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Seven men jailed for the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants in Grays

39 Vietnamese nationals suffocated inside an airtight lorry container in October 2019 (credit: Essex Police)

Seven men have been jailed for their part in the deaths of 39 Vietnamese people who were found dead in the back of a lorry in Grays.

The migrants, aged between 15 and 44-years-old, suffocated inside the lorry container while travelling from Zeebrugge to Purfleet in October last year. 

 24 year-old lorry driver Eamonn Harrison, from Northern Ireland, and 44 year-old Gheorghe Nica, of Basildon, were found guilty of 39 counts of manslaughter and one count of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration by a jury at the Old Bailey last year.

Mr Harrison and Mr Nica have both been sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Lorry driver Maurice Robinson, 26, transport fixer Ronan Hughes, 41, and drivers Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga, 28, and Gazmir Nuzi, 43, have also been jailed after previously pleading guilty to various charges brought against them.

Mr Robinson has been sentence to a total of 13 years and four months and Mr Hughes has been given a sentence of 20 years in prison. Mr Hanga has been sentenced to three years in prison while Mr Nuzi was sentenced to 10 months imprisonment, which he had already served.

Christopher Kennedy, 24, and Valentin Calota, 38, had also both been found guilty for their role in smuggling the migrants into the country. Mr Kennedy was sentenced to seven years in prison while Mr Calota was given four-and-a-half years in prison for his part.

The 39 Vietnamese nationals were found unresponsive inside the lorry by its driver, Maurice Robinson, in Eastern Avenue, Grays, during the early hours of Wednesday, 23 October 2019. 

Essex Police arrested Robinson at the scene and launched an investigation into the smuggling network.

Officers discovered Hughes and Nica had overseen two earlier journeys that month in which people had been brought into the country. 

They had been assisted by two 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 several locations across London. 

Chief Constable of Essex Police, Ben-Julian Harrington, 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.”

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.

“I hope it will bring the families some comfort to know that they will serve a [significant amount of] time in prison, but I know that their pain will never go away.

“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.”

Leader of Thurrock Council, Councillor Rob Gledhill, 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.”

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