A couple who trafficked more than 40 vulnerable men from Slovakia to Britain and forced them into slavery to fund their gambling addiction have been jailed.
Maros Tancos, 45, and Joanna Gomulska, 46, recruited their victims from foster homes and orphanages, promising them steady jobs and a better life in Britain.
But on arrival the men would be forced to work for free at Tancos’ car wash in Southmead, Bristol, and work long hours at other menial jobs.
Tancos verbally and physically abused the men in order to subdue them with fear, while Gomulska posed as a “good cop” and tricked the victims into thinking she would look out for them.
She accompanied them to appointments to set up their social security numbers and bank accounts, but immediately confiscated all of their cards and PIN numbers.
Tancos was sentenced to 16 years in prison at Bristol Crown Court on Wednesday for leading the conspiracy, while Gomulska was sentenced to nine years in prison for her role.
Judge Martin Picton told both they must serve two-thirds of their sentences before they can be released, instead of the usual half.
In addition to washing cars, the two defendants would hire victims to do evening and night-time work such as packing milk, catching slaughter chickens and sorting packages.
Many ended up working 12 hour days, seven days a week.
Between 2010 and 2017, the couple smuggled £300,000 from bank accounts set up in their victims’ names.
The money was spent in casinos, online gambling sites and on used cars.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) only became aware of the couple after a victim who managed to return to Slovakia lodged a complaint with the authorities there.
After a surveillance operation, the NCA searched an address in Brentry, north Bristol, where they found five Slovak men living in cramped quarters on dirty beds and mattresses patched with cardboard.
The victims had hidden small amounts of loose change and SIM cards in their socks and shoes to prevent Tancos and Gomulska from taking them.
At times, up to 10 men lived at the address, victims said, crammed into three rooms and a shared bathroom.
The two defendants’ confiscated iPhones revealed that they had been behind job applications, bank accounts and multiple loans on behalf of their victims.
They had a library of photos of their victims’ bank cards, PIN numbers and ID documents, as well as details of the flights they had booked to take them to the UK.
The NCA, in cooperation with the Slovak authorities, tracked down 42 potential victims, 29 of whom agreed to testify.
Tancos and Gomulska were prosecuted for offenses against 15 men.
In March, both were convicted of nine offenses related to human trafficking and forced labor and conspiracy to acquire criminal property.
The NCA believes the actual number of victims could be significantly higher as there were many people they could not locate.
Judge Picton, who jailed Tancos and Gomulska at a sentencing hearing at Bristol Crown Court on Wednesday, said: “You have identified potential victims by their circumstances, their financial and social vulnerabilities – people with little alternative.”
He added: “The victims had the same cash value to you as cattle to a farmer.”
Speaking to Gomulska, he said: “You appeared to have some insight and sympathy, but your experience hasn’t stopped you from assisting 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 not at work, but one said even if they could have unlocked it, they were so intimidated they didn’t feel able to leave.
They were routinely forced to work 12 hour days, seven days a week, sharing their identities so they could leave and work in manual jobs they didn’t apply for.
The defendants even pocketed tips given to 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 she was being held in as “a gateway to hell”.
“I went there because I wanted to take care of my family and give them more than they had in Slovakia, but living in Maros’ house changed my life completely,” he said.
“I was not allowed to leave the house and only knew work. I thought the whole time that I’m a slave there. I thought there was no going back.”
Another, held for eight years, said the couple “destroyed half my life”.
“The way I was humiliated, for every little thing I was beaten and punished. I will never forget that,” he said.
“No one can understand what I experienced there if they weren’t there too.”
Tancos gave an interview without comment, while Gomulska claimed she also just took people and out of the car wash.
She said living conditions for the workers were good, claiming they had heating, hot showers and a clean house to eat what they cooked.