Truck Driver Guilty In Death Of 58

A Dutch driver was convicted of manslaughter Thursday in the deaths of 58 Chinese immigrants whose slow suffocation in the back of a tomato truck cast horrifying light on the international trafficking of human beings.

Perry Wacker, 32, was found guilty by a jury at Maidstone Crown Court of 58 counts of manslaughter. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Wacker swallowed hard but otherwise showed no reaction to the verdicts.

Ying Guo, 29, of South Woodford, England, a Chinese interpreter who allegedly served as the victims' British contact, was convicted on one count of conspiracy to smuggle immigrants. Prosecutors said 27 of the dead were carrying her telephone number.

Both had pleaded innocent.

Shocked port officials in Dover, England, found the lifeless bodies packed with a shipment of tomatoes in a hot, nearly airless container that had just crossed the English Channel by ferry from Zeebrugge, Belgium on June 18.

The dead Chinese - 54 men and four women - had paid tens of thousands of dollars each to smuggling gangs in China known as "snakeheads" for the chance to begin a new life in the West. Only two migrants survived.

Prosecutors said Wacker sealed the immigrants' fate during the voyage when he closed the container's only air vent to muffle any noise. He then allegedly went to the upper decks for a meal and a movie, without checking on his human cargo during the five-hour voyage.

Wacker, of Rotterdam, testified at the six-week trial that he did not know the victims were there, and said he did not shut the vent. He claimed to have taken the driving job from a friend of a friend without asking questions because he needed money.

Prosecutors said he played an active role in the smuggling effort, shopping for the truck, the container, and the load of tomatoes that was used for camouflage.

As the air ran out and the temperatures rose during the crossing, the immigrants stripped to their underwear, sucked the juice from the tomatoes and tried in vain to pry open the air vent, authorities said.

On a hot summer night, the 60 immigrants "were obliged to sit or squat in an airtight container with little or no opportunity to move, and only a little water to quench their thirst," prosecutor Victor Temple told jurors.

Port workers gave gruesome accounts of discovering the corpses after they were called to help unload boxes of tomatoes from the back of Wacker's truck.

Freight supervisor Darren Bailey described intense heat in the back of the truck, and said it took him a moment to realize what he was looking at.

"I thought the floor was covered in fallen pallets," he testified. "After taking a proper look, I realized it was covered with bodies."

"There were tomatoes scattered all over the floor and there was a commotion," he added. "I immediately saw one male half-buried under tomatoes at the rear of the lorry. ... could see a person, which I believe was a teen-age girl she was lying still with her mouth open and eyes closed."

Customs officers said the truck was searched because it fitted a profile of vehicles used for smuggling one that had not traveled through Dover before, and whose operator had paid for the passage in cash.

Nine defendants six from Holland and three Turks are on trial in the Netherlands for the same deaths, charged with manslaughter or assisting in manslaughter.

Dutch authorities say they were hired to handle the immigrants' transit from the Netherlands to Britain described by prosecutors as the third such shipment by the gang in six months.

China has moved in recent months to crack down on the snakeheads. More than 400 people, the biggest annual total ever, were arrested last year, China's official news agency said. The alleged leader of the gang that dispatched the group to Dover was picked up in January, it has reported.

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