Verdicts end desperate tale of abuse

 

FOR SEVEN days the jury had deliberated on the charges facing seven Irish Travellers, spending nearly 40 hours debating the first servitude trial in Britain for 200 years.

Finally, word began to filter through around Luton Crown Court shortly after 3pm yesterday that the jury was coming back before Judge Michael Kay.

The reading of the charges by the court clerk to the jury foreman began shortly afterwards. He was wearing a suit for the first time since he was appointed by his peers last week.

For several minutes, he responded with a series of “no verdicts” on more than 30 charges, saying the jury had reached no decision and had no prospect of so doing.

Inside the glass-fronted box where they have sat throughout, the seven accused members of the Connors family looked on, sometimes perplexed, like others, by the bewildering list of charges and decisions.

There were 15 guilty verdicts; eight not guilty and 33 ”no verdicts”.

Tears, along with keening cries, flowed from the wives of Tommy Connors snr’s sons as guilty verdicts peppered the list, despite strong warnings from Judge Kay against disturbances.

By its end, Tommy snr, his son Patrick, daughter Josie and son-in-law, James John (“Big Jim”) had all been convicted on some of the servitude and forced labour charges facing them.

The jury, one of whom was in tears as the verdicts were read out, had reached majority verdicts of 10-2, or 11-1 in a number of cases, but agreement of any kind on the rest was impossible.

James Connors (26) was cleared of conspiracy to hold victims in servitude and forced labour, with no verdicts reached on his other charges. Johnny Connors was found not guilty on one count of conspiracy to hold one man in servitude, while the jury could not reach a verdict on a forced labour charge.

The carefully planned police raid on the family’s Greenacres caravan site near Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire that led to yesterday’s court verdicts took place on September 11th last year.

More than 200 police officers, backed up with police dogs, quietly surrounded the site before entering – complete with helicopters overhead – at 5am.

From the off, Travellers’ organisations, such as the Irish Traveller Movement in Britain, were suspicious about the timing, believing that it was linked to the Dale Farm controversy in which emotions ran high when Traveller families were evicted from a large encampment in Essex last autumn.

Months of planning had gone into the operation, in close alliance with the Crown Prosecution Service, following reports of ill-treatment from a number of men who had escaped in July. In all, 22 male workers were taken away from Greenacres on the day, along with another man from Chiswell Green, a site near St Albans in Hertfordshire, where one of the Connors family, Johnny, lived.

The victims, who gave evidence on video-screen or behind a curtain, had slept in cramped, dilapidated conditions in old caravans or a one-time shed used as a dog kennel, they told the court.

One of them had scurvy. One was covered in his own excrement. A number were seen by dental experts because they had severe ulcers.

Because all were so thin, doctors worried they could be fed too much too soon, so blood samples were taken daily to ensure they did not fall prey to the so-called refeeding syndrome.

Police and doctors had learned from experience after the escapes from Greenacres in July, when those men had suffered from this syndrome, where cardiac arrhythmias, confusion, comas and convulsions can occur.

The September 11th raid was not the first on Greenacres, though none of the formerly homeless men then spoken to by officers would leave the site with them.

The Connors prosecution is not the first to be taken under Section 71 of the Coroners Act, 2009, outlawing slavery, servitude and forced labour, which came into force on April 1st two years ago.

However, it is only the third to reach a judgment, following the collapse of a trial in Hampshire which will be reheard in January. Another case in Bristol will be tried later this year. Both involve Travellers.

Servitude is broader than slavery, an offence where victims suffer a serious form of denial of freedom, are forced to live at the offender’s property and live with the obligations of a serf. Under section 71, prosecutors do not have to show that a victim was trafficked; nor do they have to rely on specific offences such as assault. Instead, the full breadth of an offender’s behaviour can be judged.

The importance of the convictions that the prosecution did get is clear, since the UK’s Human Trafficking Centre believes that hundreds of victims exist undetected elsewhere.

It believes that significant numbers of people are being held in servitude, often as maids in houses. Two people – unlinked to Travellers – were prosecuted for this last year.

Sources argue that many people – often working in crop-picking or in manual construction – are victims.

During the trial the prosecution won an early victory when, despite protests from the defence, they were allowed to put forward evidence of ill-treatment before the legislation came into effect.

The Salvation Army, which supplies services to victims of forced labour and sexual exploitation, is caring for 185 people – the majority of them held to work in menial jobs for no pay.

Of the 133 people receiving shelter from the Salvation Army, 67 are men: “We’ve been surprised by the number of men who have come forward,” said one of its officers, Anne Read.

Once removed by police from Greenacres and Chiswell, the men were taken to a reception centre set up weeks before by the Red Cross, along with others.

Nine men, including a number of Romanians, left immediately, after showers and a change of clothes even before the Romanian embassy’s staff arrived.

Another, an Englishman, returned to Greenacres where he still lives, arguing that the Connors had treated him fairly and that Greenacres was his home. Detectives held back from interviewing the rest until after their immediate needs were met, though the defence in the trial questioned the relationship that subsequently existed.

Officers slept in the centre with the men, while the defence argued that the offers of accommodation and help with benefit claims were given as inducements to get them to testify in court.

In court, one of the detectives accepted that there were issues about the contacts that existed, but insisted that he would have been criticised if he had put everyone up in hotels.

In the days following, the stories of the men’s lives in Greenacres slowly emerged, with one recounting how he had seen “no end” of numbers “coming and going” since he arrived in 1996.

Like others, he was homeless when offered work and accommodation by some of the family as he stood outside a day centre in Brighton.

During his time with the Connorses, he claimed he had seen numerous assaults and was deprived of toilets or showers, bar occasional visits to a local leisure centre.

