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Jail for Romanian gangmaster who kept victims' pay and forced them to 'live like rats'

Human trafficker, his wife and brother-in-law sentenced after 12 migrant workers rescued

By Michael McHugh

Published 08/10/2016

A bedroom in a house where trafficking victims were forced to stay
A bedroom in a house where trafficking victims were forced to stay
Ioan Lacatus was described as ‘greedy, ruthless and manipulative’
Samuil Covaci
Christina Covaci

A Romanian delivery driver who pocketed his trafficking victims' wages and kept them in conditions suitable for rats has been sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison.

Ioan Lacatus called himself the Master and used his considerable bulk to intimidate the vulnerable.

The 33-year-old from Hanover Street in Portadown pleaded guilty to five counts of trafficking people into the UK for exploitation and similar offences.

A dozen migrants shared a house in Portadown and were sent to work at local factories, a judge at Craigavon Crown Court said.

Lacatus, who has a string of previous fraud convictions in Europe, pocketed around £3,500 a week in wages from his uneducated prey.

Judge Patrick Lynch QC said: "The nature of your offending revealed you to be a greedy, ruthless and manipulative individual, relying on your physical size and aggressive personality to try to intimidate your victims."

The victims had been encouraged to come to Northern Ireland for well-paid jobs and a new life, and hoped to send money home to their impoverished families. Instead they were forced to work long hours at local factories and lived in degrading conditions, sharing a bathroom with no toilet paper and little food.

One woman was told to eat stones when the food ran out, police said.

Judge Lynch added: "It seems there was also an element of stupidity in your offending in that you could have made a good living by treating your victims with some degree of decency rather than subjecting them to degrading and humiliating treatment." A total of 12 people were rescued after they contacted police in August 2014.

The judge said: "The living conditions were characterised by one of the victims as living like rats." The migrants were collected from Dublin Airport by Lacatus and his brother-in-law Samuil Covaci, who police believe acted as a minder. Lacatus watched the house on Charles Street in Portadown from his car wash business across the street.

The victims were transported to and from work by Lacatus and Samuil Covaci.

They claimed they never received any wages and had to beg Lacatus for pocket money.

The paperwork they had unwittingly filled in gave permission for their wages to be paid directly into the bank accounts of Lacatus and his wife Christina Nicoleta Covaci.

Christina Covaci (31) was given a suspended 12-month prison sentence.

Samuil Covaci (25) from Tandragee Road in Portadown, was handed a conditional discharge.

Reacting to the sentences, Detective Supt John McVea, head of the PSNI's Human Trafficking Unit, said: "There is an assumption that most victims are trafficked into and around Northern Ireland for the purposes of providing sexual services.

"This is incorrect. The majority of victims are exploited for labour.

"Last year 34 of the 59 victims identified in Northern Ireland were linked to labour exploitation.

"The harrowing accounts of these Romanian victims should serve as an alarm call to everyone in our society that human trafficking is happening right under our noses.

"These victims lived in an ordinary street and worked in an ordinary factory. But they had to endure extraordinary deprivation.

"It is important that landlords, those running employment agencies and managing businesses, take steps to ensure any foreign nationals they have contact with are here legally and are treated in accordance with the law.

"If anyone has any doubts or suspicions, they should contact police."

The PSNI said a wider police investigation in the Portadown and Lurgan area led to the rescue of 10 further victims and the arrests of seven more suspects for various offences linked to the exploitation of workers and gangmaster offences.

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