How people smuggling gang repeatedly slipped through the net

Missed chances to stop Essex lorry horror: How people smuggling gang repeatedly slipped through the net before deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants as ringleader and HGV driver are found guilty of manslaughter

  • Gang used ‘burner’ pay-as-you-go phones and evaded automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras 
  • Ringleader Gheorghe Nica, 43, and driver Eamonn Harrison, 24, found guilty of 39 counts of manslaughter
  • In May 9 2018, Harrison was issued with civil penalty notice after he was caught with 18 Vietnamese migrants
  • Total of eight men now convicted in connection with the deaths of 39 Vietnamese men, women and children 
  • In October last year, 39 Vietnamese migrants suffocated to death inside a lorry trailer in Thurrock, Essex

The people-smuggling gang behind the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants repeatedly slipped through the net in Britain and abroad before they were finally caught by the authorities.

The gang who transported the group from Zeebrugge in Belgium to Purfleet, Essex, used ‘burner’ pay-as-you-go phones and evaded automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras as they attempted to stay under the radar.

Despite their activities repeatedly coming to the attention of authorities, police did not catch the ring until after the Vietnamese men, women and children, aged between 15 and 44, were found dead in the back of a trailer in Essex on October 23 last year.

Following a 10-week trial, Romanian ringleader Gheorghe Nica, 43, from Basildon, and lorry driver Eamonn Harrison, 24, from County Down, were found guilty today of 39 counts of manslaughter.

They were also convicted of their part in the people-smuggling operation with lorry driver Christopher Kennedy, 24, from County Armagh, and Valentin Calota, 38, from Birmingham.      

As early as May 9 2018, Harrison was issued with a civil penalty notice after he was caught with 18 Vietnamese migrants sitting on waffle boxes inside his trailer.

French border force officers at the Channel Tunnel entrance had become suspicious after finding the seal on his trailer had been broken and glued back together. 

The 39 Vietnamese migrants men, aged 15 to 44, were found dead in the back of a lorry when it stopped in Thurrock, Essex, in October last year, after it had travelled into the UK from the port of Zeebrugge

Eamonn Harrison (right), 23, of County Down, and Romanian ringleader Gheorghe Nica (left), 43, of Basildon, have been convicted of 39 counts of manslaughter as well as being involved in a people smuggling ring at the Old Bailey today

A graphic used by Essex Police illustrating location of the 39 bodies found inside a container lorry in Grays, Essex

Just days before the tragedy, the gang successfully smuggled two loads of migrants on October 11 and 18. 

Both times, they were observed by suspicious residents in the Essex village of Orsett as the human cargo was unloaded and people ran into waiting vehicles for onward transfer to Dulwich in south-east London.    

Marie Andrews called police three times about the incident on October 11, jurors were told.

Then, on October 14, another driver, Christopher Kennedy, was caught with 20 Vietnamese nationals in his trailer on the French side of the Channel Tunnel.

The migrants were taken away by French border forces but Kennedy was sent on his way to Kent.

Official documents relating to the stop were found among the personal effects of two victims on October 23.

The successful run on October 18 also raised suspicions at a storage depot in Kent.

Warehouse manager Barbara Richmond-Clarke rejected Kennedy’s delivery of crushed and dirty macaroons, suspecting illegal human activity.

That night, Harrison became so intoxicated on a night out in Bruges that he fell over and was stopped by Belgian police.

The next morning, officers spoke to him again, after they found his lorry had been parked illegally since the day before.

Hours before the migrants embarked on their tragic journey, Estelle Duyke called Gendarmes in Bierne, northern France, about nine migrants jumping in the back of a lorry, later identified as Harrison’s.

But the trail went cold after French police checked the shed where the migrants had been hiding and found no-one there, jurors heard.

Detective Chief Superintendent Stuart Hooper said Essex Police had acted ‘proportionately and in good faith’ .

Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten added that Ms Andrews’ reports on October 11 had been followed up.

He said: ‘One of the witnesses believed the number plate was covered. It’s for the jury to decide that. What we do know is that Kennedy’s lorry did not activate ANPR. (From) when it exited the port, the first time it activated was when he went through the Dartford crossing.

‘I asked for a great deal of work to be done around this lorry not activating ANPR. This 30-tonne lorry does not activate it. We have no images of it. It’s a bit of a mystery.

‘Personally, I think the number plate was either covered or it did not activate for whatever reason.’

He said a number of devices can be found on the internet that can help drivers evade ANPR detection.

DCI Stoten said: ‘Going forward, we actually changed not only the procedures of Essex Police but we have been a forerunner in changing the way the country responds to organised immigration crime.

‘So now when people are stopped and found to be in the back of lorries or vans etc we are looking at that. Most often the driver is arrested and that didn’t happen before.’  

Today chilling photos released by the police showed how some of the 39 Vietnamese migrants who suffocated in the back of a lorry while being smuggled into Britain tried to create air holes with a metal pole. 

Photographs from inside the lorry’s trailer showed gouge marks in the roof where some of the migrants had attempted to use a metal pole to create air holes so they could escape the sweltering heat and suffocating conditions.

Meanwhile, an illustration created by police revealed the scale of the cramped conditions and how the bodies were piled up inside the trailer when the horrific discovery was made.

The migrants had suffocated in sweltering temperatures as the airtight container was shipped from Zeebrugge to Purfleet.

The ‘unscrupulous’ gang behind the illegal shipment were motivated by greed as they pursued profits of more than £1 million that month alone. 

