Essex lorry deaths: Men jailed for killing 39 migrants in trailer

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image captionThe 39 people who died in the back of a trailer as it crossed the North Sea between Zeebrugge and the UK

Four men have been jailed for the manslaughter of 39 Vietnamese migrants found dead in a lorry trailer in Essex.

The migrants died "excruciatingly painful" deaths, having suffocated in the container en route from Belgium to Purfleet in October 2019, a judge said.

Ronan Hughes, 41, and Gheorghe Nica, 43, played "leading roles" in the smuggling conspiracy and were jailed for 20 and 27 years respectively.

At the Old Bailey, two lorry drivers were also jailed for manslaughter.

image copyrightEssex Police
image caption[Left to right] Eamonn Harrison, Ronan Hughes, Gheorghe Nica and Maurice Robinson were all jailed for manslaughter

Eamonn Harrison, 24, who towed the trailer to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge before their journey to the UK, was sentenced to 18 years.

Maurice Robinson, 26, was given 13 years and four months, having collected the trailer and opened it in an industrial estate to find the migrants dead.

Three others members of the people-smuggling gang were also sentenced for conspiracy to facilitate unlawful immigration.

Christopher Kennedy, 24, from County Armagh, was jailed for seven years; Valentin Calota, 38, of Birmingham, for four-and-a-half years; and Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga, 28, of Hobart Road, Tilbury, Essex, was given a three-year sentence.

image copyrightEssex Police
image caption[Left to right] Valentin Calota, Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga and Christopher Kennedy were also sentenced on Friday

Sentencing, Mr Justice Sweeney said: "I have no doubt that the conspiracy was a sophisticated, long-running and profitable one to smuggle mainly Vietnamese people across the channel."

He said on the fatal trip the temperature had been rising along with the carbon dioxide levels throughout, hitting 40C (104F) while the container was at sea on 22 October 2019.

"There were desperate attempts to contact the outside world by phone and to break through the roof of the container," the judge said.

"All were to no avail and, before the ship reached Purfleet, [the victims] all died in what must have been an excruciatingly painful death."

media captionVideo evidence showed how the trainer containing 39 Vietnamese migrants made its way to the UK

The victims had used a metal pole to try to punch through the roof but only managed to dent the interior.

The court heard some of their final desperate phone messages, including one where a man spoke with ragged breaths as he apologised to his family.

"I can't breathe," he said. "I want to come back to my family. Have a good life."

Justice Sweeney added: "The willingness of the victims to try and enter the country illegally provides no excuse for what happened to them."

image copyrightPA Media
image captionThe bodies of 39 Vietnamese nationals were discovered in a refrigerated trailer on 23 October 2019

During the trial, jurors were given a snapshot of the victims - who included a bricklayer, a university graduate and a nail bar technician - and their dreams of a better life.

Many of their families borrowed heavily to fund their passage, relying on their potential future earnings once they got into the UK.

The father of Nguyen Huy Tung, one of two 15-year-olds in the container, later learned of his son's death via social media.

Harrison, of Newry, County Down, claimed he did not know there were people in the trailer when he towed it to the Belgian port, and that he watched "a wee bit of Netflix" in bed as they were loaded on.

image copyrightEssex Police
image captionAfter receiving this message from his boss, Robinson got out of his cab, opened the trailer door and discovered the bodies

Robinson, from County Armagh, collected the trailer when it arrived on UK shores just after midnight on 23 October.

His boss, Hughes, had messaged him: "Give them air quickly don't let them out."

Robinson gave a thumbs-up in reply. When Robinson stopped on a nearby industrial estate, he found that the migrants were all dead.

His barrister said Robinson, who admitted manslaughter, being part of the trafficking plot and money laundering, was "horrified by what he saw".

image captionThe moment lorry driver Maurice Robinson opened the trailer door and discovered the bodies inside was captured on CCTV

The trial examined three smuggling attempts by the gang - two that were successful on 11 and 18 October, and the final trip on 23 October.

On all three runs, Nica, of Basildon, Essex, had arranged cars and a van to transport the migrants at the UK end.

When Robinson discovered the bodies, there was a series of telephone conversations between him and Nica and Hughes, of Tyholland, County Monaghan, Ireland, before the driver eventually dialled 999.

In his evidence, Nica said Robinson told him: "I have a problem here - dead bodies in the trailer."

image copyrightEssex Police
image captionRonan Hughes (left) met Gheorghe Nica at a budget hotel in Thurrock, Essex

While Hughes admitted manslaughter, both Nica and Harrison were convicted by a jury.

Mr Justice Sweeney said that in the conspiracy "two played leading roles, namely - in order of importance - Hughes and Nica".

He accepted Hughes was "not at the very top of the conspiracy" but said his role was "pivotal... in that he ran a haulage business and supplied the trailers and drivers used to transport the migrants".

The judge said Nica "recruited and paid the drivers whose job it was to collect the migrants when they reached the drop-off site in this country and to drive them to the safe house(s) where they were to be held until payment".

He added at the top of the conspiracy was a Vietnamese man called "Fong", who was based in London.

Mr Justice Sweeney told the defendants jailed for manslaughter they would serve two-thirds of the term in custody, instead of the usual half.

Earlier this month, Gazmir Nuzi, 43, of Barclay Road, Tottenham, north London, was sentenced, having admitted his limited role in the people-smuggling operation. It was accepted he was not a member of the organised crime group behind the smuggling operation.

Det Ch Insp Daniel Stoten said: "May this serve as a warning to those who think it's OK to prey on the vulnerabilities of migrants and their families, transporting them in a way worse than we would transport animals.

"My message to you is that we will find you and we will stop you."

He said the victims died in an "unimaginable way, because of the utter greed of these criminals".

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