Published: 15:25, 22 January 2021
| Updated: 15:52, 22 January 2021
The ring leaders of a people smuggling gang have been sentenced to a total of 78 years in prison following the death of 39 Vietnamese men, women and children found dead in the back of lorry near the Essex side of the Dartford Crossing.
Maurice Robinson, 26, of Craigavon, and his boss Ronan Hughes, 41, of Armagh, had admitted plotting to people smuggle and 39 counts of manslaughter.Today, Robinson was handed a sentence of 13 years and four months while Hughes was jailed for 20 years. Robinson has also admitted money laundering.
Hughes’s partner in crime Gheorghe Nica, 43, of Basildon, Essex, and Eamonn Harrison, 24, of County Down, who had collected the victims on the continent, were also found guilty of mansluaghter. Nica has been jailed for 27 years and Harrison 18.
Harrison and Nica were also found guilty of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.
Other members of the gang were also jailed for their role in the organised criminal operation.
Lorry driver Christopher Kennedy, 24, of County Armagh, was jailed for seven years; Valentin Calota, 38, from Birmingham, was handed four and a half years; and Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga, 28, from Essex, was sentenced to three years in custody.
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.
The convictions bring to end a lengthy investigation by border officials and Essex Police after the tragic discovery was made on an industrial estate in Grays on October 23, 2019.
Chief Constable of Essex Police, Ben Julian Harrington, said of the result: “The men who were found guilty today made their money from misery.
“They knew what they were doing was wrong, but they didn’t care.
“They tried to hide what they were doing. They attempted to evade detection.
"They thought they could cover up their crimes. Today, they have been proved wrong on every count.
“Whilst I feel immense pride for the Essex Police teams, and our partners, for this diligent investigation, none of us will stop thinking of the victims and their families.
"Those family members are, in most cases, halfway across the world, and their lives will never be the same again.
“We will never forget those 39 victims – men, women, and children – who were sold the lie of safe passage to our country.
"The force made their loved ones a promise in the Book of Condolence shortly after the incident: that we would do everything in our power to bring those responsible for that horrific journey, which ended on our shores, to justice.
"Essex Police has worked hard to deliver on our promise, and I hope that is of some small comfort."
The bodies were discovered in the refrigerated truck by Robinson early that morning and he was subsequently arrested as law enforcement teams across the country attempted to piece together the organised crime group responsible.
Senior investigating officer Det Ch Insp Daniel Stoten, said: “This story started almost eight thousand miles away.
“Every man, woman and child, some as young as 15, who died in the lorry trailer was from Vietnam.
“They may have started their journeys at different times but, ultimately, they were all following the false promise of a new life. 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 journey ended.
“Family members and friends, many of whom are still thousands of miles away from where I stand today, have suffered an unimaginable loss. I know this because my team at Essex Police have heard their stories, and carefully recorded their testimony first-hand.
“Since our investigation started, on October 23 last year, more than 1,300 people have worked on this case.
"From the detectives, staff and volunteers at Essex Police, to other forces across the country, and national and international law enforcement, governments and embassies – this will be a case we will never forget.
“I’d like to speak directly to the families now: We are one step closer to getting you the justice you deserve. I know it won’t bring your loved ones back, but I hope it will offer some solace.
“Our thoughts are with you, today and always.”
The sister of 22-year-old Dang Huu Tuyen paid tribute to her “angel” of a brother, saying he was a “gentle, loving and dedicated Catholic”.
Meanwhile, the parents of 15-year-old Nguyen Huy Hung, one of the two youngest people onboard, spoke of how their son loved football, was “peaceful and smart” as well as his drive to do well at school.
The young son of 42-year-old Phan Thi Thanh wrote for his mother called “Beloved Mommy!”.
Home Secretary Priti Patel described the cases as a "truly tragic incident" and promised to crack down further on people smugglers who she said "prey on the vulnerable and trade in human misery".
"While I’m pleased justice has been served," she said, "I know it will come as little comfort to the families of those who died. My thoughts remain with those affected by this tragedy.
"I’m determined to bring callous people smugglers to justice and keep our communities safe from the actions of horrendous organised crime groups."
Russell Tyner, of the Crown Prosecution Service Organised Crime Division, said: "This is an unimaginably tragic case. Thirty-nine vulnerable people desperate for a new life were driven to put their trust in a network of unscrupulous people smugglers and they suffered horrific consequences – not through their own fault but due to the sheer greed of others.
“They died through lack of oxygen, desperately trying to escape from the container. Some were able to express their last words to their families on their mobile phones when they knew their situation was hopeless.
“Nothing can bring back the lives lost on that day and the loss caused by the unlawful and dangerous actions taken by these defendants. But we hope that these convictions bring some measure of solace to their families that the perpetrators of these actions have faced justice. Our thoughts remain with them on what must be another painful day.
“The CPS hopes this terrible incident, and these convictions today, will send a real warning to anybody considering smuggling people into the UK in this way.”
Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner for Essex, Roger Hirst praised the "outstanding job" carried out by detectives and the investigating teams.
He added: "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."
Rob Jones, director of threat leadership for the National Crime Agency, said: "The organised criminal groups involved in immigration crime are callous and treat migrants as a commodity to be profited from.
"Their only motivation is money, they don’t care about the safety or consequences of their actions.
"Tragically in this case the consequences were fatal. I’m pleased that those responsible will now be held accountable for their actions.
"We will continue to lead the UK’s fight against organised immigration crime, and my message to those involved in this exploitative trade is simple - we are coming after you. We are using 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."
Shaun Sawyer, from the NSPCC team supporting victims of organised immigration crime, said: "The inhumanity demonstrated by these men towards the 39 men, women and children who ultimately lost their lives is truly distressing.
"This year the Home Office has provided extra funding to policing in addition to the uplift in police officers, to assist the UK law enforcement effort to disrupt and prosecute these gangs. With this support and the experience learned from this investigation we will continue our endeavour to seek to prevent tragedies such as this from happening again.”
Ronan Hughes’ brother, Christopher, was initially named as a suspect in the investigation based on police evidence at the time. No further action will be taken against him following a voluntary interview carried out by investigators in the Republic of Ireland.