A potentially lucrative cannabis farm was located in disused factory premises by the crew of a police helicopter using thermal imaging equipment.

Durham Crown Court was told that following a report of suspicious activity on Hobson Industrial Estate, at Burnopfield, near Stanley, Alvaro Kola was located by police, almost 300 miles north of his south London home, on January 31, last year.

Kelly Clarke, prosecuting, said he was observed in the area and detained so inquiries over his identity could be conducted.

An officer involved in the check also noted a strong smell of cannabis emanating from a nearby industrial unit.

Read more: Cannabis farm with 140 plants found in ex-Stanley factory

Miss Clarke said as a police helicopter was in the vicinity on unrelated matters, the crew was asked to use a thermal imaging camera to check for sources of unnatural heat.

It pinpointed the unit from which a significant level of heat was being given off, in comparison to surrounding buildings.

The unit was searched and a large cannabis farm was found, from which 137 plants were seized, plus sophisticated growing equipment.

Forensic examination revealed Kola’s fingerprints were found on various objects inside the premises.

Miss Clarke said depending on the yield the crop could have had the potential to net up to £51,000 in bulk sales, or £69,000 if sold wholesale, but up to £115,000 in individual street-level deals.

Thirty-six-year-old Kola, who was assisted during the hearing by an Albanian interpreter, admitted being concerned in the production of a class B drug, on the basis he was the “gardener”.

He claimed to have been contacted by a man referred to as Alfred Basha, who he described as, “an acquaintance”.

Kola claimed he became involved at a time when neither he nor his wife was in employment and, “desperate for money”.

But he claimed his only role was to water and feed the plants for which he would be remunerated, while also being provided with food.

Read more: Two Albanian men jailed for tending cannabis crop in Newton Aycliffe

Jason Smith, in mitigation, said the 36-year-old defendant is married to an Italian wife with whom he has two young children, living at a fixed address in the Wandsworth area of south London.

Mr Smith said his client has, “no issues” over his immigration status.

He said in the 19 months since the offence the defendant has, “changed his lifestyle”, distancing himself from the people he formerly associated with and now purely employed as a painter and decorator with a British National Insurance number, paying full UK taxes.

Mr Smith said the defendant was not initially aware of the nature of what he was being asked to perform until he got to the North East, after which he had “little influence” over anyone else in the operation.

He added that Kola has, “a good work ethic”, with no previous offences on his record, and is not considered, “a flight risk”.

Recorder Jamie Hill KC said the defendant must have had a good idea as to the level of the operation, once he arrived at the unit, but he accepted he appears to have made a change for the better, since his arrest.

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He, therefore, imposed an 18-month prison sentence, suspended for two years, during which he must perform 100 hours’ unpaid work.

Recorder Hill set a crime proceeds timetable but added that it may not be considered necessary in due course.

He also ordered forfeiture and destruction of the seized drugs and growing paraphernalia.