Police are investigating to see if three men arrested at an “industrial scale” cannabis farm played more of a role than just being “gardeners” in the operation.

Admir Zeka, 38, Albi Stani, 28, and 34-year-old Arlin Leshi, all Albanian nationals, were arrested after police, armed with a search warrant, visited an apparent vacant unit of Peterlee’s South West Industrial Estate, on March 5.

Officers recovered 2,800 plants in various stages of growth from three different areas of the unit, all being cultivated with the use of sophisticated and complex growing equipment.

The Northern Echo: Some of the 2,800 cannabis plants being grown on an 'industrial scale' at a disused factory unit on

All three defendants appeared at Durham Crown Court, via video link from the city’s nearby prison, yesterday (Monday, April 15).

The charge of producing a quantity of cannabis was put to each of them, via an Albanian interpreter, and they all pleaded guilty.

But the court was told their guilty pleas were made on the basis they each played a “limited” role in the operation, as “gardeners”.

Ian West, prosecuting, said, at the moment, the Crown does not accept their basis of plea.

“What we’ll need is time for the police to complete their investigations.

“In particular, it’s to have five telephones found downloaded and translated.

“But, as matters stand, unless those downloads confirm each of the defendants’ basis of plea, the prosecution say each of these men played a ‘significant’ role in the growing of this cannabis and not necessarily a ‘limited’ role.”

He said it would be the Crown’s suggestion that a Newton hearing, or trial of issue, should be staged to resolve on what basis the trio should be sentenced.

“They (the defendants) can be invited to give evidence as to their claimed roles into the running of this industrial scale cannabis farm.”

The Northern Echo:

Judge Jo Kidd asked that a formal basis of plea should be submitted to the court computer system on behalf of each defendant by April 29.

Mr West pointed out that they (the defendants) each appear to have back-tracked from their claim when they appeared before magistrates in the case, suggesting they were victims of modern-day slavery.

“Their pleas today suggest they have abandoned that position.

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“Mr Stani entered this country on a six-month visa that he applied to come on, so that claim (of being trafficked as a modern-day slave) would fall at the first hurdle in his case.”

A convenient date for a trial of issue, if required, was agreed by all parties for July 5, as it was accepted, “they are not going anywhere”, in the near future.

Judge Kidd agreed and remanded the trio to remain in custody, pending the hearing on July 5.