Two men have been convicted in the manslaughter of 39 Vietnamese migrants who were smuggled to the U.K. in a refrigerated trailer last year.
The victims, aged 15 to 44, initially thought to be Chinese, suffocated to death after being sealed in the unit for at least 12 hours, with temperatures reaching an “unbearable” 38.5 degrees Celsius (101 degrees Fahrenheit).
Driver Eamonn Harrison, 24, and organizer Gheorghe Nica, 43, were each found guilty of 39 counts of manslaughter, as well as conspiring to assist illegal immigration.
“The men who were found guilty today made their money from misery,” Essex Police Chief Constable Ben-Julian Harrington said on Monday. “They thought they could cover up their crimes. Today, they have been proved wrong on every count.”
Harrison, of Northern Ireland, was instructed to pick up a “load” in northern France and drive them to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge. He denied seeing people being loaded into the trailer as he had been watching “a wee bit of Netflix.”
From Zeebrugge, the 39 migrants were shipped to the town of Purfleet in Essex. They died of suffocation by the time they arrived on Oct. 23, 2019. The victims were 28 men, eight women and three children, most from the Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces in north-central Vietnam where poor opportunities and environmental disaster prompts migration.
Nica, of Romania, was a coordinator of the operation. He received the call about the dead bodies from Maurice Robinson, 26, of Northern Ireland, who collected the trailer in Essex.
Nica admitted that he conspired to assist illegal immigration in two previous operations, which took place on Oct. 11 and Oct. 18, 2019. However, he claimed he thought the third run involved smuggling cigarettes.
Ronan Hughes, 41, of Ireland, also coordinated the operations. He, Nica and Robinson all pleaded guilty before the 10-week trial, according to The Guardian.
Christopher Kennedy, 24, of Northern Ireland, collected the trailers in the two earlier runs. He and Valentin Calota, 38, of Romania, were also convicted of conspiring to smuggle illegal immigrants.
“If you look at the method, the way they transported human beings… we wouldn’t transport animals in that way,” said Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten, from Essex Police, according to the BBC.
He added that the group made between 10,000 pounds ($13,420) and 12,000 pounds ($16,100) per person transported, “the lion’s share of which would have gone to Ronan Hughes and Gheorghe Nica.”
Pham Thi Tra My, 26, was one of the 39 migrants who died in the third operation. She managed to send her mother a dying message.
“She said; ‘Mum, I think I’ll die suffocated,'” Nguyen Thi Phong told Sky News. “I just thought she was on a crowded train or bus so it was hard to breathe. I just told her to hang in there, I didn’t know the situation was like that.”
Nguyen Thi Van and Tran Hai Loc were the only couple among the victims. They were still holding hands when their bodies were found.
“We didn’t know they were found hand-in-hand until now,” Van’s brother, Nguyen Xuan Thuy, told ITV News. “Now I know that even when they died, and before they left this world, they were still together. They still showed their love. It takes some of the pain away for our family, and for myself.”
Feature Images via Essex Police