The latest convictions come as:

  • Home Secretary Priti Patel has said conviction has  strengthened her resolve to tackle people smuggling rings
  • Lead police investigator says thousands worked on investigation – one of the largest ever manslaughter cases
  • In total, eight men have now been convicted in the UK in connection with deaths of the Vietnamese migrants 
  • Timeline shows how complex the people smuggling ring operated over years and ‘traded in human misery’ 

A photo showing pole marks inside the lorry trailer after migrants attempted to make air holes shortly before they suffocated

Maurice Robinson’s trailer and tractor unit after it had been taken into evidence as part of the manslaughter investigation

A timeline of events surrounding the Essex lorry death tragedy

– October 18: At 7.24am, Kennedy picks up the trailer and takes it to the same pick-up point at Orsett. Valentin Calota is one of the drivers brought by Nica to collect the new arrivals and drive them over the Dartford crossing and into south-east London. 

In the evening, haulier boss Ronan Hughes, lorry driver Maurice Robinson, Draghici and Nica – now carrying a heavy bag full of cash – meet at the Ibis Hotel in Thurrock.  

– October 22: From 5.47am, five of the victims’ phones are used in Paris.

– Around 9am, more are detected on the Belgian border between Dunkerque and Lille.

– From 9.21am, CCTV shows three taxis arriving at Bierne, northern France, followed by Harrison’s lorry.

– At 1.41pm Harrison’s lorry arrives at Zeebrugge port.

– At 2.52pm, the trailer containing 39 people, aged between 15 and 44, is loaded onto the MV Clementine which sails late, at 3.36pm.

– At 7.37pm, young father Nguyen Tho Tuan records a message for his family saying: ‘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.’

– Between 9.42pm and 10.42pm, the temperature in the trailer peaks at 38.5 Celsius.

– Between 10pm and 10.30pm the atmosphere is estimated to have reached toxic levels, killing all 39 victims.

– October 23: At 12.18am, the Clementine docks at Purfleet.

– At 1.07am, Robinson collects the trailer, some 12 hours after it was sealed. He is instructed by Hughes via Snapchat to ‘give them air quickly don’t let them out’.

Robinson drives out of Purfleet, stops and opens the doors at the back. He stands for 90 seconds before getting back in the cab.

– From 1.15 am, Robinson drives around for seven minutes before returning to the same location on Eastern Avenue. He opens the rear doors again, calls Hughes for one minute and 42 seconds and takes a minute-long call from Nica.

Over 15 minutes, there is a flurry of telephone contact between Hughes, Robinson, Kennedy and Nica, who leaves the area of Collingwood Farm.

– At 1.36am, Robinson telephones 999 and requests an ambulance.

– At 1.50am, police arrived on the scene and find Robinson looking ‘calm’ by the trailer.

Later that morning, Kennedy tells a friend via text: ‘must have been 2 many and run out of air.’

Nica takes an evening flight from Luton to Romania.

– October 24: Draghici flies to Bucharest, in Romania, and remains at large.

– November 22: Kennedy is arrested after the lorry he is driving on the M40 in Oxfordshire is stopped.

– February 7 2020 Nica is extradited to the UK after being detained in Frankfurt under a European Arrest Warrant.

– March 14: Calota is arrested on arrival at Birmingham airport from Romania.

– April 8: Robinson pleads guilty at the Old Bailey to 39 counts of manslaughter.

– June 23: Hughes is extradited from the Republic of Ireland to the UK and pleads guilty to the manslaughter in August.

– July 22: Harrison is extradited to the UK having been detained at Dublin Port, Ireland, under European Arrest Warrant, on October 26 2019.

– October 5: Nica and Harrison go on trial at the Old Bailey for manslaughter. Harrison, Calota and Kennedy are accused of being involved in a wider people-smuggling conspiracy, which Nica, Robinson, Hughes and two others have admitted.

– December 21: they are convicted of manslaughter

The verdicts bring the total number of people convicted in Britain to eight, including haulier boss Ronan Hughes, 41, of Armagh, and 26-year-old lorry driver Maurice Robinson, of Craigavon, who admitted manslaughter.

Prosecutors are considering charges against a further three people.

The maximum sentence for people-smuggling is 14 years in prison with manslaughter carrying a possible life sentence.

Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten, of Essex Police, said the gang were ‘greedy’ but ‘complacent’.

He said: ‘You would not transport animals in that way but they were quite happy to do that and put them at significant risk.’

Since the tragedy, Essex Police had been at the forefront of cracking down on organised immigration crime, Mr Stoten said.

Kelly Matthews, from the Crown Prosecution Service, said: ‘Thirty-nine vulnerable people desperate for a new life put their trust in an unscrupulous network of people smugglers.

‘Nothing can bring back the lives lost on that day or the loss caused by the horrible, unlawful and dangerous actions of these defendants.

‘But we hope these convictions bring some measure of solace to the families in the knowledge that justice has been done.’

The Director of Threat Leadership for the National Crime Agency (NCA), Rob Jones, said: ‘The organised criminal groups involved in immigration crime are callous and treat migrants as a commodity to be profited from. 

‘Their only motivation is money, they don’t care about the safety or consequences of their actions.

‘Tragically in this case the consequences were fatal. I am pleased that those responsible will now be held accountable for their actions.

‘I hope this outcome brings some comfort to the families of those who died.’

The NPCC lead for Organised Immigration crime, Shaun Sawyer, said: ‘The inhumanity demonstrated by these men towards the 39 men, women and children who ultimately lost their lives is truly distressing.

‘This year the Home Office has provided extra funding to policing to assist the UK law enforcement effort to disrupt and prosecute these gangs.

‘With this support and the experience learned from this investigation we will continue our endeavour to seek to prevent tragedies such as this from happening again.’

The Old Bailey heard how the gang offered a ‘VIP’ service to Vietnamese migrants, who gathered in Belgium and France.

