Traveller family found guilty in slavery case

Court heard that the Connors family would pick up homeless men and force them to work for their paving business while living in squalid caravans

Five members of the same traveller family were today found guilty of keeping their own private workforce.

William Connors, 52, his wife Mary, 48, their sons John, 29, and James, 20, and their son-in-law Miles Connors, 24, were all convicted of conspiracy to require a person to perform forced or compulsory labour between April 2010 and March 2011.

A jury at Bristol Crown Court found the Connors family guilty following a three-month trial.

They had also faced a second charge of conspiracy to hold another person in servitude but the trial judge 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.

During the trial, the court heard that the Connors would pick up the 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 on 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.

On another occasion one worker had a hosepipe shoved down his throat and the men were often made to strip for a "hosing down session" with freezing water.

"It caused fear in the men," said prosecutor Christopher Quinlan QC.

"Not just themselves being assaulted, but to see the others - if you see one of your colleagues being beaten, you knew what to expect.

"It was a clear and unequivocal demonstration of control and dominance, of one set, the family, over another.

"If you compare and contrast the lifestyles of the workers and bosses it is like comparing a Maserati versus a clapped out Zephyr."

The court heard the men were paid as little as £5 for a day's hard labour on jobs that would earn the family several thousands pounds.

They were given so little food they resorted to scavenging from dustbins at supermarkets for something to eat.

The men also salvaged clothing from bins and used a bucket or woodland as a toilet.

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

William and Mary, known as Billy and Brida, enjoyed luxurious 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.

The family bought two caravan parks in Gloucestershire for £545,000 more than a decade ago and had over £500,000 between them in bank accounts.

Several houses - including one with a hot tub and accompanying flat screen television - were registered in the names of other relatives, though there is no suggestion that anyone else within the family knew of the defendants’ conduct.

Mr Quinlan told the jury during the trial: "The defendants benefited financially and we say handsomely in their legal exploits and enterprise.

"The men were forced to work and exploited for financial gain and the defendants had a very cheap labour workforce for their businesses."

He added: "They were a private workforce at the beck and call of the defendants."

William Connors, who used a string of aliases, was the head of the family and had been married to Mary for over 30 years and they had six children together - four daughters and two boys.

He was described by some of the workers as the "drill sergeant, big boss or the daddy".

Mary Connors was the "banker" collecting the money from the workers' state benefits.

They owned The Willows caravan park in Staverton, which had been bought for £375,000, and the nearby Willowdene caravan park which they purchased for £170,000.

In later years the Connors bought plots of land adjacent to Willowdene for a total of £137,000.

The family also own a house called Hayden Laurels, which was bought in July 2007 for £390,000 and registered in the names of John Connors's wife Barbara and Alexander Gourlay.

Eldest son John Connors, known as Johnny, was jointly registered with Esther Gammell as owner of a house in Uckington, near Cheltenham. 'Ikiru' was fitted out with a hot tub and was bought in March 2004 for £208,000.

The Connors also own plots of land at a travellers' site at Kirk Lane in Enderby, Leicestershire, while William Connors is the registered owner of a house called Twelve Oaks and relative Esther Connors was the registered owner of a bungalow with double garage in Staines, Middlesex, which was bought by William Connors in 2005 for £130,000.

The Connors made their money by travelling across the country offering block paving and tarmacing services.

They used a string of different company names, including Pro Groundworks Drives & Patios, Designer Drives & Patios, JF Kennedy, Oxfordshire Drives & Patios, Sofisicated Drives (sic) and Quality Driveways.

To create the impression of a professional outfit, the Connors had glossy leaflets printed, which always had a landline phone number.

Also working on the family business was son-in-law 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.

Mr Nicholls had been involved in a serious road accident in October 2004 outside Willowdene and his decomposed body was discovered in a garden shed near the caravan site in May 2008.

In 2009 one unnamed worker contacted Gloucestershire Police to say William and Mary Connors had recruited him from the streets of Cheltenham.

He told detectives he had his identity documents taken from him and he was rarely paid and received little food and lived with other workers in the same situation.

Some of the workers did leave the Connors but were often rounded up and brought back.

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' providing them with food, work and accommodation.

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 and Mansfield in Nottinghamshire on March 22, 2011.

Police rescued 19 men from the Connors' clutches, including Alexander Gourlay, 55, David Kettle, 57, James Martin, 43, Nigel Houghton, 52, Craig Sivier, 41, Daniel Pedge, 36, Andrew Thomas, 28 and David Gibbons, 47.

Other men included Martin "Tim" Howley, Michael Burke, who lived with the defendants for so long that he changed his surname to Connors, Michael Phee, Lezszak Otto, Martin Cox and Ryan Lowrie

Mr Gourlay told jurors how he watched William Connors hit Mr Howley for taking food from dustbins.

"Billy would always use the handle of a broom, or something he picked up, and started whacking him with it," he said.

"Every time he did something wrong, or had been shouted at, Billy beat him with a broom, his fists or hands or something he would pick up."

As people were called back into court, there was wailing from Mary Connors, who repeatedly said: "Oh God", "Oh Jesus", "Oh Lord, please God, don't do this".

Each of the defendants, other than William Connors, were in tears as they took their places in the dock.

There were loud and violent outbursts from members of the Connors family in the public gallery.

Six security guards stood around the five defendants as the foreman of the jury returned the guilty verdicts one by one.

Family members jumped to their feet and extra security guards came into court to physically remove relatives.

John Connors' wife was carried from the court after trying to climb out of the public gallery into the dock.

As she left, she wailed: "Please, please, I'm asking you no. Don't do this."

Mary Connors screamed uncontrollably as the first verdict - on her husband - was returned by the foreman.

The foreman continued to return unanimous verdicts on James Connors, John Connors and Miles Connors and, following wild outbursts, Judge Longman ordered the public gallery to be cleared.

Gloucestershire Police officers, who had been sitting in the front row of the public gallery, helped security staff clear the court.

As the jury foreman returned the verdict on Mary Connors, she wept and shouted: "Oh, daddy, daddy, why are you doing this to me? I've never done no wrong to anyone in my whole life."

Noise could still be heard from outside the courtroom as the five defendants were led away to the cells.

The judge said he would hear mitigation this afternoon and would pass sentence on Monday afternoon.

Ann Reddrop, head of the CPS South West's complex casework unit, said: "The jury's verdicts conclude a lengthy investigation into the criminal activities of the Connors family and their punitive relationship with those whom they forced to work for them.

"The CPS has worked closely with detective chief inspector (David) Sellwood and his team at Gloucestershire Constabulary since March 2010 when the police were about to arrest the offenders.

"The five members of the Connors family who stood trial were charged with offences involving the serious mistreatment of people who because of their personal circumstances had little option but to continue to remain with the offenders.

"The defendants used violence to prevent the victims leaving them or from alerting the authorities to their treatment.

"They forced them to undertake physically demanding work for long periods. They did not pay them for their work and took advantage of vulnerable situations.

"There was a very stark contrast in living conditions between offender and victim and the way in which the offenders materially benefited from their criminal activities will be the subject of further applications for confiscation by the Crown under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2003.

"This case illustrates the way the CPS and police work together to secure justice in even the most difficult circumstances."

PA

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