Men played distinct roles in people-smuggling plot

Thirty-nine migrants died in an air-tight trailer.

Bodies found in lorry container
Bodies found in lorry container

The seven men jailed for a people-smuggling plot that led to the deaths of 39 migrants who suffocated in an air-tight trailer each played distinct roles in the conspiracy.

Gheorghe Nica, 43, Ronan Hughes, 41, Eamonn Harrison, 24, and Maurice Robinson, 26, were sentenced at the Old Bailey on Friday for the tragedy which happened on October 23 2019.

Also jailed were Christopher Kennedy, 24, Valentin Calota, 38, and Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga, 28.

The court heard how British-Romanian Nica recruited and paid the drivers in the Romanian community to collected migrants once they reached the UK and drop them at safe houses.

The lorry driver and mechanic knew the lorry yards in Essex well and could easily identify a quiet spot to unload migrants.

Bodies found in lorry container
(top row, left to right) Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga, Christopher Kennedy, Eamonn Harrison and Gheorghe Nica, (bottom row, left to right) Maurice Robinson, Ronan Hughes and Valentin Calota (Essex Police/PA)

Nica, a father of three, liaised with an individual named “Fong” who was at the top of the conspiracy – delivering large sums of cash from him to haulage boss Hughes.

Phone evidence disclosed he was in touch with Robinson – the driver who found the bodies – both before and after he made the grim discovery.

Jailing him for 27 years, Mr Justice Sweeney remarked: “I am sure (Nica) was well rewarded for his overall role.”

Logistics boss Hughes and his fleet of lorries played a “pivotal” role in the conspiracy, the court heard, and received £3,000 cash per migrant successfully transported, from which the individual driver was also paid.

Jailing him for 20 years, Mr Justice Sweeney said: “Albeit that Hughes was not, I accept, at the very top of the conspiracy, his role was clearly a pivotal one.”

Harrison was pulled into the scheme as a means of paying off a large debt he owed to Hughes as a result of a lorry accident in Germany while he was drunk driving.

Bodies found in lorry container
The victims were found dead in the back of a trailer (Essex Police/PA)

He was described as the “man on the continent” and it was Harrison who picked up migrants and took them in trailers to Zeebrugge in Belgium to be shipped to the UK.

In the weeks before the tragedy he had done little other haulage work, being paid a flat fee of 500 euros(£445) per trip.

Handing him 18 years imprisonment, Mr Justice Sweeney accepted Harrison was the youngest defendant and that he was immature, with ADHD, depression and “clear signs of alcoholism”.

Mr Justice Sweeney said Harrison “lived a lonely life on the road, sleeping in his cab”, and noted submissions by Harrison’s barrister that there was a distinction between involvement to pay off a debt and involvement purely for profit.

Robinson became involved in late 2018 or early 2019 and received £25,000 for a previous run from Belgium to the UK, as well as taking part in an aborted run of migrants due to be collected from the Netherlands.

On the day the bodies were discovered, his only role was collecting the trailer from Purfleet, for a fee of £500.

Bodies found in lorry container
Photo of the doors on the trailer, which was shown at the Old Bailey (Essex Police/PA)

He had been instructed by Hughes to “give them air quickly, don’t let them out”.

When he opened the doors a cloud of vapour escaped the trailer and Robinson saw that all the migrants were dead.

But rather than raising the alarm immediately, he exchanged a series of calls with Hughes and Nica.

Some 23 minutes later, he rang 999 to report finding “loads” of migrants lying on the ground.

He was sentenced to 13 years and four months.

Robinson, a father of twins, admitted the charges and Mr Justice Sweeney remarked: “Notwithstanding the lies that he told in interview, (Robinson) has genuine regret and remorse.”

Kennedy was not involved in the fatal journey, but helped in three other transportations over the previous month.

Bodies found in lorry container
Maurice Robinson’s trailer unit (Essex Police/PA)

He was described by the prosecution as an “integral part” of Hughes’ human trafficking team and was jailed for seven years for his part in the conspiracy.

Hanga also admitted his role in the enterprise on the basis that he had collected a number of migrants from a drop-off point and driven them to a safe house in Dulwich a few weeks before the tragedy.

Mr Justice Sweeney noted that newlywed Hanga got involved because he felt “beholden” to Nica, adding Nica was “not the sort of person to say ‘no’ to”.

He was jailed for three years, but the judge remarked he had shown “genuine remorse”.

Calota was also pulled into the scheme by Nica, driving just one vanload of migrants from Orsett in Essex to London on October 18 2019.

He received £700 plus expenses for his part in the operation, with the journey lasting for no more than an hour.

The court heard Calota had been an acquaintance of Nica, moving to Grays in 2017, that he had found it difficult to make a living in the UK and was leaving in near poverty. He was jailed for four and a half years.

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