Lincolnshire slavery gang forced man to dig his own grave in 'truly shocking' 26-year hard labour ordeal

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A vulnerable man was ordered to dig his own grave by a modern slavery gang who held him captive in “truly shocking” conditions for 26 years of hard labour.

The man, who cannot be named, was told the deep pit was “where you’re going” if he did not sign a work contract that saw him locked into 12 hours forced work a day, seven days a week, for nearly three decades.

He was one of a group of 18 men aged 18 to 63, held captive for years by the Rooney family on travellers’ sites in Lincolnshire.

The slave gang subjected the man to beatings with a rake and smashed his teeth with a concrete slab, according to the victim’s sister.

Speaking anonymously, the woman told how her brother was first approached by one of the gang “on a seafront bench” when he was homeless.

He had developed a drug habit, lost touch with his family, and was likely targeted because of his vulnerability, she said.

John Rooney, 53, of Chantry Croft, Pontefract. (EPA)

In an audio tape of her interview released by Lincolnshire Police after 11 gang members were convicted, she said: “They were possibly watching him in the soup kitchens in the homeless centres.

“Because that’s what they do to try and establish people that won’t be missed.

“He worked very, very long hours and he certainly had a very hard life.

“From my understanding, it was for very little pay or no pay, and I believe he was actually living in very squalid conditions and had lived in a stable for some part of his captivity.”

On Friday, the full story emerged of how 11 members of the Rooney family were convicted of running a modern slavery ring, which kept the men in “truly shocking” conditions.

While their victims toiled, the family – convicted of slavery and fraud charges in four trials at Nottingham Crown Court – lived lavishly off the earnings generated by their workers.

Telling of her brother’s ordeal at the gang’s hands, the victim’s sister said: “He was asked to sign a contract by John Rooney – a contract would have been out of his understanding.

John Rooney, 31, of Drinsey Nook, Sheffield Road, Saxilby. (EPA)

“And John Rooney said to him, ‘You’re going to work for me for the rest of your life.’

“My brother replied, ‘Oh, I don’t know about that.’

“Prior to that conversation, John Rooney had actually made him dig a hole.

“And my brother said to him, ‘How much further do you want me to dig down?’

“And he (John Rooney) said, ‘Keep digging,’ and at the end of the conversation said to him, ‘If you don’t sign this contract, that’s where you’re going, in that hole.’

“We think he was captured for up to 26 years.”

Giving an account of another conversation with her brother: “I said, ‘How did you loose your front teeth? Because you used to have nice teeth when you were young.’

“He looked at me and he said, ‘Oh, concrete done that,’ and I said, ‘What do you mean?’

“And he said, ‘Oh, well John threw a slab at me one day, and it hit me in the mouth.’

“That is the way that you get these people to become so subservient to them.”

She added: “The brother we have back is certainly not the one that left us.”

11 defendants were convicted of fraud and slavery charges over four trials at Nottingham Crown Court after it was heard that they enjoyed holidays to Barbados while their victims toiled.

The men were freed after raids by Lincolnshire Police and the National Crime Agency, carried out in 2014.

Some of the gang also targeted four elderly home-owners, getting them to sign over properties into their names and selling three on for profit – one for £250,000.

Ruling that the content of the trials could now be reported, Judge Timothy Spencer QC said: “After careful consideration, I’m quite satisfied the public interest lies in these matters being reported.”

Members of the family would go looking for victims on the streets, hostels and shelters, offering work for food and accommodation.

But at sites in Drinsey Nook and Washingborough, they kept victims trapped by false promises, drugs, alcohol and violence.

Labourers were forced to live in shabby run-down caravans, or in stables next to kennels, with little or no access to basics such as heating, water and toilets.

Some were forced to squat in woods behind their living areas, while electricity was “dangerously” tapped from a nearby pylon.

While they worked for the Rooneys’ businesses, repairing properties and tarmacking drives, police said victims were “poorly fed” and often went hungry – or were given the “family’s left-overs”.

For the convicted gang-members, there were luxurious holidays to Australia, Egypt and Mexico, high-performance BMWs, spa days and cosmetic surgery.

Chief Superintendent Nikki Mayo, who led the police investigation, described the suffering of the 18 enslaved men.

She said: “The tragedy in this case is that the victims will never get those years of their lives back – we believe one man was held for 26 years.

“The severity and gravity of the charges speak for themselves.

“Modern slavery is a cruel and extremely demoralising crime and it’s important that people understand that it isn’t just forced labour like this – victims can be sexually exploited, or forced into committing crimes.”

The defendants will be sentenced at a later hearing.

Reporting by Press Association

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