They charged about £13,000 a head to transport migrants in a trailer via the Channel Tunnel or by boat to Essex.

The network, led by Nica and and Hughes, had been operating for at least 18 months, despite repeatedly coming to the attention of authorities.

In May 2018, Harrison, the ‘man on the Continent’, was fined after being caught at the Channel Tunnel in France with 18 Vietnamese migrants in his trailer.

On October 11 last year, 15 people were shipped in a container dropped at Zeebrugge by Harrison and collected by Kennedy at Purfleet.

They then boarded a fleet of vehicles at Orsett for transfer to Dulwich where they were held by a Vietnamese man named Phong, whose job was to take payment, jurors heard

Orsett resident Marie Andrews had witnessed the drop and rang police to report her concerns three times that day.

Three days later, Kennedy was stopped by French border agents at the Channel Tunnel.

He was sent on his way after 20 migrants were removed from his trailer, two of whom were among the dead on October 23.

On October 17 last year, Harrison took 15 migrants and a load of macaroons and Bakewell tarts to Zeebrugge.

On arrival, Kennedy dropped the human cargo off at Orsett then helped Hughes try to disguise the fact that the biscuits were trampled and crushed.

That night, Nica was caught on CCTV with Hughes at a hotel in Essex carrying a bag containing £50,000, which he had allegedly collected from Phong.

On the morning of October 22, Harrison picked up 39 migrants from Bierne in France.

CCTV shows police arriving at the scene where Maurice Robinson (top right) had found the bodies in the back of his lorry

His trailer was loaded on to the Clementine ship which departed from Zeebrugge at about 4pm, docking at Purfleet shortly after midnight.

Robinson, who collected the trailer at 1.08am, was instructed by Hughes via Snapchat to ‘give them air quickly don’t let them out’.

When he opened the doors, a plume of vapour escaped and Robinson stood for 90 seconds.

In the 23 minutes before he dialled 999, Robinson exchanged panicked calls with his boss Hughes and Nica, who had been waiting for him in Orsett with his drivers. 

The court was played an emergency call Robinson made in which he said: ‘They are all lying on the ground.’

The operator asked: ‘Are they breathing?’

Robinson: ‘No, I don’t think so. I heard a noise in the back, so I opened the door.’

Operator: ‘How many patients?’

Robinson: ‘About 25.’

Operator: ‘And they’re not breathing?’

Robinson: ‘No.’

The first police officer on the scene described finding half-naked bodies ‘closely packed’ together lying in the trailer, some ‘frothing at the mouth’.

The court heard all 39 victims were declared at the scene in the back of the lorry’s trailer. 

Mobile phones recovered from the victims showed how they had tried to raise the alarm and left goodbye messages for loved ones as they ran out of air. 

Others had used a metal pole to try to punch a hole through the roof or attract attention, the court heard.

Kennedy, Harrison and Calota, who picked up migrants at Orsett on October 18, variously claimed they had thought they were transporting cigarettes, alcohol and stolen lorry parts.

Nica admitted being roped in by convicted cigarette smuggler Hughes for earlier runs, but said he thought Robinson had a load of cigarettes when he showed him where he could unload in Orsett the night before the tragedy. 

The group of migrants were were from five provinces in the central, coastal area of Vietnam and two provinces near Hanoi

Nguyen Huy Hung (left), 15, was the youngest victim in the lorry tragedy, while Nguyen Dinh Lurong (right), 20, also died

Q&A: How the people smuggling gang were brought to justice

The investigation into the deaths of 39 migrants resulted in one of the largest manslaughter cases.

Two of those involved in bringing the people smugglers to justice have shared their views.

– Who was behind the people-smuggling ring?

Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten, from Essex Police, said: ‘The investigation has found it was quite a complex organised crime group behind the people smuggling.

‘Ronan Hughes and Gheorghe Nica were the organisers and the brains behind the crime group and then they had a logistics corps of people involved in the transportation and that included Christopher Kennedy, Eamonn Harrison, Maurice Robinson and others.’

– What drove them to it?

Mr Stoten said: ‘Motivation was purely financial.

‘They were quite willing to put the health and the safety of other people at risk in order to drive that greed.

‘If you look at the victims and the previous people who were transported to the UK, you would not transport animals in that manner.

‘But they (the smugglers) were quite happy to do that and put them at significant risk.’

– What about the 39 Vietnamese nationals who died?

Kelly Matthews, from the Crown Prosecution Service, said: ‘This is an unimaginably tragic case.

‘Thirty-nine vulnerable people desperate for a new life put their trust in an unscrupulous network of people smugglers.

‘They died through a lack of oxygen, desperately trying to escape from a sealed container.

‘Many, when their plight became hopeless, sent messages to loved ones via their mobile phones.’

– What was the effect on the officers who found the 39 bodies?

Mr Stoten said: ‘The officers that first attended that incident did an amazing job.

‘Almost all of those officers that attended were really young in service and it was quite possibly the first time that some of them had ever seen a deceased person.

‘So, to have been met with 39 people … an absolutely horrendous scene in front of them.

‘I’m quite certain that this will stay with them for the rest of their career and quite probably the rest of lives.’

– Why were there so many people in that particular trailer?

Mr Stoten said: ‘The crime group had an almost tried and tested system of usually between 15 and 20 people and that has worked for them.

‘It’s still dangerous, very dangerous.

‘My personal view is that there was something that happened just prior to the 22nd (October) that meant there were another 19 or 20 people that did not come across as they were planning to and, because of pure greed, they decided they were going put all of them into the container.

‘They could have held off for a week or two weeks and then transported them in a less dangerous manner but they didn’t because they wanted the money.

‘So they put 39 of them in a container knowing full well that was an extremely dangerous thing to do.’

