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Filth, food banks and 50p a day: Black Country slavery gang made £2 million from victims living in squalor

By Jordan Reynolds | West Bromwich | Crime | Published:

Vulnerable victims were forced to wash in canals, scavenge for mattresses and visit soup kitchens as their criminal masters got rich.

Left, some of the squalid conditions a modern slavery gang including Justyna Parczewska and Marek Chowanic, top right, forced people to live in while raking in cash

A modern slavery ring which forced hundreds of people to live in squalor in the Black Country while their criminal masters earned £2 million has been smashed.

A three-year police investigation uncovered a well-organised criminal gang led by the Brzezinski family – which preyed on the homeless, ex-prisoners and alcoholics, from Poland.

They were forced to live in dirty bedsits across Sandwell, including West Bromwich and Smethwick and also Walsall while working for a pittance.

Today, after reporting restrictions were lifted, it can be revealed the gang members have been brought to justice.

Squalid living conditions at one of the homes

The ring lured and then trafficked vulnerable victims to the UK with the promise of good money, but instead housed them in squalor, and used them as what a judge described as “commodities”.

Victims were paid as little as 50p for a day’s labour and in one case a worker was given coffee and a chicken as payment for redecorating a house.

Another man had to wash in a canal because he had no other access to water, while one house’s leaky toilet had to be plugged with an old duvet, such was the standard of disrepair.

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A leaky toilet which had to be plugged by the trafficked tenants, with an old duvet

One victim, describing “horrible” living conditions, said: “I would say some homeless people here in the UK live better than I lived after I arrived over here.”

Victims were reduced to recycling used cigarette butts off the street, and going to soup kitchens and food banks to get enough to eat.

Meanwhile, the gang’s bosses lived the high life off the backs of those they exploited, sporting lavish clothes, and driving luxury cars, including a Bentley.

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Five men, three women, hundreds of victims

After the end of two trials, it can now be reported how five men and three women, all originally from Poland, exploited their destitute victims for pure “greed”.

They have all now been convicted of modern slavery offences and money laundering.

Jurors heard the accounts of more than 90 victims, but it is believed at least 350 more had been through the gang’s hands, who had since either returned to their homeland, could not be traced, or were too scared to come forward.

At the end of the second case last month, a jury at Birmingham Crown Court convicted two men, 52-year-old Ignacy Brzezinski, of Beechwood Road, West Bromwich, and Wojciech Nowakowski, 41, of James Turner Street, Birmingham, of modern slavery offences.

A third, Jan Sadowski, 26, of Dartmouth Street, West Bromwich, admitted his part on the first day of trial.

Gang leaders locked up

Today the three men were sentenced to a combined 20-and-a-half years.

Sentencing Ignacy to 11 years the judge described the "high-functioning alcoholic" as having "direct control", and "living in the nerve centre of the organisation".

Ignacy Brzezinski, was a key co-conspirator along with his wife, Justyna Parczewska

She said: "As the head of the family, he set the tone of the operation, and also enjoyed the fruits of the conspiracy, riding round in his Bentley and a fleet of high-performance cars at his disposal.

"His life of leisure was also financed from complainants."

The court heard that having been given bail after breaking his leg falling down the stairs during the trial, he had gone on the run since conviction, having "abused the compassion of the court", the judge added.

Jailing Nowakowski for six-and-a-half years, Judge Tracey described him a one-time victim of the conspiracy who had risen to become a "spy and enforcer" for the gang.

Wojciech Nowakowski, who took victims to cash points to withdraw their wages

She said: "He was fully embedded and his role was to keep the conspirators in line.

"Described as a top dog and perhaps a sergeant major, he enjoyed the power over the others."

She accepted Nowakowski had suffered a "hard life", and "battled alcoholism as well, to the point of losing his toes to frostbite after falling asleep in the snow in Poland, after drinking too much".

Judge Stacey, jailed father-of-two Sadowski - the only defendant to plead guilty - for three years had a "lesser role".

Jan Sadowski, a cousin of the Brezinski family, admitted his part in the slavery ring

However she said he had been integral to setting up trafficked victims' bank accounts, for the benefit of the gang's bosses.

