‘Unscrupulous’ people-smuggling gang facing jail over 39 migrant deaths

Emily Pennink, PA Old Bailey Correspondent
·6-min read

An “unscrupulous” gang of people-smugglers are facing years behind bars for their part in the deaths of 39 migrants.

The Vietnamese victims, aged between 15 and 44, suffocated in the back of a trailer as they were shipped to Purfleet in Essex from Belgium on October 23 last year.

With false promises of a better life in Britain, they were betrayed by greedy criminals who pursued profits of more than £1 million that month alone.

On Monday, Romanian ringleader Gheorghe Nica, 43, from Basildon, and lorry driver Eamonn Harrison, 24, from County Down, were found guilty of 39 counts of manslaughter.

The jury, which deliberated for nearly 23 hours, also convicted them of a wider people-smuggling plot with lorry driver Christopher Kennedy, 24, from County Armagh, and Valentin Calota, 38, from Birmingham.

As the verdicts were delivered, Nica appeared defiant in the dock, while Harrison, who was convicted by a majority of 10 to one, stood open-mouthed.

In total, eight people have been convicted in Britain, including haulier boss Ronan Hughes, 41, of Armagh, and 26-year-old lorry driver Maurice Robinson, of Craigavon, who admitted manslaughter.

They will be sentenced over three days in January at the Old Bailey.

Gheorghe Nica (left) and Eamonn Harrison (right)
Gheorghe Nica (left) and Eamonn Harrison (right) in the dock of the Old Bailey (Elizabeth Cook/PA)

Prosecutors are considering charges against a further three people.

The maximum sentence for people-smuggling is 14 years in prison, with manslaughter carrying a possible life sentence.

Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten, of Essex Police, said the gang were “greedy” but “complacent”.

He said: “You would not transport animals in that way but they were quite happy to do that and put them at significant risk.”

Speaking outside court, Mr Stoten said the victims “were all following the same false promise of a better life”.

He said: “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 story ended.”

“Every victim has a family who misses them terribly.”

Kelly Matthews, from the Crown Prosecution Service, described the network of people smugglers as “unscrupulous”.

Eamonn Harrison (foreground) purchasing items at a truck stop in Belgium on October 22 last year
Eamonn Harrison (foreground) purchasing items at a truck stop in Belgium on October 22 last year (Essex Police/PA)

She said: “Nothing can bring back the lives lost on that day or the loss caused by the horrible, unlawful and dangerous actions of these defendants.

“But we hope these convictions bring some measure of solace to the families in the knowledge that justice has been done.”

The parents of 15-year-old Nguyen Huy Hung, one of the youngest victims, said their son was a “big football fan” and a “very peaceful and smart boy”.

The young son of 41-year-old victim Phan Thi Thanh wrote a poem titled ‘Beloved mommy!’ which included the lines “Always by my side/Always guiding me the way”.

Christopher Kennedy
Christopher Kennedy in his cab arriving at the port of Purfleet in Essex on October 18 last year (Essex Police/PA)

The sister of “gentle” Dang Huu Tuyen, 22, said: “As a family our hearts are broken.”

The Old Bailey heard how the gang charged around £13,000 a head for a “VIP” smuggling service to Vietnamese migrants gathered in Belgium and France.

The network, led by Nica and Hughes, had been operating for at least 18 months, despite repeatedly coming to the attention of authorities.

In May 2018, Harrison, the “man on the Continent”, was fined after being caught at the Channel Tunnel in France with 18 Vietnamese migrants in his trailer.

Bodies found in lorry container
Partners in crime: Ronan Hughes (left) meeting Gheorghe Nica (right) with a bag of cash at Ibis Hotel on October 19 last year (Essex Police/PA)

On October 11 last year, 15 people were shipped in a container dropped at Zeebrugge by Harrison and collected by Kennedy at Purfleet for onward transportation organised by Nica.

Orsett resident Marie Andrews had witnessed the drop and rang police to report her concerns three times that day.

Three days later, Kennedy was sent on his way after 20 migrants were found in his trailer at the Channel Tunnel, two of whom were among the dead on October 23.

On October 17 last year, Harrison took 15 migrants and a load of macaroons and Bakewell tarts to Zeebrugge.

Bodies found in lorry container
Trampled boxes of Mrs Crimble’s macaroons rejected on October 18 last year (Essex Police/PA)

On arrival, Kennedy dropped the human cargo off at Orsett then helped Hughes try to disguise the fact that the biscuits were trampled and crushed.

On the morning of October 22, Harrison picked up 39 migrants from Bierne in France.

His trailer was loaded on to the Clementine ship which departed from Zeebrugge at about 4pm, docking at Purfleet shortly after midnight.

Robinson, who collected the trailer at 1.08am, was instructed by Hughes via Snapchat to “give them air quickly don’t let them out”.

Bodies found in lorry container
Maurice Robinson smiles as he leaves Purfleet port, Essex early on October 23 last year (Essex Police/PA)

When he opened the doors, a plume of vapour escaped and Robinson stood for 90 seconds.

The first police officer on the scene described finding half-naked bodies “closely packed” together lying in the trailer, some “frothing at the mouth”.

Mobile phones recovered from the victims showed how they had tried to raise the alarm and left goodbye messages for loved ones as they ran out of air.

Others had used a metal pole to try to punch a hole through the roof or attract attention, the court heard.

Bodies found in lorry container
Officers approaching Maurice Robinson (top, right) as they arrive at the scene in Essex, where the bodies had been found (Essex Police/PA)

Kennedy, Harrison and Calota, who picked up migrants at Orsett on October 18, variously claimed they had thought they were transporting cigarettes, alcohol and stolen lorry parts.

Nica admitted being roped in by convicted cigarette smuggler Hughes for earlier runs, but denied involvement in the fatal trip.

But prosecutor Bill Emlyn Jones told jurors the operation required “meticulous” planning and each defendant had to be “in the know”.

The victims were: Dinh Dinh Binh, 15, Nguyen Minh Quang, 20, Nguyen Huy Phong, 35, Le Van Ha, 30, Nguyen Van Hiep, 24, Bui Phan Thang, 37, Nguyen Van Hung, 33, Nguyen Huy Hung, 15, Nguyen Tien Dung, 33, Pham Thi Tra My, 26, Tran Khanh Tho, 18, Nguyen Van Nhan, 33, Vo Ngoc Nam, 28, Vo Van Linh, 25, Nguyen Ba Vu Hung, 34, Vo Nhan Du, 19.
Tran Hai Loc, 35, Tran Manh Hung, 37, Nguyen Thi Van, 35, Bui Thi Nhung, 19, Hoang Van Tiep, 18, Tran Thi Ngoc, 19, Phan Thi Thanh, 41, Tran Thi Tho, 21, Duong Minh Tuan, 27, Pham Thi Ngoc Oanh, 28, Tran Thi Mai Nhung, 18, Le Trong Thanh, 44, Nguyen Ngoc Ha, 32, Hoang Van Hoi, 24, Tran Ngoc Hieu, 17, Cao Tien Dung, 37, Dinh Dinh Thai Quyen, 18, Dang Huu Tuyen, 22, Nguyen Dinh Luong, 20, Cao Huy Thanh, 37, Nguyen Trong Thai, 26, Nguyen Tho Tuan, 25, and Nguyen Dinh Tu, 26.