Couple who enslaved Slovak men and forced them to work at a car wash are sentenced to prison

A married couple who trafficked more than 40 vulnerable men to the UK from Slovakia and forced them into slavery to finance their gambling addiction have been jailed.

Aros Tankos, 45, and Joanna Gomulska, 46, recruited their victims from nursing homes and orphanages, promising them permanent jobs and a better life in the UK.

But upon arrival, the men were forced to work for free at Tanko’s car wash in Southmead, Bristol, as well as long hours doing other menial work.

Tanko verbally and physically abused the men to intimidate them into submission, while Gomulska posed as a “good cop”, making the victims believe she was watching over them.

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Maros Tankos car wash in Bristol where his victims were forced to work for free (NCA/PA)

She accompanied them to meetings to get their National Security number and bank accounts, but immediately confiscated all cards and pin codes.

On Wednesday at Bristol Crown Court, Tankos was sentenced to 16 years in prison for masterminding the plot, while Gomulska was jailed for nine years for her role.

Judge Martin Pickton told them both that they had to serve two-thirds of their sentence before they could be released, instead of the usual half.

In addition to the car wash, the two defendants signed the victims for evening and night work, such as packing milk, trapping chickens for slaughter, and sorting packages.

Many ended up working 12-hour days, seven days a week.

Between 2010 and 2017, the couple transferred £300,000 from bank accounts in the names of their victims.

The cash was spent at casinos, online gambling sites and used cars.

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Vulnerable victims were often recruited directly from orphanages and travel camps where they lived in appalling conditions (NCA/PA).

The couple came to the attention of the National Crime Agency (NCA) only after the victim, who managed to return to Slovakia, filed a complaint with local authorities.

Following the surveillance operation, the NCA searched an address in Brentry, north of Bristol, where they found five Slovak men living in cramped rooms on dirty bedding and mattresses patched with cardboard.

The victims hid a small amount of change and a SIM card in their socks and shoes in an attempt to prevent Tanko and Gomulska from taking them from them.

The address was sometimes home to up to 10 men, according to the victims, who huddled in three rooms and shared one bathroom.

The seized iPhones of the two defendants showed that they were behind employment agency applications, bank accounts and numerous loans in the names of their victims.

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The room in which some of the victims were held at the home of Maros Tankos in Bristol (NCA/PA)

They had a library of photos of bank cards, pin codes and identification documents of their victims, as well as details of the flights they had booked to take them to the UK.

The NCA, in partnership with the Slovak authorities, tracked down 42 potential victims, 29 of whom were willing to testify.

Tankos and Gomulska were prosecuted for crimes against 15 people.

Both were convicted in March of nine crimes of human trafficking and forced labor, as well as one count of conspiracy to acquire criminal property.

The NCA believes the true number of victims could have been much higher as there were many people they were unable to trace.

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Many of the victims of Maros Tancos were enslaved for years (NCA/PA)

Imprisoning Tankos and Gomułsk at a sentencing hearing at Bristol Crown Court on Wednesday, Judge Pickton said: “You have identified potential victims by reference to their circumstances, their financial and social vulnerability – people with little to no alternative.”

He added: “The sacrifices were of monetary value to you, just as cattle are to the farmer.”

Addressing Gomulskaya, he said: “You gave the appearance of having some understanding and some sympathy, but your experience did not deter you from supporting your partner in what you knew very well was a criminal enterprise.

You had a choice, and you made the wrong choice.

The victims were locked in the house when they were not at work, but one of them said that even if they could open it, they would be so intimidated that they would not feel able to leave.

They were regularly forced to work 12-hour days, seven days a week, and forced to share personal data so they could go and do manual labor they didn’t apply for.

The defendants even pocketed tips given to men by motorists using a car wash, and one man was forced to return to work the next day after breaking his arm.

One victim described the house they were being held in as “the gate to hell”.

“I went there because I wanted to provide for my family and give them more than they had in Slovakia, but living in the Maros house completely changed my life,” he said.

“I was not allowed to leave the house, and the only thing I knew was work. I always thought that I was a slave there. I thought there was no turning back.”

Another, who was held for eight years, said the couple “ruined half my life”.

“How I was humiliated, for every little thing I was beaten and punished. I will never forget it,” he said.

“No one can understand what I experienced there unless they were there too.”

Tankos gave the interview without comment, while Gomulska stated that she, too, only gave people rides from the car wash.

She said the workers’ living conditions were good, saying they have heating, hot showers and a clean house where they can eat whatever they cook.