– How much money did the gang stand to make?

Mr Stoten said: ‘Between £10,000 and £12,000 per person, the lion’s share of which would have gone to Ronan Hughes and Gheorghe Nica.’

Together with two successful runs on October 11 and 18 last year, some 80 people were smuggled into Britain, paying between £10,000 and £20,000 each – ‘a huge amount of money’, he said.

– Is there evidence that the gang had got away with it for longer?

‘We’ve certainly seen evidence they have been doing this for some time,’ said Mr Stoten.

‘Their greed did not diminish but their complacency did increase.’

– Were there missed opportunities to stop them?

Mr Stoten said police carried out a search after a resident in Orsett reported a drop of migrants on October 11 last year.

He said: ‘We did actually respond quite quickly to that, and some intelligence work was completed immediately and that related to an ANPR (automatic number-plate recognition) search.

‘Unfortunately the people had left the area.’ 

– Has the tragedy led to changes in policing procedures?

Mr Stoten said: ‘Going forward, we actually changed not only the procedures of Essex Police but we have been a forerunner in changing the way the country responds to organised immigration crime.

‘So now, when people are stopped and found to be in the back of lorries or vans etc, we are looking at that.

‘Most often the driver is arrested, and that didn’t happen before.’

– How strong was the evidence in this case?

‘Four people pleaded guilty before the trial.

‘I don’t think they did that because they thought it was the right thing to do; they did that because of the sheer weight of the evidence against them,’ said Mr Stoten.

Ms Matthews said: ‘There was substantial evidence gathered from overseas as well as the UK to bring the case and prove the case.

‘We were able to show that if you put people in a sealed container with no way of opening it there is a risk of some harm, whether that be one person or 100 people inside.’ 

– Do these convictions bring the case to a close?

Ms Matthews said: ‘There are a number of individuals that Essex Police are still pursuing.

‘The CPS are currently looking into three additional people within the UK.

‘There were also significant sums of money made from this catastrophic event.

‘We are committed to pursuing any moneys obtained and ensuring no-one profits from this terrible tragedy.’

– What about the international connection?

Ms Matthews said: ‘There are various investigations and prosecutions taking place across Europe by international partners into this criminal network.

‘A number of people were arrested and prosecuted in Vietnam by the Vietnamese.’

There have been eight convictions in Vietnam.

But prosecutor Bill Emlyn Jones told jurors the operation required ‘meticulous’ planning and each defendant had to be ‘in the know’. 

Home Secretary, Priti Patel, said: ‘This was a truly tragic incident.

‘While I’m pleased justice has been served, I know it will come as little comfort to the families of those who died. My thoughts remain with those affected by this tragedy.

‘Today’s convictions only strengthen my resolve to do all I can to go after the people smugglers who prey on the vulnerable and trade in human misery.

‘I’m determined to bring callous people smugglers to justice and keep our communities safe from the actions of horrendous organised crime groups.

‘I want to thank all the agencies involved in this investigation, specifically Essex Police, the NCA, the Crown Prosecution Service and operational teams in the Home Office for their exemplary professionalism in pursuing convictions.

‘We are fortunate to be served by such outstanding, committed officers, who help keep us safe and support those most in need.’

Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten, who led the investigation, said: ‘This story started almost eight thousand miles away

‘Every man, woman and child, some as young as 15, who died in the lorry trailer was from Vietnam.

‘They may have started their journeys at different times but, ultimately, they were all following the false promise of a new life.

‘They put their trust in people they hoped would deliver them safely to our shores. But sadly, that’s not how their journey ended.

‘Family members and friends, many of whom are still thousands of miles away have suffered an unimaginable loss.

‘I know this because my team at Essex Police have heard their stories, and carefully recorded their testimony first-hand.

‘Since our investigation started, nearly 14 months ago more than 1,300 people have worked on this case.

‘And for the detectives, staff and volunteers at Essex Police, and other forces across the country as well as national and international law enforcement, governments and embassies, this will be a case we will never forget.

‘I’d like to say to the families that we are one step closer to getting you the justice you deserve.

‘It won’t bring your loved ones back, but I hope it will offer some solace. Our thoughts are with you, today and always.’

Russell Tyner, of the CPS Organised Crime Division, said: ‘This is an unimaginably tragic case. 39 vulnerable people desperate for a new life were driven to put their trust in a network of unscrupulous people smugglers and they suffered horrific consequences – not through their own fault but due to the sheer greed of others.

‘They died through lack of oxygen, desperately trying to escape from the container.

‘Some were able to express their last words to their families on their mobile phones when they knew their situation was hopeless.’

The Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner for Essex, Roger Hirst, said: ‘This was an international tragedy that happened here in our county.

‘I said we needed to come together as a community to help the police bring whoever was responsible to justice and we did just that and our force has done an outstanding job.

‘I would like to say thank you to every police officer, firefighter, paramedic, staff member and volunteer who was involved in this case beginning with the heart-breaking discovery of the crime, right through to catching those involved and bringing them before the courts.

‘Nothing will ever bring those 39 people back, but I hope their families will be able to take some comfort from the fact that our emergency services treated them and their loved ones with the respect and compassion they deserved as well as working to get justice in their memories.’

During the trial, the court had heard a couple comforted each other as their dream of a life in Britain slipped away in the back of a dark, hot trailer.

Tran Hai Loc and Nguyen Thi Van, both 35, were still huddled together when they were discovered among the 39 dead on October 23 last year.

Their bodies were carefully removed from the trailer, still holding hands, and taken to hospital together.

The couple had travelled by plane to work in Hungary as fruit pickers for one-and-a-half months, having organised the placement through a labour company in Hanoi at a cost of 7,000 US dollars (£6,000) each.

