehead gang.

“These are criminal travel agents really – you go to a Snakehead to say you want to be trafficked to an economic opportunity and usually you’ll borrow quite a significant amount of money,” he said.