A DANGEROUS thug jailed for his role in a gang-land shooting is to remain behind bars for a further two years after he admitted running a lucrative cannabis farm empire worth in excess of £150,000.

Darren Appleby is already serving 24 years for his role in Operation Eton, a six-man gun conspiracy which saw shots fired at houses across Newcastle.

But he has been back before the courts accused of controlling a number of large drug farms uncovered by police in 2018, estimated to be worth £158,000.

The 24-year-old ran the business, backed by associates Dylan Hepple and Michael Fleming. Together they operated farms in Swalwell, Hebburn, Wallsend and the West End of Newcastle, often relying on cheap labour provided by Vietnamese nationals.

On Valentines’ Day 2018 officers raided Appleby’s safe house on Wingrove Avenue, which had been leased in a false name.

They found quantities of cash, cannabis and cannabis shatter, a potent variety of the Class B drug.

They also found the firearm which linked the gunman to Operation Eton.

Over the next five months, a string of warrants were executed across a number of properties including two large-scale farms on Brighton Grove and Westgate Road, worth around £50,000 and ran by Vietnamese nationals.

Then in April, officers watched Appleby, Fleming and another associate Robert Carlson as they dismantled a £40,000 farm on College Road, Hebburn.

The trio were loading bags of skunk into a van hired by another associate, Gemma Hopkirk, when ring leader Appleby spotted trouble.

Under the watchful gaze of officers, the 24-year-old attempted to drive down the street but collided with a police car - before attempting to speed off down the pavement.

When the van became lodged – a short foot chase ensued and officers snared Carlson and Fleming. Appleby managed to get away but was later arrested.

Following the collision, Hopkirk reported the van as stolen as was shortly arrested and charged with perverting the course of justice.

Richard Mole, another associate who had been renting vans for the drugs ring in his name was also convicted.

On Friday, all seven defendants appeared at Newcastle Crown Court where they were sentenced after admitting their respective roles in the conspiracy.

• Darren Appleby formerly of Deepdale Crescent, Cowgate admitted conspiracy to produce cannabis and was jailed for two more years.

• Dylan Hepple, 26, of Bamburgh Drive, Wallsend pleaded guilty to conspiracy to produce cannabis and was jailed for 40 months.

• Michael David Fleming, 29, of Edgefield Avenue, Fawdon pleaded guilty to conspiracy to produce cannabis and cannabis shatter and was jailed for 46 months.

• Gemma Hopkirk, 41 of Warkworth Crescent, Newburn admitted perverting the course of justice and was given nine months suspended for two years and 100 hours of unpaid work.

• Ross Carlson, 22, of Chirton Lane, North Shields, Richard Mole, 28, of Westbury Avenue, Walker and John Hawthorn of Queen Street, Ashington all admitted encouraging or assisting the commission of the cannabis conspiracy.

• Mole was sentenced to nine months, suspended for two years with 200 hours unpaid work, while Hawthorn got 12 months suspended for two years with 200 hours unpaid work and Carlson – already serving a custodial sentence for violent disorder was sentenced to nine months.

Detective Chief Inspector Paul Woods said: “This is a great result for the force and I’m incredibly proud of everyone involved in this case.

“Appleby might be young but he is a very dangerous offender whose constant involvement in underworld criminal networks has posed a significant risk for our communities for too long - and I welcome the news he will be spending more time behind bars .

“So often these organised criminal groups sell drugs like cannabis and make money from exploiting the most vulnerable in society and it’s this money which funds other serious crime.

“But, as part of our ongoing work under Operation Sentinel, I can assure our communities that we will stop at nothing to put offenders like Appleby, Hepple and Fleming behind bars.

“I am also pleased to hear there will be a financial hearing under the Proceeds of Crime Act.

“Criminals should be stripped of everything their life of crime affords them.”