AN OXFORD man has spoken for the first time about how he was imprisoned in his own home and forced into dealing drugs.

Scared and alone for months on end, 'Mark' has told how gangs from outside of the city exploited his drug addiction to take over his flat as a base for their criminal activity.

The man, who cannot be identified for his own safety, was rescued only after police happened to attend the address while responding to a routine noise complaint.

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Now, as he tries to put his life back together, Mark has urged others in similar positions to not be afraid of seeking help.

Speaking to the Oxford Mail, he said: "My perception at the time was that I was a criminal and everything I was doing was wrong.

Oxford Mail:

"I felt if I spoke out, then there would be consequences: jail, prison, losing the flat.

"This wasn't the case, but I didn't realise it at the time.

"I was a vulnerable person and these people were taking advantage of me.

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"If you are in this position, know that there is help out there and you are not going to be punished for what has happened to you."

While living in an Oxford City Council studio flat, Mark fell back into heavy crack and heroin use and dropped out of support services.

His dealers, who he met with on a daily basis, began to ask questions about where he was living and whether he knew anywhere they could stay.

Oxford Mail:

Despite initially being reluctant, he eventually let them into the flat in exchange for drugs and quickly became trapped in a spiral of fear and intimidation.

He said: "Everything was great at first, we were all laughing and joking.

"I had drugs so I was happy, I didn't think of anything else.

"But it gradually sinks in when the drugs wear out – 'I've got these people in my flat now'.

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"It got worse very quickly. Once I was in debt with them, that was it. They ran the flat as if it was theirs.

"I felt like I couldn't say anything, I just had to do what they wanted.

"The pressure and intimidation was always there so I was reluctant to piss them off, make them angry.

"They would come up with car loads of people – 15 at once on one occasion, all in my little flat."

Oxford Mail:

Mark described the relentless 24/7 nature of the intimidation he suffered and how he was forced to endure it for more than three months last year.

Given little time to eat or sleep, he was made to deal to customers while the men used his home to cut and wrap up drugs and count money.

Having isolated himself from friends and family, no one was around to raise the alarm.

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Neighbours were kept in the dark about what was really going on inside as the gang tried to keep under the radar of the authorities as much as possible.

Police were eventually called after a report of loud music, and officers sensed something was wrong.

They then visited every day with council staff, scaring off the gang and encouraging Mark to seek support from city services such as the drug rehabilitation team at Turning Point.

He says today: "It was a massive relief, feeling like that was my out.

Oxford Mail:

"I was able to get help then.

"The fear that was playing on my head was gone – I felt safer.

"They came back regularly to check whether police were still coming.

"I told them they were and they moved on to someone else."

But when asked how he feels towards his captors now, Mark said he has no animosity towards them. 

"Things happen to people, everyone had got their own things going on" he said.

"They just need help as well.

"A lot of them were in the same situation I was in - fear, intimidated, they didn't want to be there.

"It's a chain, it gets passed on."

Mark is telling his story for the first time as part of an Oxford City Council campaign to encourage people to be on the look out for signs their neighbours may be being 'cuckooed' - the name for the practice Mark went through.

Staff who work in council housing are set to be given special training to better help and support anyone at risk.

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But residents are also being urged to keep a look out and report any suspicions to the council or police.

Signs include an increase in people entering or leaving a property, an increase in litter outside, people coming and going at strange times and damage to front doors.

Cuckooing occurs when drug dealers from larger cities including Birmingham and London prey on the most vulnerable in society and base their operations in other people's homes.

Oxford Mail:

The city council believes it had 12 cases of cuckooing in its council homes in 2018 and six cases in 2017.

In extreme cases a local authority can obtain a closure order to restrict who can go into the property.

This action was taken five times in 2018 and four in 2017, including at a house in Littlemore in May 2018 and in Ferry Hinksey Road last month.

Councillor Tom Hayes, the board member with responsibility for safer environment, has likened cuckooing to 'drug slavery' and said drugs were 'the number one issue' the city was facing.

He said: "We will never treat people who have their homes taken over in this way as criminals.

"They are vulnerable people and they need our support.

"As a council, our responsibility to our tenants is to ensure they can live their best possible lives and providing support and protection is a really big part of this.

"Everyone can help us address this issue and our message is to look out for your neighbours and never be afraid of getting in touch.

"As part of the new drugs taskforce set up to stop the public drugs trade in our city, we will work to ensure every vulnerable person can be found, gets protection and stops being exploited, and accesses the support they need to rebuild their lives."