Seven men have been sentenced to a total of more than 92 years in prison following the tragic deaths of 39 Vietnamese nationals in October 2019.

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Today, seven men have been sentenced to a total of more than 92 years in prison following our investigation into the tragic deaths of 39 Vietnamese nationals in October 2019.
The men appeared at the Old Bailey in front of his Hon. Mr Justice Sweeney earlier today, Friday 22 January, and have received a total of 92 years and 10 months imprisonment between them.
The men had worked together to smuggle people illegally into the UK, with some receiving astonishingly high payment for their services, across three dates in October 2019.
Chief Constable of Essex Police, Ben-Julian Harrington, acknowledged that the result upheld the promise he had made to the families more than a year ago.
He 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.”
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.”
Our officers were called by the East of England Ambulance Service shortly after 1.40am on 23 October 2019, following a 999 call from lorry driver Maurice Robinson.
When our officers arrived at the scene, they made the tragic discovery of 39 Vietnamese victims in the trailer of the lorry. Our brave officers went into the trailer and checked each person, one by one, to determine if there were any signs of life.
Robinson had picked up the trailer at the Port of Tilbury shortly at around 1am, before parking up in Eastern Avenue to ‘give [them] some air’, as per a Snapchat message from his boss, Ronan Hughes.
Upon opening the doors and realising that the people inside were not breathing, Robinson closed the doors again and made a series of phone calls to his bosses, driving around West Thurrock until he had abandoned his burner phone and come up with a plan.
Half an hour later, he parked up on Eastern Avenue for a second time, and that was when he made the call to the ambulance service.    
Robinson, who had denied any knowledge of people being in the trailer, was arrested at the scene. The investigation identified that he had been involved in the conspiracy for some time. He was charged several days later.
The 26-year-old, from Laurel Drive in Craigavon, Northern Ireland, pleaded guilty to 39 counts of manslaughter, conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and acquiring criminal property prior to the beginning of the trial.  
Today, he was sentenced to a total of 13 years and four months.
The leader of the conspiracy was Robinson’s boss, 41-year-old Ronan Hughes. Hughes left Thurrock and boarded a plane back to Ireland on the day of the discovery. We issued him as a wanted man on 29 October 2019, but he remained steadfast in his home in Co. Monaghan, where we were unable to arrest him without a European Arrest Warrant.
On 20 April 2020, the European Arrest Warrant was granted, and Hughes was brought back to Essex to face the charges against him.
He pleaded guilty to all offences and was sentenced to a total of 20 years in prison today.
Working alongside Hughes to head up the conspiracy was Gheorghe Nica, 44, of Mimosa Close in Langdon Hills. Nica and Hughes would arrange the collection of the migrants in France and their transport to the UK. Nica would also arrange drivers to pick up migrants from Collingwood Farm in Orsett once they had successfully been taken there by the lorries. It’s believed that these cars would be taken to locations in London. 
He, along with lorry driver Eamonn Harrison, was found guilty of 39 counts of manslaughter and one count of conspiracy to assist illegal immigration following a ten-week trial at the Old Bailey last year.
Today, he was sentenced to a total of 27 years in prison.
Harrison, 24, of Mayobridge in Northern Ireland, had the job of picking up migrants at designated drop-off points in France and Belgium on a number of occasions. The last time he would undertake this task was for the fatal trailer on 22 October 2019. He would load migrants onto the airtight trailer and lock them in – leaving them with no method of escape, before dropping the trailer at Zeebrugge for its onward journey to Purfleet.  
As a result, he has been sentenced to a total of 18 years in prison.
Another lorry driver, 24-year-old Christopher Kennedy, of Corkley Road in Darkley, County Armagh, has been sentenced to seven years in prison for conspiracy to assist illegal immigration after working with Hughes and Nica to transport migrants on the 11 and 18 October 2019.
Valentin Calota, 38, of Cossingham Road in Birmingham, worked with Nica to transport migrants into London once they had arrived in Essex. He was the only onward driver to stand trial at the Old Bailey, as two others had previously entered guilty pleas. He was sentenced to four and-a-half years for his part in the conspiracy.
Alexandru Hanga, 28, of Hobart Road in Tilbury, was another of those onward drivers. He pleaded guilty last April to a count of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration. He was sentenced to three years in prison.
Finally, 43-year-old Tottenham man Gazmir Nuzi, of Barclay Road, was sentenced on Monday 11 January, after entering a guilty plea to assisting the unlawful immigration of two men who had been smuggled into the UK by the group. After picking them up from Collingwood Farm, he was sentenced to 10 months imprisonment, which he had already served.