An illegal immigrant caught tending a “significant” cannabis grow in a rented house in a County Durham village is starting a 16-month prison sentence.

Rudolf Halili, 25, was the only person present when police executed a search warrant at the end-terrace property, in Co-operative Terrace, Shotton Colliery, on Thursday, April 25.

Durham Crown Court heard that the officers involved gained access to the kitchen via an open ground-floor window.

Annelise Haugstad, prosecuting, said there were immediate signs of paraphernalia present which is used in the cultivation of cannabis.

(Image: Durham Constabulary)

Halili appeared from the end of a downstairs corridor and was arrested.

He was searched and found to be in possession of two phones and three SIM cards, while another phone was found being charged.

As police went through the house, four rooms and the loft were found to be devoted mainly for the production of cannabis, with overhead lighting fitted, while the electricity meter was bypassed, providing free power for the operation.

A small area of one of the rooms was sectioned off as living quarters, with a bed, and well-stocked cupboards, fridge and freezer.

Soundproofing was fitted to the staircase and further material for growing cannabis was found in the bathroom.

Receipts were also found for cash deposits at the Post Office and CCTV footage from a nearby branch revealed the defendant alone in the premises, buying foodstuffs, on April 9.

A tenancy agreement for the property was found in the names of two other men, while gas cards were found in different names.

When arrested, the defendant did not comment, but when he appeared before magistrates on April 25, Halili admitted a charge of production of cannabis.

The court heard he has no previous convictions.

Miss Haugstad described it as a “large-scale” operation, with 259 plants recovered, capable of producing a “significant” amount of cannabis for commercial purposes.

(Image: Durham Constabulary)

Amrit Jandoo, in mitigation, said the defendant arrived in the UK illegally from his native Albania at some point last year.

Mr Jandoo said the defendant found himself in Newcastle where he was introduced to compatriots who took him to the address in Shotton Colliery.

“He fully accepts when he arrived at the property he could see what he was being tasked to do, essentially to work as, ‘a gardener’.

“His benefit was simply accommodation, food and enough money to cope.”

Following a prosecution application for the items recovered in the raid to be forfeited, Mr Jandoo asked that the defendant be allowed access to phones seized by police as they contain information and numbers of value to him upon his eventual return to Albania, following the death of his grandfather due to Covid 19.

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Judge Gavin Doig agreed to order forfeiture and destruction of everything but the phones, which should be returned to the defendant upon his release from prison.

Jailing him, Judge Doig said he took the view the defendant performed, “a lesser role” in the operation, merely tending the crops, albeit with full knowledge of the extent and scale of the grow.

The judge told Halili that he would serve up to half of the 16-month sentence imposed in prison, but on release, near, or at the mid-point, “it is likely” he will be deported.