A VIETNAMESE man arrested for tending a domestic cannabis crop claimed he was only aged 14, a court heard.

Phong Hong Le climbed out of an upstairs bedroom window when police forced entry to a house in Findon Avenue, Sacriston, on December 14.

Durham Crown Court heard he was arrested and police then searched the semi-detached property, discovering the entire first floor was converted for use as a sophisticated cannabis growing operation.

Shaun Dryden, prosecuting, said 81 mature cannabis plants were recovered from three bedrooms.

They were estimated to carry a potential wholesale value of between £14,500 and £43,740.

A further 87 immature plants, with a potential sale value of between £15,500 and £46,000, were found in the loft.

Mr Dryden said the operation was assisted by a bypass of the electricity meter, plus extractor fans and, “the usual” hydroponic growing equipment found in such cannabis farms, costing an estimated £10,000 just to put in place.

Le’s finger prints were recovered from plant pots in two of the bedrooms from where cannabis plants were found.

Mr Dryden said a police expert pointed to evidence of previous cannabis cultivation from other items found about the property.

Upon arrest the defendant gave a date of birth purporting that he was aged 14, which was not accepted by magistrates at a previous hearing.

Asked by Judge Ray Singh for his true age, Le, speaking by video link from Durham Prison, via a Vietnamese interpreter, revealed, after some prevarication, he was, in reality, aged 27.

Asked why he lied about his age, the interpreter told Judge Singh that Le was sorry, but he was hoping to be able to go to school.

Le, of no fixed abode, admitted production of a class B drug.

Vic Laffey, mitigating, told the court Le only arrived in this country as an illegal immigrant about 12 days before arrest, having only been in the property acting as, “a gardener” for the crop, for the previous four days.

“He was looking after these plants effectively in return for food and accommodation because he was in a desperate state.”

Judge Ray Singh said even as a ‘gardener’ he was playing, “an important role in the cannabis production chain”.

The judge added: “You came to this country during a pandemic and became embroiled in a criminal enterprise, on your own admission, very quickly.”

Imposing a 12-month prison sentence, Judge Singh told Le that he would serve half in custody and upon release it is likely that the immigration authorities will arrange for his deportation.

The judge also ordered forfeiture and confiscation of the cannabis plants and growing equipment recovered in the raid.