Four people smugglers who killed 39 Vietnamese migrants found dead in the back of a lorry in Essex are jailed for 78 years in total
- Eamonn Harrison and Maurice Robinson drove lorries containing migrants
- They were paid by Ronan Hughes, 40, to ferry non-EU citizens into the UK
- Hughes headed the people-smuggling ring which charged £14,000 a head
- In October 2019, 39 migrants were found dead in the back of the lorry in Essex
- Hughes jailed for 20 years, Romanian fixer Gheorghe Nica was sentenced to 27
Four people smugglers who killed 39 Vietnamese migrants by bringing them into the UK in a sealed lorry have been jailed for a total of 78 years.
Drivers Eamonn Harrison, 23, and Maurice Robinson, 26 – together with Romanian fixer Gheorghe Nica, 43 – were paid by Ronan Hughes, 40, to ferry non-EU citizens into the UK.
Hughes headed the million-pound people-smuggling ring which used death trap lorries on multiple occasions – charging his human cargo £14,000 a head.
But the journey in October 2019 went horribly wrong when driver Robinson opened the back of his refrigerated trailer in an industrial park in Grays, Essex, to be met with a gush of steam – and 39 bodies.
Hughes was jailed for 20 years, while fixer Nica – who arranged transport from Essex to London for the foreign nationals – was sentenced to 27.
Robinson was handed a 13-year and four month sentence, while Harrison – who dropped off the trailer in Zeebrugge before it was sailed to Britain – was jailed for 18 years.
Police at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays after the 39 bodies of Vietnamese migrants were found inside the lorry in October 2019
Ronan Hughes, 40, (left) headed the million-pound people-smuggling ring which used death trap lorries on multiple occasions – charging his human cargo £14,000 a head. But the journey in October 2019 went horribly wrong when driver Maurice Robinson, 26, (right) opened the back of his refrigerated trailer in an industrial park in Grays, Essex, to be met with a gush of steam – and 39 bodies.
Driver Eamonn Harrison, 23, (left) – who dropped off the trailer in Zeebrugge before it was sailed to Britain – was jailed for 18 years. Romanian fixer Gheorghe Nica, 43, (right) – who arranged transport from Essex to London for the foreign nationals – was sentenced to 27
During the trial, jurors saw horrifying footage of steam gushing from the container as Robinson opened the doors after pulling up in Eastern Avenue, Grays, at 1.13am on October 23, 2019.
Inside were the bodies of 28 men, eight women and three children who died ‘excruciatingly slow’ deaths while at sea as temperatures inside soared to 38.5C.
Had they arrived safely the smugglers would have made £800,000 for the journey, the court heard today.
But instead of calling the police Robinson called Hughes.
Kingpin Hughes told him to ‘open the doors, give them air’ but Robinson fired back, saying: ‘I can’t, they’re f****** dead.’
He waited more than 20 minutes to make the 999 call after opening the doors to see the victims half-naked having suffocated to death in ‘unbearable’ temperatures.
The final moments of the dying victims as they gasped for air and cried for help were also played during the trial at London’s Old Bailey.
CCTV shows police arriving at the scene where Robinson had found the bodies in the back of his lorry (top right)
Nguyen Tho Tuan taped a harrowing final message for his family at 7.37pm.
The 25-year-old said: ‘It’s Tuan. I am sorry. I cannot take care of you. I am sorry. I am sorry. I cannot breathe. I want to come back to my family. Have a good life.’
Just before 7pm, another victim, Nguyen Dinh Luong, 20, had desperately tried to call Vietnamese emergency services, dialling 133, but phone signal in the trailer had cut out.
Another male victim recorded a message at 8.02pm apologising to his parents and telling them: ‘I have to go.’
A voice in the background can be heard trying to reassure their compatriots, saying: ‘Come on everyone, open up, and open up.’
Moments later, another victim said: ‘He’s dead.’
The original tape, which captures the bravery of the migrants as they realised they were dying, was played before prosecutor Jonathan Polnay translated the messages of the victims.
Translating the first recording Mr Polnay said: ”I’m so sorry’ – that’s him speaking to his wife and his child – ‘I’m sorry’ – that’s to his mother – ‘I’m sorry’ – and that’s addressed to his whole family. ‘I cannot breathe. I want to come back to my family. Have a good life.”
Referring to the second message Mr Polnay said: ‘He says I can’t breathe, he says his name, I’m sorry to his parents, I have to go. It’s all my fault.
‘And a voice in his the background says: ‘Come on everyone, open up and open up.”
Frantic heavy breathing and crying can be heard in the background of the audio as the two victims recorded their goodbyes to their loved ones.
Driver Eamonn Harrison and fixer Gheorghe Nica were earlier convicted of 39 counts of manslaughter.
Robinson also admitted 39 counts of manslaughter while Harrison was found guilty of 39 counts of manslaughter and of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.
Fellow gang members lorry drivers Christopher Kennedy, 24, and Valentin Calota, 38, – who were not involved in the October 2019 tragedy – were found guilty of assisting illegal immigration by an Old Bailey jury.
Gazmir Nuzi, 42, and Alexandru Hanga, 28, both admitted one count of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration last year.
Their involvement described as relating to a single occasion in each case – prior to the October 22 tragedy.
Robinson, Hughes, Nica and Harrison sat in a row in the main dock while Kennedy, Calota and Hanga appeared virtually from another courtroom in the building during the sentencing today. Nuzi did not appear.
The judge said today the victims had died ‘excruciatingly slow’ deaths at sea, before they reached Purfleet.
Kingpin Hughes hung his head as he was spared a life sentence.