Their families last heard from them on October 18 last year when they phoned to say their plans had changed.

Four days later, they and the other men, women and children had made their way to a pick-up point en route to Zeebrugge in Belgium, with one group coming from Paris and another from Brussels.

Jurors at the Old Bailey heard that there could have been a 40th migrant on the trip, but for the fact that he was late for his rendezvous with Eamonn Harrison’s lorry in Bierne, northern France.

During the cross-Channel trip on board the Clementine, the group had desperately tried to raise the alarm, even calling the Vietnamese emergency number, as they ran out of air.

When they found there was no mobile phone signal in the trailer, some recorded goodbye messages to their families.

Nguyen Tho Tuan, 25, told his family: ‘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.’

A metal pole had been used to try to punch through the roof of the refrigerated container, but only managed to dent the interior.

Prosecutor Bill Emlyn Jones had said: ‘There was no way out, and no-one to hear them, no-one to help them.’

When police were alerted to the deaths by Maurice Robinson, they found the migrants, aged 15 to 44, were half-naked and frothing at the mouth.

They had been dead long enough for rigor mortis to have set in.

Former Detective Chief Inspector Martin Pasmore, who dealt with their identification, said: ‘It was shocking to say the least.’

He said it was important to treat the bodies with ‘dignity and respect’.

‘Dying in such a horrendous way… You could not help but have a great sense there was no panic there.

‘They seem to have died with dignity and respect for each other, just the way the bodies were laid.

‘There is one couple holding hands. They stayed together throughout the transportation to hospital and they stayed together throughout the post-mortems.’ 

Pham Tra My (left and right) 26, was among the 39 people who died in the lorry in Grays, Essex

Anna Bui Thi Nhung, 19, (left) and cousins Nguyen van Hung, 33, (centre) and Hoang Van Tiep (right), 18, were among victims

Driver Maurice Robinson (pictured), 26, who first discovered the deaths, had already admitted 39 counts of manslaughter

‘They were frothing at the mouth’: PC describes horror moment he found bodies in back of lorry 

A police officer described the moment he discovered the half-naked bodies of 39 migrants, some of whom were ‘frothing at the mouth’, in the back of the lorry.

Pc Emerson said: ‘I could see one of the trailer doors was already open and I could visibly see numerous half-naked bodies in the back of the trailer, lying on the trailer floor motionless.

‘I approached the door of the trailer to further inspect the bodies and it became apparent as I got closer that the entire trailer was full of bodies, and the individuals appeared to be half-naked.

‘Most of them were wearing clothes on their lower half but they all appeared to not be wearing any clothing on their upper half.

‘All of the bodies appeared intact and it was in my opinion that they had not been there for a very long period of time.

‘There was however a strange smell coming from the trailer that smelt like chemicals.’

Pc Emerson said he got inside the trailer to search for any signs of life, checking pulses and for breathing.

He said the bodies were ‘closely packed’ together, mainly lying on their backs. 

‘Due to how packed together the bodies were in the trailer it was not possible to check every body so I made an attempt to check the bodies I could reach.’

He said some of them appeared to be ‘frothing from the mouth’ and some were warm.

The court heard all 39 victims were declared dead at the scene.

Mr Pasmore said that seeing the tragedy had affected officers, and the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder was uppermost in his mind.

It also had a ‘significant impact’ on the families in Vietnam, many of whom had borrowed thousands of pounds to fund the journey.

Officers handled 391 calls from concerned relatives wanting to identify loved ones.

During the trial, jurors were provided with a snapshot of the victims and their dreams of a better life.

They included a bricklayer, a restaurant worker, a nail bar technician, a budding beautician, and a university graduate, who had worked in IT to save up and fund his own passage.

Their journeys across the world, via travel agencies in Vietnam, had included various stops in Russia, China, Germany, Poland, Hungary and Romania. 

They would fly to one country, work there so they could build up cash reserves and send some money home, before then attempting the perilous journey to Britain.

Many of their families borrowed thousands of pounds to fund their passage, relying on their potential future earnings once they got in Britain.

Some of the migrants had made repeated failed attempts to be smuggled into the country, with one being turned back five times.

Witness X, a Vietnamese migrant who was smuggled by the gang on October 11 last year, provided an insight into why so many people were prepared to risk everything.

He was attracted to Britain partly because of the language.

Firstly, he had moved from Poland to France after getting a Schengen visa as a business student.

He then arranged his ‘VIP’ trip across the Channel through a Vietnamese connection on Facebook, who put him in contact with someone in Dulwich, south-east London, called Phong.

He got a taxi to a pick up point where he was ushered onto a trailer by the driver, who told them to go ‘quickly’ but ‘keep quiet’.

Before arriving at Zeebrugge, the driver – said to be Eamonn Harrison – stopped once to provide them with water and further instructions, the court heard.

Inside the lorry trailer driven by Maurice Robinson where 39 Vietnamese migrants suffocated after being smuggled into UK

Video played to the court showed the moment officers arrived on scene in Essex and (inset) body cam footage shows an officer looking for signs of life inside the lorry. Driver Maurice Robinson called 999 after discovering the bodies in his lorry

Who has been convicted of what offences in the Essex lorry death case? 

Eamonn Harrison, 23

  • Guilty of 39 counts of manslaughter
  • Guilty of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

Gheorghe Nica, 43

  • Guilty of 39 counts of manslaughter
  • Admits conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

Valentin Calota, 37

  • Guilty of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

Christopher Kennedy, 24

  • Guilty of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

Maurice Robinson, 26

  • Admits 39 counts of manslaughter
  • Admits conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

Ronan Hughes, 41

  • Admits 39 counts of manslaughter 
  • Admits conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

The migrants were provided bags to urinate in and told to huddle together in the centre of the trailer when they heard a signal.

