Modern Derbyshire slavery gang who made their victims live in squalid conditions have been jailed for more than 33 years.
The group, many of whom are related to each other, recruited their victims in Latvia on the promise of well-paid work and a better life in the UK.
But when those victims arrived in Derby, they were put in poor accommodation, slept on mattresses infested with bed bugs, and were made to work long hours for little or no pay.
Nine members of the gang admitted offences linked to human trafficking and exploitation, and were sentenced for their crimes at Nottingham Crown Court today.
Ringleader Ainars Pelcis (54), of Rutland Street, Derby, was jailed for five-and-a-half years, while Magdalena Kleina (55), of the same address, was given the same sentence. IIgvars Pelcis (33), of St James Road, was given three years and eight months; Jolanta Pelce (37) and Karlis Aleksandrovs (42), Patmore Square were each given a two-year sentence.
The other defendants were arrested in Latvia - Karens Pelcis (25) was sentenced to six years, Madara Stromane (24) was given six years and Andris Krauklis (39) was sentenced to 15 months, Imitra Didzus (33) was given 14 months.
Karlis Aleksandrovs, Jolanta Pelce, Andris Krauklis and Imitra Didzus were released from custody, having been in jail since their arrest.
Two other defendants were discharged.
Some of the defendants may serve their sentences in their home country of Latvia. A slavery and trafficking prevention order was imposed upon all nine, preventing them from committing similar crimes in future.
Harvesting the victim's earnings
When passing sentence, Judge James Sampson said members of the Pelcis family and Madara Stromane, worked shifts to control the victims while “living a lavish lifestyle and spending on bank accounts that did not belong to them and in fact harvesting the earnings of their victims.”
He said: “What is clear from the evidence is that the defendants are thoroughly greedy and dishonest and clever. They had an astute understanding of their victims, who had low expectation of life. One was thankful of the bed he shared with another man. Conditions were squalid by our standards.”
The case – the biggest of its kind ever investigated by Derbyshire police – saw officers working closely with the State Police of Latvia, the Latvian Ministry of Justice, the National Crime Agency, Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority and the CPS.
Thanks to that joint effort, 28 victims of the gang were identified, with 15 travelling to the UK to tell of their ordeals in court.
One of the victims said in court that the gang gave him between £1 and £5 per week, even though he knew he was earning much more. He said: “I was working and keeping a note of my hours. I thought they would be honest and give me the money.”
Another victim was asked if he spoke to the gang about how they used his earnings to fund their own lifestyle. He said: “No because I had my £10 we had agreed on and they said the agreement is £10 the rest is not my business.
“I had food and a place to stay - it was not for me to worry about. Now I think it was like slavery.”
A third victim told the court he felt “ashamed and afraid to ask” what was happening to the money he had earned.
DC Kane Martin, who was the officer in the case, praised the victims for their bravery. He said: “During the 18-month investigation, we were all taken aback by the callous nature of how the victims in this case were treated by the ringleaders and their operatives.
“We saw first-hand how vulnerable they truly were, and the conditions they were forced to live in while earning money for someone else compounded the cruelty of the gang.
“Their bravery is commendable and this investigation shows that we will help and support anyone subjected to this heinous crime.
“No one should be forced to live and work in these conditions and what today’s sentence demonstrates is that Derbyshire police won’t stand for it.
“I hope it will encourage anyone who finds themselves in a similar position to come forward and speak to us, because we will do everything we can to help.”
The investigation, dubbed Operation Doubrava, started with two seemingly unconnected incidents that very quickly snowballed into something much larger, ultimately resulting in the biggest human trafficking and modern slavery operation our force has ever had.
It began when a man walked into a police station in Derby, telling staff he was homeless. He was referred to Derby City Council for support but when they suspected he was actually a victim of modern slavery, they contacted the force. This particular victim told us he had been staying at a house in Balaclava Road, Normanton and made to work for very little pay.
Meanwhile, a taxi firm in the city called us to report that a man had assaulted a woman in their offices. When police arrived, the man had gone but the woman, Madara Stromane, gave officers an address in Balaclava Road – the same house the victim who came to the police station told us about.
