The people-smuggling gang behind the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants repeatedly slipped through the net in Britain and abroad before they were finally caught by the authorities.
The gang who transported the group from Zeebrugge in Belgium to Purfleet, Essex, used ‘burner’ pay-as-you-go phones and evaded automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras as they attempted to stay under the radar.
Despite their activities repeatedly coming to the attention of authorities, police did not catch the ring until after the Vietnamese men, women and children, aged between 15 and 44, were found dead in the back of a trailer in Essex on October 23 last year.
Following a 10-week trial, Romanian ringleader Gheorghe Nica, 43, from Basildon, and lorry driver Eamonn Harrison, 24, from County Down, were found guilty today of 39 counts of manslaughter.
They were 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.
As early as May 9 2018, Harrison was issued with a civil penalty notice after he was caught with 18 Vietnamese migrants sitting on waffle boxes inside his trailer.
French border force officers at the Channel Tunnel entrance had become suspicious after finding the seal on his trailer had been broken and glued back together.
The 39 Vietnamese migrants men, aged 15 to 44, were found dead in the back of a lorry when it stopped in Thurrock, Essex, in October last year, after it had travelled into the UK from the port of Zeebrugge
Eamonn Harrison (right), 23, of County Down, and Romanian ringleader Gheorghe Nica (left), 43, of Basildon, have been convicted of 39 counts of manslaughter as well as being involved in a people smuggling ring at the Old Bailey today
A graphic used by Essex Police illustrating location of the 39 bodies found inside a container lorry in Grays, Essex
Just days before the tragedy, the gang successfully smuggled two loads of migrants on October 11 and 18.
Both times, they were observed by suspicious residents in the Essex village of Orsett as the human cargo was unloaded and people ran into waiting vehicles for onward transfer to Dulwich in south-east London.
Marie Andrews called police three times about the incident on October 11, jurors were told.
Then, on October 14, another driver, Christopher Kennedy, was caught with 20 Vietnamese nationals in his trailer on the French side of the Channel Tunnel.
The migrants were taken away by French border forces but Kennedy was sent on his way to Kent.
Official documents relating to the stop were found among the personal effects of two victims on October 23.
The successful run on October 18 also raised suspicions at a storage depot in Kent.
Warehouse manager Barbara Richmond-Clarke rejected Kennedy’s delivery of crushed and dirty macaroons, suspecting illegal human activity.
That night, Harrison became so intoxicated on a night out in Bruges that he fell over and was stopped by Belgian police.
The next morning, officers spoke to him again, after they found his lorry had been parked illegally since the day before.
Hours before the migrants embarked on their tragic journey, Estelle Duyke called Gendarmes in Bierne, northern France, about nine migrants jumping in the back of a lorry, later identified as Harrison’s.
But the trail went cold after French police checked the shed where the migrants had been hiding and found no-one there, jurors heard.
Detective Chief Superintendent Stuart Hooper said Essex Police had acted ‘proportionately and in good faith’ .
Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten added that Ms Andrews’ reports on October 11 had been followed up.
He said: ‘One of the witnesses believed the number plate was covered. It’s for the jury to decide that. What we do know is that Kennedy’s lorry did not activate ANPR. (From) when it exited the port, the first time it activated was when he went through the Dartford crossing.
‘I asked for a great deal of work to be done around this lorry not activating ANPR. This 30-tonne lorry does not activate it. We have no images of it. It’s a bit of a mystery.
‘Personally, I think the number plate was either covered or it did not activate for whatever reason.’
He said a number of devices can be found on the internet that can help drivers evade ANPR detection.
DCI Stoten said: ‘Going forward, we actually changed not only the procedures of Essex Police but we have been a forerunner in changing the way the country responds to organised immigration crime.
‘So now when people are stopped and found to be in the back of lorries or vans etc we are looking at that. Most often the driver is arrested and that didn’t happen before.’
