Cannabis farm found in disused Peterlee office block

TWO further members of a gang have been jailed for their involvement in the setting up of a potentially industrial-scale cannabis farm in a disused office block.

Kujtim Shabanaj, 44, and 26-year-old Romeo Dinaku were among eight men, seven of Albanian origin, arrested when police raided Ridgemount House, in Peterlee, which previously housed the town’s alcohol and drugs recovery service, on April 20.

Durham Crown Court heard that police found 502 cannabis plants in the early stages of growth in a 360-sq metre space on the fifth floor of the building.

Conor Quinn, prosecuting, said it was estimated that the plants had the potential to raise £5,000 in street sales once they reached maturity.

Their growth was aided by sophisticated heating, lighting and ventilation equipment worth almost £60,000.

Mr Quinn said police also seized a large amount of building equipment, electrical wiring and tools found in the building on Bede Way.

While the fifth floor was the growing area, the third floor was the living space and was where the two defendants were arrested.

Examination of cctv revealed Dinaku moving wood, wire and boxes on the fifth floor at least nine times between April 9 and 20, while his finger prints and dna were also recovered.

Shabanaj was also seen on cctv on the fifth floor and in nearby shops buying food stupplies for the gang.

When interviewed Dinaku presented a pre-prepared statement saying he arrived in the UK looking for work and claimed he did not know about the cannabis until it was too late to get out of it.

Shabanaj had nothing to say in interview.

Both men admitted being concerned in the production of a class B drug.

Chris Knox, for Shabanaj, said he was legally in this country as he also holds a Greek passport.

Mr Knox said Shabanaj also legally drives a car, a Mercedes, used to bring co-workers to the North-East.

He described his client as, “one of the wage earners rather than profit sharers”.

Richard Herrmann,for Dinaku, said he was one of the workforce and had no influence over the operation.

He said he wants to return to Albania on release from prison but given the length of sentence he may not necessarily be faced with automatic deportation.

Judge Ray Singh said. “Whoever was the mastermind was clearly expecting significant financial reward, which is patently obvious given the financial outlay in setting up the premises.”

He imposed a 33-month sentence on Shabanaj, due to his more significant role, and passed an 11-month sentence on Dinaku.

Four other members of the gang were jailed for terms of between ten and 33 months at a hearing in late September.

The Northern Echo | Durham