Hunting The Essex Lorry Killers

When police officers opened the back doors of a lorry in October 2019, they were stunned into silence by the horror they saw. Tragically, 39 Vietnamese immigrants were found lifeless in the back of the vehicle because they suffocated to death – but no one knew who they were or where they came from. “The whole container was full of bodies back to front,” says first responder PC Jack Emerson in tonight’s BBC Two documentary, Hunting the Essex Lorry Killers.

“The driver just stood there, didn’t say a word. He didn’t look stressed or flustered.” What started with a 999 call from the lorry driver ended in one of the UK’s biggest ever police investigations – spanning Britain, Europe and Vietnam.

Detectives cracked open a multimillion-pound international smuggling ring with its roots in a seemingly innocuous haulage business in the heart of Northern Ireland. Essex Police painstakingly pieced together a complex web of evidence, including the extraordinary role of a witness known only as ‘Witness X’, whose evidence helped bring down a people smuggling gang.

Inside the trailer where 39 Vietnamese men women and children who suffocated as they were smuggled into Britain
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Image: PA)

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“I’ve been a police officer for over 30 years. I’ve led a large number of murder investigations. But nothing touched this,” says DCI Daniel Stoten, the Senior Investigation Officer who led the case.

Their first task was to identify the victims, remove their bodies from inside the truck and then establish the exact cause of death. Paul Clark, Scene Evidence Recovery Manager, who reveals he had tears coming down his face – started searching for tattoos, scars, clothing and jewellery to work out who had died inside. The victims, aged between 15 and 44, each had a forensic post mortem which revealed they had suffocated to death due to a lack of air.

During their harrowing final moments, some of the trapped migrants used a pole try to break out while others used their phones to send heartbreaking goodbye messages to their families as they ran out of air before reaching Britain. A husband and wife, survived by two children aged six and four, were found dead holding hands and huddled together. Attention swiftly turned to Maurice Robison, the lorry driver from Northern Ireland who rang 999 after discovering the 39 people in the back of the container had all died.

Hunting The Essex Lorry KillersMaurice Robinson was seen on CCTV leaving Purfleet port in Essex with the trailer which contained the 39 dead Vietnamese migrants
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“There’s loads them. There’s immigrants in the back. But they’re all lying on the ground,” he said during the phone call.

When asked how old they were, he replied: “I don’t really want to look in, to be honest with you.” During his police interview, Robinson claimed he thought the container was empty when he picked it up from Purfleet port in Essex. But CCTV footage showed him stop at an industrial estate to look inside, drive off, then return to the same spot.

Rather than phone 999 straight away, Robison called his boss Ronan Hughes and Romanian fixer Gheorghe Nica, another member of the criminal gang. It was only 20 minutes later that he finally called the authorities, but it was far too late as the 39 victims had all died hours earlier on the sea crossing from Belgium. Robinson’s strange behaviour and the discovery of the battery of a second phone on his person arouse suspicion – then parts of a mobile and broken sim were found down a drain close to where he parked his lorry.

He later admitted he knew the container had people inside and Hughes had sent him a message on Snapchat beforehand telling him: “Give them air quickly, but don’t let them out.” Robinson replied with a thumbs-up emoji.

Hunting The Essex Lorry KillersThe 39 victims and their families had paid thousands to give them a better life in Britain
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About 12 hours before their bodies were discovered, the 39 victims were crammed into an airtight lorry container to be shipped from Zeebrugge, Belgium, to Purfleet, Essex, in pitch black and sweltering conditions. Another driver, Eamonn Harrison, collected the victims in Bierne, France, and his trailer was loaded on to the Clementine ship which left Zeebrugge at about 4pm on October 22, 2019, docking at Purfleet shortly after midnight.

But the trailer became a “tomb” with the temperature reaching an “unbearable” 38.5C (101F) and the carbon dioxide inside the container reaching its toxic threshold about three hours before the doors were opened. The case was ‘blown wide open’ when detectives seized another trailer belonging to Hughes to conduct forensic testing and discovered a fingerprint. This belonged to another Vietnamese migrant, dubbed ‘Witness X’, who had arrived in the UK via the same route, just a week before the 39 victims.

“That to me was gold dust,” said senior investigating officer DCI Stoten. Despite fears for his own and his family’s safety, Witness X agreed to co-operate with the police and gave them a full account of being smuggled in a lorry owned by Hughes.

Hunting The Essex Lorry KillersPole marks inside the trailer made by the Vietnamese migrants as they tried to escape
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The migrants agreed to pay up to GBP13,000 each for a “VIP” smuggling service that they and their families back in Vietnam had hoped would lead to a better life in the UK.

The greedy international crime ring stood to make GBP1 million that month alone smuggling people into Britain via the Channel Tunnel or by boat to Essex. The network, led by Nica and Hughes, had been operating for at least 18 months and wasn’t stopped despite repeatedly coming to the attention of authorities. X’s testimony was crucial evidence that the drivers had known they were carrying human cargo and provided a description of a drop-off point, leading to CCTV footage of all three suspects together at a hotel.

“X gave a voice to the victims that the other evidence just couldn’t give,’ explains DC Martin Brown, Communications Investigator for Hertfordshire Police who was drafted in to work on the case. “Because we could never hear from the victims themselves, it had only ever been speculation. “His journey had been exactly the same journey as the 39, except for one detail.

X explains there were 15 people in the container he travelled across in. Half the number of people.” With twice as many people in the trailer, oxygen ran out faster and they died in British waters, therefore the trial was held in this country.

Hunting The Essex Lorry KillersRonan Hughes was given a 20 year prison term
Hunting The Essex Lorry KillersGheorghe Nica was given a 27 year sentence

Hughes and Robinson had already pleaded guilty to manslaughter before the Old Bailey trial which ended in the conviction of four others in December 2020.

Ringleaders Gheorghe Nica and Ronan Hughes and drivers Maurice Robinson and Eamonn Harrison were sentenced along with three other gang members. Nica was given 27 years, Hughes was handed 20 years in prison, Harrison was sentenced to 18 years, and Robinson was jailed for 13 years and four months – all for 39 counts of manslaughter and a people-smuggling conspiracy. Three others were jailed for a total of 14 years for lesser offences.

Mr Justice Sweeney told the defendants jailed for manslaughter they would serve two-thirds of the term in custody, instead of the usual half. “This has been such a journey, physically and emotionally,” says DCI Stoten, who ha since retired and admitted he struggled with the emotional impact of the case. “I had periods of time when I found myself in a very dark place.

I took the decision that this would be my last homicide investigation.”

Hunting the Essex Lorry Killers airs on Wednesday at 9pm on BBC2