The people smugglers who killed 39 Vietnamese migrants later found in a lorry trailer in Essex were caught thanks to a survivor of their trafficking operation, it has been revealed.
Four men from Ireland and Romania were jailed for manslaughter in January after one of the biggest homicide investigations in British history.
Detectives had faced a mammoth task in finding out who was responsible for the ‘excruciatingly painful’ deaths of the migrants, who suffocated in the trailer between Belgium and Purfleet in October 2019.
A new BBC documentary shows how a single fingerprint found on another lorry operated by the gang’s leader led police to another Vietnamese migrant who had entered the UK via the same route a week before the victims.
The man, named only as ‘Witness X’, was ‘extremely fearful’ after being approached but bravely agreed to sign an affidavit detailing his experiences.
He said: ‘I believe that the people involved in bringing Vietnamese people into the UK are like the mafia… They are very dangerous.
‘I fear that if they know I am providing the police with information that they will harm my family in Vietnam.’
His first-hand account helped show the drivers knew they were carrying people and led to the discovery of CCTV footage placing the primary suspects together at the same hotel.
Senior investigating officer DCI Daniel Stoten told the programme: ‘That to me was gold dust.’
Hunting the Essex Lorry Killers, which airs on Wednesday on BBC2, also details how the victims may have only died because ringleader Ronan Hughes, 41, decided to pack twice as many people into the trailer as there were on Witness X’s journey.
After the lorry arrived in the UK, the Hughes texted driver Maurice Robinson: ‘Give them air quickly but don’t let them out.’
The moment Robinson realises his boss’ gamble had failed is revealed by CCTV footage and audio recording of his call to 999, after peeking into the trailer in an industrial estate in the middle of the night.
Asked whether the person he was calling about was still breathing, he says: ‘Hello, er, no – I’m a lorry driver and I’ve just lifted a trailer from the port. I don’t think so.
He begins pacing around as he adds: ‘There’s loads of them. There’s immigrants in the back but they’re all lying on the ground.’
First responders, who saw ‘steam coming out of the lorry’ when they arrived, were left speechless for several minutes as they processed what they saw inside.
A look of horror is seen flashing across the face of one officer as it dawns on him that they will need to carry out CPR on every one of the 39 victims to confirm they are dead.
A colleague, PC Jack Emerson, later told the BBC: ‘The driver just stood there, he didn’t say a word. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t look stressed or flustered.
‘The first thing I needed to do was look in the back of the truck. One of my colleagues opened it maybe a few centimetres so I could look in, and the first thing that [happened] was tears came down my face.
‘I’ve never seen that many bodies or victims before.’
Two of the killers, Hughes and Gheorghe Nica, 43, who played ‘leading roles’ in the smuggling conspiracy, were jailed for 20 and 27 years respectively.
Eamonn Harrison, 24, who towed the trailer to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, was sentenced to 18 years. Robinson, who collected the trailer and opened it in an industrial estate to find the migrants dead, was given 13 years and four months.
Another three men were jailed for conspiracy to facilitate unlawful immigration.
Christopher Kennedy, 24, from County Armagh, received a seven-year sentence. Valentin Calota, 38, of Birmingham, received four-and-a-half years. Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga, 28, of Hobart Road, Tilbury, Essex, was given a three-year sentence.
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