LONDON — Four smugglers convicted of killing 39 people from Vietnam who died in the back of a container truck as it was shipped to England were sentenced Friday to between 13 and 27 years in prison.
The victims, ages 15 to 44, were found in October 2019 inside a refrigerated container that had traveled by ferry from Belgium to the eastern English port of Purfleet. The migrants had paid smugglers thousands of dollars to take them on risky journeys to what they hoped would be better lives abroad.
Instead, Judge Nigel Sweeney said, “all died in what must have been an excruciatingly painful death” by suffocation in the airtight container.
The judge sentenced Gheorghe Nica, 43, a Romanian described by prosecutors as the smuggling ringleader, to 27 years in prison. Eamonn Harrison, 24, a Northern Irish truck driver who drove the container to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, received an 18-year sentence.
Maurice Robinson, 26, a trucker who picked up the container in England, was sentenced to 13 years and four months in prison, while Ronan Hughes, 41, chief of the haulage company, was ordered jailed for 20 years.
Three other members of the ring received shorter sentences.
Prosecutors said the suspects were part of a gang that charged about $17,000 per person to transport migrants in trailers through the Channel Tunnel or by boat.
Judge Sweeney said it was “a sophisticated, long-running, and profitable” criminal conspiracy.
Jurors heard harrowing evidence about the final hours of the victims, who tried to call Vietnam’s emergency number to summon help as air in the container ran out. When they couldn’t get a mobile phone signal, some recorded goodbye messages to their families.
The trapped migrants — who included a bricklayer, a restaurant worker, a nail bar technician, a budding beautician and a university graduate — used a metal pole to try to punch through the roof of the refrigerated container, but only managed to dent it.
Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten, the senior investigating officer on the case, said the victims “left behind families, memories, and homes, in the pursuit of a false promise of something better.”
“Instead they died, in an unimaginable way, because of the utter greed of these criminals,” he said.