Gheorghe Nica and Eamonn Harrison have been found guilty of the manslaughter of 39 Vietnamese migrants.
The migrants suffocated within the sealed container of the lorry in the distance travelled from Zeebrugge to Purfleet in October of 2019. Harrison, 24, who delivered and dropped off the trailer at a Belgian port, and Nica, 43, a human trafficker, were both convicted by an Old Bailey jury. Two other individuals were convicted of being part of a much wider people-smuggling conspiracy.
The trial entailed examinations of three separate smuggling attempts by the gang, two of which took place on the 11th and 18th of October and were successful, and a third on the 23rd of October. The lorry driver, Chris Kennedy aged 24, picked up the trailers from Purfleet on the earlier two runs and claimed he was under the impression he was transporting cigarettes. However, the jury found Kennedy and Valentin Calota, 38, guilty of conspiring to assist illegal immigration.
Throughout the trial, the jurors were given details of the victims, who included a bricklayer, a nail bar technician and a university graduate. A large number of the families borrowed a significant amount to fund their journey, relying on potential future earnings once they had arrived in the UK. Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten of Essex Police said: “If you look at the method, the way they transported human beings … we wouldn’t transport animals in that way.”
Prosecutors said that, throughout the journey, the container had become a “tomb” and temperatures within the trailer had reached 38.5C. The immigrants were stuck inside for at least 12 hours. Their attempts to punch a hole through the roof with a metal pole resulted in only denting the interior.
Throughout the 10-week trial, Nica claimed he was not aware that there were people being loaded into the trailer. He also claimed that he watched “a wee bit of Netflix” in bed as the loading of the lorry took place. He also said that he was completely unaware that there were migrants in the two other trailers he had delivered to the same port in the previous two weeks.
The day after the bodies of the migrants were found, Nica fled to Romania, on the basis he was afraid of a “big, big investigation”, but prosecutors labelled the defendant’s recollection of events “ridiculous”.
The jury heard that, on the 14th of October, Kennedy was found at the French end of the Channel Tunnel, with at least 20 migrants trapped in his trailer. At least two of those people ended up passing away in the run. Investigators believe that the smugglers had in fact “doubled up” on migrants, which was what led to the deaths.