Wednesday 17 January 2018

Traveller family jailed for horrific ‘slavery’ of homeless alcoholics

William Connors kicking a worker during an assault at Beggars Roost caravan park in Staverton, Gloucestershire. Photo: PA
William Connors kicking a worker during an assault at Beggars Roost caravan park in Staverton, Gloucestershire. Photo: PA

Rod Minchin

FIVE members of the same traveller family who lived a luxurious lifestyle at the expense of vulnerable men forced to work for a pittance were all jailed today.

William Connors, 52, was jailed for six and a half years and his wife Mary, 48, received a sentence of two years and three months.

The couple's son, John, 29, was jailed for four years. Their other son James, 20, got three years’ detention in a young offender institution.

Son-in-law Miles Connors, 24, received a three-year prison sentence.

They were all convicted last week at Bristol Crown Court of conspiracy to require a person to perform forced or compulsory labour between April 2010 and March 2011 following a three-month trial.

They had also faced a second charge of conspiracy to hold another person in servitude but the trial judge Michael Longman ordered the jury to find the defendants not guilty of that offence.

The prosecution was brought under Section 71 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 and carries a maximum sentence of 14 years.

The Connors enjoyed top-of-the-range cars and expensive holidays and, to live the high life, the family picked up men - often homeless drifters or addicts - to work for them as labourers.

The victims lived in squalid caravans on traveller sites as they moved around the country working in the Connors' paving and patio businesses.

Some were also ordered to perform humiliating tasks, such as emptying the buckets used as toilets by their bosses.

Their work was monotonous, arduous and unrelenting, and they were controlled by discipline and violence.

Some of the men - called "dossers" by the Connors - had worked for the family for nearly two decades.

Many were beaten, hit with broom handles, belts, a rake and shovel, and punched and kicked by the Connors.

The men were paid as little as €6 for a day's hard labour on jobs which would earn the family the equivalent of several thousand euro.

They were given so little food that they resorted to scavenging from rubbish bins at supermarkets.

In contrast, the Connors grew fat on the spoils of their hard labour and lived in large and well-appointed caravans fitted with luxury kitchens and flat-screen televisions.

William and Mary, known as Billy and Brida, enjoyed exotic holidays, including Dubai and a 10-day cruise around the Caribbean on the Cunard flagship liner Queen Mary 2.

The family also spent the spoils of their enterprise on breaks to Tenerife and Cancun in Mexico.

As well as holidays, they drove around in top-of-the-range cars, including a silver A-Class Mercedes saloon, a Rolls-Royce, a red Mini convertible, a Toyota Hilux pick-up, a Ford Ranger and a Mercedes van, and had built up a mounting property portfolio potentially now worth millions of pounds.

This included one house with a hot tub and accompanying flat-screen television.

Their bank accounts contained more than €600,000.

Also working on the family business were sons John and James - known as Johnny and Jimmy - and Miles Connors, known as Miley, who is married to William and Mary's daughter Bridget.

Police began investigating the Connors following the discovery of the body of worker Christopher Nicholls, 40, in 2008.

The introduction of the Coroners and Justice Act in April 2010 created offences of conspiracy to hold another person in servitude and conspiracy to require a person to carry out forced or compulsory labour.

The Connors were placed under covert surveillance in August 2010 and police recorded evidence of the men being assaulted.

The enterprise came to an end when police raided sites in Staverton, Enderby in Leicestershire and Mansfield in Nottinghamshire on March 22 2011.

The Connors maintained the men were "free agents" able to come and go as they please and William and Mary suggested they acted as "good Samaritans" by providing them with food, work and accommodation.

Passing sentence, Judge Longman said: "What each of the workers had in common was that, when they first met the Connors, they were unemployed and addicted to alcohol.

"Most were homeless, relying on hostels or night shelters at best for their accommodation.

"Some suffered from mental health difficulties.

"All were vulnerable in some way and it was this vulnerability which was exploited by the defendants for their own commercial gain."

The judge continued: "Something else which became apparent from the workers' evidence was that each had outstanding qualities of resilience, basic decency and loyalty.

"The difference between the lifestyles of the defendants and the workers was marked: the work done reaped rich rewards for the Connors family, who lived luxuriously in caravans or houses; the workers whose labour helped to generate these rewards were paid, when they were paid at all, a pittance.

"Many of the workers were promised, when they were picked up, a regular income. What was offered largely failed to materialise and payment was irregular and meagre, covering only the most basic necessities.

"The accommodation provided was, for the most part, sub-standard.

"Although some workers spoke of their bosses as friends, the status of the workers as compared to the bosses was so inferior as to render the relationship between them unrecognisable as friendship by normal standards.

"Workers spoke of violence being meted out by certain bosses against workers on different occasions but the evidence did not suggest that violence was regularly used against workers and rarely during the indictment period.

"I am, however, satisfied, that such violence as there was not only helped to define and emphasise the unequal relationship between bosses and workers but also served to ensure that the workers knew there was a line that was not to be crossed."

Judge Longman said some of the workers considered themselves "better off" working for the Connors than the alternative of being on the streets.

"But the indignity of unemployment was replaced by the degradation that accompanied their inferior status and the freedoms and independence that usually accompany employment were largely absent," he said.