Today chilling photos released by the police showed how some of the 39 Vietnamese migrants who suffocated in the back of a lorry while being smuggled into Britain tried to create air holes with a metal pole.
Photographs from inside the lorry’s trailer showed gouge marks in the roof where some of the migrants had attempted to use a metal pole to create air holes so they could escape the sweltering heat and suffocating conditions.
Meanwhile, an illustration created by police revealed the scale of the cramped conditions and how the bodies were piled up inside the trailer when the horrific discovery was made.
The migrants had suffocated in sweltering temperatures as the airtight container was shipped from Zeebrugge to Purfleet.
The ‘unscrupulous’ gang behind the illegal shipment were motivated by greed as they pursued profits of more than £1 million that month alone.
The latest convictions come as:
- Home Secretary Priti Patel has said conviction has strengthened her resolve to tackle people smuggling rings
- Lead police investigator says thousands worked on investigation – one of the largest ever manslaughter cases
- In total, eight men have now been convicted in the UK in connection with deaths of the Vietnamese migrants
- Timeline shows how complex the people smuggling ring operated over years and ‘traded in human misery’
A photo showing pole marks inside the lorry trailer after migrants attempted to make air holes shortly before they suffocated
Maurice Robinson’s trailer and tractor unit after it had been taken into evidence as part of the manslaughter investigation
A timeline of events surrounding the Essex lorry death tragedy
– October 18: At 7.24am, Kennedy picks up the trailer and takes it to the same pick-up point at Orsett. Valentin Calota is one of the drivers brought by Nica to collect the new arrivals and drive them over the Dartford crossing and into south-east London.
In the evening, haulier boss Ronan Hughes, lorry driver Maurice Robinson, Draghici and Nica – now carrying a heavy bag full of cash – meet at the Ibis Hotel in Thurrock.
– October 22: From 5.47am, five of the victims’ phones are used in Paris.
– Around 9am, more are detected on the Belgian border between Dunkerque and Lille.
– From 9.21am, CCTV shows three taxis arriving at Bierne, northern France, followed by Harrison’s lorry.
– At 1.41pm Harrison’s lorry arrives at Zeebrugge port.
– At 2.52pm, the trailer containing 39 people, aged between 15 and 44, is loaded onto the MV Clementine which sails late, at 3.36pm.
– At 7.37pm, young father Nguyen Tho Tuan records a message for his family saying: ‘It’s Tuan. I am sorry. I cannot take care of you. I am sorry. I am sorry. I cannot breathe. I want to come back to my family. Have a good life.’
– Between 9.42pm and 10.42pm, the temperature in the trailer peaks at 38.5 Celsius.
– Between 10pm and 10.30pm the atmosphere is estimated to have reached toxic levels, killing all 39 victims.
– October 23: At 12.18am, the Clementine docks at Purfleet.
– At 1.07am, Robinson collects the trailer, some 12 hours after it was sealed. He is instructed by Hughes via Snapchat to ‘give them air quickly don’t let them out’.
Robinson drives out of Purfleet, stops and opens the doors at the back. He stands for 90 seconds before getting back in the cab.
– From 1.15 am, Robinson drives around for seven minutes before returning to the same location on Eastern Avenue. He opens the rear doors again, calls Hughes for one minute and 42 seconds and takes a minute-long call from Nica.
Over 15 minutes, there is a flurry of telephone contact between Hughes, Robinson, Kennedy and Nica, who leaves the area of Collingwood Farm.
– At 1.36am, Robinson telephones 999 and requests an ambulance.
– At 1.50am, police arrived on the scene and find Robinson looking ‘calm’ by the trailer.
Later that morning, Kennedy tells a friend via text: ‘must have been 2 many and run out of air.’
Nica takes an evening flight from Luton to Romania.
– October 24: Draghici flies to Bucharest, in Romania, and remains at large.
– November 22: Kennedy is arrested after the lorry he is driving on the M40 in Oxfordshire is stopped.
