“The way you brutally manipulated and exploited them is pure evil”: Judge jails traveller couple who kept vulnerable men as slaves
Cousins James John, 34, and Josie Connors, 31, jailed for 11 and four yearsJudge: “They were not Good Samaritans but violent, cold, hard exploiters” Four Connors family members found guilty of controlling and abusing menPolice believe they made millions in block-paving and scrap-metal businesses
Victims were made to work for 19 hours a day for little or no moneyThey slept in horse boxes and caravans on Greenacres site in Bedfordshire
Workers had broken ribs, scars and wounds, and one even had scurvyJury fails to agree verdicts on charges against other family membersThey will face a retrial next year and have been remanded in custody
A husband and wife who “brutally manipulated and exploited” destitute men by forcing them into servitude were today jailed for 11 years and four years respectively.
James John, 34, and Josie Connors, 31, who are cousins, 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.”
“Cold, hard exploiters”: James John Connors (left) and wife Josie (right), who are cousins, have been jailed for 11 and four years after being convicted of keeping modern-day slaves at a Bedfordshire caravan site
The pair and two other members of the Connor family were convicted yesterday of keeping ‘modern-day slaves’ inthe first case of its kind for more than 200 years.
The couple 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.
Josie”s father Tommy Connors Senior, known as Pa, 52, and one of his sons Patrick, 20, were also convicted on Wednesday in relation to holding the men and forcing them to work.
Guilty: Patrick Connors (pictured) was also convicted of controlling, exploiting, verbally abusing and beating men for financial gain
They, and two other brothers – Tommy junior, 27, and James, 24 – will face a retrial next year on charges which the jury at Luton crown court could not agree. They were all remanded in custody.
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 furthercount of conspiracy to require a person to perform forced or compulsorylabour.
During the trial, the jury heard thatthe complainants, who cannot be named for legal reasons, were forced towork 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 littleor 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 added.
“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,” the judge said.
Another man said he felt “worse than aslave”. 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 timesthey 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.”
Crime scene: Police found victims had broken bones, scars and fresh wounds when they raided the traveller site (above)
Miniscule: A tiny caravan on the site
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.
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.”
Policebelieve the Connors family made millions of pounds by forcing hundreds of vulnerable men to work without pay over three decades.
The men were forced to carry out gruelling manual work for up to 19 hours a day, six days a week, and were often left starving.
The Connors were convicted under new ‘servitude’ legislation, which was introduced two years ago because of the growing problem of exploitation.
Police raided the Green Acres site at Little Billington, near Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, last September
The tiny, grubby living quarters of one of the caravans on the Green Acres site near Leighton Buzzard
Homeless men – including a Gulf War veteran and a former priest – were promised comfortable lodgings and paid jobs in the lucrative block-paving and scrap metal businesses run by the Connors.
But, once they arrived at various travellers’ sites across Britain, the men were kept in ‘concentration camp’ conditions.
The labourers, who had their heads shaved and were given uniforms to mark them out as ‘slaves’, were unable to shower for months at a time and slept in horse boxes. Travellers told them they would be badly beaten or murdered if they tried to escape, it was claimed. Promises of wages never materialised.
Detectives believe the true scale of the criminal enterprise was far bigger. They believe hundreds of vulnerable men may have been picked up at soup kitchens, night shelters and job centres by the Connors with theoffer of work during the past 30 years.
During their captivity the slaves were driven across Britain and over huge swathes of Europe to lay block paving on private driveways.
After the initial arrests, the focus of the investigation widened when police forces in Eastern European countries and Russia said they had discovered criminal links to the Connors.
Vicious: Josie Connors threatened to break one man”s arms and legs if he used the toilet in their caravan
The travellers always insisted on being paid in cash for their jobs. Onepolice source admitted that these figures could be the ‘tip of the iceberg’.
The case was described in court as the first ‘quasi-slavery trial in this country for over 200 years’, and brings into focus the growing problem of human trafficking and slavery in Britain.
Since 2009, the Serious Organised Crime Agency has identified 2,444 potential victims of human trafficking. Of these, 1,177 said they had been victims of labour exploitation or domestic servitude.
The United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre said that similar criminal enterprises exploiting workers may be operating at other traveller and gipsy sites.
Details of the Connors case emerged after 250 officers from Bedfordshireand Hertfordshire Police raided Greenacres Caravan Park in Little Billington, near Leighton Buzzard, in September 2011, after six weeks ofsurveillance.
After the raid, police faced questions as to why they did not act sooner. The Leighton-Linslade homeless charity said it had been taking in slaves who had escaped from the site since 2007, and had reported each incident.
Police were finally able to make arrests after legislation was introduced in 2010 making slavery, servitude and forced labour a criminal offence.
