An Irish Traveller couple who “brutally manipulated and exploited” destitute men by forcing them into servitude in Britain were today jailed for 11 years and four years respectively.
James John, 34, and Josie Connors, 31, were convicted of controlling, exploiting and abusing the men for financial gain at a caravan site near Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire.
Sentencing them at Luton Crown Court, Judge Michael Kay QC said: “The way they brutally manipulated and exploited men is pure evil. It is at odds with the moral code of the religion they profess to hold.
“Their disdain for the dignity of others is shocking. They were not Good Samaritans but violent, cold, hard exploiters.”
The couple, who are also cousins, had both denied two counts of holding a person in servitude and two counts of requiring a person to perform forced or compulsory labour. James John, also known as Big Jim, was also convicted of assault occasioning actual bodily harm.
The prosecution offered no evidence on a battery charge after the jury failed to reach a verdict on it.
During the trial, the jury heard that the complainants, who cannot be named for legal reasons, were forced to work in the Connors’ block paving business.
The 13-week case trial heard the men were given next to no food, forced to wash in cold water and paid little or no money for working up to 19 hours a day.
One man, who cannot be named for legal reasons, described a life of being treated “like a slave”.
He was recruited in 2004 when John James saw him in a “distressed state” in a service station, the judge said.
“He was an alcoholic. In three months he was weaned off alcohol. Your purpose was to put him to work. After he was rescued by police he was reluctant to speak about what had happened, his mind had been manipulated. Even though he was considerably older than both of you he believed you were his surrogate parents,” Judge Kay said.
“After he had overcome the trauma he spoke more openly. He lived in a caravan with no toilets or washing facilities, he had to go to the toilet in a nearby field. Sometimes the only food available was eggs and bread.”
The man had to work from 5am to around 9pm on driveway work and then had to clean the Connors’ caravan to “an immaculate condition”.
“He said he was beaten and practically starved, he was punched, kicked and hit with a broom handle.”
Another man said he felt “worse than a slave”. He managed to escape and told police the couple took his benefit money from him and forced him to perform hard manual labour for up to 16 hours a day, unpaid. He was recruited in Wembley and was offered £80 a day for work. “He received no pay, his personal possessions and documents were taken away. Conditions were squalid and at times they were starving. Josie said if he used the toilets in their caravan she would break his arms and legs,” the judge said.
“He said he was being mentally tortured and felt worse than a slave.”
In his police interview which was played to the court, he said: “I didn’t like it but they said I couldn’t leave and said if I tried to leave... I would get murdered.”
He described being “kicked in the nuts” on one occasion and on another day being punched in the eye for not finding any work, forced into the boot of the family’s car and ordered to sing 'How Much Is That Doggie In The Window' and 'Bob The Builder'.
It has long been a practice of Irish travelling families to offer food and accommodation in exchange for labour to vagrants or ``men of the road, as you call them'', the judge said.
“It is clear to me John James realised there was a source of labour in our towns and cities.
“The men were offered food and accommodation for work. The promise of pay was a monstrous and callous deceit.”
He added: “The offer of pay was made to entice the men into the travellers’ site where more insidious methods were utilised to keep them in servitude.
“Brutality and intimidation, assaults by way of punches and slaps were the weapon used to stop insubordination and emphasise hierarchy and control.”
The men’s heads were shaved and they were at the “beck and call” of their bosses at all times.
Their caravan, without a toilet or washing facilities, was “at times unsuitable for human habitation and was cramped and squalid”, the judge said, noting it was “markedly inferior” to that of their bosses, who “lived in luxury”.
He added: “By way of manipulation they were required to address their boss as mother and father.”
When the men were taken to a leisure centre for a rare shower, they were described as “shabby and under-nourished,” the judge said. “They kept their heads down as if in a chain gang.
“I am satisfied they were recruited by you James John, and you, Josie, were present.”
He added: “They were valuable for the businesses you ran James John, but also for domestic tasks for you, Josie. Substantial money was generated as a result of their labour.”
The judge dismissed claims that the trial was racism against the Irish Traveller community.
He said: “This is not about racism or the way of life of Irish Travellers. It is about a capacity to be inhumane to a fellow human being.”
Josie’s brother Johnny, 28, walked free from court today after the jury cleared him of conspiracy to hold a person in servitude and the prosecution offered no evidence on a further count of conspiracy to require a person to perform forced or compulsory labour.
The judge ordered a retrial for four other defendants on whom the jury could not reach verdicts.
Proceeds of crime hearings against James John and Josie will be heard at a later date.
One victim, who worked for the couple for 15 months, is seeking £30,000 (€38,000) in compensation, while another, who was with them for three months, wants £11,000 (€14,000), the court was told today.