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Today, Monday 21 March, a man has been sentenced to three years and ten months in prison following our investigation into the tragic deaths of 39 Vietnamese nationals in October 2019.
Stefan Dragos Damian, 28, of no fixed address, appeared at the Old Bailey on the 16 November 2021 and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.
Our officers were called by the East of England Ambulance Service shortly after 1.40am on 23 October 2019, following a 999 call from lorry driver Maurice Robinson.
When our officers arrived at the scene, they made the tragic discovery of 39 Vietnamese victims in the trailer of the lorry.
Throughout the extensive investigation that followed, it was established Damian was part of a wider conspiracy to smuggle people illegally into the UK.
On October 18 that year, lorry driver Christopher Kennedy smuggled a group of migrants to Collingwood Farm in Orsett where they were collected in a Mercedes van that was registered to Damian.
A day later Damian flew into the UK and arrived at Luton Airport where he was picked up by Gheorghe Nica, who headed up the people smuggling conspiracy with Ronan Hughes.
It was anticipated that a further group would arrive at Collingwood Farm in the early hours of October 23.
They arrived in a trailer at Purfleet Port around 1am and collected by Robinson, at which point Damian was waiting at Collingwood Farm in his van to pick them up.
At 1.28am, 11 minutes after Robinson informed Hughes that the migrants had tragically died, Damian drove away from Collingwood Farm and at 7am on the same day left the country from Dover.
On March 30, 2021, an arrest warrant was issued for Damian. He was arrested near Milan in Italy on June 10 and extradited to the UK on September 2.
Senior Investigating Officer, Detective Chief Inspector Louise Metcalfe, said:
“Dragos Damian was a key player in an evil people smuggling conspiracy that made money from misery.
“Along with his co-conspirators he knew that what he was doing was dangerous and wrong, but through sheer greed he did it anyway.
“I hope today’s sentence will once again serve as a warning to those who think it is acceptable to prey on the vulnerabilities of those who are seeking a different life for themselves and their families.
“If you take part in and make money from this abhorrent crime, we will find you, we will stop you and you will be sent to prison.
“I also hope that our ongoing commitment to this investigation will bring the families of the victims some comfort in knowing that those involved will spend a significant amount of time in prison. But I know that truthfully, their pain will never go away.
“My thoughts will always be with the families of the victims.”
Martin Grace, NCA Head of Organised Immigration Crime Operations, said:
“The gangs involved in organised immigration crime treat people as a commodity to be profited from, without care for their safety or wellbeing. In this case that had tragic and fatal consequences.
“We have worked closely with Essex Police and our international partners from the outset of this investigation, and the NCA’s international liaison network helped ensure Damian was brought back to the UK to be put before a court.
“It demonstrates the reach of UK law enforcement and our shared determination to bring all those involved in this horrendous crime to justice.”
Russell Tyner, Specialist Prosecutor of the Crown Prosecution Service, said:
“This was a devastating case which ended in 39 people losing their lives in the most horrendous way.
“Damian played his part in this criminal enterprise by using his van for people smuggling without a second thought for the consequences or the wellbeing of those being trafficked.
“The CPS would like to thank the work of the Essex Police and National Crime Agency in helping to bring Damian to justice and we will look to pursue confiscation proceedings against any ill-gotten gains the defendant accrued in this activity.
“Our thoughts remain with the families of victims and hope this sentencing bring some small comfort.”
Home Secretary, Priti Patel said:
“39 people lost their lives following the actions of a gang of callous criminals including Damian who is now behind bars. My thoughts are very much with the victims’ families and loved ones.
“Today’s sentencing should serve as a reminder of how seriously we take people smuggling and how those responsible for this evil act should expect to face the full force of the justice system.
“We are determined to do everything we can to prevent further loss of life in similar circumstances, which is why our Nationality and Borders Bill will increase the potential penalty for those who facilitate illegal entry into the country to a life sentence.”