Four men have been jailed following a large-scale police operation in Southampton that dismantled a cannabis factory worth an estimated £3.6million a year with links to organised crime
Agron Elezaj, 27, of Jack Clow Road, London, Amarildo Sulaj, 23, of Stanhope Road, Doncaster, and Rexhino Koci, 26, and Damiano Saraci, 30, both of no fixed address, were sentenced at Winchester Crown Court yesterday (11 July).
Sulaj and Koci pleaded guilty to playing a significant role and Saraci and Elezaj pleaded to a lesser role in the production of a class B drug – cannabis.
Sulaj was sentenced to four years and four months in prison and Koci received a four-year custodial sentence, while Saraci and Elezaj were both given 20 months in prison. This amounted to 11 years and eight months in total.
Last year, officers identified that an organised crime group was running a large cannabis factory out of an industrial unit in Pitt Road, Southampton, and that it could be linked to modern day slavery.
An operation was set up and a warrant was granted by the courts to enter and search the property. Dozens of officers were enlisted to surround the unit and catch the occupants unawares.
The goal of the operation was to safeguard any individuals that were victims of exploitation, arrest those involved in the production of cannabis and seize and destroy any plants found.
In the early hours of 11 January this year – the day of the operation – a briefing was held at Hampshire Constabulary’s Southern Support & Training Headquarters in Netley. The officer in charge of the operation went over the details of the plan and outlined any potential risks.
Organised crime groups running these large-scale cannabis factories will often employ ‘gardeners’ to act as caretakers. Some previously dismantled in the UK have even been booby-trapped, using means such as attaching a live wire to metallic door handles.
After the briefing, officers then kitted up and swiftly made their way to the scene for the operation to begin at 7am. Units flooded the industrial estate and surrounding the building suspected to be the factory.
Dog units and drones were used to help secure the perimeter of the site and ensure no-one was able to escape.
To gain entry to the building, officers cut through a large metal shutter with an angle grinder and swiftly scoped out the interior.
They did not encounter any booby traps – but they did come face to face with a pit bull terrier being used as a guard dog.
Thankfully it did not present a threat; it was taken into the care of the dog unit and has since been rehomed.
Koci, Elezaj and Saraci were arrested inside the unit but Sulaj attempted to escape by running across the roof before falling through a neighbouring building and sustaining injuries to his ankles.
He was given first aid at the scene before being taken to hospital for treatment and then joining his associates in police custody.
The interior of the unit had been completely transformed. Makeshift ventilation pipes and electrical wiring were running through a labyrinth of different rooms and lamps and fans were being used to grow dozens of rows of cannabis plants across two floors in various stages of harvest.
A living area and bathroom were also found in a squalid condition, which were used by the four men.
Over the course of several days, officers dismantled the factory once the electrical supply was safely turned off. The electricity being abstracted to power the factory amounted to £625.40 per day.
In total, 1048 cannabis plants were seized and examined by experts. It is estimated at full maturity, this crop could have a street value of up to £900,000 and the factory was capable of producing four crops a year – bringing in an estimated annual turnover of £3,600,000.
DI Stuart Barton was the senior investigating officer for the operation. He said: “This factory is one of the largest we have seen in Southampton and by dismantling it, we have removed a large cog in the drug production machine in Hampshire and caused massive disruption to the organised crime gang that was running it.
“Cannabis production on this scale is so much more than just ‘a bit of drugs’. It brings organised crime, serious violence, firearms and exploitation of children and vulnerable adults into our communities.
“The ramshackle electrical wiring also presented a huge fire risk which has now been removed.
“We are only able to carry out successful operations like this with the right information. This is why it is so important you tell us about drug dealing or production in your neighbourhood – even a seemingly insignificant piece of information could be the last piece in the puzzle.”