People-smugger jailed after 39 migrants suffocated to death in lorry

Haulage boss who was part of people-smuggling ring which brought 39 Vietnamese migrants into Britain illegally before they suffocated to death in the back of a lorry is jailed for seven years

A haulage boss who was part of a deadly people-smuggling ring which led to the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants has been jailed for seven years. 

Caolan Gormley, 26, from Co Tyrone, was driven by ‘greed’ when he plotted to bring foreign families into the UK from mainland Europe three times in October 2019, the Old Bailey heard.

One of the trips was scuppered by French border officials, with some migrants from that trip believed to have died days later in a fatal lorry run overnight on October 22-23 2019. 

The victims suffocated due to a lack of oxygen on the journey from Zeebrugge in Belgium to Purfleet, Essex, after the temperature inside reached a sweltering 38.5 degrees during their crossing. Their bodies were discovered in a refrigerated lorry trailer in Grays, Essex, on October 23 2019.

Gormley, director of CDG Transport Ltd in Northern Ireland, had denied being involved, claiming he thought he was helping bring alcohol into the UK illegally. But on Monday, a jury took just over an hour to find him guilty of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

And today, Judge Richard Marks KC sentenced him to seven years in prison after saying Gormley had ‘succumbed to temptation and greed’ when he got involved in the ‘extremely lucrative business’ of smuggling migrants. 

Caolan Gormley, 26, has been jailed for his role in the people-smuggling ring which led to the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants 

The 39 Vietnamese nationals died in the sealed container as it was being transported by ferry from Zeebrugge in Belgium to Purfleet in October 2019

Although not accused of direct involvement in the operation that led to the deaths, Gormley has now become the 11th man to be convicted of involvement in the deadly people smuggling ring, with five having been jailed for manslaughter. 

Judge Marks told Gormley: ‘You had built up a good business and were working hard and making good money, but when approached by the ringleader in all of this, Ronan Hughes, succumbed to temptation and greed.’

READ MORE: ‘Right-hand man’ in people-smuggling ring is jailed for 12 years for manslaughter of 39 Vietnamese people who were found dead in airtight lorry trailer in Essex

Referring to the tragedy of October 23, the judge added: ‘But for those deaths, I have no doubt whatsoever that this illegal importation of illegal immigrants would have continued, as would your involvement.’ 

He noted ringleader Ronan Hughes had twice tried to call Gormley shortly after the bodies were discovered in the back of a lorry container in the early hours of October 23 to let him know what had happened.

The 39 migrants were on the organised crime group’s ‘VIP route’ which meant the driver was ‘in on it’ and knew they were being smuggled rather than being placed on a lorry with an unwitting driver.

As ‘VIPs’ they would have paid around £13,000 if they had survived the journey, the court heard.

Bereaved families in Vietnam have been left in debt after borrowing money to pay for their relatives crossing.

Trucker Hughes had packed as many migrants as he dared into each badly ventilated container. The victims suffocated on the final run as temperatures inside soared to 38.5C.

Some tried to batter their way out with a pole as others wrote final heart breaking text messages to relatives and partners as those around them sobbed in the darkness. 

Family photos of the 39 Vietnamese victims who died in the lorry trailer on October 23 2019

Pictured is the lorry where the migrants were found dead in 2019 

Jurors in the original trial saw horrifying footage of steam gushing from the container which became a tomb as Robinson opened the doors after pulling up in Eastern Avenue, Grays at 1.13am on October 23 2019.

Who were the 39 Vietnamese victims?  

On October 23 2019, 39 Vietnamese nationals, including men, women and children, were found dead in a lorry trailer in Essex.

The victims were:  

  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • Nguyen Dinh Tu

Previously, prosecutor Ben Holt told jurors the people smugglers exploited the victims’ desperation to get to the UK, charging more than £10,000 a head.

The migrants would be loaded into a container lorry on the continent and transported across the English Channel to be picked up for onward transfer in the UK.

Gormley was recruited by fellow haulier Hughes and deployed his driver Christopher Kennedy to help move the human cargo.

On the first trip, residents near Orsett in Essex saw migrants jumping out of the back of a lorry before being whisked away by vehicles to their destinations.

Mr Holt told jurors: ‘The other trip was thwarted by customs officials in France. Remarkably, the driver on that occasion – Kennedy – was effectively given a slap on the wrists and told to go on his way. The migrants were similarly allowed to go.

‘Tragically, some of those migrants would end up in the lorry part of the 39 men, women and children who died during the night (of) October 22 and 23.’

On that occasion, another driver, Maurice Robinson, picked up a container at Purfleet docks and found all 39 Vietnamese people aged between 15 and 44 dead.

He opened the doors after being instructed by Hughes to ‘give them air quick’ but not let the migrants out.

Following the discovery, Robinson called his boss Hughes before dialling 999.

Giving evidence in his trial, Gormley said he was taking a break at a truck stop in Sandbach, Cheshire, on his way to deliver racehorse bedding to Cambridge when he spoke to Hughes.

He said: ‘He called me the night before and I was returning the call. I remember when he answered he sounded different, panicked, making no sense at all. It was just mumbo jumbo. He was making zero sense.’

At 3.46pm, Gormley got a text from his mother in Co Tyrone asking if the truck in the news belonged to one of Hughes’s brothers.

He replied: ‘Don’t know and neither do u (sic).’

Gormley told jurors he was trying to stop his mother from ‘gossiping’ because she works in a doctors’ surgery and thought there might be ‘repercussions’.

He described his ‘total disbelief this had happened’, adding: ‘I was just shocked, to be honest.’

Later the same day, Gormley dumped the burner phone he used to communicate with Hughes.

Caolan Gormley, 26, appeared at the Old Bailey (pictured) and has today been jailed

Gormley was asked why he denied ‘to the bitter end’ being the owner of that phone when interviewed by police.

He said: ‘I lied about it because I didn’t want to confess (to) a crime I had committed in relation to alcohol smuggling.

‘I had contacted Ronan Hughes on the phone. At that time the news had come out about what happened with the 39 dead and I didn’t want any affiliation with that.’

Gormley also told jurors he had no reason to question Kennedy’s explanation for being caught with migrants in his lorry on October 14.

He said: ‘Kennedy said he stopped at the supermarket to buy alcohol and cigarettes on his way to the crossing. At that time he was actually covering his tracks for what had happened.

‘He just said they must have got in the trailer while he was in the shop. It’s a very hot spot for migrants in the Calais area. It’s very common. I had no reason not to believe his account.’

A consignment of biscuits from Belgium was ruined during the October 18 people-smuggling run, the court was told.

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