People smugglers could face life in prison after Essex migrant lorry deaths

Police activity at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex, after 39 bodies were found inside

Four people-smugglers could be facing life sentences after the deaths of 39 migrants - Credit: PA

Four people-smugglers could be facing life sentences for the manslaughter of 39 migrants whose bodies were discovered in the back of a trailer in Essex. 

The Vietnamese victims, aged between 15 and 44, suffocated in a container as they were shipped to Purfleet, Essex, from Belgium on October 23, 2019. 

Romanian ringleader Gheorghe Nica, 43, from Basildon, and truck driver Eamonn Harrison, 24, from County Down, were found guilty of 39 counts of manslaughter and plotting to people smuggle last month following a trial at the Old Bailey.

Haulier boss Ronan Hughes, 41, of Armagh, and 26-year-old lorry driver Maurice Robinson, of Craigavon, admitted the offences.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson with the chief constable of Essex Police, Ben-Julian Harrington, as he

Prime Minister Boris Johnson lays flowers outside Thurrock council offices in Essex alongside chief constable of Essex Police, Ben-Julian Harrington - Credit: PA

They will be sentenced alongside Christopher Kennedy, 24, from County Armagh, Valentin Calota, 38, from Birmingham, Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga, 28, from Essex and Gazmir Nuzi, 42, of Tottenham, north London, who were convicted of their role in smuggling.

The maximum sentence for people smuggling is 14 years in prison, with manslaughter carrying a possible life sentence.

The defendants, who are in custody, will be sentenced over three days by Mr Justice Sweeney at the Old Bailey.

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The trial heard how the gang charged around £13,000 a head for a "VIP" smuggling service to Vietnamese migrants gathered in Belgium and France.

The network, led by Nica and Hughes, had been operating for at least 18 months, despite repeatedly coming to the attention of authorities.

Court artist sketch of lorry driver Maurice 'Mo' Robinson on video-link at Chelmsford Magistrates' C

Court sketch of Maurice Robinson at Chelmsford Magistrates' Court - Credit: PA

Police identified four people-smuggling trips before the tragic run, with two being foiled by authorities.

On the morning of October 22, 2019, Harrison picked up 39 migrants from Bierne in France.

His trailer was loaded on to the Clementine ship which departed from Zeebrugge at about 4pm, docking at Purfleet shortly after midnight.

Robinson, who collected the trailer at 1.08am, was instructed by Hughes via Snapchat to "give them air quickly don't let them out".

When he opened the doors, a plume of vapour escaped and Robinson stood for 90 seconds.

The Scales of Justice Picture: ARCHANT LIBRARY

The three-day sentence will take place at the Old Bailey in London - Credit: Archant

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

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, the court heard.