'We will stand by killer Ronan': Relatives back haulier who admitted to container deaths of 39 immigrants
LOYAL relatives of shamed Ronan Hughes are still protesting his innocence, days after the haulier pleaded guilty to 39 counts of manslaughter over the Essex lorry deaths.
Family, as well as friends of the 40-year-old Co. Monaghan man are claiming he "done nothing wrong" and are blaming the media for "destroying his life".
The Sunday World can reveal some of those living in the tight-knit Tyholland area where the haulier lived and ran his trucking business, are continuing to stand by the people-smuggling killer. That's despite finally admitting his part in one of the biggest-ever manslaughter cases to come before the UK courts
On Friday, Hughes, who is originally from Co. Armagh, appeared before London's Old Bailey where he pleaded to the manslaughter of 39 Vietnamese men, women and boys.
The discovery of the immigrants' bodies in the back of a refrigerated truck in Essex caused revulsion around the world.
An inquest later heard how they suffocated to death.
The Sunday World yesterday visited the haulage business site where we exclusively pictured Hughes last year whilst he was wanted by UK authorities.
There we spoke to a relative of the 40-year-old, who said Hughes had no connection to the lorry shed which yesterday was open for business.
He told us that the people smuggler did not have a haulage company within Ireland, and said all his business interests were based in Bulgaria.
He then said: "You (the press) have destroyed Ronan's life. What did he do?"
When reminded by our reporter that Hughes had pleaded guilty to 39 manslaughter charges, he replied: "It's all lies."
The man then refused to condemn the tragedy before telling our team to "f*** off".
Sources in the area said some family and friends of the trucker were continuing to publicly stand-by him.
"They have a misplaced sense of loyalty and are still telling people Ronan is innocent," according to one well-placed source.
"It's embarrassing. No-one can defend his actions, which were fuelled by pure greed and led to the deaths of 39 people, including children.
"People in the community and wider afield are disgusted at his actions and those still trying to paint him as an innocent man would be better not opening their mouths at all."
Hughes - a convicted cigarette smuggler - had leased the container in which 39 trafficked Vietnamese immigrants were found suffocated on October 23, 2019.
His younger brother Christopher is understood to be still wanted for questioning by UK cops over the mass tragedy.
There was no sign of the 35-year-old in Tyholland yesterday when we visited. Locals said they had not seen Christopher - who ran a now dissolved haulage company in the same area - "for a while".
However, his glamorous businesswoman wife Anita, who runs a popular hair salon in Monaghan town, was spotted at work on Saturday.
Ronan Hughes had been lying low in Monaghan ever since Essex Police issued a 'wanted' notice for him and appealed for information on the whereabouts of him and his brother Christopher in the wake of the tragedy.
A week later, the Sunday World photographed Hughes at a truck yard near his home in Leitrim, putting to bed speculation in the UK that he had fled.
At the time, the Sunday World revealed how Hughes had been holding his head up in the local community and had shown no signs of the pressure arising from the probe.
"For one thing, he was going to Mass down in the church in Tyholland every Sunday," the source said at the time. It was like he'd found God all of a sudden."
Appearing at London's Old Bailey on Friday, Hughes, of Silverstream, Leitrim, entered guilty pleas to 39 separate counts of manslaughter. He also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration between May 1, 2018 and October 24, 2019. It was alleged he played a leading role in the operation, with his trailers and drivers used to transport migrants.
In June, the High Court in Dublin ordered the extradition of Hughes to the UK.
He was arrested on April 20 at his home in Co. Monaghan following the endorsement of a European Arrest Warrant issued by Essex police.
Hughes appeared before a judge on Friday alongside Eamonn Harrison (23), of Mayobridge, Co. Down, who is alleged to have driven the lorry trailer to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge before it sailed to Purfleet.
Harrison pleaded not guilty to 39 counts of manslaughter and one count of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.
Harrison and Hughes appeared at the Old Bailey after being extradited from the Republic of Ireland in July.
On April 8, Maurice Robinson (25), from Craigavon, Co. Armagh, who discovered the bodies after transporting the container from Purfleet to an alleged pick-up point in Grays, pleaded guilty at the same court to 39 counts of manslaughter and to conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration of non-EU citizens and acquiring criminal property, but denied a further charge of transferring criminal property.