Update: Cannabis plants found in basement of former Cheltenham restaurant
By Court reporter | 21st July 2023
A 26-year-old Albanian man, who was discovered hiding among cannabis plants that were being cultivated in a basement of a former restaurant in the centre of Cheltenham, has been jailed for 16 months.
Prosecutor Charlotte Evans explained to Gloucester Crown Court that on June 28, 2023, the letting agent for a property in Albion Street, Cheltenham had been acting on a request by the landlord to survey the former restaurant and take back possession of it, contacted the police when a cannabis farm was discovered in the basement.
The letting agent had to break the locks to get access into the property which had last been operated by Smokehut.
The court was told that the landlord was taking back the property because no rent had been received for some six months.
Ms Evans said: "When the police attended the corner property the officers saw the extent of the operation. And when they located a recess area covered by sheeting, which was pulled back, they discovered an Albanian national hiding. Gention Shehu, aged 26 of Oakworth Close Hadley, Telford, Shropshire, was immediately arrested.
"The police stated that this was an extremely sophisticated cannabis farm with the pipes from the cannabis growing area being fed through the restaurant's kitchen extraction system. The police that the electricity metre had been partially bypassed, allowing some current to flow through it so as not to raise suspicion.
"The cannabis farm operation had a lot of specialist lighting, electronics and fans and a lot of soil to enable 97 plants that were only a week or so away from flowering. PC Pearson suggested that the yield of cannabis would have been between 2.7 and 8.1 kilograms with a financial reward of around £54,000, depending on how it would have been sold."
The court heard that Shehu had been employed as a 'gardener' and had access to a fridge which was stocked with luxury items. In interview Shehu gave a full account and explained that he had entered the UK illegally last year and sought asylum. He explained that he had racked up a significant debt in excess of £12,000 to secure his place on a boat.
Shehu told police that because of his immigration status he could not gain legal employment and having joined a Albanian networking Facebook page he had initially been employed to clear out the restaurant and was offered further work which meant staying at the property for seven to ten days and would be paid £1,500 at the end of it for minding the building and tending to the plants.
Catherine Spedding, defending, said: "Shehu performed a limited function by direction. He was contacted on the Facebook page, and he signed up to clear out the property for £80 a day. He accepted the job because he was in so much debt to his traffickers since his arrival in UK in October 2022.
"He fell into this offending because he was duped into it. In theory, Shehu could have come and go as he felt, but in reality, he was told not to leave the plants unattended. He had little understanding of the scale of the operation. Shehu has since learnt his lesson from all this."
The judge, Richard Mawhinney told Shehu: "When you were arrested you were a gardener to 97 cannabis plants in the basement of a former restaurant in Cheltenham. You had no influence in the chain of command above you.
"I understand you came to UK to work in the construction industry because you believed you could earn more than you could in Albania. You sought asylum on your arrival.
"However without proper documentation over your status this was impossible, and you were left with a £12,000 debt to pay back. I am willing to assume that what you told the police is the truth.
"I don't accept you were being coerced, but I do realise you were reluctant to take part. To some extent your vulnerability was being exploited.
"However, only an immediate 16-month prison term can be justified in the sentencing of this case."
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