A speedboat pilot and two Vietnamese people were today (Friday, February 22) convicted of a conspiracy to smuggle illegal immigrants across the English Channel.

The rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) was taken across the world's busiest shipping lane by Thomas Mason who was transporting four Vietnamese men from the continent to the Kent coast.

But Mason and the gang behind the conspiracy did not know that their smuggling operation, as well as earlier failed attempts, was being recorded by undercover police officers.

A jury at St Albans Crown Court found Thomas Mason, 36, of High Street, Eyeworth near Biggleswade, Hoa Thi Nguyen, 49, of Bisterne Avenue, Walthamstow, East London and her partner Chi Tan Huynh, 41, of Pickford's Wharf, Wharf Road, Hoxton, guilty of conspiracy to facilitate the illegal entry of foreign nationals into the UK between April 1 and August 3 last year. They had all denied the charge.

Hoa Thi Nguyen was cleared of acquiring criminal property - a charge relating to luxury items: clothing, handbags and jewellery seized from her home.

Prosecutor Wayne Cleaver told the jury that four others: Nazmi Velia, 32, of Park Street Lane, St Albans, Egert Kajaci, 35, of Turner Drive, Oxford, Erald Gapi, 27, of Marine Tower, Abinger Grove, Deptford, and Wayne Lee ,46, of Grasmere Close, Watford, had already pleaded guilty to their role in the conspiracy.

Another man Patrick Ward had been prosecuted in France.

They will all be sentenced by Judge Robert Winstanley next Wednesday.

Mr Cleaver said: "So desperate are some - whether they be fleeing from persecution or are in search of asylum - that the natural borders of the UK present challenges which they are prepared to tackle regardless of the obvious danger to their personal safety in embarking upon such a treacherous journey.

"The short crossing from continental Europe across the English Channel - the world's busiest shipping lane - is an obstacle which some will attempt to overcome.

"They seldom do so alone and without the connivance of criminal gangs whose primary interest is financial profit rather than any more noble motive of wanting genuinely to help the desperate or dispossessed.

"This case concerns the activities of one such Organised Criminal Gang. They operated for several months leading up to early August 2018, wholly oblivious to the fact that their movements were under police surveillance.

"A small boat was purchased and then deployed on test runs out into the Channel.

"The operation culminated in the successful landing of four Vietnamese men onto a Kent beach in the early hours of August 3, 2018. Unbeknownst to the criminal gangs, officers of the Serious Crime Squad were waiting, and the conspiracy between them was foiled."

Mr Cleaver said Thomas Mason was central to the enterprise, having purchased the boat with Nazmi Velia from Exmouth, Devon on June 26 for £2,100 cash.

Over the next few weeks it was alleged that Thomas Mason launched the boat from the Kent coast.

The prosecutor said: "These journeys were not just days out for the fun of it. They were intended to test the capabilities of the boat, negotiate and familiarise themselves with the Dover Straits and to investigate the best vantage points for landing people unobserved. What they did not know, of course, is that they were being observed by a team of surveillance officers."

On July 13, Mason took the boat out to sea from Whitstable at 8.30pm, returning the next morning at 5.17am.

"Having been away for that period of time it is obvious that Thomas Mason went some distance in that boat. The prosecution say this was an attempt to pick up migrants from Belgium which, for whatever reason, failed," said Mr Cleaver.

Twelve days later, on July 25, the boat landed on Deal Beach with only Thomas Mason on board with Kajaci and Lee waiting. Again, Mason had not been able to pick up anyone from the other side of the Channel. Messages between Lee and Kajaci referred to him "coming back empty-handed."

But shortly after 1am on August 3, officers on surveillance heard the sound of a boat engine at sea near Deal. Mr Cleaver went on: "Four adults were seen walking from the sea and onto the beach having just been landing. The location of the landing was relatively inconspicuous to the extent there was little or no lighting, no people and on that stretch of coastline there were no buildings overlooking that part of the beach. The conspirators had found the perfect landing spot."

He said the four people left the beach and went into nearby Kingsdown Road. They got into a silver Audi driven by Kajaci. They were stopped by the police in Granville Road, Walmer, near Deal. The four passengers were male Vietnamese migrants, who could not speak English. They were taken into custody as illegal immigrants.

Mason was also arrested. A life-jacket, mobile phone and walkie-talkie were found on him. On the boat, the officers found Mason's passport and maps that had a route from Kent to Europe.

Mr Cleaver said that co-defendant Hoa Nguyen is a Vietnamese speaker with overseas contacts. "She can communicate with those wanting to make the journey - a very useful skill. She can co-ordinate those journeys and assist those who successfully complete the voyage. He said phone evidence revealed contact between her and Velia.

When police raided her home, they found an illegal immigrant called Tuan Nguyen (no relation). Phone evidence suggested he had arrived in the UK on May 28 or 29 last year.

Data retrieved from Hoa Nguyen's phones showed she had been sending overseas images of travel documents via WhatApp. During this period he said Ms Nguyen had visited Spain, Greece, Paris, Warsaw and Amsterdam.

"She was travelling about Europe. The prosecution say this is an enterprise with international dimensions. We say she was having direct contact with the people on the other side of the Channel who were 'herding' these people up."

She also made no comment to the police. In a prepared statement she denied any involvement with the conspiracy.

Mr Cleaver said numerous luxury items were seized from her home - designer clothing, handbags and jewellery, including a Rolex watch. The items were valued at retail at £29,016. This was, he said, at a time when it appeared she had very little legitimate income.

The prosecutor said Chi Tan Huynh was Hoa Nguyen's partner. When she travelled abroad it was alleged Huynh was an alternative point of contact for the gang. He made no comment to police questions.

Mr Cleaver told the jury of three women and nine men: "It is important to remember that ultimately this case is about real people. People whose trust is abused by people smugglers and who are used as raw materials to turn a profit."

One of the four men landed at Deal, Phuon Dan Tran, told the jury he held onto a rope in the bottom of the boat as it went across the channel.

Speaking through an interpreter, the 23-year-old said two men sat at the back, one next to the boat pilot, while he lay on the floor.

Mr Phuong he was not given a life-jacket and that the pilot of the boat, whose face was covered, did not speak to them.

Once on the beach at Deal he said he and the others were 'gestured' to go to a waiting Audi car.

Mr Phuong, who gave evidence behind a screen, told the jury his parents had fled their home in Vietnam when he was aged 10 or 11. He was left with neighbours, but they were facing religious persecution and last year he went to China.

He said: "I travelled across the jungle into China. I met a woman who spoke Vietnamese. She said she could get me some work. She said the work would be overseas. I would work for two to three years and I would be paid wages and be given better living conditions."

He said he was flown to Russia. 16 people were picked up in two minibuses and kept in a house in a forest before being taken to a country that he believed was France.

Asked by Mr Cleaver if they asked where they were going, he replied: "They (the traffickers) said not to ask questions and not to say anything."