THE leading figure behind a large-scale “professional” cannabis grow in a disused office block and his right-hand man were both last night starting lengthy jail sentences.

Samir Baghdadi, who boasted to a jury that he was a multi-millionaire property investor and so did not need to get involved in such an enterprise, bankrolled the purchase and setting up of the sophisticated cannabis farm in Ridgemount House, in Peterlee, which formerly housed the town’s drug and alcohol counselling service.

Durham Crown Court heard that he used his property business as a cover for the operation, as well as taking advantage of the first lockdown restrictions at the onset of the Covid outbreak in Spring last year to help avoid detection as up to £60,000 worth of equipment to aid the growth was installed.

The court was told within a month of its purchase, in March last year, Baghdadi and his workforce, seven men of Albanian extraction, some of them illegal immigrants, were already growing the first crop of 502 plants on the fifth floor of the building, while the gang used the third floor as living quarters.

But the court heard that as it developed, and with successful growth cycles, it was estimated to have the potential to make in excess of £1m annual profit.

Suspicion arose after workmen installing a lift in the premises noticed mattresses and signs of people living at the premises.

Police visited on April 20, initially checking if homeless people were living in the disused office block early in the pandemic.

Baghdadi, who let them, and appeared to be in charge, was highly evasive, asking the officers to come back the following day.

His labourers were found hiding in an office on the fifth floor and his “trusted lieutenant”, Anastas Bani, was later found hiding in a maintenance cupboard on the ground floor.

The six co-accused have all previously admitted roles in the operation and received jail sentences of between ten and 33 months, totalling ten years and eight months, to reflect their respective roles.

Bani, 28, of Brentmead Place, west London, one of those illegally in this country, initially denied involvement, but changed his plea to being concerned in the production of cannabis, in August.

He was sentenced last night along with 53-year-old Baghdadi, of Dunstable Road, Markyale, St Alban’s, in Hertfordshire, who was found guilty after a six-day trial to production of a class B drug.

The jury returned a unanimous guilty verdict earlier in the day.

Passing sentence, Judge Ray Singh said there was an abundance of evidence that Baghdadi, a father-of-three who has legally been in this country for 22 years, played a “leading” role in the operation, while Bani played a “significant” part in the setting up of the grow.

Baghdadi was given a seven-year prison sentence and was told his boast of being a multi-millionaire may feature in proceeds of crime findings, later in the year

Bani received a 42-month prison sentence and Judge Singh said he “anticipates” he will be deported at the half-way point, upon release.

He, too, will be subject of crime proceeds inquiries.