Romanian girls’ ordeal that ended after Twitter message

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It was a Twitter message from a concerned member of the public which rescued two young Romanian women from a living nightmare.

Brought to Preston on the promise of jobs as hotel maids, the women’s hopes were shattered soon after they arrived - and found themselves forced into prostitution and fearing for their lives.

Trafficking raid: Police at a house in Longworth Street, to arrest suspected human traffickers

Trafficking raid: Police at a house in Longworth Street, to arrest suspected human traffickers

Their ordeal would have been prolonged if an anonymous tip-off, via the Preston Police Twitter account, had not prompted officers to raid the terraced house in Longworth Street last year.

Today, the women bravely spoke out about their horrific experiences.

It all began on a balmy summer evening in an industrial Romanian town, in a disco, where the girls were approached by two men who turned on the charm.

To outsiders it was a typical scene of courtship, recreated nightly in clubs around the world, and to which little attention is paid.

The women were expected to work at all times of the day and night and making significant amounts of money

But for these young women, this flattering, seemingly innocent approach would lead to an unimaginable ordeal.

The two childhood friends, both from poor families, grew up in the town and had basic schooling.

The deprived town, situated in the south-east, on the banks of the Danube’s Borcea branch, is a bustling industrial centre for lumber, paper, food processing, and manufacturing of glass, steel, and textiles.

Life is hard and its people are poor.

One of the bedrooms in brothel on Longworth Street, Preston

One of the bedrooms in brothel on Longworth Street, Preston

One of the women lost her father aged 10, and had to care for her bed-bound mother.

The second got a job working full time as a seamstress in a clothing factory - but was bringing home just £50 a month.

Against this backdrop it is easy to see why the attractive young women, chatting away in the disco that fateful summer evening, were easy prey for traffickers Adrian Matei and Marcus Petre.

The men, who are very distantly related, had known each other from childhood.

One of the bedrooms in brothel on Longworth Street, Preston

One of the bedrooms in brothel on Longworth Street, Preston

Both unemployed, they were recruited by an older Romanian man, Ionut Ion, to encourage the women to come to the UK.

The day after the disco Matei and Petre promptly appeared as the women were waiting at the local bus station.

In the days afterwards the men became their “boyfriends” and sold them a tempting story of building a new future together in the UK.

Believing their loving new partners were rescuing them from a life of poverty, the women agreed to travel with them - one without telling her mother.

They made the long journey in a people carrier across Germany, France and on a ferry to Dover, from where they were driven to a rented three-bedroomed terraced house in Longworth Street, Preston.

The lowly red brick terrace, facing an industrial unit on a Preston estate looks nothing out of the ordinary.

One of the bedrooms in brothel on Longworth Street, Preston

One of the bedrooms in brothel on Longworth Street, Preston

But the women still have nightmares about what happened behind its closed doors.

Far from getting them jobs as hotel maids, Petre and Matei turned on them.

They were separated and told they would be expected to work as prostitutes.

They were quickly made to have their photographs taken, which were posted on a range of sex websites. One, Adultworks, is registered outside the UK where frustrated police have no jurisdiction over it.

Two older Romanian women were already working in the house and the ‘services’ of the exploited young women were snapped up by waiting customers.

The young women were made to perform sexual acts against their will, and police believe the women were being visited by up to 10 men a day each.

One of them had brought in £1,000 but was not allowed to keep any of the money.

They became virtual prisoners, their only taste of freedom being a supervised visit to the local shop once a day.

The first woman, who can’t be named for legal reasons, was close to tears during a harrowing interview.

Speaking through an interpreter, she recalls: “We had met them at a discotheque in Romania. We saw them at a bus station the next day and started talking.

“Back in Romania I lived with my family. My dad died when I was 10 and I lost my mum last October. I had been caring for her.

“She was bed bound. I did the laundry, whatever was necessary.”

She was close to tears as she admitted leaving the country without telling her mum, because she thought she could make life better for her by sending money home.

She continues: “They were talking nice to me but afterwards they started to beat me up.

“They told us we should come to the UK to work in a hotel. I thought he was telling the truth. But we ended up somewhere else.

“I was afraid when I realised what was happening.

“We were kept apart and I was not allowed to talk to my friend. I was scared. I thought he could have killed me.”

She said she had tried to stand up for herself but had been threatened, adding: “He told me he was going to take me into a field, tie me behind his car, drag me and kill me.

“I was really afraid in case I was not doing what they wanted me to do. I thought I would rather kill myself than let him do it.”

The second woman, a childhood friend from the same village, was earning the equivalent of £50 a month working as a seamstress in a clothing factory when she too met the men in the discotheque.

Lured by the promise of a better life she explains: “I wanted to build a future for myself. But when we go here they changed completely.

“They forced us to do things we did not agree to. I was afraid of the slightest movement.

Describing the men as “mean and heartless” she adds: “They slapped our faces. they grabbed me by the throat and punched my friend.”

She tried to run away from the Preston house that had become her prison but was caught by the men and brought back.

Fortunately within a fortnight of their arrival, suspicious members of public had reported concerns to the police who raided the house in July last year.

Remembering when police arrived at the property she says: “We were really scared and didn’t now what to say because they had told us not to tell anyone. I would tell other girls that human trafficking hides behind a friendly face and they should be careful who they speak with and who they trust.

“But now I am happy I am free. 
I want to thank the police for rescuing us.”

The girls’ lifeline came in the form of a single short post to Preston Police’s Facebook page from a member of public, who has never come forward.

A few choice words led to a prompt visit - and the start of a harrowing probe exposing the sickening operation of Ionut Ion, a married Romanian father who was already on Lancashire police’s radar over brothels in East Lancashire.

The Evening Post joined Preston police on the raid in July 2015.

Police were stunned at the sickening conditions the women were living in.

Det Insp Jane Webb, leading the probe, told the Evening Post: “It was a small terraced property, and basically the women were living and sleeping wherever they could.

“There was a mattress in each room on the floor.

“The men were also living there with the four women.

“The women were expected to work at all times of the day and night and making significant amounts of money.

“When we seized the mobile phones they were constantly going off.

“The women were frightened but opened up to us.”

Despite their ordeal, both victims want to remain in the UK. The pair are being looked after in a refuge and told the Evening Post they hope to gain jobs as waitresses.

Det Insp Webb adds: “The defendants have shown no remorse at all.

“They were prepared to use violence and sexual violence against these young women. The conviction shows the girls voices have been heard.”

While they have had what some would term a lucky escape, others like them continue to work in other ordinary looking houses on Lancashire’s streets.

The men feeding the trade continue to visit the city, lured by adverts on sex websites, to feed their desires.

Even as the girls spoke to the Evening Post, police in Preston were visiting two more suspected brothels where Eastern European girls are thought to be working.

Insp Paul McLernon, who was involved in the operation, said: “These type of properties are all a similar set up - dirty old carpets, rented, mattresses on the floor.

“The girls literally came in the clothes they were stood in. They didn’t speak English, didn’t know the community they were in, They were extremely frightened and didn’t know who they could trust.

“As they were led away to safety one said, ‘Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.’ That really got me.

“We have come across other properties with Polish and Romanian women in them in Preston. It is widespread across the UK.

“Most will say they are there willingly, but we believe they were probably brought over initially in similar situations to this, and have just resigned themselves to the fact this is their life.”

One of the bedrooms in brothel on Longworth Street, Preston

One of the bedrooms in brothel on Longworth Street, Preston