At a previous trial ending in February, leading conspirator Marek Chowanic, along with Ignacy’s cousin, Marek Brzezinski, recruitment consultant Julianna Chodakiewicz, Natalia Zmuda and Justyna Parczewska, the group’s matriarch, were all convicted of their roles.

At the first trial sentencing, Judge Mary Stacey said their “degradation” of fellow human beings had been “totally unacceptable”, jailing the five for between 11 and four-and-a-half years.

She said the defendants had subjected victims to a “demi-life of misery and poverty”, robbing them of their dignity and humanity “without care or regard for the rights of the individuals affected”.

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She added: “Any lingering complacency after the 2007 bi-centenary celebrations of the abolition of the English Slave Trade Act was misplaced.

“The hard truth is that the practice continues, here in the UK, often hiding in plain sight.”

Marek Brzezinski, who is Ignacy’s cousin

In March the following jail sentences were handed out:

  • Chowanic, 30, of Mount Street, Walsall - 11 years
  • Marek Brzezinski, 50, of Lindley Avenue, Tipton - nine years
  • Chodakiewicz, 24, of Evesham, Worcestershire - five-and-a-half years
  • Zmuda, 29, of Canute Close, Walsall - four-and-a-half years
  • Parczewska, 48, of Beechwood Road, West Bromwich - five years

Together the group helped in the targeting and trafficking of people from their Polish homeland, placing them in cramped, rat-infested accommodation in the Black Country and putting them to work on farms, rubbish recycling centres and poultry factories.

In some cases, the gang waited outside the front gates of jails in Poland, to approach ex-cons who had just been released.

Properties across the Black Country

Victims, aged 17 to over 60, were housed across at least nine different addresses in West Bromwich, Walsall, Sandwell and Smethwick, crammed up to four to a room, fed out-of-date food, and forced to scavenge for mattresses to sleep on.

Some had no working toilets, heating or furniture.

If any complained, gang enforcers would humiliate, threaten or beat them up, while “house spies” – previously trafficked individuals turned trusted informers – kept an eye on the workers.

Julianna Chodakiewicz, who also worked at a recruitment consultancy where some of the victims were hired

On several occasions, anti-slavery investigators with charity Hope for Justice, and West Midlands Police, uncovered shocking brutality against those who stepped out of line.

One man who complained about living conditions and pay had his arm broken, was refused medical care, and then ejected from the accommodation because his injury left him unable to work.

Another was stripped naked in front of other workers, doused in surgical chemical iodine, and told that the gang would remove his kidneys if he did not keep quiet.

The gang seized identity cards, registered victims for National Insurance and opened bank accounts in the victims’ names using bogus addresses, while their criminal masters also claimed benefits without their knowledge.

The ring also infiltrated a recruitment agency, meaning work could be directly sourced, without raising suspicions with third parties.

Frog-marched to cash points

Victims would in some cases be “frog-marched” to cash points, to withdraw money and told they owed debts for transport costs, rent and food, the charity said.

Some of the credit and debit cards created in the victims' names

When one worker died of natural causes at an address controlled by the gang, Parczewska ordered that his ID and personal effects be removed from his pockets before paramedics arrived.

Judge Stacey said the conspiracy, which ran from June 2012 until October 2017, was the “most ambitious, extensive and prolific” modern day slavery network ever uncovered.

WATCH: Four-year police probe explained

Police react as UK’s largest ever modern slavery ring smashed

Investigators believe it is the largest such criminal prosecution of its type in Europe, to date.

The gang operation was smashed after victims were uncovered by anti-slavery charity Hope for Justice.

The charity said 51 of the victims eventually made contact through its painstaking outreach efforts at two drop-in centres.

The organisation was then able to flag the slavery ring’s existence to police.

Natalia Zmuda, who had had a relationship with Chowaniec

West Midlands Police then launched an investigation in February 2015.

It has led to what is believed to be the biggest such modern slavery prosecution of its kind in Europe.

Opening the second of two trials, Caroline Haughey QC, prosecuting, said: “When you are deprived of your freedoms and exploited for your weakness, that is criminal – and it is of such exploitation and degradation that this case concerns – where human beings have become commodities.”

Nowakowski, Sadowski and Ignacy Brzezinski, who since conviction has skipped his bail, will be sentenced later on Friday.

Jordan Reynolds

By Jordan Reynolds
Reporter - @jreynolds_star

Senior reporter at the Express & Star.

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