LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Nine members of a British family who enslaved vulnerable adults while enjoying a lavish lifestyle have been sentenced to a total of almost 80 years in prison followed one of the largest investigations of its kind in the country.
The Rooneys, a traveler family, exploited 18 men at their driveway resurfacing company and other businesses, forcing them to work for little or no pay and accommodating them in “truly shocking” conditions, police said.
The exploitation funded holidays to Barbados, Australia, Egypt and Mexico. The family also bought high performance BMWs and spent money on spa days and cosmetic surgery.
Police said the Rooneys lured their homeless victims, some of whom had learning disabilities or mental health issues, with the promise of work, food and accommodation.
They were taken to traveler sites in the eastern city of Lincoln and housed in squalid caravans, without running water or toilets. Some lived in stables next to the dog kennels.
The men, aged 18-63, were told they owed money and made to work for long hours at the businesses and around the sites.
In a statement read out at Nottingham Crown Court, one victim described life with the Rooneys as “a living hell”.
Victims were often only provided food when they worked and at times it was restricted to the family’s leftovers, police said.
The men were also subjected to beatings and threats to keep them from leaving.
Sometimes their only payment was tobacco and alcohol.
Police believe one man was held for 26 years. On one occasion, he was made to dig his own grave, according to the BBC news site.
The BBC reported that one of the family, John Rooney, pointed to the hole and told his victim: “You’re going to work for me for the rest of your life ... if you don’t sign this contract that is where you’re going.”
Chief Superintendent Chris Davison said modern slavery was “a truly appalling and devastating crime”.
“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 and demonstrates that we will do everything in our power to try and stop others suffering in the ways that they did,” he added.
Two other members of the Rooney family received suspended sentences for fraud related offences.
Chief Crown Prosecutor Janine Smith said the sentences “reflect the level of exploitation, control and violence they showed and betrayal of the trust both from those victims they condemned to forced labor and the people they defrauded”.
There are an estimated 13,000 victims of forced labor, sexual exploitation and domestic servitude in Britain, according to government data.
Britain passed tough anti-slavery legislation in 2015 introducing life sentences for traffickers and forcing companies to disclose what they are doing to ensure their supply chains are free from slavery.
(The story has been corrected to change “total of more than 80 years” to “almost 80 years” in lead sentence)
Additional reporting by Kieran Guilbert. Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.