United Kingdom

Essex lorry deaths: Four people smugglers jailed for 78 years total 

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 up to £14,000 a head for a 'VIP' service.

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

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

Mr Justice Sweeney said today: 'I have no doubt that, as asserted by the prosecution, the conspiracy was a sophisticated, long running, and profitable one to smuggle mainly Vietnamese migrants across the channel.' 

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.

Instead of calling the police upon his discovery, 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.

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

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

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

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.'

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

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

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 who translated the messages.

Who has been convicted in the Essex lorry death case? 

Eamonn Harrison, 23

Gheorghe Nica, 43

Valentin Calota, 37

Christopher Kennedy, 24

Maurice Robinson, 26

Ronan Hughes, 41

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.'' 

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.

Timeline of the Essex lorry tragedy 

Here is a timeline of events surrounding the deaths of 39 Vietnamese men, women and children in the back of a lorry in Essex.

  • May 9 2018: Eamonn Harrison is stopped at Coquelles in France driving a lorry into the Channel Tunnel. It is found to have 18 Vietnamese nationals hidden in the back sitting on boxes of waffles. He is issued with a fine which is never paid.
  • May 1 2019: Harrison is caught drink-driving in Drantum, Germany, after he lost control and his lorry toppled over. He is convicted and ordered to pay 855 euro.
  • October 9 2019: At 9.04pm, Harrison's GPS tracker places his truck in La Chappelle d'Armentieres in northern France. He beds down for the night in Bailleul.
  • October 10: Harrison makes a series of stops in Nieppe, La Chapelle d'Armentieres and Lissewege before he delivers a human cargo to Zeebrugge in Belgium to be transported to Purfleet in Essex.
  • October 11: At 7am, the trailer containing the migrants is picked up in Purfleet by lorry driver Christopher Kennedy and taken to a drop-off point near Orsett Golf Club.
  • At 8.18am, Gheorghe Nica, Alexandru Hanga, Marius Draghici and Gazmir Nuzi are caught on CCTV allegedly arriving in convoy.
  • At 8.22am, Marie Andrews and Stewart Cox, who live on Collingwood Farm, Orsett, see a red lorry with a white trailer pull up, together with four black Mercedes vehicles. As they watched, 15 to 20 people jump out of the lorry and run to the Mercedes.
  • October 14: At 7.25am Kennedy travels from Dover to Calais with the same lorry, but a different trailer.
  • At 11.50pm, Kennedy is stopped at Coquelles, en route to Folkestone via the Eurotunnel. Twenty Vietnamese nationals are discovered in his trailer and taken away by the border authorities, but Kennedy is allowed to continue with his journey. It later transpires two of the migrants are among the victims.
  • October 17: Harrison makes a second successful run, dropping off a container load of migrants at Zeebrugge with a consignment of biscuits.
  • 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 afternoon, Barbara Richmond-Clarke, warehouse manager at Lenham Storage, in Kent, rejects the delivery of crushed and dirty biscuit boxes.
  • 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.
  • At 9.53pm, Harrison is found drunk in Bruges, Belgium, and is stopped by police.
  • October 19: At 9.09am, police find Harrison's truck has been parked illegally and ask him to move.
  • 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 7.37 pm, 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 minutes 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

Wearing a Nike jacket and jeans for his sentencing, Nica showed no emotion when he was jailed for 27 years imprisonment.

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.

On October 14, 2019,  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.

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.

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 October 23.

The British-Romanian said he had agreed to smuggle people into the country previously because Hughes 'came to England and asked him' but then opted out on October 23.

He shared a 'celebratory drink' after a people-smuggling run on October 18 in the bar of the Ibis hotel in Thurrock with Robinson.

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 has 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 October 18 run.

When he opened up the back doors the boxes were squashed and covered in footprints with 'bags of p***' discarded amongst the goods.

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

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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