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Romanian 'slave' master told workers trafficked into Northern Ireland to 'eat stones' when they were hungry

By John Cassidy

Published 01/10/2016

Convicted fraudster Ioan Lacatus
Convicted fraudster Ioan Lacatus
Cristina Nicoleta Covaci leaving Craigavon Court on an earlier occasion

A Romanian gangmaster known as 'The Minister' pocketed the wages of a dozen migrant workers and told them to "eat stones'' when they complained of a lack of warm food, a court heard.

Convicted fraudster Ioan Lacatus (33), of Hanover Street, Portadown, pleaded guilty at Craigavon Crown Court yesterday to conspiracy to traffick within the United Kingdom, five counts of trafficking people into the UK for exploitation, acting as an unlicensed gangmaster, and converting criminal property.

His wife Cristina Nicoleta Covaci (31), also of Hanover Street, pleaded guilty to entering into an arrangement to acquire criminal property and converting criminal property, namely the wages of migrant workers, and lodging them into her bank account between April and October 2014.

Her brother, Samuil Covaci, (25), of Tandragee Road, Portadown, pleaded guilty to a single charge of conspiracy to traffik within the UK to "exploit migrant workers'' between May 1 and August 15, 2014.

Prosecution counsel David McDowell QC told the court that on August 13, 2014, four Romanian nationals arrived at Portadown police station and complained of conditions they were living in at 241 Charles Street in the town.

They told police that there were other migrants workers in the house and that they worked for a gangmaster they called 'The Minister', Ioan Lacatus.

"Police arranged for transport for a further two females and three males who were in the house and they were told to go to a nearby shop, where an unmarked police minibus would be waiting for them.

"All five came out of the house and ran towards the minibus and were taken to safety.

"One of them was suffering from stomach pains and a police doctor was requested. Police also went out to get them food to eat.''

Judge Patrick Lynch QC heard that police later carried out a search of the Hanover Street property and rescued a further three men.

Ioan Lacatus was arrested two days later, on August 15.

The same day police spoke to Samuil Covaci, initially "as a witness but then arrested him as a defendant''.

Cristina Covaci was arrested in October.

Mr McDowell said that the victims had come from a poor rural part of Romania and were "promised €400 per week'' to work eight hours a day, along with a place to stay and food.

He told the court that Samuil Covaci and his two brothers also lived at the house in Hanover Street.

"In total, there were 15 people living at the three bedroomed house in Hanover Street. All rooms in the property were used for sleeping.

"There was one toilet and one shower between them. They received limited rations of food," he told the court.

Through a local recruitment agency, they were promised the minimum wage of £6.31 for over-18s, but McDowell said that in fact they were working 12 hours a day at various businesses.

One of the workers, the court heard, had worked 68 hours per week. Another victim had worked 18 days in a row.

The companies were unaware of the exploitation by Ioan Lacatus.

The judge was told that the wages of the workers were diverted into the bank accounts of Ioan Lacatus and his wife Cristina Covaci, and that when the workers complained about the lack of warm food, Lacatus told them: "You can eat stones.''

The court heard that Lacatus had a number of previous convictions and was in breach of a two year sentence suspended for three years for fraud when he committed the human trafficking offences.

Defence counsel Brian McCartney QC said that Ioan Lacatus had spent 14 months on remand for the offence and he was suffering from high blood pressure and diabetes.

Mr McCartney disputed on behalf of his client that the migrants were not being fed, and referred the court to look at police pictures taken inside the house at the time, which showed a chicken being prepared for cooking.

John Kearney QC, defence counsel for Samuil Covaci, said the 25-year-old "had no organisational role".

Judge Patrick Lynch adjourned sentencing until next week and released the three defendants on continuing bail.

Belfast Telegraph

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