Romanian gang master told hungry workers to ‘eat stones’

Ioan Lacatus arrives at Lisburn Court for a previous hearing in 2014. 'Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Ioan Lacatus arrives at Lisburn Court for a previous hearing in 2014. 'Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

A Romanian gang master 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 on Friday (September 30).

Convicted fraudster Ioan Lacatus, 33, of Hanover Street, Portadown, pleaded guilty at Craigavon Crown Court to conspiracy to traffick within the United Kingdom, five counts of trafficking people into the UK for exploitation, acting as an unlicensed gang master, 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 traffick within the UK to “exploit migrant workers” between May 1 and August 15, 2014.

Prosecution counsel David McDowell QC told that 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.

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 and replied: “What did you come to arrest me for? Are you joking? Are you serious?”

Mr McDowell QC said the victims had come from a poor rural part of Romania and were “promised €400 (euros) 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.

Through a local recruitment agency, they were promised the minimum wage of £6.31 for over 18s but McDowell QC said that in fact they were working 12 hours a day at places such as MacNeice Fruit and Irwin’s Bakery in Portadown and Finnebrogue in Downpatrick.

“I just want to make it very clear that these companies were unaware of the exploitation by Ioan Lacatus,” stressed the prosecution counsel.

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

Mr McCartney QC disputed on behalf of his client that the migrants were not being fed.

He added: “There was no violence offered against any of these people and there were no threats of violence. It is quite clear that my client didn’t exercise any control over these people.”

John Kearney QC, defence counsel for Samuil Covaci, said the 25-year-old was also an “economic migrant” who slept in the same house as the 12 other workers and his job was to transport them to their places of work.

“He had no organisational role. He made no promises, he had no input into their living conditions, no input into their food, no input into their working conditions. His role was very limited to transport some of the victims from the house which he shared with them to their places of work,” he added.

Defence counsel Martin O’Rourke for Cristina Covaci said the mother of three young children had already spent four months on remand.

He asked Judge Grant QC “not to interfere with her liberty” and said her offending could be dealt with by way of a combination order as recommended in a pre-sentence report.

Judge Patrick Lynch QC said: “A lot of material has been placed before me and in the circumstances and I would like some time to consider that material before passing sentence.”

He adjourned sentencing until next week and released the three defendants on continuing bail.