LONDON -- It began with an out-of-the-blue phone call to a local charity. What ensued was a staggering tale of decades of near-enslavement and physical intimidation that Scotland Yard on Friday called unprecedented in its long experience.
Three women had apparently been subjected to beatings and brainwashing for 30 years by a couple in their South London home, including one victim who spent her entire life under the couple's control, police said. The other two, a 57-year-old Irishwoman and a 69-year-old Malaysian, also were bound by what one officer called "invisible handcuffs" that prevented their escape from complete servitude until last month.
The couple were arrested Thursday on suspicion of forced labor and immigration offenses, then released on bail. Both suspects are 67 and were arrested at some point in the 1970s, although police declined to disclose on what grounds. The suspects' names and nationalities have not been released.
Their alleged victims are "highly traumatized," Scotland Yard said.
"We are unpicking a story that spans at least 30 years of these women's lives," Cmdr. Steve Rodhouse said Friday. "The investigation into the arrests yesterday has uncovered something that is so far unique to us, and does not compare to any previous investigations we have carried out."
Rodhouse added that the case did not appear to be one of sexual exploitation or human trafficking in the usual sense.
"What we have uncovered so far is a complicated and disturbing picture of emotional control over many years," he said. "Brainwashing would be the simplest term, yet that belittles the years of emotional abuse these victims have had to endure."
All 37 officers from Scotland Yard's human-trafficking unit were trying to piece together how the three women came under such domination by their alleged captors and how the situation escaped the notice of outsiders over such a long period.
Detective Inspector Kevin Hyland said the women have told of physical abuse in the form of beatings but not sexual assault.
A 12-hour search of the South London home where the women had been held has yielded 55 bags of evidence containing 2,500 individual items, Hyland said.
Authorities said the break for freedom for the three women began Oct. 18, when the Irishwoman contacted a charity after watching a television documentary and said that she and two others had been held against their will for 30 years.
Charity workers called police and arranged to meet the women a few days later, officials said. The Briton and the Irishwoman showed up for the meeting and gave their address to the authorities, who then rescued the Malaysian.
It was not immediately clear why the suspects were not arrested until Thursday, a month later, but the
Police said the household may have appeared as a normal family. The women were apparently allowed some "controlled freedom," and no violence was directed at outsiders.
"It is not as brutally obvious as women being physically restrained inside an address and not allowed to leave," Rodhouse said, adding that officers are trying to establish "what were the invisible handcuffs that were used to exert such a degree of control over these women."
Hyland said the two suspects had been living in Britain for many years.
"We also do not believe the victims were trafficked" into Britain, he said. "At this very early stage, we do not believe that this investigation is linked to any other groups, and ... we do not believe we are looking for other victims."
He said that unraveling the full story could take weeks or months.
"Specially trained officers are working with the women to try and understand their lives, and what has taken place over the course of the last 30 years," Hyland said. "The very process of explaining what has happened to them is in itself a very traumatizing experience."