Essex lorry deaths: People-smuggling ‘ringleader’ admits manslaughter of 39 Vietnamese migrants found dead in trailer

A police officer secures the cordon at the scene (AFP via Getty Images)
A police officer secures the cordon at the scene (AFP via Getty Images)

An alleged ringleader of a people-smuggling gang has pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of 39 men, women and children in a lorry trailer in Essex.

The Vietnamese nationals were found dead in the container which had been transported by ferry from Zeebrugge in Belgium to Purfleet early on October 23 2019.

The victims had hoped for a better life in Britain when they agreed to pay up to £13,000 a head for a "VIP" smuggling service.

On October 22 2019, they were crammed into the lorry container to be shipped in pitch black and sweltering conditions and the Old Bailey has heard how they desperately tried to raise the alarm as they ran out of air before reaching British shores.

Marius Mihai Draghici, 50, who was detained by police in Romania last August, pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey on Friday to the manslaughter charges as well as conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration. He will be sentenced on a date to be set.

Four others were jailed in 2021 for between 13 and 27 years for the manslaughter of the 39 migrants.

Lorry driver Maurice Robinson found the migrants, two aged just 15, dead when he collected the trailer from the docks early the next morning.

Robinson, 28, of Craigavon, and his boss Ronan Hughes, 43, of Armagh, had admitted plotting to people smuggle and 39 counts of manslaughter.

Marius Mihai Draghici (Essex Police/PA) (PA Media)
Marius Mihai Draghici (Essex Police/PA) (PA Media)

Hughes's partner in crime Gheorghe Nica, 46, of Basildon, Essex, and Eamonn Harrison, 26, of County Down, who had collected the victims on the continent, were found guilty of the offences.

At a sentencing hearing at the Old Bailey, Robinson, who also admitted money laundering, was jailed for 13 years and four months in jail, Hughes was sentenced to 20 years in prison, Nica to 27 years and Harrison to 18 years.

Mr Justice Sweeney said: "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."

The migrants had desperately tried to break out of the trailer and raise the alarm before they suffered an "excruciatingly slow death", the judge said.

Other members of the gang were also jailed in the same hearing for their role in the organised criminal operation.

Lorry driver Christopher Kennedy, 26, of County Armagh, was jailed for seven years; Valentin Calota, 40, from Birmingham, was handed four-and-a-half years; and Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga, 31, from Essex, was sentenced to three years in custody.

The court had heard the operation was long-running and profitable, with the smugglers standing to make more than a million pounds in October 2019 alone.

A total of seven smuggling trips were identified between May 2018 and October 23 2019, although the court heard that there were likely to have been more.

Migrants would board lorries at a remote location on the continent to be transported to Britain where they would be picked up by a fleet of smaller vehicles organised by Nica for transfer to a safe house until payment was received.

The fee was between £10,000 and £13,000, for the "VIP route" in which the driver was aware of the presence of smuggled migrants inside the trailer attached to his lorry.

Victims of the tragedy (PA)
Victims of the tragedy (PA)

Some of the trips were thwarted by border officials and residents in Orsett, Essex, who had repeatedly reported migrants being dropped off to the police.

Yet the smuggling operation was not stopped until after the tragic journey.

The families of the victims in Vietnam and Britain spoke at the sentencing hearing of their loss and hardship.

Phan Thi Thanh, 41, had sold the family home and left her son with his godmother before setting off on the ill-fated journey.

Her "heartbroken" son said: "I heard about the incident from mass media so I called dad in the UK in order to confirm if mum was a victim.

"I was very shocked, very sad and I was crying a lot."

Tran Hai Loc and his wife Nguyen Thi Van, both 35, who were found huddled together in death, left two children aged six and four.

The children's grandfather Tran Dinh Thanh said: "Everyday, when they come home from school they always look at the photos of their parents on the altar.

"The decease of both parents is a big loss to them."

Fifteen-year-old Nguyen Huy Hung's UK-based father Nguyen Huy Tung learned about his death on social media.

He said: "We were very shocked, trembled, we lost track and awareness of our surroundings.

"My wife had fainted many times whenever our son's name was mentioned."