"I am satisfied that the efforts made by members of the Connors family to wean the workers off the alcohol to which they had become addicted were not altruistic - but were rather to benefit themselves so that those recruited could become a source of cheap labour for them."

The judge said the sentences he was passing required a "deterrent element to discourage others" from behaving in a similar way in the future.

"In each of your cases there must be sentences of imprisonment, which are required to reflect the seriousness of the offence of which you have been convicted, and to deter others from behaving in a similar way," the judge said.

Addressing William Connors, the judge said he was the head of the family.

"The exploitation of vulnerable men by requiring them to work in conditions amounting to forced or compulsory labour has been a way of life that you have lived for many years," the judge told him.

"Although the offence you have been convicted of is a new one, that does not in my view, mitigate the seriousness either of your offending or that of your co-defendants.

"Over the years, such exploitation has brought you rich financial rewards. I accept that you have had other sources of income, such as rental income, but I am satisfied that the opportunity to provide yourself with such other sources of income derives from the profits you have made from exploiting others and requiring them to work for you.

"I have to take account too of the fact that you influence the other defendants in this way of life and brought up your sons to behave in a similar way."

The judge told James Connors that he was party to the conspiracy throughout the indictment period although for a "relatively short period before then".

"It is plain you were heavily influenced by your father and joined in with a way of life in which you had been brought up," the judge said.

John Connors was told that he had "no excuse" for his behaviour despite his upbringing at the hands of his father.

"You too inherited a lifestyle, one in which you grew up, but although that is not something I ignore, it affords you no excuse for your behaviour or your participation in this conspiracy, and it is a way of life you pursued through your adult years," he said.

Judge Longman told Miles Connors that the evidence in the trial showed he did pay the workers regularly - although inadequately.

"Your intervention in the assault by James Connors on Craig Sivier is to your credit and is consistent with a picture of someone for whom the men on the whole enjoyed working," the judge said.

"I accept for sentencing purposes that you now operate a legitimate business and submit annual returns."

The judge told Mary Connors that she had benefited from the wealth generated by the exploitation of vulnerable men.

"You were not a boss but were content to benefit materially from the way of life provided for you by your husband, who was a boss, and whose activities I am satisfied you clearly understood," he told her.

"You knew of the way of life of the workers, the conditions in which they lived and worked and you gave them tasks yourself when they were not working off-site.

"You were instrumental, along with your husband, of depriving some of them of the benefits, although I accept that you did not provide at least Mr Kettle with some of the proceeds of his benefit money.

"You have family responsibilities and are not in good health, of which I know something from the correspondence produced to the court during the history of this case."

Yesterday the court heard that Mary Connors has already served an equivalent sentence of 27 months' custody due to time spent on remand and electronic curfew.

The judge told her: "The proper sentence in your case is two-and-a-half years' imprisonment, which as an act of mercy - not to you, but to your young daughter - I shall reduce to two years and three months."

Judge Longman's sentence means that she is likely to be released immediately without having served any additional custody.

Members of the Connors family, who were sat in the public gallery, broke down in tears as the prison sentences were imposed.

The defendants waved at their relatives as they were led away to begin their sentences.

Speaking outside court, Detective Chief Inspector Dave Sellwood, who led the investigation into the Connors, welcomed the convictions.

"We are delighted with the verdicts and I think it sends out a very strong message that this sort of behaviour won't be tolerated, not just by Gloucestershire but by other police forces nationally," he said.

"William Connors is a very greedy and arrogant man. This was a commercial enterprise which was all about making him money and affording him a luxurious lifestyle.

"He wasn't a drug dealer or a thief but his means of earning a fortune was by exploiting really, really vulnerable people - people at the bottom of society with no hope.

"He gave them false hope and exploited them for years.

Mr Sellwood said Mary Connors was as guilty as the other members of her family.

"These men were at her beck and call constantly," he said.

"She benefited from the work they did for her husband and the income that generated.

"She benefited from the work they did around the sites - from painting fences to doing her ironing and washing and emptying her slop bucket - and she also benefited from stealing their state benefits.

"She's had around £100,000 in state benefits from just four of these workers."

Mr Sellwood said John and James Connors were "brought up" exploiting vulnerable men but had a choice when they reached adulthood to stop.

"The boys were brought up to do this with their father and some of the material we recovered shows family photographs going back 15 or 20 years with James and John as young men and boys out on driveways working with their father," he said.

"To some extent they were brought up into this criminal lifestyle by their father but they had a choice when they reached a certain age and continued to offend."

Mr Sellwood said many of the victims were delighted with the guilty verdicts and were moving on with their lives.

"We decided to undertake the surveillance operation because we anticipated that the victims being vulnerable men would be difficult witnesses - hard to get evidence from - and that's how it proved," he said.

"Only a small number of the men we rescued gave evidence and of those that did they were very brave but potentially didn't give as good evidence or describe their circumstances as well as they might.

"They are all delighted with the verdicts and most of them are managing to move on with their lives.

"One of them had been with the Connors for over 30 years and he knows nothing else and it is incredibly difficult for him to sort out any other life for himself."

Mr Sellwood added: "It is now our intention to pursue the Connors through Proceeds of Crime Act legislation.

"It is our intention to try and strip them of their assets and we will show that their assets have been accrued through crime.

"I think they will not be able to demonstrate that they have accrued any of their wealth through legitimate means."

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