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Two men found guilty of manslaughter of 39 people in Essex lorry tragedy

The Vietnamese migrants, aged between 15 and 44, were found dead in the back of a trailer in Essex in 2019.

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

MEMBERS OF A million-pound people-smuggling ring could be facing life behind bars for the manslaughter of 39 migrants.

The Vietnamese migrants, aged between 15 and 44, were found dead in the back of a trailer in Essex on 23 October last year.

They had suffocated in sweltering temperatures as the airtight container was shipped from Zeebrugge to Purfleet.

The “unscrupulous” gang behind the illegal shipment were motivated by greed as they pursued profits of more than £1 million (€1.1 million) that month alone.

Following a 10-week trial, Romanian ringleader Gheorghe Nica, 43, from Basildon, and lorry driver Eamonn Harrison, 24, from County Down, were found guilty today of 39 counts of manslaughter.

They were also convicted of their part in the people-smuggling operation with lorry driver Christopher Kennedy, 24, from County Armagh, and Valentin Calota, 38, from Birmingham.

The verdicts bring the total number of people convicted in Britain to eight, including haulier boss Ronan Hughes, 41, of Armagh, and 26-year-old lorry driver Maurice Robinson, of Craigavon, who admitted manslaughter.

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.

‘Greedy but complacent’

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.”

Since the tragedy, Essex Police had been at the forefront of cracking down on organised immigration crime, Stoten said.

Kelly Matthews, from the Crown Prosecution Service, said: “Thirty-nine vulnerable people desperate for a new life put their trust in an unscrupulous network of people smugglers.

“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 Old Bailey heard how the gang offered a “VIP” service to Vietnamese migrants, who gathered in Belgium and France.

They charged about £13,000 (about €14,200) a head to transport migrants in a trailer via the Channel Tunnel or by boat to Essex.

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

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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; Dong Huu Tuyen, 22; Nguyen Dinh Luong, 20; Cao Huy Thanh, 37; Nguyen Trong Thai, 26; Nguyen Tho Tuan, 25; and Nguyen Dinh Tu, 26.

The defendants did not react in the dock as the verdicts were given, with Harrison and Calota convicted by a majority of 10 to one.

Mr Justice Sweeney adjourned sentencing of all the defendants until 7, 8 and 11 January.

He thanked the jury, saying: “This is not normal times and this has been anything but a normal case.”

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