Verdicts returned over deaths of 39 Vietnamese nationals found in lorry container in Grays

Four men been found guilty of their involvement in a people smuggling ring, which contributed to the deaths of 39 Vietnamese men, women and children in October last year. 

Three of the victims’ families have spoken of their grief and their ongoing prayers for their loved ones.

The sister of 22-year-old Dang Huu Tuyen paid tribute to her “angel” of a brother.

The parents of 15-year-old Nguyen Huy Hung, one of the two youngest people onboard, recalled their son’s love of football and how “peaceful and smart” he was, as well as his drive to do well at school.

The young son of 42-year-old Phan Thi Thanh has written a poem for his mother called “Beloved Mommy!”.

At the Old Bailey today, Monday December 21, the jury returned their verdicts after a 10-week trial.   

Eamon Harrison at a petrol station in Belgium

Eamonn Harrison, a 24-year-old lorry driver from Mayobridge in Northern Ireland, was found guilty of 39 counts of manslaughter and guilty of one count of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

Gheorghe Nica, 43, of Mimosa Close in Langdon Hills, was found guilty of the same charges.

Christopher Kennedy, 24, of Corkley Road in Darkley, County Armagh, was found guilty of one count of conspiracy to facilitate the commission of a breach of UK immigration law.

Valentin Calota, 38, of Cossingham Road in Birmingham, was found guilty of the same charge.

The tragic discovery of 39 Vietnamese men, women and children unresponsive in the trailer of a lorry by its driver, Maurice Robinson, in Eastern Avenue, Grays, was made in the early hours of Wednesday October 23, 2019.

Following his arrest, the largest investigation in Essex Police’s history ensued, unravelling a network of organised criminals, which had operated in the UK and overseas.

During the investigation, it was discovered that Hughes and Nica had overseen two earlier journeys that month, on October 11 and 18, in which people had been brought into the country.

They were assisted by two other lorry drivers, Harrison and Kennedy and a number of other drivers who picked up passengers from a pre-arranged drop-off site in Thurrock and transported them to locations across London.

Nica has previously admitted his role in the breach of immigration law on those two dates but had denied his involvement on the October 23.    

Chief Constable of Essex Police, Ben Julian Harrington, said of the result:

“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.

“Whilst I feel immense pride for the Essex Police teams, 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. The force 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, which ended on our shores, to justice.

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

Senior Investigating Officer, Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten, 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. As we all now know, sadly, that’s not how their journey ended.

“Family members and friends, many of whom are still thousands of miles away from where I stand today, 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, more than 1,300 people have worked on this case. From the detectives, staff and volunteers at Essex Police, to other forces across the country, and national and international law enforcement, governments and embassies – this will be a case we will never forget.

“I’d like to speak directly to the families now: We are one step closer to getting you the justice you deserve. I know it won’t bring your loved ones back, but I hope it will offer some solace.

“Our thoughts are with you, today and always.”

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.”

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 CPS hopes this terrible incident, and these convictions today, will send a real warning to anybody considering smuggling people into the UK in this way.”

Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner for Essex, Roger Hirst, added: “The deaths of those people were an international tragedy that happened right here in our county. At the time I said we needed to come together as a community to help the police bring whoever was responsible to justice. We did just that and our force has done an outstanding job.

“On behalf of the people of Essex I would like to say thank you to each and 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.”

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.

“We will continue to lead the UK’s fight against organised immigration crime, and my message to those involved in this exploitative trade is simple – we are coming after you. We are using the full range of tools at our disposal to disrupt and dismantle people smuggling networks impacting the UK, no matter where in the world they operate.”

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.”  

“Essex Police along with national and international law enforcement partners have successfully achieved justice in this case and our determined effort to prevent organised crime gangs engaged in trafficking vulnerable and exploited people into our country continues.”  

Those found guilty will be sentenced at a later date alongside those who have already entered guilty pleas to the offences against them: lorry driver Maurice Robinson, transport fixer Ronan Hughes, and drivers Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga and Gazmir Nuzi.

Hughes’ brother Christopher was initially named as a suspect in the investigation. No further action will be taken against him.

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Mick Ferris

Editor Email: [email protected]