– February 7 2020 Nica is extradited to the UK after being detained in Frankfurt under a European Arrest Warrant.
– March 14: Calota is arrested on arrival at Birmingham airport from Romania.
– April 8: Robinson pleads guilty at the Old Bailey to 39 counts of manslaughter.
– June 23: Hughes is extradited from the Republic of Ireland to the UK and pleads guilty to the manslaughter in August.
– July 22: Harrison is extradited to the UK having been detained at Dublin Port, Ireland, under European Arrest Warrant, on October 26 2019.
– October 5: Nica and Harrison go on trial at the Old Bailey for manslaughter. Harrison, Calota and Kennedy are accused of being involved in a wider people-smuggling conspiracy, which Nica, Robinson, Hughes and two others have admitted.
– December 21: they are convicted of manslaughter
The verdicts bring the total number of people convicted in Britain to eight, including haulier boss Ronan Hughes, 41, of Armagh, and 26-year-old lorry driver Maurice Robinson, of Craigavon, who admitted manslaughter.
Prosecutors are 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.
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.’
Since the tragedy, Essex Police had been at the forefront of cracking down on organised immigration crime, Mr Stoten said.
Kelly Matthews, from the Crown Prosecution Service, said: ‘Thirty-nine vulnerable people desperate for a new life put their trust in an unscrupulous network of people smugglers.
‘Nothing can bring back the lives lost on that day or the loss caused by the horrible, unlawful and dangerous actions of these defendants.
‘But we hope these convictions bring some measure of solace to the families in the knowledge that justice has been done.’
The Director of Threat Leadership for the National Crime Agency (NCA), Rob Jones, said: ‘The organised criminal groups involved in immigration crime are callous and treat migrants as a commodity to be profited from.
‘Their only motivation is money, they don’t care about the safety or consequences of their actions.
‘Tragically in this case the consequences were fatal. I am pleased that those responsible will now be held accountable for their actions.
‘I hope this outcome brings some comfort to the families of those who died.’
The NPCC lead for Organised Immigration crime, Shaun Sawyer, said: ‘The inhumanity demonstrated by these men towards the 39 men, women and children who ultimately lost their lives is truly distressing.
‘This year the Home Office has provided extra funding to policing to assist the UK law enforcement effort to disrupt and prosecute these gangs.
‘With this support and the experience learned from this investigation we will continue our endeavour to seek to prevent tragedies such as this from happening again.’
The Old Bailey heard how the gang offered a ‘VIP’ service to Vietnamese migrants, who gathered in Belgium and France.
They charged about £13,000 a head to transport migrants in a trailer via the Channel Tunnel or by boat to 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, the ‘man on the Continent’, was fined after being caught at the Channel Tunnel in France with 18 Vietnamese migrants in his trailer.
On October 11 last year, 15 people were shipped in a container dropped at Zeebrugge by Harrison and collected by Kennedy at Purfleet.
They then boarded a fleet of vehicles at Orsett for transfer to Dulwich where they were held by a Vietnamese man named Phong, whose job was to take payment, jurors heard
Orsett resident Marie Andrews had witnessed the drop and rang police to report her concerns three times that day.
Three days later, Kennedy was stopped by French border agents at the Channel Tunnel.
He was sent on his way after 20 migrants were removed from his trailer, two of whom were among the dead on October 23.
On October 17 last year, Harrison took 15 migrants and a load of macaroons and Bakewell tarts to Zeebrugge.
On arrival, Kennedy dropped the human cargo off at Orsett then helped Hughes try to disguise the fact that the biscuits were trampled and crushed.
That night, Nica was caught on CCTV with Hughes at a hotel in Essex carrying a bag containing £50,000, which he had allegedly collected from Phong.
On the morning of October 22, Harrison picked up 39 migrants from Bierne in France.
