Albanian drug gang and Harrogate businesswoman jailed for running 'industrial' skunk-cannabis operation
An Albanian drug gang who ran a half-a-million-pound skunk-cannabis factory in quiet residential streets in Harrogate have been jailed for a combined 22 years.
Their “facilitator” was 73-year-old former guest-house owner Yoko Banks, who rented out her properties for “industrial” cannabis production “in the expectation of significant” profit”, Leeds Crown Court heard.
The disgraced businesswoman, who owns a string of “highly marketable” properties in some of Harrogate’s most desirable areas, is now starting a three-and-a-half-year jail sentence.
She and the six Albanian gangsters appeared for sentence on Friday after they each admitted playing a part in the audacious, mega-money drugs plot worth at least half a million.
Prosecutor Martin Bosomworth said the “professional”, London-based gang had invested tens of thousands into the three cannabis factories at Banks’s properties on Alexandra Road, Woodlands Road and Somerset Road near Harrogate town centre.
The brazen criminals had even dug a trench outside the three-storey Edwardian villa on Alexandra Road through which they fed electricity cables to the house to power the “highly sophisticated” cultivation system and bypass the electricity grid.
On one occasion, neighbours in the affluent street spotted the gang digging the ditch underneath a pavement and up the driveway. When they asked them what they were doing, they were told they were laying cables “for a fast-fibre broadband connection”.
The gang’s audacious plot finally unravelled when police were called to the five-bedroom villa at about 8.30pm on September 26 last year after reports of a “disturbance” in the street involving what appeared to be two rival gangs vying for the mega-money cannabis farm.
Officers found 283 plants in the four growing rooms inside the mock-Tudor house, which was fitted with CCTV cameras. Chillingly, police also found a “large” crossbow and arrows next to the front door. The plants had a potential yield of up to 21 kilos.
Mr Bosomworth said the “organised” gang had operated the lighting, electrical and “security” systems remotely through broadband technology and were even able to watch a “live feed” of the drugs bust over the internet.
There were other large grows at two of Banks’s other properties which had the “capability of producing industrial amounts” of the highly potent skunk.
She had rented the properties to the Albanians through an “unidentified individual who goes by the name of Francesco”, who sub-let the houses to the gang’s ringleader Visar Sellaj, 33, in the spring or summer of 2020.
Sellaj, Kujtim Brahaj, 50, Indrit Brahaj, 27, Bledar Elezaj, 36, Andi Kokaj, 23, and 31-year-old Erblin Elezaj, an illegal immigrant, admitted various charges relating to the production and supply of cannabis but only at the Alexandra Road property. Banks, of Scargill Road, admitted three counts of being concerned in the supply of cannabis.
Mr Bosomworth said that just before the “disturbance” on September 26, two unidentified men turned up at the property in a Citroen van and forced the door open. They left the property “carrying bundles of vegetation to the van”.
“An Audi was (then) seen to arrive in the street from which five males exited - these being the Albanian defendants,” he added.
“They chased the Citroen through the street, but the van made off.”
Following the run-in with what appeared to be a rival gang, and realising they’d been rumbled, the six Albanians went into the property and “made a hasty clearance of such mature cannabis plants as they could find”.
They loaded the plants into a rented Transit van which was then driven, along with the Audi, back down south.
Police found the remaining 283 plants in the growing rooms and a “large, loaded crossbow” next to the front door.
The Transit van and the Audi were “trapped” on the M1 by police in Hertfordshire and were finally stopped on the M25 just after midnight.
Police found 30kg of “saleable”, harvested cannabis plants inside the van worth about £300,000.
Inside the £26,000 Audi SQ5, which belonged to Sellaj, police found £3,675 cash and an 18-carat-gold Rolex watch worth £28,000.
The court heard that on September 22, four days before the drugs bust, Sellaj - who had a “large amount of money” in his bank account - booked a four-star B&B at the historic Arden House on the quiet, tree-lined Franklin Road.
As well as the 283 plants at the Alexandra Road factory, there were also 143 “root balls” from previous harvests and 6kg of cannabis flower buds. The “industrial” operation would have yielded between 11kg and 33 kilos worth up to £330,000.
Fifty-nine cannabis plants, worth up to £83,000, were found at Banks’s Somerset Road property and 86 plants, with a “bulk value” of up to £62,000, were discovered at the house on Woodlands Road.
The total potential yield of the 395 plants was 45 kilos, with a combined value of up to £456,000. This was in addition to the 30 kilos found in the vans and did not include previous harvests.
Although Banks was not involved in the cultivation, she had played a “facilitating” or advisory role in the plot. She was in “regular communication” with ‘Francesco’ and Sellaj through Whatsapp messages and constantly “pressing to be paid by them”.
Banks - who had previous convictions for health-and-safety offences through her work - was due to be paid at least £12,000 a month in rent for the three properties and was also receiving “high” deposits.
Benjamin Whittingham, for Banks, said she had let out the properties to “supplement” her weekly pension due to financial pressures.
Indrit Brahaj, of Whitings Road, Barnet; Kokaj, of no fixed address; Sellaj, of Newnham Road, London; and Erblin Elezaj, of no fixed abode, all admitted being concerned in the production of cannabis and possessing a Class B drug with intent to supply.
Kujtim Brahaj, of Wellington Road, Enfield, and Bledar Elezaj, of no fixed address, each admitted being concerned in the production of cannabis.
Defence counsel for the Albanian men said they had each been working in construction or “odd jobs” in the south.
Judge Tom Bayliss QC said the “organised crime group” had “cynically chosen to import a criminal enterprise to Harrogate”.
Sellaj, who had been “directing operations”, was for six years and nine months.
Erblin Elizaj was jailed for five years and two months and Indrit Brahaj was jailed for four years and four months. Kujtim Brahaj and Bledar Elezaj were each jailed for three years for their lesser roles.
Jailing Banks for three-and-a-half years, Mr Bayliss told her: “You have in your time been a successful businesswoman.
“You were, at the time, in some financial difficulties (which) may explain why you were - a woman in your seventies, a widow with a number of health problems - prepared to get involved with a gang from London.
“You knew that by doing that you were bringing drugs and criminality to Harrogate, a town where you have lived and worked for many years.”
Andi Kokaj, the last remaining defendant to be sentenced, will learn his fate on Monday, August 16.