Seven men have been sentenced to a total of more than 92 years in prison following an investigation into the tragic deaths of 39 Vietnamese nationals in October 2019.
The men appeared at the Old Bailey court in London in front of his Hon. Mr Justice Sweeney on January 22, and have received a total of 92 years and 10 months imprisonment between them.
The men had worked together to smuggle people illegally into the U.K., with some receiving astonishingly high payment for their services, across three dates in October 2019.
National Crime Agency (NCA) officers worked alongside Essex Police throughout their investigation, providing specialist support and assistance crucial to the successful prosecution, including through the NCA’s international network, which worked closely with law enforcement around the world, including Vietnam.
Deputy Director of the NCA, Matthew Long, said: “There can be no greater demonstration of how dangerous the organized criminal networks involved in people smuggling can be than this tragic case.
“As a result of the callousness and greed of these individuals, 39 men, women and children lost their lives in the most horrific of circumstances.
“The loved ones of those victims have to live with that every day, and I can only hope that with these sentences passed today they can at least feel that justice has been done.
“For us, it does not stop here. There are undoubtedly other criminal networks out there who seek to exploit migrants in just the same way, without care for their safety, putting lives at risk day in, day out.
“Cases like this make us even more determined to do all we can to stop these gangs, and the NCA will continue to use the full range of tools at our disposal to disrupt and dismantle people smuggling networks impacting the U.K., no matter where in the world they operate.”
Chief Constable of Essex Police, Ben-Julian Harrington, acknowledged that the result upheld the promise he had made to the families more than a year ago.
He said: “On 23 October 2019 we were called to a scene that no officer could ever have prepared for. I know the officers who attended that morning will never forget what they saw in that trailer.
“Every person in that trailer had left behind a family. They had been promised safe passage to our shores and they were lied to. They were left to die, all because of the greed of the men who have been sentenced today.
“Their families, most of them thousands of miles away, have had their heartbreak played out for the world to see. They’ve kept their dignity, and they put their trust in us to deliver justice. I promised them that we would, and my teams have done just that.
“This was the biggest investigation in Essex Police’s history, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the help of the public – many of whom spoke to us when they were scared to do so – and without the help from our partners, locally, nationally and internationally.
“Together, with the Crown Prosecution Service and help from the National Crime Agency, we’ve worked tirelessly to bring this case to court.
“We’ve managed to convict those who did not have the decency of entering guilty pleas, despite the overwhelming evidence against them, and today, we’ve seen the sentences passed down and justice done.
“Our thoughts and our prayers will always be with the families of the victims and we’ll continue to support them in any way we can.”
Essex Police were initially called by the ambulance service shortly after 1.40am on 23 October 2019, following a 999 call from lorry driver Maurice Robinson.
When officers arrived at the scene, they made the tragic discovery of 39 Vietnamese victims in the trailer of the lorry.
Robinson had picked up the trailer at the Port of Tilbury shortly at around 1am, before parking up to ‘give [them] some air’, as per a Snapchat message from his boss, Ronan Hughes.
Upon opening the doors and realising that the people inside were not breathing, Robinson closed the doors again and made a series of phone calls to his bosses, driving around West Thurrock until he had abandoned his burner phone and come up with a plan. Half an hour later, he parked up for a second time, and made the call to the ambulance service.
Robinson, who had denied any knowledge of people being in the trailer, was arrested at the scene. The investigation identified that he had been involved in the conspiracy for some time. He was charged several days later.
The 26-year-old, from Laurel Drive in Craigavon, Northern Ireland, pleaded guilty to 39 counts of manslaughter, conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and acquiring criminal property prior to the beginning of the trial. He was sentenced to a total of 13 years and four months.
The leader of the conspiracy was Robinson’s boss, 41-year-old Ronan Hughes. Hughes left Thurrock and boarded a plane back to Ireland on the day of the discovery.
In April 2020, a European Arrest Warrant was granted, and Hughes was brought back to Essex to face the charges against him.
He pleaded guilty to all offences and was sentenced to a total of 20 years in prison today.
Working alongside Hughes to head up the conspiracy was Gheorghe Nica, 44, of Mimosa Close in Langdon Hills, Essex. Nica and Hughes would arrange the collection of the migrants in France and their transport to the U.K. Nica would also arrange drivers to pick up migrants from Collingwood Farm in Orsett once they had successfully been taken there by the lorries. It’s believed that these cars would be taken to locations in London.
He, along with lorry driver Eamonn Harrison, was found guilty of 39 counts of manslaughter and one count of conspiracy to assist illegal immigration following a ten-week trial at the Old Bailey last year. He was sentenced to a total of 27 years in prison.
Harrison, 24, of Mayobridge in Northern Ireland, had the job of picking up migrants at designated drop-off points in France and Belgium on a number of occasions. The last time he would undertake this task was for the fatal trailer on 22 October 2019. He would load migrants onto the airtight trailer and lock them in – leaving them with no method of escape, before dropping the trailer at Zeebrugge for its onward journey to Purfleet. He has been sentenced to a total of 18 years in prison.
Another lorry driver, 24-year-old Christopher Kennedy, of Corkley Road in Darkley, County Armagh, has been sentenced to seven years in prison for conspiracy to assist illegal immigration after working with Hughes and Nica to transport migrants on the 11 and 18 October 2019.
Valentin Calota, 38, of Cossingham Road in Birmingham, worked with Nica to transport migrants into London once they had arrived in Essex. He was the only onward driver to stand trial at the Old Bailey, as two others had previously entered guilty pleas. He was sentenced to four and-a-half years for his part in the conspiracy.
Alexandru Hanga, 28, of Hobart Road in Tilbury, was another of those onward drivers. He pleaded guilty last April to a count of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration. He was sentenced to three years in prison.
As part of ongoing international investigations into others involved in the people smuggling ring, a number of individuals have also been arrested.
In December a man wanted in Belgium on suspicion of smuggling a number of the Vietnamese migrants was arrested by the NCA. He is suspected of having been involved in transporting at least ten of the 39 found dead in Essex, moving them from a safe house in Anderlecht in taxis to a location near the French/Belgian border before they were put onto the lorry. The man was tracked down by investigators to an address in the Redditch area of Worcestershire, and is now in custody awaiting extradition.