Couple jailed after committing human trafficking and modern slavery offences
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A couple living in Warrington have been jailed after pleading guilty to human trafficking and modern slavery charges.
Robertas Repsas and Rita Jablonskaite, of Westland Drive, made one of their two victims sleep in a tiny cupboard under the stairs.
The 50-year-old man, who spoke very little English, lived with the couple for nine months after being trafficked from their native Lithuania, originally doing housework, gardening and running errands for them before working for Jablonskaite’s cleaning company and later for a Warrington-based recruitment agency.
He was never given access to his wage slips or the money he earned.
Repsas and Jablonskaite had total control over the man and his wages, and they even applied for loans in his name.
Sleeping in highly cramped conditions with no ventilation or a window and having no access to money despite earning an average wage of around £400 a week, the victim flagged up his plight to a friend after finding a mobile phone whilst working for a recycling company in St Helens.
He then called the Lithuanian embassy, who in turn contacted Cheshire Constabulary.
An investigation was launched and officers visited the victim whilst he was doing a shift at the recycling company before speaking to him, via an interpreter, at Widnes Police Station.
After finding that he had an unkempt appearance, did not own his own clothing and was wearing tracksuit bottoms that did not fit him, the officers safeguarded the victim before raiding the house he had been living in on Tuesday 13 March 2018.
Repsas, 31, and Jablonskaite, 34, were arrested at the address and questioned in custody.
They were subsequently released under investigation pending further enquiries.
Just months later, on Saturday 11 August 2018, officers had cause to go to the couple’s home and while there they discovered and safeguarded a second victim.
The 51-year-old woman, who could not speak English, had also been trafficked from Lithuania.
She had been living on the couple’s sofa for several weeks as their housekeeper and live-in nanny.
She also did work for Jablonskaite’s company, cleaning people’s flats.
Despite being promised a weekly wage, the victim received no money from the couple.
The couple also reneged on their promise to keep her mobile phone topped up so that she could keep in contact with her family in Lithuania.
She had come to England to live with the couple after being told that she would be able to work and raise money for her family.
Both victims were given access to food whilst living with the couple, though the woman told officers that she only ate at lunch.
But the couple took their identification off them when they first arrived in Warrington – via a private minibus and a ferry from Calais to Dover – and never gave them a key to their home.
The court heard that both victims felt as though they could not leave the couple’s home without permission.
In victim impact statements read out in court, the man, who lost nearly 20 kilograms in weight while living with the couple, said: “I lived there under constant stress and ongoing depression, anxiety and constantly thinking what I should do next – what actions I should take. These thoughts used to drive me crazy.
“I was full of anxiety and yet I could not share my thoughts with anybody as I was alone and was completely isolated from other people.”
The woman said: “While I was living in Rita’s house I felt very bad. I was treated as worthless and was very insulted.
“I felt particularly bad when I had nothing to eat after I cooked for the family there. I remember how many times I cried because of hunger and the insults.
“I was always in a very bad mood and always sad.”
Once Cheshire Constabulary had concluded its investigation into Repsas and Jablonskaite’s offending, they were both charged with holding a person in slavery or servitude and requiring a person to perform forced or compulsory labour.
Repsas was also charged with human trafficking.
Jablonskaite was charged with three counts of that offence.
Having originally decided to plead not guilty to all charges, the pair admitted the human trafficking offences part way through a trial at Liverpool Crown Court.
The prosecution accepted the pleas on the agreement that the other charges would be taken into account upon sentencing, which took place on Tuesday 3 March 2020.
Repsas was jailed for one year and three months and Jablonskaite was handed a prison sentence of two years and four months.
A seven-year slavery and trafficking prevention order was also imposed on the pair.
Detective Inspector Julie Jackson, of the Hidden Harm Team based at Warrington Police Station, said: “The two vulnerable victims in this case were sold on the idea of coming to England to work and earn money whilst living with a family from their homeland.
“But they ended up being controlled and exploited by Robertas Repsas and Rita Jablonskaite, working excessive hours and not having any money to show for it.
“With them having had their identification taken off them, speaking very little English, being totally dependent on the offenders and having no way of contacting anyone in Lithuania, both victims felt trapped.
“Thankfully, the first victim, who was initially living in the offenders’ attic before having to sleep in a downstairs cupboard when they moved to a different house in Warrington, found a mobile phone whilst at work and used it to report what he was being subjected to, first to a friend and then to the Lithuanian embassy.
“Those phone calls paved the way for him, and latterly the second victim, to be safeguarded and for the couple who subjected them to modern slavery to be brought to justice.
“The second victim was trafficked, controlled and exploited whilst the couple knew they were being investigated for doing the same to the first victim.
“This beggars belief and shows that the couple believed that they were above the law as they took advantage of vulnerable people for financial and domestic gain.
“I am delighted that the pair are now behind bars facing the consequences of their actions and I hope this case reassures the community that we take reports of human trafficking and modern slavery extremely seriously.
“I also hope that it deters others from committing similar offences.”
Cheshire Constabulary’s Hidden Harm Team works with partners to find and help victims of modern slavery.
The team also plays a key role in the Cheshire Anti-Slavery Network, a multi-agency group led by Warrington Borough Council that is committed to working together to prevent modern slavery and human trafficking.
DI Jackson added: “Modern slavery destroys lives.
“Many victims are tricked into coming to the UK with a promise of a good job and a better life. Instead, they are made to live a life of abuse, working in inhumane conditions with very little reward and not knowing how to escape the situation.
“These offences represent a grave abuse of human rights and basic dignity and we do everything we can to stop people from being victims of human trafficking and modern slavery.
“But we need all the help we can get in terms of finding victims and I urge anyone with any suspicions or information they have regarding possible cases of modern slavery to get in touch.
“Please help us to help victims of these devastating crimes.”
Cheshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner David Keane, who has made it his priority to provide greater protection for victims of modern slavery, added:
“This case shows the devastating effects modern slavery can have on vulnerable people who naively think they have come to Cheshire to live a better life.
“In my role as the public’s representative on policing and crime, and through my chairing of Cheshire’s Criminal Justice Board, I am committed to ensuring that we have a joined up, multi-agency approach to helping provide more support for victims of modern slavery and look to eradicate the crime from our communities.
“Initiatives like the Hidden Harm Team are helping us to work with partners to locate victims and trace offenders, but I also encourage members of the community to look out for the tell-tale signs of modern slavery and report any suspicions to the police.”
To look out for potential victims, it is important to recognise the signs and behaviours associated with modern slavery.
Here are some of the common signs that may indicate that someone could be a victim:
Appearance: Victims may show signs of physical or psychological abuse, look malnourished or unkempt or appear withdrawn.
Isolation: Victims may rarely be allowed to travel on their own, seem under the control/influence of others, rarely interact with people or appear unfamiliar with their neighbourhood or where they work.
Poor living conditions: Victims may be living in dirty, cramped or overcrowded accommodation, and may be working at the same address.
Few or no personal effects: Victims may have no identification documents, have few personal possessions and wear the same clothes day in, day out. The clothes they wear may not be suitable for their work.
Unusual travel times: They may be dropped off/collected for work on a regular basis, either very early in the morning or late at night.
Reluctant to seek help: Victims may avoid eye contact, appear frightened or hesitant to talk to strangers and fear law enforcers for many reasons, such as not knowing who to trust or where to get help and fear of deportation.
Information from members of the public, no matter how small, plays a vital part in tackling modern slavery.
If you see something suspicious call Cheshire Constabulary on 101 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111. Alternatively, you can contact the Hidden Harm Team via email at [email protected].