Man jailed over Northern Ireland's first underground cannabis factory
The scale and sophistication of the first underground drug factory uncovered by police in Northern Ireland has been laid bare at the trial of a drug dealer and cannabis farmer.
Mark Cavanagh (40), of India Street in south Belfast's Holylands, was given a prison sentence of five years and seven months after he pleaded guilty to a litany of drugs charges including:
- Conspiracy to produce cannabis.
- Conspiracy to possess the drug with intent to supply.
- Possession of the drug with intent to supply.
- Fraudulent evasion on imported goods.
- Converting or concealing criminal property.
The offences were committed between July 1, 2012 and May 22, 2013 and followed 12 months of surveillance by the PSNI in Co Down.
Prosecutors said officers swooped on a purpose-built subterranean cannabis cultivating complex, secretly recording suspects inside the shed talking about the drugs operation.
Downpatrick Crown Court, sitting in Belfast, heard police surveillance teams had observed two cars driving in convoy along the Derryneill Road at Ballyward, Castlewellan, on May 21, 2013.
One of the men in the cars was Cavanagh, who had been released in late 2011 after being jailed for his role in a robbery.
Surveillance footage showed Cavanagh at the scene and there were also audio recordings of him "in the bowels" of the shed.
The court heard police found a "sophisticated and purpose-built underground cannabis factory which was unique to Northern Ireland". The gang got into the shed either through a shutter door or a pedestrian door.
The shed consisted of an above ground area with equipment to grow cannabis, then planks and blocks to conceal an underground area, which police believed had been used for a long time for cultivating the plants.
Inside officers uncovered a pit leading into three separate "nurseries'' with cannabis plants at various stages of growth.
Judge Brian Sherrard said a total of 700 plants were recovered.
He said it was the prosecution case that the underground factory could produce up to 2,600 plants per year - around seven per day - with a potential street value of "between £200,000 and £600,000".
Also seized were lamps used to help grow the plants, hosepiping to bring water into the shed and other equipment. The court had heard that the shed walls had been professionally fitted. A cable dug into an electricity pole around 80 metres away brought power from the mains supply.
Judge Sherrard ordered the destruction of the drugs and paraphernalia. He also granted the destruction of 894 grammes of herbal cannabis Cavanagh had ordered to be sent through the post to an address on the Lisburn Road in south Belfast.
Judge Sherrard said Cavanagh was part of a "criminal organisation or venture".
Although the judge said the prosecution could not say what his exact role was in the factory, police believed Cavanagh played a "significant role" in the operation.
The judge ordered the defendant to serve half his sentence in custody and the remainder on supervised licence following his release from prison.