CCTV shows police arriving at the scene where Maurice Robinson (top right) had found the bodies in the back of his lorry
Priti Patel rebuked for ‘ruthless criminals’ tweet
On October 23, the anniversary of the tragedy, Priti Patel’s Twitter account posted: ‘One year ago today, 39 people lost their lives in horrific circumstances at the hands of ruthless criminals.
‘My thoughts remain with everyone who was affected by that day, particularly the loved ones of the people who so tragically died.’
The comments were made as the prosecution of four alleged people-smugglers linked to the deaths was continuing at the Old Bailey.
The post was retweeted and liked more than 300 times before it came to the attention of a defence lawyer and the trial was halted.
In the absence of the jury, Alisdair Williamson QC complained about the description of ‘ruthless criminals’, especially as she was a senior Government minister.
He said: ‘It is unhelpful to say the least and a lot worse could be said. I don’t know what course could be taken. I know I don’t tweet personally. If action could be taken before the jury gets home.
‘I don’t know whether the court can invite the Government to delete that tweet?’
Before he sent jurors home, Mr Justice Sweeney warned them to ignore comments on social media from politicians.
The tweet was live for more than an hour before it was deleted.
A Home Office spokesperson said: ‘The Home Secretary’s tweet intended to refer to individuals who were involved in the incident and had already entered guilty pleas. The tweet was not intended to reference individuals involved in the ongoing trial.
‘However, as soon as concerns were raised, the tweet was deleted.’
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.
In the 23 minutes before he dialled 999, Robinson exchanged panicked calls with his boss Hughes and Nica, who had been waiting for him in Orsett with his drivers.
The court was played an emergency call Robinson made in which he said: ‘They are all lying on the ground.’
The operator asked: ‘Are they breathing?’
Robinson: ‘No, I don’t think so. I heard a noise in the back, so I opened the door.’
Operator: ‘How many patients?’
Robinson: ‘About 25.’
Operator: ‘And they’re not breathing?’
The first police officer on the scene described finding half-naked bodies ‘closely packed’ together lying in the trailer, some ‘frothing at the mouth’.
The court heard all 39 victims were declared at the scene in the back of the lorry’s trailer.
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.
Kennedy, Harrison and Calota, who picked up migrants at Orsett on October 18, variously claimed they had thought they were transporting cigarettes, alcohol and stolen lorry parts.
Nica admitted being roped in by convicted cigarette smuggler Hughes for earlier runs, but said he thought Robinson had a load of cigarettes when he showed him where he could unload in Orsett the night before the tragedy.
But prosecutor Bill Emlyn Jones told jurors the operation required ‘meticulous’ planning and each defendant had to be ‘in the know’.
The group of migrants were were from five provinces in the central, coastal area of Vietnam and two provinces near Hanoi
Nguyen Huy Hung (left), 15, was the youngest victim in the lorry tragedy, while Nguyen Dinh Lurong (right), 20, also died
Q&A: How the people smuggling gang were brought to justice
The investigation into the deaths of 39 migrants resulted in one of the largest manslaughter cases.
Two of those involved in bringing the people smugglers to justice have shared their views.
– Who was behind the people-smuggling ring?
Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten, from Essex Police, said: ‘The investigation has found it was quite a complex organised crime group behind the people smuggling.
‘Ronan Hughes and Gheorghe Nica were the organisers and the brains behind the crime group and then they had a logistics corps of people involved in the transportation and that included Christopher Kennedy, Eamonn Harrison, Maurice Robinson and others.’
– What drove them to it?
Mr Stoten said: ‘Motivation was purely financial.
‘They were quite willing to put the health and the safety of other people at risk in order to drive that greed.
‘If you look at the victims and the previous people who were transported to the UK, you would not transport animals in that manner.
‘But they (the smugglers) were quite happy to do that and put them at significant risk.’
– What about the 39 Vietnamese nationals who died?
Kelly Matthews, from the Crown Prosecution Service, said: ‘This is an unimaginably tragic case.
