A Polish gang who trafficked up to 400 people to the West Midlands, forcing them to work for a “pittance” in various manual labour positions, including recycling centres, have been jailed for a total of more than 55 years.
In what a judge described as “the largest conspiracy of its type ever known” the group of five men and three women lured what the West Midlands Police described as “vulnerable people” from their homeland – including the homeless, ex-prisoners and alcoholics – with the promise of employment, money and accommodation.
They were coerced into working long hours on farms, in recycling centres and turkey gutting factories and given as little as £20 per week by the traffickers who pocketed the bulk of their salaries, the police say.
They were housed in vermin-infested properties dotted across West Bromwich, Sandwell, Smethwick and Walsall – often crammed four to a room – fed out-of-date food and forced to scavenge for dumped mattresses to sleep on.
It’s estimated the abusers made in excess of £2 million between June 2012 and October 2017 on the back of their victims and enjoyed a “lavish lifestyle”
At some properties there were no working toilets, heating, furniture or hot water and some victims told how they were forced to wash in canal water, the police say.
Bank accounts were opened in victims’ names, using bogus addresses, but were controlled by the gang-masters who were handing over anything from £100 to just £20 per week to their illegal workforce.
It meant in some cases the ‘slaves’ – ranging in age from 17 to a man in his 60s – were receiving just 50 pence per hour.
The group also claimed benefits in the victims’ names without their knowledge.
It’s estimated the abusers made in excess of £2 million between June 2012 and October 2017 on the back of their victims and enjoyed a “lavish lifestyle”, buying designer clothes and driving around in a Bentley and other high-end cars.
And the trial judge described their trafficking conspiracy as the “most ambitious, extensive and prolific” modern day slavery network ever exposed in the UK.
Warsaw-born Marek Chowaniec, aged 30 from Mount Street in Walsall, played what was described as “a lead role” in the plot and was described in court as a “high-level fixer” and the respectable face of the gang who cut a convincing figure in banks and employment agencies.
Bentley-driving Ignacy Brzezinski, aged 52 from Beechwood Road, West Bromwich, but originally from Chelmno-Pomorskie in Poland, was another prominent member of the crime group.
He seized control of victims’ bank accounts, plundering their wages, and when police raided his home they found a stash of documents in victims’ names, their bank cards and a significant quantity of cash.
Marek Brzezinski, aged 50 from Lindley Avenue, Tipton, made regular trips to north east Poland to recruit workers and even put some to work decorating his own home, West Midlands Police said.
Justyna Parczewska, from Beechwood Road, West Bromwich but originally from Wloclawek, played what was called “a matriarchal role”, welcoming new arrivals and making them cups of tea and food at her home but “knowing full well what horrors lay ahead for the men”, the police said.
And when one man died at an address in Queen’s Head Road, Birmingham, the 48-year-old insisted his ID and personal belongings be removed from his pockets before paramedics arrived in order to conceal his identity and not jeopardise their exploitation.
The gang relied on ‘insider’ Julianna Chodakowicz, living in Evesham but from the Polish city of Grudziadz, who secured a job with a Worcester employment agency and signed-up dozens of the victims for work.
She was praised by “gullible” bosses for her stand-out recruitment performance – believing workers had been attracted through contacts and clever marketing – but in reality she knew the men had been trafficked.
Birmingham Crown Court heard how the 24-year-old advised the gang-masters on how to train victims on their behaviour and what to say at work in order to avoid suspicion – and often ridiculed them for their smell and dishevelled appearance.
Wojciech Nowakowski (41) and 26-year-old Jan Sadowski were trusted workers tasked with meeting new arrivals in the UK and chaperoning them to open bank accounts, claim benefits and register with employment agencies.
Natalia Zmuda (29) from Canute Close in Walsall, originally from Debca in Poland, played a lesser part but still escorted victims to job centre appointments for national insurance numbers, ferried them to work, controlled banks accounts and stole wages.
Hope for Justice
West Midlands Police launched an investigation, supported by the National Crime Agency (NCA), in February 2015 when two victims bravely broke free from their captors and disclosed offences to slavery charity Hope for Justice.
They led officers to properties where slaves were housed, named some suspects and gave descriptions of other tormentors, including ‘enforcer’ Wojciech Nowakowski – who kept victims in line and dished out beatings to dissenters – who was identified by his missing toes.
Officers seized CCTV at banks showing Justyna Parczewska taking victims to open accounts and withdrawing cash.
And when they executed a warrant at her home in Beechwood Road they found £13,000 in cash, 40-plus bank cards with PIN numbers written on the back, a stash of Polish ID cards and utility bills for various addresses and bank statements in victims’ names.
Officers checked out another address in Broadway North where they found a group of Polish nationals living in awful conditions. Marek Chowaniec was spotted in a car outside the house and arrested; documents and bank cards in various names were found in the vehicle.
Nowakowski was jailed for six-and-a-half years while Sadowski was handed a three-year prison term
Many victims pointed police to a work agency in Evesham – previously called e-Response – where Chodakiewicz processed work applications. Police recovered text exchanges between her and partner Marek Chowaniec discussing work opportunities for their ‘slaves’ and how much they’d be paid.
The West Midlands Police investigation team analysed 650,000 lines of telephone data, 250 bank accounts, more than 3,000 exhibits – including bank statements and benefits claims – and 1,500 witness statements in addition to accounts taken from survivors.
The judge later praised the “meticulous detective work” in gathering detailed evidence and linking the co-conspirators to the exploitation.
At Birmingham Crown Court last week Ignacy Brzezinski and Nowakowski from James Turner Street, Winson Green – but originally from Bydgoszcz in Poland – were found guilty of conspiracy to traffic people, requiring them to perform forced labour and acquiring criminal property.
Jan Sadowski, from Dartmouth Street in West Bromwich, admitted the same charges.
And today (Fri 5 July) Nowakowski was jailed for six-and-a-half years while Sadowski was handed a three-year prison term.
Ignacy Brzezinski skipped court bail before the guilty verdicts were returned and was sentenced in his absence to 11 years. The 52-year-old had initially been remanded in prison but later released by the court on bail, on an electronic tag, throughout the duration of his trial. Efforts are on-going to trace Brzezinski.