Wealthy Traveller family sentenced to jail for exploiting vulnerable men
Five members of an Irish Traveller family have been jailed in England for nearly 17 years for forcing homeless alcoholic or drug-addicted men, who were beaten, ill-fed and ill-housed, to work long hours for little or no pay.
At Bristol Crown Court yesterday, William Connors (51) was given a 6½-year sentence for forced labour, while his wife Mary, also known as Breda (48), received a sentence of two years and three months; their son John (29) was jailed for four years; and their son-in-law Miles for three.
Another son, James (20), was given three years in a young offenders’ institution for being involved in the abuse of up to 37 men, who were housed in run-down, filthy, unheated caravans and left without light or running water.
Police believed that the Connors had exploited addicts or men with mental health problems for 20 years, although Judge Michael Longman found that little violence had been used during five months of surveillance in late 2010 and early 2012.
Judge Longman said he was satisfied that the violence that was used enforced “the unequal relationship between bosses and workers” and left the men in no doubt that “there was a line that was not to be crossed”.
An investigation into the Connors family began after the passage of legislation in 2010 outlawing slavery and forced labour. This led to a raid in March 2011 on halting sites in Gloucestershire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire. Nineteen men were rescued.
The sentences were greeted with tears from the five and their families with the wives of the Connors sons trying to reach them in the dock.
“For some of the workers, their circumstances before they met the Connors were so desperate that by comparison they considered themselves to be better off than they had been. Having previously been unemployed, they appreciated the opportunity to work.
“But the indignity of unemployment was replaced by the degradation that accompanied their inferior status. The freedoms and independence that usually accompany employment were largely absent,” said Judge Longman.
Det Chief Insp David Sellwood, who led the investigation, said he hoped that the sentences would send out a clear message that forced labour would not be tolerated: “We are delighted with the verdicts,” he said.
Some of the Connors family lived in homes valued at more than £1 million, police told the court during the three-month trial, while officers have so far frozen £500,000 found in 10 bank accounts. Judge Longman ordered that they be found not guilty on slavery charges.
Nearly £100,000 worth of the men’s benefits was confiscated by Mrs Connors, who was in tears when she arrived at court yesterday morning. She had told the men that she would ‘“keep it safe’”, the court heard.
“William Connors is a very greedy and arrogant man,” DCI Sellwood said. “This was a commercial enterprise, this was all about making money and affording him a luxurious lifestyle. His means of earning a fortune were by exploiting vulnerable people – people at the bottom with no hope.”
Sixteen of the rescued men co-operated with police, although three refused. Faced with life outside the halting site, one man had cried, believing that life there was better than on the streets, a barrister for one of those convicted said during the trial.
The men who co-operated have been housed in care homes since the police raid 21 months ago. Their health was described as very poor by doctors, while some of the men were so dependent on alcohol that they had to be given regulated amounts of cider.