Essex migrant deaths: New film lifts lid on how detectives cracked case
It started with a 999 call from a lorry driver in an industrial estate in Essex and ended in one of the UK’s biggest ever police investigations into the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants. Now a new BBC Two documentary will lift the lid on how detectives cracked open a multimillion-pound international smuggling ring with its roots in a seemingly innocuous haulage business in the heart of Northern Ireland. Spanning Britain, Europe and Vietnam and with exclusive access to Essex Police, their officers and the evidence, the film reveals how detectives painstakingly pieced together a complex web of testimony, including the role of a witness known only as “Witness X”, whose evidence helped bring down the criminal gang.
Hunting the Essex Lorry Killers hears first hand accounts from DCI Daniel Stoten, the officer who led the Essex Police investigation into the deaths and his colleagues.
The screening comes almost two years after the bodies of 28 men, eight women and three children were found closely packed inside the sealed HGV container as steam poured from its doors in Grays, Essex. A husband and wife, survived by two children aged six and four, were found dead holding hands and huddled together. The 39 Vietnamese migrants, including two aged just 15, had tried to break out of the sealed lorry trailer and sent heartbreaking goodbye messages to family before they ran out of air and were found dead on UK soil.
The film hears how the migrants had agreed to pay up to GBP13,000 each for a “VIP” smuggling service that they and their families back in Vietnam had hoped would lead to a better life in the UK. “Thirty nine people had died – this was the start of the largest investigation in our force’s history. Their justice in my hands and I sat there and asked myself if I was good enough for this?” DCI Stoten said.
He added: “There was massive expectation when we were coming towards the trial. We couldn’t fail the victims or the families waiting for their justice. The promise we gave in the beginning was that we would get justice.
“This has been such a journey physically and emotionally. I had some periods of time when I found myself in a real dark place.” Paul Clark, scene evidence recovery manager was among those tasked with identifying the victims.
“The first thing I needed to do was to look in the back of the truck,” he said. “One of my colleagues opened it, maybe a few centimetres so I could look in. The first thing was tears came down my face.
I’d never seen that many bodies or victims before.” Mr Clark also oversaw the movement of the lorry to a secure location before the bodies were examined. “As we drove out onto the main road, all the police officers bowed their heads in respect, I was in a van driving behind the truck and members of the public were stopping and bowing their heads all along the route really,” he added.
(l-r) DI Michelle Stoten, DCI Daniel Stoten, Paul Clark and DCI Greig Avery from Essex Police (Image: Jillian Edelstein)
Temperatures inside the container had reached an unbearable 38.5C.
“Most of the people had removed almost all their clothing and didn’t have any apparent injuries or decomposition. They looked as if they had gone to sleep,” Mr Clark said. “It was a refrigeration unit so obviously the initial reports said people had frozen to death but from what I was seeing that didn’t appear to be the case.
There was no condensation and it didn’t feel particularly cold in there.” The programme also features interviews with the families in Vietnam of some of those who lost their lives in the back of the lorry, including Nguyen Dinh Gia, father of 20-year-old victim Nguyen Dinh Luong and Nguyen Thi Phong, mother of Pham Thi Tra My, 26, who sent her a series of texts telling her she “loved her” and was “dying because she couldn’t breathe” from inside the container. “The phone rang.
They said Luong had been travelling to England,” Nguyen Dinh Gia recalled on hearing the news about his son. “He was in a vehicle that got in an accident and everyone inside had passed away. I threw my phone.
I’d lost my son, I’d lost everything.” Nguyen Thi Phong added: “Her text message is still in my phone but I don’t dare to look at it. I haven’t dared to look at it ever since.
Only my husband and sons are able to. I don’t dare to look at her pictures even once.”
Nguyen Dinh Gia, the father of the victim Nguyen Dinh Luong (Image: Tung Le)
Ringleaders Gheorghe Nica, 43 from Basildon, Essex and Ronan Hughes, 41, along with another Armagh man, driver Maurice Robinson, 26, and Co Down man Eamonn Harrison, 24, were later sentenced along with three other gang members. The film features footage of the police interviews with Robinson from Craigavon.
He found the bodies of the migrants, aged between 15 and 44, when he pulled over in an industrial estate and opened one of the trailer’s doors just after 1am on October 23, 2019. Robinson had collected the container from a port in Essex and was instructed by Hughes via Snapchat to “give them air quickly, don’t let them out”. He responded with a thumbs-up emoji.
About 12 hours before their bodies were discovered, the 39 victims were crammed into an airtight lorry container to be shipped from Zeebrugge, Belgium, to Purfleet, Essex, in pitch black and sweltering conditions. Harrison collected the victims in Bierne, France, and his trailer was loaded onto the Clementine ship which left Zeebrugge at about 4pm on October 22, 2019, docking at Purfleet shortly after midnight. When Robinson opened the doors at about 1.13am on October 23, 2019, after pulling over, a plume of vapour escaped and he stood for 90 seconds after seeing bodies inside.
He then closed the door, got back into the cab and drove off. Before dialling 999, he exchanged panicked calls with Hughes and Nica, who had been waiting for him in Orsett with his drivers. Robinson drove in a loop before returning to the avenue where he had opened the door moments earlier.
About 23 minutes after finding the bodies, Robinson finally dialled 999, at 1.36am. Asked if the patients were breathing, he said: “No. There, there’s loads of them, there’s immigrants in the back but they’re, they’re all lying on the ground.
“I went and lifted a trailer from Purfleet, the freight terminal, and I got around to where I was gonna park up for the night and I heard a noise in the back and I opened the door and there’s a bunch of them lying.” When an operator asked how many people were in the trailer, Robinson said: “The trailer is jammed. I don’t know.”
Ronan Hughes and Mo Robinson
In January of this year and following an eleven week trial, the four people-smugglers were jailed for 78 years for the killings of the 39 Vietnamese migrants.
The court hearing was told that the operation was sophisticated, long-running and profitable, with the smugglers standing to make more than GBP1 million in October 2019 alone. Migrants would board lorries at a remote location on the continent to be transported to Britain where they would be picked up by a fleet of smaller vehicles organised by Nica for transfer to a safe house until payment was received. A total of seven smuggling trips were identified between May 2018 and October 23, 2019, although the court heard there were likely to have been more.
Nica was given 27 years, Hughes was handed 20 years in prison, Harrison was sentenced to 18 years, and Robinson was jailed for 13 years and four months – all for 39 counts of manslaughter and a people-smuggling conspiracy. The three others – lorry driver Christopher Kennedy, 24, of Darkley, Co Armagh; Valentin Calota, 38, from Birmingham, and Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga, 29 of Hobart Road in Essex were jailed for a total of 14 years for lesser offences. Kennedy and Calota, who were found guilty of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration, were jailed for seven and four years, respectively.
Hanga, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration, was handed three years.
Hunting the Essex Lorry Killers will premiere on BBC Two on Wednesday, October 13 at 9pm.
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