After he arrived in Britain safely, witness X was made to stay at Phong’s flat in Dulwich until his parents in Vietnam had transferred the £13,000 payment.

Asked what his plan was, the migrant told jurors: ‘I’m going to go to the Home Office to apply for my papers.’

For every person successfully smuggled into Britain, the lorry drivers potentially pocketed £1,500, police said.

Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten, of Essex Police, said: ‘So you see this unacceptable disgusting trade was quite financially rewarding for these crime gangs.’

He said the ‘scale and complexity’ of the threat posed by the gangs and the ‘callous nature of their business model’ should never be under-estimated.

Chief Constable of Essex Police, Ben Julian Harrington, said: ‘The men who were found guilty today made their money from misery.

They knew what they were doing was wrong, but they didn’t care.

They tried to hide what they were doing. They attempted to evade detection. They thought they could cover up their crimes. Today, they have been proved wrong on every count.

‘While I am immensely proud of the Essex Police and our partners, for this diligent investigation, none of us will stop thinking of the victims and their families.

‘Those family members are, in most cases, halfway across the world, and their lives will never be the same again.

‘We will never forget those 39 victims men, women, and children – who were sold the lie of safe passage to our country.

‘We made their loved ones a promise in the Book of Condolence shortly after the incident: that we would do everything in our power to bring those responsible for that horrific journey to justice.

‘Essex Police has worked hard to deliver on our promise, and I hope that is of some small comfort.’

Who were the key players in the Essex lorry deaths case

Gheorghe Nica

Gheorghe Nica was the leader of the people smuggling ring

Romanian Nica was said to be the ‘key organiser’.

A friend and ex-colleague of Irish haulage boss Ronan Hughes, he spent years working in Ireland and England as a lorry driver and mechanic.

The 43-year-old was also involved in the ‘large scale’ smuggling of cigarettes and whisky, according to Valentin Calota.

Nica, who knew the lorry yards in Essex well, paid Calota and others in the Romanian community cash in hand to drive migrants to London under his close supervision.

He also employed his Romanian friend Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga, 28, of Tilbury in Essex, who admitted his role in the gang.

Nica’s senior management position meant he was trusted to look after the money, the prosecution said. 

The divorced father-of-three, from Basildon in Essex, admitted involvement in two successful runs but denied he was a ringleader, pointing the finger at his Romanian friend Marius Draghici and Hughes.

The defendant, who had joint British citizenship, claimed he had been roped in to help while he awaited new passports.

Nica told jurors the family had decided to move back to Romania to get treatment for his young daughter who was born prematurely and suffered from cerebral palsy.

On October 23, he agreed to allow Maurice Robinson to unload near Collingwood Farm, assuming it was cigarettes or alcohol, he claimed.

Ronan Hughes

Ronan Hughes

Logistics boss Hughes had been a lorry driver before he set up his own haulage business, operating on either side of the Irish border.

In 2009, he was jailed for 30 months for smuggling some six million cigarettes from Calais to Dover.

He admitted evading revenue of around £927,000 and was sentenced at Maidstone Crown Court, it can now be reported.

A decade later, the 41-year-old married defendant, of Dalton Park, Armagh, Co Armagh, recruited a team of young Irish lorry drivers to take on the riskiest roles in the people-smuggling operation while directing them via burner phones.

He got his hands dirty on October 18 last year when he tried to cover up human contamination in a load of biscuits with Christopher Kennedy.

He knew there was a serious risk to the 39 migrants on October 22, telling lorry driver Maurice Robinson, who picked them up, to ‘give them air quickly’ – but not to let them out.

Hughes pleaded guilty to manslaughter and people-smuggling in August. 

Eamonn Harrison

Eamonn Harrison

The 24-year-old lorry driver, from Newry, Co Down, was said to be Hughes’ ‘man on the Continent’.

On each of the three people-smuggling runs, it was Harrison who picked up migrants and took them in trailers to Zeebrugge in Belgium to be shipped to the UK.

Described in court as ‘young, heavy-drinking and irresponsible’, Harrison had struggled with ADHD at school and at the age of 18 followed in his father’s footsteps and became an HGV driver.

In May 2018, he was handed a civil penalty notice after Border Force officials at Coquelles in France found 18 Vietnamese migrants sitting on boxes of waffles in his trailer.

Having been stopped twice in Germany in 2018 over driving incidents, in May last year he lost control of Hughes’ lorry in Lower Saxony.

He was convicted of drink-driving and ordered to pay 855 euros (£768), which remains outstanding.

The crash meant Hughes had Harrison ‘over a barrel’ because he owed him thousands of pounds for the damage, jurors were told.

Harrison, who described being lonely on the road, claimed he did not know about the migrants in his trailer on any occasion, saying he thought he was helping to pick up ‘stolen lorry parts’ for Hughes.

He blamed others for loading the migrants into his trailer, saying he watched Netflix in his cab with the curtains down when the 39 migrants boarded.

But a migrant transported on October 11 said the driver had told them to huddle together before dropping them at Zeebrugge.

Harrison told jurors he was ‘devastated’ for the families of the victims.

Christopher Kennedy

Christopher Kennedy

‘Team player’ Kennedy, from County Armagh, was another of Hughes’ drivers, even though his actual boss was Irish haulier, Caolan Gormley, who was arrested and released under investigation.

The 24-year-old’s role was to pick up the human cargo at Purfleet docks and take them to Orsett for onward transfer to London on the two successful runs.

In between those trips, he was also caught with 20 Vietnamese people in his trailer at Coquelles in France on October 14 last year – two of whom ended up among the 39 dead days later.

