Two men convicted of killing 39 migrants who were found in lorry in Essex

Two men have been convicted of killing 39 migrants who were found dead in a lorry container in Essex last year.

Eamonn Harrison and Gheorghe Nica stood trial accused of the manslaughter of the Vietnamese nationals whose bodies were discovered at an industrial estate in Grays in October 2019.

Temperatures in the unit had reached an “unbearable” 38.5C (101F) as the men, women and children, aged 15 to 44, were sealed inside for at least 12 hours, the court heard.

The 39 people whose bodies were discovered in a lorry in Grays, Essex, in October 2019. Pic: Essex Police

The 39 people whose bodies were discovered in a lorry in Grays. Pic: Essex Police

They had each paid about £13,000 to be smuggled into the UK and had desperately tried to raise the alarm as they suffocated inside the pitch-black refrigerated unit, which had been switched off, jurors were told.

Following a 10-week trial at the Old Bailey, lorry driver Harrison was found guilty of 39 counts of manslaughter, while organiser Nica was convicted of the same charges.

Eamonn Harrison has denied killing the 39 migrants

Eamonn Harrison was convicted of 39 counts of manslaughter

Gheorghe Nica pleaded not guilty to the manslaughter of the migrants

Gheorghe Nica was also found guilty of the manslaughter of the migrants

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

Lorry driver Maurice Robinson and haulage boss Ronan Hughes had previously admitted the manslaughter of the migrants.

Lorry driver Maurice Robinson is seen leaving Purfleet port in Essex after collecting the trailer containing the migrants

Maurice Robinson pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of the migrants

Ronan Hughes has pleaded guilty to 39 counts of manslaughter

Ronan Hughes also pleaded guilty to 39 counts of manslaughter

The court heard Robinson – who discovered the bodies after collecting the trailer when it arrived in Purfleet, Essex – had received a message from Hughes which read: “Give them air quickly, don’t let them out.”

Most of the migrants are believed to have boarded the lorry container in northern France before it was driven to Zeebrugge in Belgium and loaded on to a cargo ship bound for Purfleet on 22 October last year.

They included university graduates, restaurant and nail bar workers, a bricklayer and a hairdresser, with some of the victims’ families borrowing thousands of pounds to pay for the fatal journey.

A message sent from Ronan Hughes to Maurice Robinson said: 'Give them air quickly don't let them out'

A message sent from Ronan Hughes to Maurice Robinson read: ‘Give them air quickly don’t let them out’

Pham Thi Tra My, from Vietnam, is one of the suspected victims

Pham Thi Tra My, 26, was among those on board the lorry

Mobile phones recovered from the victims showed how they had tried to raise the alarm and left goodbye messages for loved ones as they ran out of air.

Others had used a metal pole to try to punch a hole through the roof or attract attention.

After Robinson collected the container shortly after midnight on 23 October, CCTV footage showed the moment he parked his lorry and opened the trailer to find 39 people dead inside.

He called Hughes and Nica before dialling 999 some 23 minutes after discovering the bodies.

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Moment lorry driver found dead migrants

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999 call of lorry driver who found bodies

The first police officer on the scene described finding half-naked bodies “closely packed” together lying in the trailer, some “frothing at the mouth”.

Giving evidence, Harrison, 23, denied knowing there were people in his trailer on 22 October or on two earlier, successful people-smuggling trips.

He told jurors he thought he was dealing with “stolen goods” and he was watching Netflix in bed at the time the trailer was loaded on 22 October.

Nica, 43, admitted arranging onward transport for the two previous successful people-smuggling trips on October 11 and 18 last year, but denied being involved in the tragedy on 22/23 October.

The British-Romanian, from Basildon, Essex, told jurors he had a “burner” phone for his four girlfriends, not smuggling.

But the court heard that the “unscrupulous” gang were motivated by greed as they pursued profits of more than £1m that month alone.

39 bodies found in lorry trailer

The migrants were found dead at an industrial estate in Grays, 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.

In May 2018, Harrison, from County Down, Northern Ireland, was fined after being caught at the Channel Tunnel in France with 18 Vietnamese migrants in his trailer.

And on October 11 last year, 15 people were shipped in a container dropped at Zeebrugge by Harrison and collected by Kennedy at Purfleet.

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Officer’s tribute to Essex lorry victims

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.”

Commenting on the convictions, Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “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.”

Prosecutors are now 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.

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

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