OCG who conspired to run multi-million-pound cannabis factories in East Lancashire jailed
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While unravelling the three-year conspiracy our officers arrested numerous people, uncovered cannabis factories valued at more than £2million in Burnley and Pendle and seized thousands of pounds of cash.
The cannabis factories, controlled by the head of the OCG Waqas Mahmood, used Vietnamese nationals to cultivate and harvest the cannabis. Similarities linked the factories including the use of large Sports Direct shopping bags to conceal cannabis related products and equipment. Each factory used of large amounts of vinegar and fabric conditioner to mask the smell of the drug.
We first launched an investigation into the OCG in September 2017 when we received information about a potential cannabis farm inside Whitefield Mill, Maurice Street, Nelson.
Although there were legitimate businesses operating from the mill, our officers found cannabis plants valued at £715,500 on the second floor.
Enquiries led our officers discover that defendant Asif Iqbal was responsible for that floor of the mill. The investigation identified that attempts had been made to steal the cannabis within. Subsequently, the OCG took measures to protect the valuable drug, including the installation of CCTV cameras and security lights, installed by OCG’s electrician, Philip Wilkinson. The same CCTV cameras caught Iqbal and other men of South East Asian appearance leaving the mill with bin liners containing cannabis plants and cannabis cultivation equipment. They were driven to the mill by defendant Mihai Dumitru who assisted others in loading the bags into a Mercedes Sprinter van driven by Iqbal. Prior to these events, Mahmood was captured on CCTV entering the mill and directing Iqbal and Dumitru.
The defendants went on to move the cannabis plants and growing equipment to Trafalgar Mill, Trafalgar Street in Burnley, owned by the defendant Mahmood for fear of their harvest being ‘taxed’ by a rival OCG. This took place over several days. The cannabis and equipment was moved using Sport Direct bags, with CCTV enquiries revealing that on one occasion 150 cannabis plants were moved in one go.
Officers began to investigate further and linked a previous incident to the group. In June 2017, officers received a call to say numerous people had forced entry into Trafalgar Mill. A number of people, including a Vietnamese national, were detained and a cannabis factory valued at £225,000 was found within the basement. Mahmood was arrested around a week later in connection with the discovery but later released under investigation. It is believed the persons forced entry intending to steal the cannabis.
Iqbal was arrested in October 2017, with £1,255 found in his safe and £385 found in the same bedroom. With Mahmood making numerous attempts to call his co-defendant during the execution of the warrant, the search led officers to another house linked to Iqbal in Colne Road, Brierfield. At that address our officers found cannabis plants with a street value of £122,000 spread over four floors. Large Sports Direct bags and fabric softener were also present.
A Vietnamese national was present in the house when officers arrived. She was later dealt with by Immigration officers.
In November 2017 our officers executed a warrant at a four-storey property in Leeds Roads, Nelson, a property again linked to Waqas Mahmood, which was heavily secured. Inside officers found cannabis plants, with a street value of £343,500, were being grown across seven rooms. Sports Direct bags, vinegar and fabric softener were also present.
Two Vietnamese nationals, who were in the UK illegally, were found inside the premises. They later pleaded guilty to cannabis production offences.
While our officers were present, Mahmood and Khalid arrived and said they owned the premises but rented it to Iqbal. As part of the investigation, officers recovered CCTV evidence that captured Dumitru attending the premises on a number of occasions, again delivering persons of South East Asian appearance to the location, delivering and removing Sports Direct bags to the cannabis factory.
In April 2018 our officers attended Trafalgar Mill due to an overwhelming smell of cannabis. With heightened security, including the same metal gates within the mill as seen Whitefield Mill and Leeds Road, our officers had to force their way in.
Inside, we found nearly 1,000 cannabis plants, Sports Direct bags, vinegar, fabric softener and three Vietnamese men who had been cultivating the plants.
Mahmood also attended the premises while our officers were there and said he owned the property. Again, officers found legitimate businesses operating within the mill, the owners of these were simply unaware of the criminality taking place behind the scenes.
CCTV cameras installed by the OCG showed Khalid and Dumitru attending the property and unloading Sport Direct bags into the mill, as well as extraction units, fans and heaters. Defendant Philip Wilkinson, who carried out electrical work for the OCG, spent numerous hours over the proceeding day at the premises.
A few days later, Mahmood, Wilkinson, Dumitru, and Khalid were captured there together. On that occasion, Wilkinson, Khalid and Dumitru took Sports Direct branded bags into a part of the mill where a concealed entrance to a cannabis factory was later found. On the same night, Khalid was captured delivering a person of South-East Asian appearance to the mill, he was led to the concealed entrance by Dumitru.
In August 2018, Khalid, Mahmood, Dumitru, Iqbal and Wilkinson were initially arrested in connection with the conspiracy. They were released under investigation whilst further evidence was collated.
In April 2020, two people were arrested on suspicion of burglary at the mill, trying to break into the site. The suspects told officers they were attempting to steal cannabis from within the premises.
Inside the mill, our officers eventually found a well concealed cannabis factory in the basement. Officers seized 10 Sport Direct bags filled with ready-packaged cannabis and cannabis plants valued at £378,000. Further cannabis valued at more than £26,000 was found in a fridge. Three Vietnamese men were also found within the property were arrested.
Following consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service, the following five defendants were charged and subsequently convicted of conspiracy to produce a Class B drug and sentenced to the following.
Mahmood, 03/10/1979, of Reedley Drive, Burnley. Found guilty and jailed for 10 years.
Khalid, 06/02/1981, of Reedley Drive, Burnley. Found guilty and jailed for six and a half years.
Iqbal, 16/11/1980, of no fixed address. Pleaded guilty and jailed for 64 months.
Dumitru, 03/08/1980, of Ford Street, Burnley. Pleaded guilty and jailed for two years and eight months.
Wilkinson, 09/07/1981, of Tennyson Street, Briercliffe. Pleaded guilty and jailed for two years and eight months.
T/DS Andrew Maden, of East Division, said: “This was a complex investigation to disrupt and dismantle the criminal efforts of a significant OCG.
“I’d like to thank the members of the public who assisted this investigation and those who were called to give evidence. I’d also like to thank the jury for their diligent consideration of the evidence in coming to their guilty verdicts for Mahmood and Khalid following a seven-week trial at Burnley Crown Court earlier this year.
“I hope the result of this case and the significant sentence handed down to the three main members of the OCG send out a strong message that Lancashire Police will not tolerate this kind of behaviour on our streets.
“I know people will have their own views on cannabis, but it’s cultivation and sale funds serious and organised crime and often leads to violence. This can be seen in this case by the attempts of rival OCGs to tax it.”
The operation was part of Operations Warrior, Lancashire Police and Crime Commissioner Andrew Snowden’s Fighting Crime Plan priority of disrupting and dismantling organised crime.
Mr Snowden said: "It's important that we send a clear message to criminals that police are coming to get you, and this is another great example of the work officers do, every single day, to disrupt and dismantle organised crime gangs and put them behind bars.
"It's what Op Warrior is all about, taking the fight to criminals that blight our communities, delivering on my Fighting Crime Plan and seeing even more arrests, more asset seizures and more drugs off our streets. Results like this, which will directly make Lancashire safer, are what the public want to see and deliver on a top priority in my Fighting Crime Plan.
"I would encourage anyone to report suspicious activity, or any information that might help in bringing criminals to justice. We continue to go after more and make sure those involved in organised crime feel the full force of the law and have their day in court."