POLICE have pledged to continue the drive to pinpoint and disrupt the activities of organised cannabis growing gangs in the wake of the conviction of two leading figures in a large-scale operation.

It follows the discovery of a drug farm in a disused office block, Ridgemount House, in Peterlee town centre, on April 20, last year.

The five-storey building had been completely modified for the professional set-up and the electricity supply was so dangerous it had to be completely turned off as a safety precaution.

Officers found the fifth-floor being developed for the growth of a substantial number of plants, aided by almost £60,000-worth of cultivation equipment, with free power following tampering of the electricity supply.

A total of 502 plants, in the early stages of growth, were found and it was estimated with a good yield it could raise up to £250,000-plus in street sale, with a potential for the operation to net up to £1m a year with successive successful growth cycles.

The third-floor appeared to be the living area for the gang members, other than Baghdadi, with a number of mattresses and food supplies present.

Eight men were arrested on site, seven of them attempting to hide from police, to the supposed “surprise” of landlord Samir Baghdadi.

Considered the lead figure in the enterprise, 53-year-old Baghdadi, of Markyate, Hertfordshire, who posed as a law-abiding property investor, was found guilty of cannabis production by a unanimous jury verdict following a six-day trial at Durham Crown Court this week, a charge he denied.

He was given a seven-year prison sentence, while his “trusted lieutenant”, Anastas Bani, 28, an Albanian-born illegal immigrant, of Brentmead Place, west London, received a 42-month sentence after admitting being concerned in the production of cannabis.

The six other gang members, five of Albanian origin and one of joint Greek/Albanian nationality, were previously jailed for varying terms of between ten and 33 months to reflect their role in the chain of command.

Detective Chief Inspector Nicola Lawrence, of Durham Police, said: “We will not tolerate these kinds of large scale cannabis productions in County Durham and Darlington and will also work hard to shut down these types of operations that harm not just individuals but the wider community.

“Cannabis farms are a lucrative source of income for organised criminal gangs and we’re grateful to the public for their assistance in helping us to disrupt that supply.

“This was a massive team effort which included officers from a several teams such as CSI and Neighbourhood Policing, Response and CID teams who all worked hard throughout to make sure this group was brought to justice.”

Detective Sergeant Jenna Cook, who led the investigation, added: “This was a protracted and extensive investigation into the case of production of drugs.

“Baghdadi has operated on a high-scale level and targeted Durham Constabulary’s area to commit organised drug crime.

“Peterlee CID officers have worked tirelessly to bring the case to justice and this sentence reflects how serious these offences are.

“They will not be tolerated in our area and we hope this sentence sends a clear warning to other groups who would look to bring misery to others through these types of crimes.”

The dismantling of the illegal operation has also provided some unexpected aid for community groups in east Durham.

More than 300 bags of compost seized by police during the raid were donated to Horden Community Garden and Peterlee Community Garden, while approximately 30 bags of groceries found in the building, supplies for the drug growing workforce, were donated to the East Durham Trust foodbank.

Anyone with information on the supply of drugs in County Durham and Darlington is asked to ring police on 101, or Crimestoppers, anonymously if desired, on (0800) 555111.