When police raided the site they rescued 22 men – many of whom were starving, suffering from scurvy, had broken bones and were covered in excrement. Others had scars, fresh wounds and dog bites.
Officers discovered that the traumatised victims were housed in cramped,leaking, smelly sheds and horse boxes shared by up to 11 men. Bedding was washed once every four months and one shed got so cold at night thatan aquarium in it froze.
Yards away, their bosses lived in plush chalets. Victims told how they were ordered to forget about their families and should never talk about their past.
Instead they were told to treat the travellers as their new family and should call Tommy Connors Snr ‘Pa’ and his wife Mary ‘Ma’.
The slaves were woken at 5.30 each morning and driven to streets across Britain and Europe where they were forced to perform back-breaking manual work until dusk. They were often used instead of hiring machineryto save money.
In court, prosecutor Frances Oldham QC said: ‘Physical violence and the threat of such violence, whether spoken or unspoken, was regularly used to ensure compliance with demands for work, to stop any attempt to claimthe promised wages and to instil a fear of retribution if any worker attempted to escape the clutches of the Connors family.’
The victims might now receive large payouts from the money recovered by the police in lieu of their lost earnings. It is estimated that one man is owed 70,000. Recalling the moment the police raided the site, one victim said: ‘When I looked around at us all, I realised how ill everyone looked – really skinny, dirty and really unwell. It was horrible.’
Seven members of the Connors family were on trial but the jury failed toreach verdicts on charges regarding Tommy Jnr, 27, Johnny, 28, and James, 24, after deliberating for nine days.
“IT WAS LIKE A CONCENTRATION CAMP”: LONGEST-SERVING SLAVE WORKED FOR 15 YEARS FOR JUST 80
The caravan park raided by police last September. They rescued 22 slaves
The longest-serving slave said conditions on the travellers’ site were ‘like a concentration camp’.
During his 15-year ordeal, the 54-year-old man suffered numerous beatings. He was punched in the face and beaten over the head with a broom handle.
When he was lured into working for the Connors while living in Brighton on benefits in 1996, he was promised a cash payment of 50 a day and a roof over his head. The promise of money never materialised – during his 15 years in captivity, he received only 80.
When asked by the police about the scale of the operation, he told them he saw ‘no end’ of slaves coming through the site over the years. He was moved across Britain and Europe, working long hours for the travellers’ block-paving and scrap metal businesses.
As police took him from the camp, he received a threatening phone call from Tommy Connors Snr. A medical examination revealed he had old fractures to his right ankle and to two of his ribs.
The oldest slave said he had ‘suffered seven years of abuse, starvation and torture’. During a low point in his life, the 61-year-old was spotted at Tamworth service station looking dejected.
Playing on his vulnerability, James John Connors lured the man back to the camp with offers of food, drink and tobacco. ‘There was no respect,’ he said. ‘They treated me like a slave. And that’s putting it mildly.’
He told how his life had become one of ‘beatings, starvation and work’.
During his enslavement he fell through a roof and broke his ankle. The travellers refused to let him go to hospital, instead giving him strong painkillers to mask the pain. He carried out manual labour for the Connors for another four weeks before going to hospital.
One victim told how the Connors threatened to murder him if he tried to escape and was forced to sing children’s songs in the boot of a car.
The 38-year-old man was made to carry out tough manual work for 16 hours a day. He described how he was regularly assaulted, ‘mentally tortured’ and treated ‘worse than a slave’. Despite the threat of murder, the victim escaped in July last year while out canvassing for the family’s block paving business by flagging down a police car.
His escape was a catalyst for the police investigation and raid on the camp two months later.
On one occasion he was punched hard in the eye by a member of the Connors family for failing to drum up enough business. The man said: ‘He pulled up in the car and said “What have you been doing Why haven’t you got any customers Aren’t you ashamed of yourself”
‘Then he shoved me in the boot of his car. He said get in there. I went in head first. He quickly slammed down the boot.’
While in the boot of the car he was forced to sing children’s songs such as How Much is That Doggy in the Window and Bob the Builder.
When a 24-year-old man with a muscle-wasting disease was being driven from his home town by the travellers, he asked them if he could pick up his mobile phone so he could contact his mother.
One of the family said: ‘You don’t need it. Your mother is dead to you now. Your family is dead to you now.’
The victim had fallen on hard times and had resorted to sleeping on the streets of Southampton.
In October 2010 he was approached after leaving the job centre. Accepting an offer of shelter and 60 a day for work, the victim was driven towards the travellers’ site in Leighton Buzzard.
Later, when he tried to tell them about the pain caused by his disease, he was told: ‘Travellers don’t feel pain.’
After holding him for five months the Connors decided to let him go because he had been reported as a missing person.