‘Thirty-nine vulnerable people desperate for a new life put their trust in an unscrupulous network of people smugglers.
‘They died through a lack of oxygen, desperately trying to escape from a sealed container.
‘Many, when their plight became hopeless, sent messages to loved ones via their mobile phones.’
– What was the effect on the officers who found the 39 bodies?
Mr Stoten said: ‘The officers that first attended that incident did an amazing job.
‘Almost all of those officers that attended were really young in service and it was quite possibly the first time that some of them had ever seen a deceased person.
‘So, to have been met with 39 people … an absolutely horrendous scene in front of them.
‘I’m quite certain that this will stay with them for the rest of their career and quite probably the rest of lives.’
– Why were there so many people in that particular trailer?
Mr Stoten said: ‘The crime group had an almost tried and tested system of usually between 15 and 20 people and that has worked for them.
‘It’s still dangerous, very dangerous.
‘My personal view is that there was something that happened just prior to the 22nd (October) that meant there were another 19 or 20 people that did not come across as they were planning to and, because of pure greed, they decided they were going put all of them into the container.
‘They could have held off for a week or two weeks and then transported them in a less dangerous manner but they didn’t because they wanted the money.
‘So they put 39 of them in a container knowing full well that was an extremely dangerous thing to do.’
– How much money did the gang stand to make?
Mr Stoten said: ‘Between £10,000 and £12,000 per person, the lion’s share of which would have gone to Ronan Hughes and Gheorghe Nica.’
Together with two successful runs on October 11 and 18 last year, some 80 people were smuggled into Britain, paying between £10,000 and £20,000 each – ‘a huge amount of money’, he said.
– Is there evidence that the gang had got away with it for longer?
‘We’ve certainly seen evidence they have been doing this for some time,’ said Mr Stoten.
‘Their greed did not diminish but their complacency did increase.’
– Were there missed opportunities to stop them?
Mr Stoten said police carried out a search after a resident in Orsett reported a drop of migrants on October 11 last year.
He said: ‘We did actually respond quite quickly to that, and some intelligence work was completed immediately and that related to an ANPR (automatic number-plate recognition) search.
‘Unfortunately the people had left the area.’
– Has the tragedy led to changes in policing procedures?
Mr Stoten said: ‘Going forward, we actually changed not only the procedures of Essex Police but we have been a forerunner in changing the way the country responds to organised immigration crime.
‘So now, when people are stopped and found to be in the back of lorries or vans etc, we are looking at that.
‘Most often the driver is arrested, and that didn’t happen before.’
– How strong was the evidence in this case?
‘Four people pleaded guilty before the trial.
‘I don’t think they did that because they thought it was the right thing to do; they did that because of the sheer weight of the evidence against them,’ said Mr Stoten.
Ms Matthews said: ‘There was substantial evidence gathered from overseas as well as the UK to bring the case and prove the case.
‘We were able to show that if you put people in a sealed container with no way of opening it there is a risk of some harm, whether that be one person or 100 people inside.’
– Do these convictions bring the case to a close?
Ms Matthews said: ‘There are a number of individuals that Essex Police are still pursuing.
‘The CPS are currently looking into three additional people within the UK.
‘There were also significant sums of money made from this catastrophic event.
‘We are committed to pursuing any moneys obtained and ensuring no-one profits from this terrible tragedy.’
– What about the international connection?
Ms Matthews said: ‘There are various investigations and prosecutions taking place across Europe by international partners into this criminal network.
‘A number of people were arrested and prosecuted in Vietnam by the Vietnamese.’
There have been eight convictions in Vietnam.
Home Secretary, Priti Patel, said: ‘This was a truly tragic incident.
‘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.
‘I want to thank all the agencies involved in this investigation, specifically Essex Police, the NCA, the Crown Prosecution Service and operational teams in the Home Office for their exemplary professionalism in pursuing convictions.
‘We are fortunate to be served by such outstanding, committed officers, who help keep us safe and support those most in need.’
Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten, who led the investigation, said: ‘This story started almost eight thousand miles away
‘Every man, woman and child, some as young as 15, who died in the lorry trailer was from Vietnam.
‘They may have started their journeys at different times but, ultimately, they were all following the false promise of a new life.
‘They put their trust in people they hoped would deliver them safely to our shores. But sadly, that’s not how their journey ended.
‘Family members and friends, many of whom are still thousands of miles away have suffered an unimaginable loss.
‘I know this because my team at Essex Police have heard their stories, and carefully recorded their testimony first-hand.
‘Since our investigation started, nearly 14 months ago more than 1,300 people have worked on this case.
‘And for the detectives, staff and volunteers at Essex Police, and other forces across the country as well as national and international law enforcement, governments and embassies, this will be a case we will never forget.
‘I’d like to say to the families that we are one step closer to getting you the justice you deserve.
‘It won’t bring your loved ones back, but I hope it will offer some solace. Our thoughts are with you, today and always.’
Russell Tyner, of the CPS Organised Crime Division, said: ‘This is an unimaginably tragic case. 39 vulnerable people desperate for a new life were driven to put their trust in a network of unscrupulous people smugglers and they suffered horrific consequences – not through their own fault but due to the sheer greed of others.
‘They died through lack of oxygen, desperately trying to escape from the container.
‘Some were able to express their last words to their families on their mobile phones when they knew their situation was hopeless.’
The Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner for Essex, Roger Hirst, said: ‘This was an international tragedy that happened here in our county.
‘I said we needed to come together as a community to help the police bring whoever was responsible to justice and we did just that and our force has done an outstanding job.
‘I would like to say thank you to 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.
‘Nothing will ever bring those 39 people back, but I hope their families will be able to take some comfort from the fact that our emergency services treated them and their loved ones with the respect and compassion they deserved as well as working to get justice in their memories.’
During the trial, the court had heard a couple comforted each other as their dream of a life in Britain slipped away in the back of a dark, hot trailer.
Tran Hai Loc and Nguyen Thi Van, both 35, were still huddled together when they were discovered among the 39 dead on October 23 last year.
Their bodies were carefully removed from the trailer, still holding hands, and taken to hospital together.
The couple had travelled by plane to work in Hungary as fruit pickers for one-and-a-half months, having organised the placement through a labour company in Hanoi at a cost of 7,000 US dollars (£6,000) each.
Their families last heard from them on October 18 last year when they phoned to say their plans had changed.
Four days later, they and the other men, women and children had made their way to a pick-up point en route to Zeebrugge in Belgium, with one group coming from Paris and another from Brussels.
Jurors at the Old Bailey heard that there could have been a 40th migrant on the trip, but for the fact that he was late for his rendezvous with Eamonn Harrison’s lorry in Bierne, northern France.
During the cross-Channel trip on board the Clementine, the group had desperately tried to raise the alarm, even calling the Vietnamese emergency number, as they ran out of air.
When they found there was no mobile phone signal in the trailer, some recorded goodbye messages to their families.
Nguyen Tho Tuan, 25, told his family: ‘I am sorry. I cannot take care of you. I am sorry. I am sorry. I cannot breathe.
‘I want to come back to my family. Have a good life.’
A metal pole had been used to try to punch through the roof of the refrigerated container, but only managed to dent the interior.
Prosecutor Bill Emlyn Jones had said: ‘There was no way out, and no-one to hear them, no-one to help them.’
When police were alerted to the deaths by Maurice Robinson, they found the migrants, aged 15 to 44, were half-naked and frothing at the mouth.
They had been dead long enough for rigor mortis to have set in.
Former Detective Chief Inspector Martin Pasmore, who dealt with their identification, said: ‘It was shocking to say the least.’
He said it was important to treat the bodies with ‘dignity and respect’.
‘Dying in such a horrendous way… You could not help but have a great sense there was no panic there.
