Three men who stood to make tens of thousands of pounds from growing cannabis in empty business units have been jailed.
A warrant has been issued for the arrest of a fourth member of the gang, who failed to turn up to be sentenced at Teesside Crown Court.
David Noble, Anthony Stokle, Jamie Wharton and Christopher Tobin set up a cannabis farm in two units in Hartlepool managed by Noble, the court heard.
Prosecutor Alan Armbrister said the potential annual cash yield from the 380 plants seized by police could be as much as £486,000.
“Police mounted a covert surveillance operation at a former timber yard in Brenda Road, in Hartlepool,” said Mr Armbrister.
“It was one of a number of commercial properties managed by David Noble, who was employed by the owners of the properties.
“In July of 2013, officers gained covert entry to the premises and found it was prepared for a substantial cannabis grow, with a large number of seedlings in pots, and other equipment.
“Stokle and Wharton were seen to visit, taking in scaffolding, boards, plastic sheets and rolls of tape. Noble was seen to visit on more than one occasion, allowing the others to gain entry.”
The court heard police visited the unit again in August 2013.
“They found the grow had been dismantled,” said Mr Armbrister. “Further inquiries led to search warrants being executed at a number of commercial premises also managed by Noble, including North House in Bertha Street, Hartlepool.
“In this unit police found 360 plant with a potential single yield of 16.2kg of cannabis.”
Noble, 66, of Elwick Road, Hartlepool, denied conspiracy to supply a Class B drug.
He was convicted after a trial lasting two weeks.
Noble admitted a separate offence of fraudulent evasion of £56,000 income tax.
Tobin, 30, of Allerton Close, Hartlepool, Stokle, 39, of Mariner’s Close, Hartlepool, and Wharton, 39, of Crimdon Cottage, Crimdon, each admitted conspiracy to supply a Class B drug.
Tom Finch, for Noble, said he was a man with no relevant previous convictions, who had only acted as a facilitator for the grow.
“Little will be achieved by sending a 66-year-old man to immediate custody,” added Mr Finch.
Ian Mullarkey, for Wharton, said he was a family man with two children and a good work record in the building trade.
Matthew Collins, for Stokle, said prison would punish his partner and two children.
Judge Peter Armstrong jailed Noble for 30 months, Stokle for 14 months, and Wharton for nine months.
The judge said: “This was a significant cannabis growing operation, and in my view people only get involved in that for one reason, which is for the substantial amount of money that can be made.”
The judge issued a warrant for the arrest of Christopher Tobin.