Just days after the Grenfell Tower fire, Anh Nhu Nguyen spoke publicly about his anguish at escaping the flames while his family perished. In an interview with Sky News, he described how he'd clamped a wet towel to his face for protection before fighting his way out of the blazing building. He recalled stepping over bodies and losing his wife and son in a stairway as he desperately tried to escape. "The smoke was like fog. You couldn't see anything, it was very hot," he said. "I'm sad, I'm angry, I cry. It's terrible for everyone who lost family that day."
It was all a lie.
On Friday the 9th of February, 2018, Nguyen was jailed for 21 months after pleading guilty to fraud. The 53-year-old never lived at Grenfell. But while the blackened shell of the tower was still smouldering, and as the nation began to grapple with a tragedy of a scale rarely seen in modern times, Nguyen spotted an opportunity. For two weeks after the disaster he posed as a survivor to obtain an estimated £12,500 in money and other donations from charities and Kensington and Chelsea Council.
Originally from Vietnam, Nguyen arrived in the UK in the early 1980s. Between 1983 and 2015, he racked up 28 convictions for 56 offences, including grievous bodily harm and arson, and served prison sentences for theft and harassment. Grenfell was not his first attempt at deception – Nguyen is said to have gone by at least 17 different names during his time in Britain.
Four days after the fire, Nguyen visited the Westway Centre, a community facility that served as a hub for the Grenfell relief effort. He told volunteers there he had been a resident of the tower and had lost everything, and was given £100 in cash. The lie escalated from there. Nguyen returned the next day and repeated his claim to obtain a further £260. He applied to the council for emergency accommodation and was given a room at the Holiday Inn, where he recorded his emotional interview with Sky News. The hotel bill eventually totalled more than £2,000.
It wasn’t enough. Nguyen applied for £5,000 from a central government relief fund set up for survivors of the tragedy. Shortly afterwards, police officers interviewed him. As prosecutor Jonathan Polnay told the court at Nguyen’s trial: "It was when they spoke to him in more detail, we say, this fraud unravelled."
The Met Police said Nguyen gave a "very detailed account" of losing his family as he escaped from the 15th floor of the tower. Before long, inconsistencies began to emerge in his story. He provided several different flat numbers, some of which did not exist. Police discovered further grounds for suspicion. The court heard Nguyen was seen on CCTV at a housing charity in Whitechapel the day after the fire, "appearing happy and light-hearted". His phone was discovered at his home in Beckenham.
Nguyen continued to pose as a victim while the police investigated his story. On the 28th of June, two days after he was pictured meeting the Prince of Wales, Nguyen was arrested. He was charged with fraud the following day. When he first appeared at Westminster Magistrates Court in July last year, Nguyen denied the allegations. But at a hearing on the 2nd of November he pleaded guilty to two counts of fraud by false representation. He was also charged with attempting to obtain a British passport after claiming his was lost in the fire.
During the hearing, prosecutor Kate Mulholland told the court: "Nguyen’s deceit in the aftermath of such a catastrophic loss of life was breathtaking. He was willing to lie again and again, adapting his story when it was questioned, in order to profit from the huge aid efforts and outpouring of sympathy for true victims. At one point he claimed to have lived in a flat where the sole occupant had died."
In Nguyen’s defence, the court was told a psychologist had found he had an "astonishing low" IQ that put him in the bottom 2.5 percent of people in Britain. He was said to be suffering from "untreated post-traumatic stress disorder", and it was claimed he had acted to "feel part of a group, to be looked after, wanted and welcome". Nevertheless, judge Philip Bartle said there was a "contemptible element" to the fraud and described his actions as "despicable".
Bartle said: "The offences to which you have pleaded guilty are ones which you committed knowing full well what the consequences were. I do not accept that the acts were in some way an attempt to be part of a community and that you were in some way reaching out in order to be embraced by that community. I am sure from everything I have seen ... that despite your low IQ you knew full well what you were doing. You knew that you were taking advantage of these genuine victims at this terrible time of this terrible tragedy.”
It is a sad fact that there will always be people who seek to take advantage of others, even in the most tragic circumstances. Nguyen was not the only one. Joyce Msokeri, 46, was arrested in July of last year and has since been charged with fraud. She allegedly claimed to be a survivor of the fire to secure donations including £10,000 in cash and a stay at a Hilton hotel. It’s also alleged that a firefighter stole cash from an abandoned flat in the days after the fire.
Meanwhile, Grenfell survivors are still struggling for justice and to access the support they need. In December, it was reported that four out of five families made homeless by the fire are still stuck in temporary accommodation. A public inquiry has begun, but a battle is underway to ensure those affected by the disaster can have confidence in its findings. The government has failed to provide funding for councils to improve fire safety. If one were needed, Nguyen’s sentencing is a sad reminder that the Grenfell tragedy didn’t end when the flames died down.