Over time, he was treated “worse and worse”. Bed clothes were changed every four months, and there was just one meal a day. Unlike others, he did not leave: he “had nowhere else to go”.

Rising at 5am, the men often worked on site until 10pm. They alleged that, on Sundays, they were ordered to clean the Connors’s own homes and clean up around the yards.

During the trial, two leisure centre staff testified that they had noticed the workers’ arrival for showers – weekly for long periods, then more rarely – where they stood silently in line, shoulders bowed.

A second victim said he was approached “by a nice man who promised work, a home and a steady wage” in 2004 in Stoke, where he was living homeless after he had returned from Spain. Another, who was approached as he stood in a service station in Tamworth, Staffordshire, contemplating suicide, acknowledged that the Connors had saved his life, even if he has a different opinion now.

On jobs, some of the Connors sat in vehicles watching the workers as they laid paving, only leaving them occasionally to give some “a blow” if they complained of being “knackered”, the court was told.

“I wasn’t treated as badly as the rest – they only hit me once,” one victim recounted, “I was lucky. But everyone was afraid of them, and others got beaten up much more.”

Some of the men used an old microwave to cook eggs. Others would just buy a microwave meal with money given by the Connors only “to be too exhausted, too drained” to heat it up.

One man, aged 23 when recruited, suffers from a muscle-wasting disease, myotonic dystrophy, but he was quickly told: “You haven’t got that disability any more.” He told the court he had been approached by one of the Connorses outside a job centre in Southampton and offered £60 a day and accommodation.

“I had no job. I was smoking cannabis on that same day. It [felt] like nobody wanted to care about me, or wanted to know me at that time,” he went on.

On the road to Greenacres, he asked what he would do if he wanted to speak with his mother: “They said, ‘Your mother’s dead to you now. Your whole family’s dead to you now.’”

Another man insisted he had been ordered to sing How Much Is That Doggie In The Window? over and over again and the Can We Fix It? theme song from the Bob The Builder’s TV show. The same man claimed he had been locked in the boot of a car by James “Big Jim” Connors, though this version of events was not supported by another former worker.

Life at Greenacres left the men subject to casual violence, witnesses told the court. Some were kicked repeatedly; another was hit on the head with a shovel. Most were punched, but not where marks would be spotted by customers.

One was beaten badly, the court was told, after he had dropped a crystal vase worth £3,000, which had been on display inside a glass-fronted oven.

“It appears to be a family tradition to place crystal in the oven to show how clean the ovens are. I don’t believe that they were actually used,” a policeman said.

In the weeks after the September raid, police tracked down 10 or so customers, though the investigation was hampered because the Connors kept no receipts.

None of the householders approached had witnessed ill-treatment, nor did they have complaints about the quality of the work, though they had noted the long hours worked.

Throughout the trial, much of the Connors’s defence rested on claims that they were being persecuted by police because a 2010 prosecution against some of them on trading standards charges had failed.

Summing up last Monday week, Judge Kay noted that one of their QCs had noted “that prejudice against Irish Travellers was the last acceptable form of racism” in the UK.

Lewis Power QC, defending Tommy Connors snr, told the jury: “We are not dealing with the norm here, we are dealing with Travellers and their specific culture.” The Travellers and the homeless men they recruited had both been “discarded by society” and subject to intolerance from those who “live within the parameters of the norm”.

The homeless men had often been alcoholics or drug-addicts when they had been recruited: “Did the Connors maybe save their lives? Did they exploit them? Was there a symbiotic relationship?

“At the end of the day, the Travelling community have been doing this for hundreds of years. These offences came into being two years ago,” Mr Power said.

However, Judge Kay reminded the jury: “This is not a trial as to the law or culture or practices of Irish Travellers . . . [The law] applies to all residents.”

Equally, the Connors’s legal teams sought to argue that their clients had not operated as “a family enterprise” but rather were a collection of independently operating businesses.

Pointing to this, Judge Kay told jurors to consider whether it was credible that the Connors would “drive to Cricklewood” to recruit day-workers, as they claimed, if others were idle on the site.

Denying the allegations, some of the Connors family claimed that the men had been fed Irish stew at night. Asked to explain the men’s lack of money, they said that they had spent it all.

Many of Tommy Connors’s children had started work at age 10, or later, often operating their own paving businesses by age 14 – sometimes driving without licences or insurance.

In the witness box, Connors snr, now 52, told of growing up around Belfast as one of 19 children, living in a horse-drawn carriage, helping his mother to sell flowers when just three years old.

Breaking down, Connors, who has past convictions for dishonesty and false imprisonment, said: “I’m here for absolutely nothing, I mean that.” He said he had recruited men for decades outside homeless shelters and in parks, but he insisted that all were paid and free to leave at any time.

On the day of the raid, police had found £3,000 stored inside a saucepan in Connors’s caravan, along with £11,000 more in cash in another room.

Following the charging of members of the Connors family, however, police began to investigate their finances more deeply, using powers brought in by the Proceeds of Crime Act, 2002, a copy of the Irish model. In court, Tommy Connors snr acknowledged he was “a wealthy man”. However, those convicted did not live lavishly, bar owning a Mercedes Benz. Holidays were rare, though there was one trip to Indonesia by James John Connors.

Visits to local pubs occurred fortnightly or so – though James John and his wife, Josie, used one of the workers to drive them home, the court was told.

One former worker, who was serving a prison term on the day of the raid, came forward later to give evidence, though he subsequently retracted it.

The three victims whose allegations led to the convictions of Tommy Connors snr, his son, Patrick, daughter Josie and son-in-law, James John, can now expect some compensation.

However, the story of the 15 who stayed in the reception centre has not been a happy one. One has already died from alcohol poisoning, while others have resumed drinking.