A man alleged to have been part of a people smuggling operation was asked in court on Tuesday why he had been using a total of nine mobile phones.

Thomas Mason, 36, from Bedfordshire, said there were “different reasons” for using the phones and he agreed one was the fact that he didn’t wish to be “tracked” or take calls on his contract phone.

St Albans crown court was told many of the calls from the different numbers were made to two men who have admitted being part of a conspiracy to facilitate the illegal entry of foreign nationals into the UK between 1 April and 3 August last year.

Prosecutor Wayne Cleaver asked Mr Mason from Eyeworth near Biggleswade: “This is you using these numbers for your criminal enterprise?”

Mr Mason denied being involved in any conspiracy and told the jury: “They may be criminals but that doesn’t make me one.”

He claims that his calls to the pair were made as part of his efforts to acquire a boat, “do it up" and sell it on to one of the men, Nazmi Velia, 32, of Park Street Lane, St Albans,

The jury have been told that Mr Mason was involved with a gang organising people smuggling.

He said that what the gang didn’t know was that their activities were being watched by undercover police officers.

Shortly after after 1am on August 3 last year the officers saw the four Vietnamese men walking onto the beach.

got into a silver Audi, which was stopped by the police in Granville Road, Walmer near Deal.

The driver was arrested and the four Vietnamese men were taken into custody as illegal immigrants.

The jury heard the pilot of the Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat that was used, Thomas Mason, was also arrested.

Mr Mason, 36, of High Street, Eyeworth near Biggleswade, Hoa Thi Nguyen, 49, of Bisterne Avenue, Walthamstow, East London and her partner Chi Tan Huynh, 41, of Pickford's Wharf, Wharf Road, Hoxton, London, N1, are all on trial and deny conspiracy to facilitate the illegal entry of foreign nationals into the UK between 1 April and 3 August last year.

Hoa Thi Nguyen also denies acquiring criminal property - relating to luxury items: clothing, handbags and jewellery seized from her home.

Mr Cleaver told the jury that four others: Nazmi Velia, 32, from St Albans, Egert Kajaci, 35, of Turner Drive, Oxford, Erald Gapi, 27, of Marine Tower, Abinger Grove, Deptford, SE8 and Wayne Lee, 46, of Grasmere Close, Watford had already pleaded guilty to their role in the conspiracy.

Another man Patrick Ward had been prosecuted in France.

The prosecution claim that Thomas Mason had purchased the boat with Nazmi Velia from Exmouth, Devon on 26 June 2018 for £2,100 cash.

Over the next few weeks it was alleged that Thomas Mason launched the boat from the Kent coast.

The prosecutor said: "These journeys were not just days out for the fun of it. They were intended to test the capabilities of the boat, negotiate and familiarise themselves with the Dover Straits and to investigate the best vantage points for landing people unobserved.

“What they did not know, of course, is that they were being observed by a team of surveillance officers."

On 13 July Mason took the boat out to sea from Whistable at 8.30pm, returning the next morning at 5.17.

"Having been away for that period of time it is obvious that Thomas Mason went some distance in that boat. The prosecution say this was an attempt to pick up migrants from Belgium which, for whatever reason, failed," said Mr Cleaver.

Twelve days later, on 25 July, the boat landed on Deal Beach, with only Thomas Mason on board, and Kajaci and Lee waiting.

“Again, Mason had not been able to pick up anyone from the other side of the channel. Messages between Lee and Kajaci referred to him "coming back empty handed."

But, shortly after 1am on 3 August, officers on surveillance heard the sound of a boat engine at sea near Deal. Mr Cleaver went on: "Four adults were seen walking from the sea and onto the beach. The location of the landing was relatively inconspicuous to the extent there was little or no lighting, no people and on that stretch of coastline there were no buildings overlooking that part of the beach. The conspirators had found the perfect landing spot."

Mr Cleaver said that Mr Mason's co-defendant Hoa Nguyen is a Vietnamese speaker with overseas contacts.

"She can communicate with those wanting to make the journey - a very useful skill," he said.

"She can co-ordinate those journeys and assist those who successfully complete the voyage. He said phone evidence revealed contact between her and Velia."

When police raided her home they found an illegal immigrant called Tuan Nguyen (no relation).

Phone evidence suggested he had arrived in the UK May 28 or 29 last year.

Data retrieved from Hoa Nguyen's phones showed she had been sending overseas images of travel documents via WhatsApp.

During this period he said Ms Nguyen had visited Spain, Greece, Paris, Warsaw and Amsterdam.

She also made no comment to the police. In a prepared statement she denied any involvement with the conspiracy.

Mr Cleaver said numerous luxury items were seized from her home - designer clothing, handbags and jewellery, including a Rolex watch.

The items were valued at retail at £29,016. This was, he said, at a time when it appeared she had very little legitimate income.

The prosecutor said Chi Tan Huynh was Hoa Nguyen's partner. When she travelled abroad it was alleged Huynh was an alternative point of contact for the gang. He made no comment to police questions.

In the witness box today (Tues) Mr Mason was asked about his use of the nine mobile phone numbers during April to July of last year.

He said it was entirely possible other people had had the use of the phones as well as himself.

Mr Cleaver pointed out that cell site evidence for one of the SIM cards showed that it was used for just 11 days, during which time 93 calls were made to Mr Velia.

During the same period, the same phone was used to call Mr Kajaci 34 times.

Asked by Mr Cleaver if it was he who had made the calls, he answered “Possibly.”

Another phone had been active for just six days during July of last year calling Mr Velia 67 times and Mr Kajaci 54 times.

Mr Cleaver said: “It’s you calling them.”

Mr Mason replied: “I work with them.”

The court heard that in some cases new SIM cards were used for a matter of hours before being discarded.

Mr Cleaver asked Mr Mason: “People who get involved in this sort of thing are aware it’s important to cover their tracks.”

He replied: “Do they?”

Asked about one phone that had been used less than 24 hours and had been tracked through cell sites from Stevenage to the Kent coast, Mr Mason said: “A few of the phones got wet.”

They jury have heard how one of those who have pleaded guilty to the conspiracy, Patrick Ward, was arrested in the early hours of June 4 last year having arrived at a spot on the French coast with a group of immigrants.

Mr Mason told the court he understood Mr Ward was in France to collect some people who were going to buy a boat from him (Mason) and that was why that same night he had gone across the channel in it.

“I went to France that day to sell a boat,” he said, adding that he was there to bring people back to the UK.

But he said having moored in a cove, he couldn’t get hold of Ward or the buyer, Nazmi Velia.

He said that was why a mobile phone he was using on that occasion was connecting with a French cell site mast.

The jury have heard on that occasion he then returned across the English Channel to Kent.

The case continues.