A HUMAN trafficking gang which advertised their victims on adult websites as 'fresh stock' has been jailed for a total of 16 years.

Preston Crown Court heard how the gang, which operated five brothels out of houses in Blackburn and other ones in Preston, Manchester and Luton, trafficked at least 13 women as part of the conspiracy.

But their operation was eventually unravelled by Lancashire Police's human trafficking and modern slavery team, who undertook a widescale operation which featured months of surveillance and undercover operations.

And today the the gang's ringleaders Ionel Sandu, 33, of Carlton Road, Blackburn, and Catalin Mihalescu, 44, of Wadeson Road, Manchester, were jailed for 40 months and 44 months imprisonment, respectively.

Florin Rusescu, 44, of Harcourt Street, Luton, was sentenced to 31 months, while his partner 33-year-old partner Maria Badalescu, of the same address, was given 30 months. Badalescu is thought to be one of the first women in the country to have been successfully prosecuted under the human trafficking legislation.

Meanwhile, Andrei Alin Carabet, 28, of Manchester Road, Preston, was jailed for 25 months, Valentin Poiana, 40, of Orchard Street, Manchester, was given 14 months.

They had all pleaded pleaded guilty to conspiracy to arrange the travel of other persons for the purposes of exploitation at a previous hearing.

Mihai Nicolescu, 33, of Freehold Street, Northampton, pleaded guilty to encouraging exploitation and was jailed for nine months earlier this year.

Speaking after the hearing, Sgt Stu Peall said: “This gang were part of a large human trafficking network, which operated brothels across the UK.

“They were treated as commodities, and were traded among brothel owners without any regard for their wellbeing or human rights. When they were no longer wanted they were moved to a different location, where they were put to work in the sex trade again.

“The diary we found gives a glimpse of the suffering these women endured at the hands of this criminal gang.

“Lancashire Constabulary is committed to tackling exploitation of all kinds and today’s sentences are the culmination of the hard work and dedication of our officers who continue to work proactively to put an end to modern slavery.”

The court heard how Mihalescu and Sandu, spent more than £30,000 advertising on the Viva Street website during the course of the conspiracy.

Checks with HMRC showed that none of the conspirators has a legitimate form of income but that between January 2016 and January 2018 more than £100,000, including £25,000 cash deposits, had passed through two bank accounts registered to Mihalescu. And between March 2017 and October 2017 £9,400 has passed through a bank account registered to Sandu. Between them they also transferred a further £58,000 through Western Union.

Prosecuting, Francis McEntee said the victims, who did not support the prosecution, knew they were coming to the United Kingdom to work as prostitutes via the gang’s ‘agency’.

But it is the prosecution’s case the victims were exploited by the gang who sought to make money out of them.

The court heard that prostitutes, who were sometimes referred to as ‘rags’, would be sent between brothels in towns and cities in the northern and southern bases of the operation and then advertised as ‘fresh stock’ to punters in the area.

The victims would also be given a number of online profiles so the defendants could ‘exploit the maximum amount of profit by drawing up more customers’.

Mr McEntee said police became aware that women were being exploited towards the end of 2016 when a resident in Haslingden Road, Blackburn, made a complaint about the late night activity taking place at a house on the street and the number of men attending. Found at that address were Sandu and four women who admitted to working as prostitutes but said they were doing it of their own free will.

Following further safeguarding visits police put covert surveillance in place.

That eventually led to the identification of all the defendants and a number of houses being used as brothels. That included five in Blackburn - in Haslingden Road, Infirmary Street, Mosley Street, Carlton Road and Spring View - two in Preston, four in Manchester and one in Luton.

Officers also carried out ‘test purchases’ where they rang up some of the mobile numbers linked to girls advertised on Viva Street to confirm they were offering sexual services.

In one case an undercover officer arranged to meet a woman being driven by defendant Andrei Alin Carabet.