Seven jailed for role in smuggling ring that killed 39 Vietnamese would-be illegal immigrants and had Orsett farm at the heart of its operation. Listen to dramatic moments when lorry driver calls in the horror to police

  Posted: 22.01.21 at 18:54 by The Editor

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SEVEN men have today been jailed today for their roles in the people smuggling ring that brought about the deaths of of 39 Vietnamese nationals whose bodies were discovered in West Thurrock in October 2019.

The men appeared at the Old Bailey today (Friday, 22 January). Among them was resident of Tilbury who was jailed for three years.

The group had worked together to smuggle people illegally into the UK, with some receiving high payment for their services, across three dates in October 2019. At today's trial it emerged that Collingwood Farm near Orsett Golf Club had played a major role in the immigration operation.

In June last year police Thurrock Nub news reported exclusively on a major raid at the farm as part of another investigation into stolen goods. The premises has been a longstanding focal point for crime in the region.

At the end of today's sentencing, the Chief Constable of Essex, Ben-Julian Harrington, said the prison terms handed out upheld the promise he had made to families of the victims more than a year ago.

He said: “On 23 October 2019 we were called to a scene that no officer could ever have prepared for. I know the officers who attended that morning will never forget what they saw in that trailer.

Police officers raided Collingwood Farm last year

“Every person in that trailer had left behind a family. 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.

“Their families, most of them thousands of miles away, have had their heartbreak played out for the world to see. They’ve kept their dignity, and they put their trust in us to deliver justice. I promised them that we would, and my teams have done just that.

"We’ve managed to convict those who did not have the decency of entering guilty pleas" - Essex Chief Constable BJ Harrington

“This was the biggest investigation in Essex Police’s history, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the help of the public – many of whom spoke to us when they were scared to do so – and without the help from our partners, locally, nationally and internationally.

“Together, with the Crown Prosecution Service and help from the National Crime Agency, we’ve worked tirelessly to bring this case to court.

“We’ve managed to convict those who did not have the decency of entering guilty pleas, despite the overwhelming evidence against them, and today, we’ve seen the sentences passed down and justice done.

“Our thoughts and our prayers will always be with the families of the victims and we’ll continue to support them in any way we can.”

The driver of the lorry and container in which the bodies were found was 26-year-old Maurice Robinson from Laurel Drive in Craigavon, Northern Ireland, who had pleaded guilty to 39 counts of manslaughter, conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and acquiring criminal property prior to the beginning of the trial.

Today, he was sentenced to a total of 13 years and four months.

Robinson, who had denied any knowledge of people being in the trailer, was arrested at the scene. The investigation identified that he had been involved in the conspiracy for some time. He was charged several days later.

The leader of the conspiracy was Robinson’s boss, 41-year-old Ronan Hughes. Hughes left Thurrock and boarded a plane back to Ireland on the day of the discovery. Essex Police announced they wanted to speak to him ion 29 October 2019, but he remained steadfast in his home in Co. Monaghan, where the force was unable to arrest him without a European Arrest Warrant.

On 20 April 2020, the European Arrest Warrant was granted, and Hughes was brought back to Essex to face the charges against him.

He pleaded guilty to all offences and was sentenced to a total of 20 years in prison today.

Working alongside Hughes to head up the conspiracy was Gheorghe Nica, 44, of Mimosa Close in Langdon Hills. Nica and Hughes would arrange the collection of the migrants in France and their transport to the UK. Nica would also arrange drivers to pick up migrants from Collingwood Farm in Orsett once they had successfully been taken there by the lorries. It’s believed that these cars would be taken to locations in London.

He, along with lorry driver Eamonn Harrison, was found guilty of 39 counts of manslaughter and one count of conspiracy to assist illegal immigration following a ten-week trial at the Old Bailey last year. He was sentenced to a total of 27 years in prison.

Harrison, 24, of Mayobridge in Northern Ireland, had the job of picking up migrants at designated drop-off points in France and Belgium on a number of occasions. The last time he would undertake this task was for the fatal trailer on 22 October 2019. He would load migrants onto the airtight trailer and lock them in – leaving them with no method of escape, before dropping the trailer at Zeebrugge for its onward journey to Purfleet.

As a result, he has been sentenced to a total of 18 years in prison.

Another lorry driver, 24-year-old Christopher Kennedy, of Corkley Road in Darkley, County Armagh, has been sentenced to seven years in prison for conspiracy to assist illegal immigration after working with Hughes and Nica to transport migrants on the 11 and 18 October 2019.

