The biggest investigation in Essex Police’s history came to an end on Friday as seven people were sentenced to a combined total or more than 90 years in prison.
The case of 39 Vietnamese nationals whose bodies were discovered in a lorry container in Grays in October 2019 shocked the nation.
Senior Investigating Officer, Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten of the Kent and Essex Serious Crime Directorate, said: “I welcome the sentences given today, a reflection of both the serious criminality and the tragic nature of this case.
“The quality of evidence ensured the successful prosecution of Nica, Harrison and others, who refused to own up to their guilt.
“In doing so, they put the victims’ families through even more pain, especially Nica, who gave contemptible evidence, telling lie after lie in the most shameful way.
“I hope that the quality and the detail of the evidence, and the high level of exposure that this case has had, demonstrates that our pursuit of those involved in these wicked crimes is unrelenting.
“May this serve as a warning to those who think it’s okay 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.
“Across Essex, we’re continuing to make sure that victims of organised immigration crime are treated as such, and we’re trailblazers in changing national protocol and policy on this matter.
“We’re also working closely with the haulage industry, to make sure a tragedy like this never happens again.
“39 victims died in the trailer. Two of them were just 15-years-old and had travelled half the world unaccompanied – all of them left behind families, memories, and homes, in the pursuit of a false promise of something better. Instead they died, in an unimaginable way, because of the utter greed of these criminals.
“It is my great privilege to have led this investigation, to have achieved this outcome, but it doesn’t change the overwhelming sense of loss and sadness that has been felt throughout by us all, by families, friends and by loved ones.
“They are in our thoughts, today and always.”
Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “The pain and suffering endured by the families of the victims of this terrible tragedy is unbearable. They will always remain in my thoughts and prayers.
“The inhumanity of these callous people smugglers and their dangerous organised criminal networks has rightly been reflected in the sentencing today.”
Deputy Director of the National Crime Agency, Matthew Long, said: “There can be no greater demonstration of how dangerous the organised 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 UK, no matter where in the world they operate.”
Roger Hirst, Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner for Essex, said: “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.
“Now those responsible have been sentenced and while the punishments will offer little comfort to the families of the 39 souls who lost their lives in this tragedy, I hope they will see that justice has been served. I also hope it sends a strong message to those heartless criminals who exploit people for their own gains.”
Cllr Rob Gledhill, Leader of Thurrock Council, said: “This appalling crime has affected so many lives, not only the 39 victims discovered here in Thurrock but their families back home in Vietnam it also had an impact on the lives of those who had to deal with the scene, including emergency services and council staff.
“This type of despicable crime is still continuing to this day with criminal gangs putting lives at risk. It’s imperative that authorities in Europe, where people are boarding vehicles being operated by criminal gangs, take strong action rather than relying on our excellent border force to find people and protect them – which as we have seen can be too late to save lives.
“I was pleased that Thurrock Council could play a role in showing just how deeply touched we all were by this terrible event by opening a book of condolence, which hundreds of people signed at our civic offices. I am glad that this book is now in Vietnam thanks to Essex Police and hope it brings some small measure of comfort to the families at this incredibly difficult time.”