Saturday 18 November 2017

Victim of Irish Traveller slavery ring reveals his hardship at the hands of Rooney family

A caravan which the victims had to live in. Photo: Lincolnshire Police/PA
A caravan which the victims had to live in. Photo: Lincolnshire Police/PA

Independent Newsdesk and Matthew Cooper

A victim of the notorious Rooney family who were jailed this week for keeping 'modern slaves' has said he regrets not reporting the Irish family decades ago.

Rod Smith (46) ended up with the Rooney family after falling on hard times in London in the 1990s.

He was sleeping rough outside Waterlooo station in 1991 when he was picked up by members of the family and promised a home and work.

I bit their hand off," he told Sky News in an exclusive interview.

"I was just begging then, I'd fallen out of the army, my life was a mess and what they were promising me was an opportunity - I just wanted (to get) off the streets."

He laboured for the family business but was often not paid any wages and was forced to hand over his social welfare payments.

"They made me live in this cold brick toilet on their site in Washingborough just outside Lincoln, there was no choice like," he said.

"Bridget (the mother) controlled what we ate. I always depended on them for food - they had us trapped."

Mr Smith described one instance when he was beaten by the gang.

"They beat the s*** out of me, I had to lift my lip off my tooth because the tooth had gone through it when they hit me.

"I just thought I've had enough," he said.

"It was 2am. Everyone was asleep and I just slipped out of a caravan and hitchhiked north, I was terrified they'd find me so I only hitchhiked at night and eventually got back up home to the Northeast."

Mr Smith did not report the family for their crimes and was unaware of the investigation into their modern slavery practices which led to nine members of the family being jailed on Tuesday.

"I never spoke out to anybody ... I regret it and I regret earning them so much money because that land that they now have, I was the person that earned them the money to buy that land," he said.

It was only when the trial garnered media coverage did he realise that the family continued to victimise people for decades after his own abuse.

"So all those people that have suffered that is partly down to me," he said, growing emotional.

On Tuesday head of the UK-based slavery ring, 57-year-old Martin Rooney, was jailed for 10 years and nine months after being convicted of wounding and conspiracy to require a person to perform forced or compulsory labour.

Two family members got suspended sentences.

Sentencing Rooney, of Drinsey Nook, Saxilby, Lincolnshire, Judge Timothy Spencer contrasted the family's wealth, foreign holidays and expensive cars with the dirty caravans and squalid conditions in which their victims lived.

The judge noted the UK-based Irish Traveller family's lifestyle and "spotless" living conditions.

He said the comparison with the lives of their victims "was akin to the gulf between medieval royalty and the peasantry".

A total of 11 defendants were convicted of offences following a series of linked trials relating to modern slavery and fraud at Nottingham Crown Court.

Six people were initially arrested in September 2014 with seven warrants executed in Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and London as part of inquiries into modern slavery.

All the victims of the offences - including a man kept in "truly shocking" conditions for decades - were described as extremely vulnerable, with some having learning disabilities and mental health issues.

The victims were forced to work either on Travellers' sites or for the defendants' businesses repairing properties and paving driveways.

Prosecutors said that although food was promised, the victims, aged 18 to 63, were poorly fed and were paid little or nothing.

Superintendent Chris Davison, head of crime for Lincolnshire Police, said: "The severity of these crimes is underlined by the sentences imposed by the judge.

"The victims will never get the years back that were taken away from them but I hope this provides them with some comfort that justice has been served."

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