A couple who ran a car wash business have been convicted of running a human trafficking network in Bristol – promising people a new life in the UK then forcing them to work without pay.
The National Crime Agency rescued five men who were being kept as modern slaves in a house in Brentry Lane, Bristol, by Maros Tancos, aged 45 and Joanna Gomulska, aged 46.
Tancos recruited vulnerable people from Slovakia, targeting those who were often raised in orphanages or living in camps. He promised them transport to the UK, somewhere to live and food.
He told his victims that they could keep half of their wages each month, while the other half would be kept for rent and board.
In reality, victims received no money and earnings were spent by the defendants on online gambling, in casinos, on buying cars or their own living costs.
On arrival in the UK, the couple took their victims’ identity documents and phones, leaving them unable to travel independently or leave.
The victims were required to work for their car wash business in Bristol during the day and at other jobs at night.
Tancos and Gomulska kept all of their bank cards, would take victims to open bank accounts, and applied for loans or credit cards in their names. Between 2010 and 2017, almost £300,000 was transferred from their accounts.
Victims described living with 10 people in a three-bedroom home, sharing one bathroom and sleeping on dirty mattresses. The couple would lock their victims in the house when they were out, but they told investigators that even if the door was unlocked they felt they could not leave due to the level of control they held over them.
In statements, victims described their time with the defendants as ‘catastrophic’ and said they were humiliated, hit and punished by Tancos. Another described returning to Slovakia when she fell pregnant, with her child being born malnourished and suffering epileptic fits because she had no money to bring back from the UK for food.
Tancos and Gomulska made their victims work under any circumstances. One described an occasion where he broke his arm and had it set in a cast at hospital. They still made him continue to work in the car wash.
The couple were arrested on suspicion of modern slavery and human trafficking offences in July 2017. Both denied their involvement but following a trial spanning almost three months, including evidence from 15 victims, they were convicted by a jury on 4 April at Bristol Crown Court.
NCA branch commander Colin Williams said: “Tancos and Gomulska treated their victims as possessions, exploiting their hope of a better life for themselves and their families to keep them in a never ending cycle of abuse. They were prisoners. The experiences they shared in court showed how mentally broken the couple left them.
“These people came from impoverished backgrounds to the UK with optimism, but instead had their vulnerability taken advantage of. While they suffered, Tancos and Gomulska spent their victims’ wages on gambling and cars.
“The support from our international partners in Slovakia was pivotal in being able to trace victims who had returned home and meant they could give evidence via video links detailing the couple’s abhorrent behaviour dating back to 2008.
“Tackling human trafficking is one of our highest priorities, and we will continue to work with partners to pursue offenders and protect victims.”
Ruona Iguyovwe, senior specialist prosecutor at the CPS, said: “This is a truly harrowing case of exploitation spanning nearly a decade, where people were trafficked and subjected to a life of misery to line the pockets of two ruthless individuals.
“Referring to the house as a ‘gate to hell’, one victim’s account shows how they felt trapped, unable to seek help without identity documents, locked in the house and threatened.
“Gaining the victims’ confidence has been fundamental to this case, and a significant amount of work went in to caring for, and engaging with them, throughout the process. I commend every person who testified for their bravery.”