Four men have been found guilty of their involvement in a people smuggling ring which led to the deaths of 39 Vietnamese men, women and children in October last year. 

The tragic discovery was made in the early hours of Wednesday 23 October 2019, when the victims were found unresponsive in the trailer of a lorry in Grays.

Essex lorry victims

National Crime Agency officers worked alongside Essex Police throughout their investigation, providing specialist support and assistance crucial to the successful prosecution.

This included deploying investigative and intelligence assets overseas and in the UK, as well as immigration crime and victim ID specialists.

The NCA’s international network also provided links to Vietnam and other countries involved in the investigation as it widened.

At the Old Bailey today, Monday 21 December, the jury returned their verdicts after a 10-week trial.   

Eamonn Harrison, a 24-year-old lorry driver from Mayobridge in Northern Ireland, was found guilty of 39 counts of manslaughter and guilty of one count of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

Gheorghe Nica, 43, of Mimosa Close in Langdon Hills, was found guilty of the same charges.

Christopher Kennedy, 24, of Corkley Road in Darkley, County Armagh, was found guilty of one count of conspiracy to facilitate the commission of a breach of UK immigration law.

While Valentin Calota, 38, of Cossingham Road in Birmingham, was found guilty of the same charge.

During the investigation, it was discovered that Hughes and Nica had overseen two earlier journeys that month, on 11 and 18 October 2019, in which people had been brought into the country.

They were assisted by two other lorry drivers, Harrison and Kennedy, and a number of other drivers who picked up passengers from a pre-arranged drop off site and transported them to locations across London.

Nica had previously admitted to his role in the breach of immigration law on those two dates, but had denied his involvement on the 23 October.   

As part of ongoing international investigations into others involved in the people smuggling ring, a number of individuals have also been arrested.

Last week a man wanted in Belgium on suspicion of smuggling a number of the Vietnamese migrants was arrested by the NCA.

He was tracked down by investigators to an address in the Redditch area of Worcestershire, and is now in custody awaiting extradition.

NCA Director of Threat Leadership, Rob Jones, 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. I hope this outcome brings some comfort to the families of those who died.

“NCA officers in the UK and overseas worked alongside Essex Police throughout this investigation, providing specialist support and assistance. Our international network provided a crucial link to Vietnam and other countries involved in the investigation as it widened.

“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.”

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.”    

Home Secretary, Priti Patel, said: “This was a truly tragic incident. While I’m pleased justice has been served, I know it will come as little comfort to the families of those who died. My thoughts remain with those affected by this tragedy. 

“Today’s convictions only strengthen my resolve to do all I can to go after the people smugglers who prey on the vulnerable and trade in human misery. I’m determined to bring callous people smugglers to justice and keep our communities safe from the actions of horrendous organised crime groups.   

“I want to thank all the agencies involved in this investigation, specifically Essex Police, the NCA, the Crown Prosecution Service and operational teams in the Home Office for their exemplary professionalism in pursuing convictions. We are fortunate to be served by such outstanding, committed officers, who help keep us safe and support those most in need.”

Those found guilty will be sentenced at a later date alongside those who have already entered guilty pleas to the offences against them: lorry driver Maurice Robinson, transport fixer Ronan Hughes, and drivers Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga and Gazmir Nuzi.

21 December 2020