A ringleader in a major people-smuggling operation has been found guilty of killing 39 men, women and children who suffocated in the back of a truck on their way to the UK.
The deaths of the Vietnamese people, who had been promised a better life, last year shocked the world and shone a light on the illegal trade police said allowed criminals to “make money from misery”.
Gheorghe Nica, 43, from Langdon Hills in Essex, had denied all along that he was involved in organising the fatal trip. He said he thought the plan had been to bring in cigarettes in the lorry from northern France to Britain.
But police gathered substantial evidence of his involvement in people-smuggling including CCTV of Nica carrying a bag of cash to a hotel room to pass on money to a co-conspirator.
On Tuesday morning (Australian time) he was found guilty of 39 counts of manslaughter.
Eamonn Harrison, a 24-year-old lorry driver from Northern Ireland, was found guilty on the same charges. He had claimed he had no idea there were people in the back of the trucks he drove and that he must have been watching “a wee bit of Netflix” when they were loaded on.
The pair was 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.
Truck became ‘a tomb’
During the 10-week trial, the court heard that for the journey that would eventually turn deadly the men had greedily packed double the amount of people they would usually put in the container.
Trapped inside and running out of oxygen, the victims desperately bashed a metal pole against the inside of the truck but were unable to pierce through to the air outside.
Some of the people were able to send final text messages to their families.
In tributes released by police on Tuesday, relatives released poems and words of prayer.
The parents of 15-year-old Nguyen Huy Hung, who was one of the youngest on board, said their son “did not have the chance to fulfil his dream”.
“Our son was a very peaceful and smart boy. He loved football very much and he loved UK teams as well as the Champion’s League,” the said.
“He always dreamt of going to the UK and he tried very hard to study at school as well as learning English for that purpose.
“We pray for his soul to rest in peace and hope his dreams will be realised in a better world.”
Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten said more than 1000 officers had worked to find answers for the families.
“I’d like to speak directly to the families now: We are one step closer to getting you the justice you deserve,” Inspector Stoten said.
“I know it won’t bring your loved ones back, but I hope it will offer some solace.”
‘Making money from misery’
During the investigation, it was discovered that Hughes and Nica had overseen two earlier journeys that month.
Police said the men were assisted by two other truck drivers, Harrison and Kennedy and a number of others who picked up passengers from a pre-arranged drop-off site in Thurrock and transported them to locations across London.
The gang stood to make £10,000 and £12,000 (AU$17,000-21,000) per person transported, with prosecutors alleging “the lion’s share of which would have gone to Ronan Hughes and Gheorghe Nica”.
Many of the victims’ families had borrowed heavily to pay for the travel, believing their loved ones would find work and be able to send money back to Vietnam.“
Essex Police Chief Constable Ben-Julian Harrington said the men knew what they were doing was wrong “but they didn’t care”.
The men who were found guilty today made their money from misery,” Chief Constable Harrington said.
“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.”
We will never forget those 39 victims – men, women, and children – who were sold the lie of safe passage to our country,’’
– Chief Constable Ben-Julian Harrington
The verdicts bring the total number of people convicted in Britain to eight.
Haulier boss Ronan Hughes, 41, also of Armagh, and 26-year-old lorry driver Maurice Robinson, of Craigavon, had previously admitted manslaughter.
Prosecutors are considering charges against other people.