A couple who trafficked more than 40 vulnerable men to the UK from Slovakia and forced them into slavery in order to fund their gambling addiction have been jailed.
Maros Tancos, 45, and Joanna Gomulska, 46, recruited their victims from care homes and orphanages, promising them steady work and a better life in the UK.
But upon arrival, the men would be forced to work for nothing in Tancos’ car wash in Southmead, Bristol, as well as long hours in other menial jobs.
Tancos would verbally and physically abuse the men to terrify them into submission, while Gomulska would pose as a “good cop”, making the victims believe she was looking out for them.
She would accompany them to appointments to set up their National Insurance Number and bank accounts, but immediately confiscate all cards and pin numbers.
On Wednesday at Bristol Crown Court, Tancos was jailed for 16 years for masterminding the conspiracy, while Gomulska was jailed for nine years for her role.
Judge Martin Picton told both of them they must serve two-thirds of their sentences before they can be released, instead of the usual half.
As well as the car wash, the two defendants would sign the victims for evening and night time work such as milk packing, catching chickens for slaughter and sorting parcels.
Many ended up working 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
Between 2010 and 2017, the couple funnelled £300,000 out of bank accounts set up in the names of their victims.
The cash was spent in casinos, online gambling sites and on secondhand cars.
The couple only came to the attention of the National Crime Agency (NCA) when a victim who had managed to return to Slovakia made a complaint to the authorities there.
Following a surveillance operation, the NCA raided an address in Brentry, north Bristol, where they found five Slovakian men living in cramped rooms on filthy bedding and mattresses patched up with cardboard.
The victims had hidden small quantities of change and sim cards in their socks and shoes in an attempt to stop Tancos and Gomulska taking it from them.
At times there would be up to 10 men living in the address, the victims said, crammed into three rooms and sharing one bathroom.
The seized iPhones of the two defendants revealed they had been behind applications for employment agencies, bank accounts and multiple loans in their victims’ names.
They had a library of photos of bank cards, pin numbers and their victims’ identity documents, as well as details of the flights they had booked to bring them to the UK.
The NCA, in partnership with the Slovakian authorities, tracked down 42 potential victims, 29 of whom were prepared to give evidence.
Tancos and Gomulska were prosecuted for offences against 15 men.
In March, both were convicted of nine offences related to human trafficking and forced labour, and one count of conspiracy to acquire criminal property.
The NCA believe the true victim count could be considerably higher, as there were many people they were unable to track down.
Jailing Tancos and Gomulska at a sentencing hearing at Bristol Crown Court on Wednesday, Judge Picton said: “You identified potential victims by reference to their circumstances, their financial and social vulnerability – people with little by way of alternative.”
He added: “The victims had cash value to you in the same way cattle would to a farmer.”
Addressing Gomulska, he said: “You gave the appearance of having some insight and some sympathy, but your experience did not deter you from supporting your partner in what you knew full well was a criminal enterprise.
“You had choices and you made the wrong ones.”
The victims were locked in the house when they were not at work, but one said even if they could have unlocked it, they were so intimidated they would not have felt able to leave.
They were regularly forced to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and made to share identities, so they could go and work in manual jobs they had not applied for.
The defendants even pocketed tips given to the men by motorists using the car wash and one man was forced to go to work the day after breaking his arm.
One victim described the house they were held in as “a gate to hell”.
“I went there because I wanted to provide for my family and give them more than what they had in Slovakia but the life that I had in Maros’ house changed my life completely,” he said.
“I was not allowed to leave the house and the only thing I knew was work. All the time I was thinking that I was a slave there. I thought there was no way back.”
Another, who was held for eight years, said the couple had “destroyed half my life”.
“The way I was humiliated, for every little thing I was hit and punished. I will never forget that,” he said.
“Nobody can understand what I experienced over there unless they were there as well.”
Tancos gave a no comment interview, while Gomulska claimed she had only given people lifts too and from the car wash.
She said the living conditions for the workers were good, claiming they had heating, hot showers and a clean house where they could eat whatever they cooked.