Northern Ireland lorry drivers among those jailed for Essex truck deaths

Q Radio News

The main members of a people smuggling gang have been given long jail sentences after 39 Vietnamese illegal immigrants suffocated in the back of their lorry.

Defence lawyers had argued that none of the smugglers had known there were so many men, women and children crammed into the sealed trailer.

The victims died when they ran out of air in temperatures of up to 38.5C (101F), as the trailer was shipped from Belgium to Purfleet docks, Essex, in October 2019.

Two of the gang had admitted 39 manslaughter charges, while two more had been convicted of the same crimes after a 10-week trial late last year.

The innocent victims of a ruthless gang.

Haulier Ronan Hughes, 41, from County Monaghan, was a ringleader who supplied lorries and drivers over 18 months and was paid £3,000 for each migrant who arrived safely.

He admitted manslaughter and people smuggling and was jailed for 20 years.

His lawyer said he usually smuggled 25 migrants in one operation and did not know there were 39 in the doomed trailer until it was too late to save them.

Ronan Hughes.

He had sent lorry driver Maurice Robinson, who collected the trailer at Purfleet, a Snapchat message reading: "Give them air quickly, don't let them out."

Robinson, 26, said he thought there were no more than 20 inside.

He opened the doors and discovered the bodies, but it took him 23 minutes to call for an ambulance.

His lawyer described the driver as "criminally unsophisticated" and did not appreciate the risks involved.

Robinson, from Craigavon, had admitted manslaughter and people smuggling. He was jailed for 13 years and four months.

Maurice Robinson. 

Another lorry driver, Eamonn Harrison, 24, had picked up the migrants in northern France and driven them to the Belgium port of Zeebrugge, where he delivered the trailer for the ferry ride to Essex.

He had denied manslaughter and people smuggling and claimed during his Old Bailey trial that he thought he was smuggling stolen lorry parts.

He claimed he was told to park up and hide when the migrants were loaded into his trailer and had no idea how many were on board.

His lawyer described him as "a somewhat inadequate young man" who had followed orders and would bear responsibility for the rest of his life.

Harrison, from Mayobridge, County Down, was convicted of manslaughter and people smuggling and jailed for 18 years.

Gheorghe Nica, 43, had supplied cars and drivers to transfer migrants from the lorries to a safe house in south London.

He had denied manslaughter, but admitted being involved in previous smuggling operations and was jailed for 27 years.

Nica's lawyer said he did not know how many migrants were in the trailer and suggested haulier Ronan Hughes was more of a ringleader than he was.

Prosecutor Jonathan Polnay told the judge at an earlier hearing that both Hughes and Nica were leading figures in the smuggling operation, but added: "Whether or not the full picture will ever be known - was it a strictly hierarchical organisation with people based in different countries, or was it different organised criminals working in a chain? - is not clear."

Three others connected to the crime - Christopher Kennedy, Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga and Valentin Calota - were jailed for seven years, three years, and four-and-a-half years respectively.

In total, seven men were sentenced to more than 92 years in prison.

Judge Mr Justice Sweeney said the migrants died "what must have been an excruciatingly painful death" after the temperature in the container rose to 40 degrees Celsius (104F) while it was at sea.

He told the Old Bailey he had "no doubt" the "conspiracy was a sophisticated, long-running, and profitable one to smuggle mainly Vietnamese migrants across the channel".

The judge added that the operation "amounted to professional, organised crime, largely using unregistered phones, committed for a profit motive, which significantly undermined the United Kingdom's attempts to regulate and control immigration".

Ben-Julian Harrington, chief constable of Essex Police, said it had been the biggest investigation in the force's history.

"Every person in that trailer had left behind a family," Mr Harrington said. "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."

He added that the families had "put their trust in us to deliver justice".

"I promised them that we would, and my teams have done just that," Mr Harrington said.


More from Q Radio Local News

Join the Thank Q Club

Sign up for the Thank Q Club and receive exclusive offers, fun competitions and amazing prizes - it's quick and easy to do!

Sign Up Log In

Listen on the go

Download the Q Radio app to keep listening, wherever you are! It's available on Apple and Android devices.

Download from the App Store Download from Google Play