When our officers visited the house, we found a group of vulnerable Latvian men living inside. The pieces started to fall into place. We were clearly looking at a case of modern slavery.
A complex case
The case against the gang began in February 2017 when police linked two apparently unconnected incidents in Derby and quickly realised they were dealing with an organised family of criminals who worked together to exploit vulnerable Latvian men and women.
Detective Sergeant Carl Chetwyn said: “The criminals in this case didn’t see borders; they saw vulnerable men who they could exploit for their own gain.
“We knew that we needed to ignore borders and work with an overseas force to snare the main players in this gang and truly dismantle their operations.
“This marked a totally new approach for Derbyshire police. It was a massive undertaking, one that saw us treading into uncharted territory, but what today’s result shows is that it was all worth it.
“By executing this operation with the help of the Crown Prosecution Service, other agencies and the Latvian State Police, we have shown that it doesn’t matter how far these gang members run; if they exploit people on our patch, we will chase them and bring them to justice.”
After months of investigating, detectives were in a position to execute six warrants at houses in Derby last September. They arrested six suspected gang members that day and found ten victims.
The team worked with the NCA tactical advisor Steff Williams, Europol, Eurojust and the State Police of Latvia to identify and arrest those gang members in Riga who were responsible for recruiting the victims in the first place.
This led to a second wave of warrants, which took place in Latvia and Derby this February, resulting in a further five arrests. It was on that day that detectives who had travelled to Riga to support their Latvian colleagues found a man in his 60s living in a squalid shack, without heating, in temperatures as low as -16C.
Made to carry out odd jobs on behalf of the gang, officers believed him to be a victim of modern slavery and he is now being supported by the Latvian authorities.
Detective Chief Inspector Rick Alton, who oversaw the operation, said: “The victims in this case were brought to the UK and the gang members managed to get them legitimate employment through local recruitment agencies.
“They were then placed in the supply chains of national companies that have operations here in Derby. When passing sentence, the judge said national recruitment agency Staffline had a close and unhealthy relationship with certain defendants.
“What this investigation has shown is that some of these major companies don’t know the scale of the grimy criminal underworld exploiting their business processes.
“Part of our job now is to show them how criminals will try to exploit their business, and what they can do to stop it.
“My hope is that, by highlighting how far-reaching and damaging modern slavery is, we can stamp it out altogether.”
Latvian State Police officer Armands Lubarts, who oversaw the operation in Latvia, said: “We are very pleased with these sentences and with how quickly the process has taken in the UK. In Latvia, this court process would have taken twice or perhaps three times as long.
“It was a good experience working with UK police and prosecutors to bring these people to justice.”
Linsey Farnsworth from the CPS said: “The case against these defendants was compelling.
“We produced evidence secured by police investigators here and in Latvia that proved the defendants were targeting vulnerable people, bringing them to Derby and taking the wages they were earning.
“Of the 28 victims identified, 15 gave crucial evidence of the way they were treated by the defendants, providing a harrowing account of the human impact of this group’s crimes.
“Having seen the compelling nature of the financial evidence and the courage and determination of the victims to give their evidence, these defendants had no option but to plead guilty. The CPS accepted guilty pleas from nine defendants to human trafficking offences with intent to exploit. They have now been sentenced for the full extent of their criminality.”
Adam Thompson, senior manager at the NCA’s Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Unit, said: “This group recruited vulnerable victims with false promises, housing them in appalling conditions and exploiting them ruthlessly. Their bravery in coming forward to give evidence is incredible.
“International co-operation was key to bringing these criminals to justice, and this investigation demonstrates that we have the ability to target perpetrators not only in the UK but also overseas through the NCA’s international network.
“Modern slavery is a priority for law enforcement, and working with our partners both in the UK and abroad we are determined to do all we can to disrupt and prosecute the criminal networks involved in human trafficking and exploitation.
“But we cannot stop modern slavery alone. Information from the public is vital to us, and I would urge anyone to report concerns anonymously via the national Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700, or Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.”