A MAN from Co. Armagh who police say was a 'key part' of a people smuggling operation has been found guilty of a trafficking offence.
Essex Police said Caolan Gormley, 26, was the final person to be charged in connection with their investigation into the tragic deaths of 39 Vietnamese people in Essex in 2019.
He was this week found guilty of conspiracy to assist in unlawful immigration after a two-week trial at the Central Criminal Court in London.
"Gormley was not a direct participant in the fatal journey, but it has always been clear to us that he was a key part in the wider conspiracy to traffic vulnerable people into the UK," said Detective Chief Inspector Louise Metcalfe of Essex Police.
"He received payment to traffic and exploit people who were desperate — and who had paid significant sums."
On October 23, 2019, 39 Vietnamese men, women and children were found unresponsive in the trailer of a lorry by the driver in Grays, Essex, having travelled from Zeebrugge in Belgium.
An investigation by police and the National Crime Agency uncovered an international human trafficking conspiracy.
Gormley was one of a number of "willing" hauliers who worked under smugglers Ronan Hughes and Gheorghe Nica.
Gormley was a close associate of Hughes and also oversaw the work of lorry driver Christopher Kennedy.
Hughes and Kennedy, both from Co. Armagh, were previously jailed for 20 years and seven years respectively.
Fellow Armagh native Maurice Robinson, who was driving the lorry in which the migrants were found, was jailed for more than 13 years.
On the morning of the deaths, calls were made from Hughes to Gormley and although they went unanswered, short messages were left on voicemail.
Later in the morning, contact was made between Kennedy and Gormley before the pair spoke at 6.40am.
In a later text exchange between Gormley and another associate, Gormley is asked who owns the lorry in which the migrants were found.
He replied: "Don't know and neither do u."
While there is no evidence to suggest Gormley was directly involved in the specific incident that led to the 39 deaths, police say he was involved in the wider people trafficking conspiracy.
The investigation revealed he was involved in three specific plans to bring migrants to Britain in the back of lorries.
On one occasion, the lorry was stopped at the French border, however, on the other two occasions, migrants were successfully unloaded at Collingwood Farm in Essex.
Gormley was arrested in February 2020 and was charged with conspiracy to assist in unlawful immigration.
He denied the charge, arguing the only criminality he was involved in with the group was to bring alcohol into Britain in such a way as to evade duty.
However, a jury took just one hour to unanimously reject that defence and find him guilty.
Gormley was remanded into custody and will be sentenced on Friday, December 1.
"The people who were part of this international network were ruthless in their financial greed — their behaviour and their actions are reprehensible," said DCI Metcalfe.
"They have shown no regard for the law and, most importantly, the value of human life."
She added: "Today, as this final guilty verdict is reached, we think of our Vietnamese friends and the families of the victims.
"But most of all we think of the 39 people who will never leave our hearts here at Essex Police."