Wearing a Nike jacket and jeans for his sentencing, Nica showed no emotion when he was jailed for 27 years imprisonment after his conviction of manslaughter.
Harrison, who was convicted of the 39 counts by a majority of 10-1, nodded as he was jailed for 18 years.
Mr Justice Sweeney said the offences did not ‘meet the criteria’ for life sentences because it was possible the killers had not known there was a serious risk of death.
The smugglers had been involved in the deadly trade for years despite repeated run-ins with the authorities.
Harrison was fined after he was stopped near Calais driving a lorry full of Vietnamese nationals in May 2018.
The people smuggler was caught in Coquelles with 18 migrants concealed in the back of his truck.
He didn’t even bother to pay the fine and continued ‘busily bringing illegal immigrants into the country’ along with his co-conspirators.
Kennedy was waved on by French border officials when he tried to smuggle two of the Vietnamese migrants who died weeks later in the tragedy.
The 20 foreign nationals in his trailer were taken away – but Kennedy was allowed to continue on his journey on 14 October.
At least two of those on board were later suffocated to death when they tried again on 23 October.
Police had been tipped off about the Essex route since the summer of 2019 but had done nothing.
Resident Marie Andrews reported the people-smuggling drop to police three times after seeing a group of Vietnamese nationals jump out of a lorry outside her home two weeks before the tragedy.
She called the police after she and her partner Stewart Cox watched a lorry unload 15 to 20 non-EU citizens and tried to warn officers on 11 October.
Giving evidence, Ms Andrews said she had been calling emergency services about ‘dodgy’ activity at her home on Collingwood Farm near Orsett since the summer of 2019.
But she told the court officers ‘had not been listening.’
Harrison met the migrants at a rendezvous in Chemin-Noord Strate in France before driving them to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge.
From there, they sailed across the channel and were collected by Robinson at Purfleet.
They would be dropped off at a handover point on a remote farm near Orsett, from where Nica and his drivers – including Calota – drove them to their final destination in London by car.
Usually loads of around 15 to 20 migrants were taken to the Belgian border.
But after a botched run on 13 October the traffickers wanted to do two loads in one and crammed the container with 39 Vietnamese nationals.
Robinson knew something was wrong on the final leg of the route because he was sent a message on Snapchat by Hughes, reading: ‘Give them air quickly, but don’t let them out,’ to which he responded with a thumbs-up emoji.
The exchange happened at some point between midnight and 1.20am when he opened the container door and found the lifeless bodies piled up.
First he called Hughes and then Nica, waiting 23 minutes to contact the emergency services.
PC Jack Emerson, who attended the scene after the 999 call, said ‘At the back of the trailer I could see a 6ft white male standing at the rear of the trailer that I took as the driver.
‘He was just standing there, his demeanour appeared calm.
‘I could visibly see half naked bodies laying on the trailer floor laying motionless. It became apparent as I got closer that the entire trailer was full of bodies.
‘Most of the bodies were half naked.
‘Most of the bodies were wearing clothes on their lower half but not on their lower half.
‘All of the bodies appeared intact and it was my opinion they had not been there for a long time.
‘As I moved through the trailer I checked the bodies for pulse but couldn’t find one.
‘Because of how packed together the bodies were it was not possible to check every body.
‘I recall when checking some bodies some of them appeared to have been frothing from the mouth.’
Nica admitted assisting unlawful immigration at the start of the trial, but claimed he was no longer involved by the time tragedy struck on 23 October.
The British-Romanian said he had agreed to smuggle people into the country on 11 and 18 October because Hughes ‘came to England and asked him’ but then opted out on 23 October.
The group of migrants were from five provinces in the central, coastal area of Vietnam and two provinces near Hanoi
He shared a ‘celebratory drink’ after a people-smuggling run on 18 October in the bar of the Ibis hotel in Thurrock with the kingpin, Robinson and suspect Marius Draghici.
The four toasted the success of the operation before moving to Hughes’ suite upstairs where a cash handover took place.
Nica insisted he stopped his involvement in the runs after that, claiming he had only been in the country waiting to get British passports for his estranged wife and children.
He said he had been anxious to make money to pay for a rare medical treatment for his four-year-old daughter, who suffers cerebral palsy.
Kennedy and Calota claimed they unwittingly transported the migrants into the country.
But Kennedy accepted that he had helped Hughes ‘disguise’ evidence of human contamination after the 18 October run.
He told jurors he had been due to deliver a legitimate load of Mrs Crimble’s macaroons and Bakewell tarts to a warehouse in Maidstone, Kent, after the stowaways were left with Nica.
When he opened up the back doors the boxes were squashed and covered in footprints with ‘bags of p***’ discarded amongst the goods.
Calota insisting that he had ‘hearing problems’ and had been told to look ahead while Nica loaded the migrants into the back of his van at Collingwood Farm.
He said he had agreed to transport loads of smuggled cigarettes, but denied knowing migrants were in the back of his van during an hour-long journey down to London on the same date.
Harrison insisted he had no idea the Vietnamese nationals were in the container but claimed Hughes, put a price on his head after he crashed one of his trucks in Germany while drunk.
Their claims were rejected by the jury after 22 hours and 48 minutes of deliberation.
Unanimous guilty verdicts were reached for Nica and Kennedy while Harrison and Calota were convicted on each count by a majority of 10 to 1.
Nica, of Mimosa Close, Langdon Hills, Basildon, Essex, denied but was convicted of 39 counts of manslaughter and one count of conspiring to assist unlawful immigration relating to the date of 23 October.
He admitted a further count of conspiring to assist unlawful immigration relating to the period before the tragedy and was jailed for 27 years.
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