‘They seem to have died with dignity and respect for each other, just the way the bodies were laid.
‘There is one couple holding hands. They stayed together throughout the transportation to hospital and they stayed together throughout the post-mortems.’
Pham Tra My (left and right) 26, was among the 39 people who died in the lorry in Grays, Essex
Anna Bui Thi Nhung, 19, (left) and cousins Nguyen van Hung, 33, (centre) and Hoang Van Tiep (right), 18, were among victims
Driver Maurice Robinson (pictured), 26, who first discovered the deaths, had already admitted 39 counts of manslaughter
The Vietnamese men, women and children, aged between 15 and 44, were found dead in the back of the trailer in Essex on October 23 last year
‘They were frothing at the mouth’: PC describes horror moment he found bodies in back of lorry
A police officer described the moment he discovered the half-naked bodies of 39 migrants, some of whom were ‘frothing at the mouth’, in the back of the lorry.
Pc Emerson said: ‘I could see one of the trailer doors was already open and I could visibly see numerous half-naked bodies in the back of the trailer, lying on the trailer floor motionless.
‘I approached the door of the trailer to further inspect the bodies and it became apparent as I got closer that the entire trailer was full of bodies, and the individuals appeared to be half-naked.
‘Most of them were wearing clothes on their lower half but they all appeared to not be wearing any clothing on their upper half.
‘All of the bodies appeared intact and it was in my opinion that they had not been there for a very long period of time.
‘There was however a strange smell coming from the trailer that smelt like chemicals.’
Pc Emerson said he got inside the trailer to search for any signs of life, checking pulses and for breathing.
He said the bodies were ‘closely packed’ together, mainly lying on their backs.
‘Due to how packed together the bodies were in the trailer it was not possible to check every body so I made an attempt to check the bodies I could reach.’
He said some of them appeared to be ‘frothing from the mouth’ and some were warm.
The court heard all 39 victims were declared dead at the scene.
Mr Pasmore said that seeing the tragedy had affected officers, and the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder was uppermost in his mind.
It also had a ‘significant impact’ on the families in Vietnam, many of whom had borrowed thousands of pounds to fund the journey.
Officers handled 391 calls from concerned relatives wanting to identify loved ones.
During the trial, jurors were provided with a snapshot of the victims and their dreams of a better life.
They included a bricklayer, a restaurant worker, a nail bar technician, a budding beautician, and a university graduate, who had worked in IT to save up and fund his own passage.
Their journeys across the world, via travel agencies in Vietnam, had included various stops in Russia, China, Germany, Poland, Hungary and Romania.
They would fly to one country, work there so they could build up cash reserves and send some money home, before then attempting the perilous journey to Britain.
Many of their families borrowed thousands of pounds to fund their passage, relying on their potential future earnings once they got in Britain.
Some of the migrants had made repeated failed attempts to be smuggled into the country, with one being turned back five times.
Witness X, a Vietnamese migrant who was smuggled by the gang on October 11 last year, provided an insight into why so many people were prepared to risk everything.
He was attracted to Britain partly because of the language.
Firstly, he had moved from Poland to France after getting a Schengen visa as a business student.
He then arranged his ‘VIP’ trip across the Channel through a Vietnamese connection on Facebook, who put him in contact with someone in Dulwich, south-east London, called Phong.
He got a taxi to a pick up point where he was ushered onto a trailer by the driver, who told them to go ‘quickly’ but ‘keep quiet’.
Before arriving at Zeebrugge, the driver – said to be Eamonn Harrison – stopped once to provide them with water and further instructions, the court heard.
Inside the lorry trailer driven by Maurice Robinson where 39 Vietnamese migrants suffocated after being smuggled into UK
Video played to the court showed the moment officers arrived on scene in Essex and (inset) body cam footage shows an officer looking for signs of life inside the lorry. Driver Maurice Robinson called 999 after discovering the bodies in his lorry