A couple have been jailed for a total of 25 years after keeping modern slaves in “squalor” in a Bristol house dubbed the “gate to hell”.
Maros Tancos and Joanna Gomulska trafficked at least 29 vulnerable people to the UK, some of whom had been raised in orphanages in Slovakia, after promising them a better life.
In reality, they were kept as “prisoners” in the property and faced beatings and death threats.
Victims were made to work for free at Tancos’ car wash business in Bristol before going to other jobs at night, with the couple spending their victims’ wages on cars and gambling.
One victim was forced to work at the car wash with a broken arm, while another fled after falling pregnant and gave birth to a baby who was malnourished.
Prosecutors said the “truly harrowing case” spanned nearly a decade, with victims “subjected to a life of misery to line the pockets of two ruthless individuals”.
Tancos, 45, and 46-year-old Gomulska were sentenced at Bristol Crown Court on Wednesday after they were convicted of modern slavery offences in April following a three-month trial.
Tancos was jailed for 16 years and Gomulska was given a nine-year prison sentence.
‘Multiple accounts of violence’
Mark Morrison, senior investigating officer at the National Crime Agency (NCA), told Sky News the victims were living in “squalor” at the Bristol house, with dirty mattresses on the floor and “disgusting, filthy carpets, blankets and bedding”.
The victims – aged from their late teens to their 30s – were mostly men and unable to speak English, including one who was threatened with being killed if he tried to escape.
The three-bedroom house would have up to 10 people living in it at a time, with Tancos and Gomulska locking them inside when the couple went out.
Mr Morrison said: “There are multiple accounts of violence against them with beatings.
“The mental anguish that these men and women have gone through is absolutely abhorrent.”
Tancos, originally from Slovakia, had links to children’s homes in his home country and had a “ready supply” of vulnerable victims, Mr Morrison said.
How the traffickers were caught
Victims were brought to the UK from Slovakia and Hungary on the promise of a better life but were under the control of Tancos and Gomulska from the moment they arrived, according to the Crown Prosecution Service.
Tancos had told his victims they could keep half of their wages each month, whilst the other half would be kept for rent and board.
In reality, victims received no money and their earnings were spent by the defendants.
The couple took victims’ ID documents, phones and bank cards, and opened their bank accounts with them, as well as applying for loans and credit cards in their names.
Between 2010 and 2017, almost £300,000 was transferred from the victims’ accounts, the NCA said.
Tancos also failed to pay his victims £923,000 at the car wash – the amount they would have earned had they received minimum wage over the period of the offending, the agency added.
The NCA was first alerted by authorities in Slovakia in 2017 that one of its citizens had “escaped from servitude” from an address in Bristol, Mr Morrison said.
It prompted an investigation in February 2017 and Tancos and Gomulska were arrested in July that year.
Five victims – all Slovakian men – were found inside the property on the day of the arrests.
‘Never-ending cycle of abuse’
Senior specialist prosecutor Ruona Iguyovwe said: “This is a truly harrowing case of exploitation spanning nearly a decade, where people were trafficked and subjected to a life of misery to line the pockets of two ruthless individuals.
“Referring to the house as a ‘gate to hell’, one victim’s account shows how they felt trapped, unable to seek help without identity documents, locked in the house and threatened.”
NCA branch commander Colin Williams said Tancos and Gomulska “treated their victims as possessions, exploiting their hope of a better life for themselves and their families to keep them in a never-ending cycle of abuse”.
“They were prisoners,” he added. “The experiences they shared in court showed how mentally broken the couple left them.
“These people came from impoverished backgrounds to the UK with optimism, but instead had their vulnerability taken advantage of.
“Whilst they suffered, Tancos and Gomulska spent their victims’ wages on gambling and cars.”