'Hunting the Essex Lorry Killers': The true story behind the shocking people smuggling investigation

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Programme Name: Hunting the Essex Lorry Killers - TX: 13/10/2021 - Episode: Hunting the Essex Lorry Killers (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: (l-r) DI Michelle Stoten, DCI Daniel Stoten, Paul Clark & DCI Greig Avery  - (C) Expectation Entertainment - Photographer: Jillian Edelstein
Essex Police explain how they investigated the crimes. (Expectation Entertainment/Jillian Edelstein)

One of the most shocking people smuggling cases ever to hit UK soil features in a BBC Two documentary, Hunting the Essex Lorry Killers.

It delves into the investigation by Essex Police which spanned the UK, Europe and Vietnam and uncovered an extensive crime network that proved deadly for 39 migrants.

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Take a look at the true story behind the case which shocked the nation in 2019.

When is Hunting the Essex Lorry Killers on TV?

The documentary will air on BBC Two on Wednesday, 13 October at 9pm.

What was the Essex Police case about?

Programme Name: Hunting the Essex Lorry Killers - TX: 13/10/2021 - Episode: Hunting the Essex Lorry Killers (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: DC Martin Brown  - (C) Expectation Entertainment - Photographer: Screen grab
DC Martin Brown and his colleagues explain how they caught the gang. (Expectation Entertainment)

In October 2019, a shocking story hit the headlines when an HGV driver discovered 39 dead Vietnamese migrants in a container on his vehicle.

However, the story was set to become much worse when Essex Police, suspicious that the driver didn't seem to be particularly upset, started to question his claims that he'd had no idea they were there.

It soon became clear that the driver was in fact a part of a much larger people smuggling ring that saw him and his co-conspirators facing manslaughter charges.

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Police could prove his involvement through phone records and CCTV footage, with the investigation uncovering a multi-million-pound, international operation that was being run from a haulage business in Northern Ireland.

The 39 victims of the tragedy had travelled from Vietnam after being promised a better life in the UK, but were never to make it out of the lorry as they suffocated in the container on its journey by sea between Belgian port Zeebrugge and Purfleet.

Programme Name: Hunting the Essex Lorry Killers - TX: 13/10/2021 - Episode: Hunting the Essex Lorry Killers (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Nguyen Dinh Gia  - (C) Expectation Entertainment - Photographer: Tung Le
Grieving relative Nguyen Dinh Gia gives a heartbreaking account of the crime's impact. (Expectation Entertainment/Tung Le)

BBC Two's documentary takes the time to visit the grieving families in Vietnam who talk heartbreakingly of their terrible loss and the dream of a new life that their loved ones had been sold.

Some of the migrants were just 15 years old, and an investigation into their journey showed how they had tried in vain to break through the roof of the lorry with a metal pole.

Phone messages between the driver and his smuggling ring boss showed that he had been told "give them air quickly don't let them out", at which point the driver had discovered that none of the 39 had survived the ship's crossing.

What happened to the smugglers?

(COMBO) This combination of handout pictures created on January 22, 2021, and released by Essex Police, shows top row LtoR: ringleaders Ronan Hughes and Gheorghe Nica, and truck drivers Maurice Robinson and Eamonn Harrison, and botom row LtoR: Ovidiu Hanga, Christopher Kennedy, Valentin Colota, who were all sentenced to prison for their part in a people smuggling plot that led to the death of 39 Vietnamese migrants. - A British judge on Friday handed down sentences of 27 and 20 years to the ringleaders of a people smuggling plot that led to the death of 39 Vietnamese migrants in horrific conditions in the back of a lorry. The 39 -- the youngest of whom were two 15-year-old boys -- suffocated in the container as they were being transported to what they had hoped would be new lives in Britain. The lifeless bodies of the migrants were discovered inside the sealed unit at a port near London in October, 2019. (Photos by - / various sources / AFP) (Photo by -/THAMES VALLEY POLICE/AFP via Getty Images)
Members of the people smuggling plot. (Thames Valley Police/AFP via Getty Images)

At the smuggling gang's trial, judge Mr Justice Sweeney summed up the severity of their crimes: "I have no doubt that the conspiracy was a sophisticated, long-running and profitable one to smuggle mainly Vietnamese people across the channel."

He added: "There were desperate attempts to contact the outside world by phone and to break through the roof of the container.

"All were to no avail and, before the ship reached Purfleet, they all died in what must have been an excruciatingly painful death."

A handout combination photo released by Essex Police in London on January 22, 2021, shows the 39 Vietnamese victims of a people smuggling plot, all found dead in the back of a lorry in 2019. Top row LtoR: Dinh Dinh Binh, Nguyen Minh Quang, Nguyen Huy Phong, Le Van Ha, Nguyen Van Hiep, Bui Phan Thang, Nguyen Van Hung, Nguyen Huy Hung, Nguyen Tien Dung, Pham Thi Tra My. Second Row LtoR: Tran Khanh Tho, Nguyen Van Nhan, Vo Ngoc Nam, Vo Van Linh, Nguyen Ba Vu Hung, Vo Nhan Du, Tran Hai Loc, Tran Manh Hung, Nguyen Thi Van, Bui Thi Nhung. Third row LtoR: Hoang Van Tiep, Tran Thi Ngoc, Phan Thi Thanh, Tran Thi Tho, Duong Minh Tuan, Pham Thi Ngoc Oanh, Tran Thi Mai Nhung, Le Trong Thanh, Nguyen Ngoc Ha, Hoang Van Hoi. Bottom row LtoR: Tran Ngoc Hieu, Cao Tien Dung, Dinh Dinh Thai Quyen, Dang Huu Tuyen, Nguyen Dinh Luong, Cao Huy Thanh, Nguyen Trong Thai, Nguyen Tho Tuan and Nguyen Dinh Tu. - A British judge on Friday handed down sentences of 27 and 20 years to ringleaders Ronan Hughes and Gheorge Nica, who led a people smuggling plot that led to the death of 39 Vietnamese migrants in horrific conditions in the back of a lorry. The 39 -- the youngest of whom were two 15-year-old boys -- suffocated in the container as they were being transported to what they had hoped would be new lives in Britain.  The lifeless bodies of the migrants were discovered inside the sealed unit at a port near London in October, 2019. (Photo by - / Essex Police / AFP) (Photo by -/Essex Police/AFP via Getty Images)
The 39 victims of the smuggling ring. (Essex Police/AFP via Getty Images)

Four men were convicted of manslaughter, including lead conspirators Ronan Hughes and Gheorghe Nica who were sentenced to 20 and 27 years respectively.

Eamonn Harrison, who towed the container to Zeebrugge, was given 18 years, and Maurice Robinson, the HGV driver who collected the trailer at Purfleet and discovered the bodies, got 13 years and four months.

Three other members of the gang were sentenced for conspiracy to facilitate unlawful immigration.

Watch: Migrants tell of risky journeys crossing Channel

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