Thomas Maher, 38, from Warrington, met with Ivan Jeliazkov (pictured) and stayed at his home in Bulgaria earlier this month
The businessman arrested over the Essex lorry tragedy made a visit to Bulgaria earlier this month to meet a long-standing friend who registered the truck there in 2017, a year before it was sold on.
Thomas Maher, 38, from Warrington, met with Ivan Jeliazkov and stayed at his home, MailOnline can reveal.
Mr Jeliazkov registered the Scania lorry in April 2017 for Mr Maher and his wife Joanna and the lorry was said to have been sold on last year.
But MailOnline can disclose the two men were reportedly not just business associates but good friends and have also met in Britain.
Mr Jeliazkov, who operates as a haulage registration facilitator from a ground floor office in a run down apartment block, said he sent the Mahers gifts for their home and they sent him photographs of their children.
Mr Jeliazkov handled the registration of the lorry and said the fee was around £400.
Police said the lorry left Varna the next day and never returned.
He said: ‘I first met them in the early 2000’s when I was based in Rochester, Kent. I was a student. They are good people and we have become friends. We met through other friends.
‘Thomas’s health hasn’t been good and he went to Turkey for medical care and then came to Varna and stayed with me a couple of weeks ago for a few days.’
He said the reason the lorry had been registered in Varna in Maher’s wife’s name was because the taxes and associated costs were cheaper than in the UK.
He said: ‘Thomas has been unwell for a few years with a heart illness and he had to put his company into his wife’s name and that is how her name is on the register.’
Mr Maher and his wife Joanna were arrested in a dawn raid on Friday in connection with the deaths of 39 migrants found in a refrigerated trailer in Essex
He said he had handed the registration certificate to local police and could not remember the number plate details.
Mr Jeliazkov said he had been asked by Bulgarian police if he knew anything about the organisation behind the trafficking and the lorry’s fateful trip and declared he had no knowledge.
He added: ‘I have cleared my name and Thomas and Joanna are 100 per cent innocent too.’
The Mahers have been arrested under investigation for allegedly conspiring to traffic people and on suspicion of 39 counts of manslaughter. Two others have also been detained, one being the driver of the lorry once owned by the Mahers.
Mr Jeliazkov spoke by telephone with the Mahers hours before police swooped and he said they re-iterated in the conversation that they had sold the lorry in December 2018 to an Irish company.
He said: ‘They are 100 per cent not criminals. I have known them for several years and know they have three children who they love very much. They are good people.’
He said the business was registered on the ground floor of a at a 10-storey residential block in Varna.
He added: ‘It’s a legitimate address and place. ‘My company is registered there so the fact I’m not present at the address does not mean the address is a shell company or fake address.
‘I knew the couple well they are my friends. Everything is legitimate. There is nothing illegal about registering a company in Bulgaria.
‘I am an official representative of their company and the taxes are lower here to register a truck but that’s no crime and there is nothing wrong in having foreign investment in Bulgaria. ‘Joanne and Thomas Maher are honest people.
‘They are completely normal people with three children. They have good social status not only financially but with a good reputation.
Mr Jeliazkov registered the Scania lorry in April 2017 for Mr Maher and his wife Joanna and the lorry was said to have been sold on last year
‘This is a smear campaign against them. ‘The authorities abroad are investigating a serious crime. I handled the registration of the lorry by proxy and everything was legal.
‘When I spoke with them they were surprised that the media were showing an interest in them as they have had nothing to do with this lorry since they sold it.
‘Thomas said he had been talking to the Essex police since the people died and helped them.
‘I am shocked that they have been arrested. The police will find that they are 100 per cent innocent. I am going to help them by talking to the police here. I have given the registration certificate to the Ministry of Transport in Bulgaria.
‘Thomas and Joanna are very nice people. I feel sorry for them that they are in this situation wrongly. ‘
The Mahers told MailOnline they sold the lorry cab a year ago to a company in Ireland.
The refrigerated trailer in which the 39 trafficking victims died is believed to be owned by a rental firm in Dublin.
Mr Jelyazkov added: ‘It is true that the Bulgarian lead ends with the registration plates of the truck. After that we don’t have anything to do with it and the truck has not been back to Bulgaria.
‘It was not loaded with those people in Bulgaria. It is a massive tragedy. Human trafficking is a very serious topic in society. When I saw the picture of the Vietnamese girl who died, I was very upset.’
He said he did not believe Bulgarian police would be interested in him.
‘I have not been arrested. There is no reason for me to be arrested or charged with anything. There has been no crime committed on the territory of Bulgaria. There are no Bulgarian citizens harmed.’