On the day of the tragedy, it was Kennedy who Hughes called within seconds of finding out from Robinson that 39 migrants had died in one of his trailers.

And asked by a friend what he thought had happened, he said there ‘must have been too many and run out of air’.

Growing up on a small holding in Keady, Kennedy felt the pressure of being the oldest of four siblings, particularly after his father had an accident and could no longer work.

But he racked up three driving offences from the age of 13 when he was caught behind the wheel of a tractor illegally.

It meant that, despite gaining his HGV licence at the age of 19, finding work was challenging.

In June last year, Mr Gormley, also from County Armagh, gave him a job driving goods around England for £550 a week.

Kennedy claimed he agreed to shift illegal cigarettes for ‘extra cash’ and did not realise there were migrants.

He became suspicious when he helped Hughes tidy up soiled biscuits on October 18 last year but said the haulage boss ‘shrugged it off’.

Maurice Robinson

Maurice Robinson

The 26-year-old lorry driver, from Craigavon in Northern Ireland, found the bodies of the 39 migrants after he picked up the trailer they were in at Purfleet.

He admitted manslaughter, being part of the people-smuggling gang and acquiring criminal property.

Robinson was tasked with collecting the trailer on October 23 last year and was shown by Nica where to take it in Orsett the night before.

In the 23 minutes before he called 999, he exchanged a series of calls with Hughes and Nica, who in turn alerted other members of the team, including those waiting in Orsett.

When he spoke to Nica, he allegedly told him: ‘I have a problem here – dead bodies in the trailer.’

When he finally rang 999, Robinson claimed he had found the bodies after he heard ‘a noise in the back’, even though the evidence suggested they had been dead for hours.

Valentin Calota

The hired helper, originally from Romania, was paid £700 by Nica to drive a van-load of migrants from Orsett to London on October 18 last year.

The 38-year-old had been living and working as a lorry driver in Bradford, Essex and Birmingham on and off for years.

Calota, who was single and left school at 16, often felt homesick and at times found it difficult to scratch out a living.

His precarious lifestyle led to two cautions in 2011 and 2015.

On July 1 2011, he tried to steal some clothes from Marks & Spencer and was cautioned for shoplifting.

On July 2 2015, he was cautioned for false accounting after he tried to pay for food and beer with a false Coinstar receipt in an Asda in Barking.

Calota knew about Nica’s trade in smuggled cigarettes and alcohol, having met at a barbecue in Orsett in 2017, he said.

He claimed he was duped by Nica and he did not hear or see any migrants on the hour-long journey to London to deliver what he thought were cigarettes.

Calota told jurors: ‘I should not have accepted involvement in any smuggling of cigarettes. I should have minded my own business and I’m very sorry and apologetic.’

CCTV footage obtained by police shows Eamonn Harrison dropping off trailer at port of Zeebrugge in Belgium on October 17

CCTV shows Christopher Kennedy in his lorry’s cab arriving at the port of Purfleet in Essex

Maurice Robinson (left) and Ronan Hughes at an Ibis Hotel in Thurrock where they meet Nica

Lead investigator: ‘Total greed’ led to the worst ever manslaughter case in British legal history 

Human trafficker Ronan Hughes was making up to £1m a month until 39 Vietnamese migrants suffered agonising deaths in the back of a lorry. 

The ‘total greed’ and ‘complacency’ of the traffickers led to the worst ever manslaughter case in British legal history, DCI Daniel Stoten said.

They made enormous sums of money, with killer trucker Maurice ‘Mo’ Robinson, splashing some of his £100,000 on a refurbishment of his girlfriend’s hair salon.

Hughes spent some of his millions on vast expanses of Irish land to add to his estate and hid the rest of the spoils.

The traffickers viewed the victims as ‘commodities’ rather than ‘human beings,’ said DCI Stoten, who led the Essex Police investigation. 

But the fatal voyage, in which the smugglers crammed 39 people into the trailer in a mercenary bid to do two loads in one, was ‘doomed to failure,’ said DCI Stoten.

‘The VIP option is more about getting them through successfully.’

‘Clearly safety wasn’t a particular concern to these people traffickers.

‘We’ve seen that because they were willing to take absolutely unacceptable risks, by putting 39 people in a container.’ 

Describing the ‘total greed’ of the smugglers, DCI Stoten said: ‘Ronan Hughes and Gheorghe Nica were the heads of the operation, and the rest of them more logistical. They got the lion’s share of the money paid.

‘Hence why, when there was potentially a missed opportunity to bring people into the UK by doubling up the facilitation of 39 people, because they don’t want to lose the money. Total greed.

‘With people like Nica and Hughes they’re career criminals and they’ve been brought up on crime. They’ve learnt to hide their money. 

‘Whereas with people like Robinson – he was a lorry driver just coming into the criminality and so we can see a much larger footprint financially for him.

‘We can see about £100,000 going through his accounts.

‘They all had their eyes wide open to what they were involved in and they all gained a huge amount of money from this and you can see this from Robinson’s house and his salon. Huge amount of money. 

‘Hughes’ family history is in the haulage industry. His dad runs a haulage company and him and his brother run separate haulage companies.

‘Between 60 and 80 people that we know were brought into the UK in October. You’re talking not far off £1m [made by Hughes] just for October. 

‘I don’t know if they lost sight of the fact that they were human beings or they didn’t care from the outset – these human beings were a commodity to them.’ 

Branding the killers ‘merciless’ DCI Stoten said: ‘Even with the convictions it’s not a cause for celebration.

‘The starting point for this was an utter tragedy that will stay with everyone who was involved and I think we’re just pleased to bring a sense of justice to the families, albeit they will never get over it.