Valentin Calota, 38, of Cossingham Road in Birmingham, worked with Nica to transport migrants into London once they had arrived in Essex. He was the only onward driver to stand trial at the Old Bailey, as two others had previously entered guilty pleas. He was sentenced to four and-a-half years for his part in the conspiracy.

Alexandru Hanga, 28, of Hobart Road in Tilbury, was another of those onward drivers. He pleaded guilty last April to a count of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration. He was sentenced to three years in prison.

Finally, 43-year-old Tottenham man Gazmir Nuzi, of Barclay Road, was sentenced on Monday 11 January, after entering a guilty plea to assisting the unlawful immigration of two men who had been smuggled into the UK by the group. After picking them up from Collingwood Farm, he was sentenced to 10 months imprisonment, which he had already served.

Senior Investigating Officer, Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten of the Kent and Essex Serious Crime Directorate, said: “I welcome the sentences given today, a reflection of both the serious criminality and the tragic nature of this case.

Telling lie after lie in the most shameful way

“The quality of evidence ensured the successful prosecution of Nica, Harrison and others, who refused to own up to their guilt.

“In doing so, they put the victims’ families through even more pain, especially Nica, who gave contemptible evidence, telling lie after lie in the most shameful way.

“I hope that the quality and the detail of the evidence, and the high level of exposure that this case has had, demonstrates that our pursuit of those involved in these wicked crimes is unrelenting.

“May this serve as a warning to those who think it’s okay to prey on the vulnerabilities of migrants and their families, transporting them in a way worse than we would transport animals. My message to you is that we will find you and we will stop you.

“Across Essex, we’re continuing to make sure that victims of organised immigration crime are treated as such, and we’re trailblazers in changing national protocol and policy on this matter. We’re also working closely with the haulage industry, to make sure a tragedy like this never happens again.

“39 victims died in the trailer. Two of them were just 15-years-old and had travelled half the world unaccompanied – all of them left behind families, memories, and homes, in the pursuit of a false promise of something better. Instead they died, in an unimaginable way, because of the utter greed of these criminals.

“I hope it will bring the families some comfort to know that they will serve a [significant amount of] time in prison, but I know that their pain will never go away.

“It is my great privilege to have led this investigation, to have achieved this outcome, but it doesn’t change the overwhelming sense of loss and sadness that has been felt throughout by us all, by families, friends and by loved ones.

“They are in our thoughts, today and always.”

Roger Hirst, Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner for Essex, said: “On behalf of the people of Essex I would like to say thank you to each and every police officer, firefighter, paramedic, staff member and volunteer who was involved in this case beginning with the heart-breaking discovery of the crime, right through to catching those involved and bringing them before the courts.

“I was pleased that Thurrock Council could play a role in showing just how deeply touched we all were by this terrible event by opening a book of condolence - Thurrock Council leader Cllr Rob Gledhill

“Now those responsible have been sentenced and while the punishments will offer little comfort to the families of the 39 souls who lost their lives in this tragedy, I hope they will see that justice has been served. I also hope it sends a strong message to those heartless criminals who exploit people for their own gains.”

Thurrock Council leader Cllr Rob Gledhill said: “This appalling crime has affected so many lives, not only the 39 victims discovered here in Thurrock but their families back home in Vietnam. It also had an impact on the lives of those who had to deal with the scene, including emergency services and council staff.

“This type of despicable crime is still continuing to this day with criminal gangs putting lives at risk. It’s imperative that authorities in Europe, where people are boarding vehicles being operated by criminal gangs, take strong action rather than relying on our excellent border force to find people and protect them – which as we have seen can be too late to save lives.

“I was pleased that Thurrock Council could play a role in showing just how deeply touched we all were by this terrible event by opening a book of condolence, which hundreds of people signed at our civic offices. I am glad that this book is now in Vietnam thanks to Essex Police and hope it brings some small measure of comfort to the families at this incredibly difficult time.”

Police officers were called by the East of England Ambulance Service shortly after 1.40am on 23 October 2019, following a 999 call from lorry driver Robinson.

When officers arrived at the scene, they made the discovery of 39 Vietnamese victims in the trailer of the lorry. Officers went into the trailer and checked each person, one by one, to determine if there were any signs of life.

Robinson had picked up the trailer at the Port of Tilbury shortly at around 1am, before parking up in Eastern Avenue to ‘give [them] some air’, as per a Snapchat message from his boss, Ronan Hughes.

Upon opening the doors and realising that the people inside were not breathing, Robinson closed the doors again and made a series of phone calls to his bosses, driving around West Thurrock until he had abandoned his burner phone and come up with a plan.

Half an hour later, he parked up on Eastern Avenue for a second time, and that was when he made the call to the ambulance service.

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