‘None of them have shown remorse. Merciless is the word I would use.’

The risks taken by the crime group responsible for the deaths of 39 migrants found in a lorry container in Essex were ‘sadly not unusual’, a senior Immigration Enforcement official has said.

Steve Dann, director of crime and financial investigations within the Immigration Enforcement unit at the Home Office, said people being trafficked were seen as a commodity, no different to drugs or tobacco.

‘In relation to the risk, sadly the organised crime groups have complete disregard for the people, the commodity as they see it,’ he said.

‘Whether it’s drugs or tobacco, this is just another commodity and they take no interest at all in the health and wellbeing of the migrants.

‘I’ve seen some horrendous conditions, people being brought in.

‘People have been brought in unresponsive because they’re in a coffin-like hide within a vehicle or within a vessel, so sadly no this is not unusual.

‘The numbers were high for a single incident but the crime groups, their methodology, they have complete disregard.’

The criminal gang brought the container into the UK through Purfleet port in Essex.

‘I can’t say whether they saw this (entry point) as a soft touch,’ Mr Dann added.

He said that since the incident in October 2019, his agency has worked with colleagues in Zeebrugge in Belgium, where the container began its journey to the UK.

‘We’ve increased our deployments of resources over in Zeebrugge. The same way in the UK we’ve increased our response,’ he said.

‘We’ve developed a multi-agency hub to develop intelligence, to share intelligence quicker, there’s a number of different initiatives that have taken place with this.’

He said that the ‘link hadn’t been drawn’ when French authorities foiled an attempt to smuggle migrants across the Channel on October 14, nine days before the 39 migrants were found dead on October 23.

On October 14, a vehicle driven by haulier Christopher Kennedy was stopped at Coquelles, near Calais in France, and 20 Vietnamese migrants were found in the back, the trial at the Old Bailey was told was told. They were frisked and taken away.

Kennedy, 24, of County Armagh had denied being part of the people-smuggling ring linked to the deaths of 39 migrants.

‘At that point the link hadn’t been drawn,’ said Mr Dann.

‘He (Kennedy) was in, I think, it was a Transit van coming in through Coquelles.’

He went on: ‘We have a joint intelligence cell with the French, so we do share intelligence daily and lots of intelligence as well.

‘In relation to linking this, what we have to do with these incidents is start to develop the intelligence into an operation that allows us to identify the crime group behind it.

‘Sometimes, depending on what we’re faced with, it can be done immediately and we do an immediate response, other times it’s about bringing different pieces of the jigsaw together to identify the crime group.’

He said his agency is ‘making every effort to disrupt’ crime groups and that Immigration Enforcement has disrupted 430 organised crime groups so far this year through arrests and preventative action.

‘We see the threats move, it’s quite an agile threat, crime groups are very agile,’ he said.

‘What we have to do is try to stay ahead of the game and be as agile as them.’

Who were the 39 people who died in the Essex lorry container? 

These are the names of the victims of the Essex truck tragedy are: 

 Pham Thi Tra My, a 26-year-old woman from Ha Tinh

Nguyen Dinh Lurong, a 20-year-old man from Ha Tinh

Nguyen Huy Phong, a 35-year-old man from Ha Tinh

Vo Nhan Du, a 19-year-old man from Ha Tinh

Tran Manh Hung, a 37-year-old man from Ha Tinh

Tran Khanh Tho, a 18-year-old man from Ha Tinh

Vo Van Linh, a 25-year-old man from Ha Tinh

Nguyen Van Nhan, a 33-year-old man from Ha Tinh

Bui Phan Thang, a 37-year-old man from Ha Tinh

Nguyen Huy Hung, a 15-year-old boy from Ha Tinh

Tran Thi Tho, a 21-year-old woman from Nghe An

Bui Thi Nhung, a 19-year-old woman from Nghe An

Vo Ngoc Nam, a 28-year-old man from Nghe An

Nguyen Dinh Tu, a 26-year-old man from Nghe An

Le Van Ha, a 30-year-old man from Nghe An

Tran Thi Ngoc, a 19-year-old woman from Nghe An

Nguyen Van Hung, a 33-year-old man from Nghe An

Hoang Van Tiep, a 18-year-old man from Nghe An

Cao Tien Dung, a 37-year-old man from Nghe An

Cao Huy Thanh, a 33-year-old man from Nghe An

Tran Thi Mai Nhung, a 18-year-old woman from Nghe An

Nguyen Minh Quang, a 20-year-old man from Nghe An

Le Trong Thanh, a 44-year-old man from Dien Chau

Pham Thi Ngoc Oanh, a 28-year-old woman from Nghe An

Hoang Van Hoi, a 24-year-old man from Nghe An

Nguyen Tho Tuan, a 25-year-old man from Nghe An

Dang Huu Tuyen, a 22-year-old man from Nghe An

Nguyen Trong Thai, a 26-year-old man from Nghe An

Nguyen Van Hiep, a 24-year-old man from Nghe An

Nguyen Thi Van, a 35-year-old woman from Nghe An

Tran Hai Loc, a 35-year-old man from Nghe An

Duong Minh Tuan, a 27-year-old man from Quang Binh

Nguyen Ngoc Ha, a 32-year-old man from Quang Binh

Nguyen Tien Dung, a 33-year-old man from Quang, Binh

Phan Thi Thanh, a 41-year-old woman from Hai Phong

Nguyen Ba Vu Hung, a 34-year-old man from Thua Tien Hue

Dinh Dinh Thai Quyen, a 18-year-old man from Hai Phong

Tran Ngoc Hieu, a 17-year-old boy from Hai Duong

Dinh Dinh Binh 15-year-old boy from Hai Phong

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