Three men have been jailed for playing the role of gardeners in a £600,000 cannabis factory.
Officers raided the former Castle Mount residential care home in Egremont on the morning of October 12 last year and found 1,646 cannabis plants across 23 rooms inside the building, estimated to have a street value of more than £600,000.
During the raid, police found defendants Pien Vo, 39, Hung Tran, 30 and Dung Nguyen, 25, at the “highly sophisticated” factory occupying two floors.
“This was done to a high standard and was a significant cannabis growing operation from top to bottom,” said prosecutor William Donnelly.
It is estimated that the plant had been operating for between three and four months before it was detected.
The court heard that the building was registered to a man in Birmingham who bought the property with plans to redevelop the site.
He was unaware of what was going on at the site, the crown court in Carlisle heard.
Judith McCullough, for Tran, said her client had taken an “active role in the political process in Vietnam” as part of an opposition group and “came to the attention of the authorities”.
Fearing for the future, Tran paid in the region of £15,000 to be transported to the UK on the back of vans and lorries and arrived about a year before the cannabis plant was detected.
He first stayed with relatives in London, but it soon became clear that they did not have the financial means to pay off the debt he had accrued.
After unsuccessfully applying for jobs, he was offered a “gardening job”.
“They were brought to Cumbria in a van. They thought they were travelling to Scotland,” Mrs McCullough told the court.
“They were set to work in difficult and harsh conditions.”
Tran acknowledged he “could have left” but he “found himself in a position where he didn’t know what to do”.
Mrs McCullough said her client is worried about the possibility of being deported back to Vietnam and he apologised for “finding himself in this court”.
All three men have applied for political asylum in the UK.
Sean Harkin, for Vo, asked the court to take into account the “intimidation and coercion” in this case.
Sentencing, Recorder Julian Shaw told the defendants: “You were, in essence, gardeners, cultivating and ensuring that the crop was looked after.”
He told the court the factory was unique.
“Mr Donnelly disclosed that in his extensive experience and knowledge in this area that he has never experienced a situation where a sample of plants have been able to produce such a high yield,” Recorder Shaw said.
Addressing the defendants, Recorder Shaw said: “It is blindingly obvious that your role was limited, albeit important, undoubtedly under the direction of others.
“I am told and accept each of you travelled to the country and are present in this country illegally, leaving your home country of Vietnam.”
Recorder Shaw added that he accepted that the defendants “were liable to exploitation”.
“I am not sure Egremont features on a map during geography lessons in Vietnam. You came to this part of the North West as a result of other, undoubtedly ruthless, criminals.”
He said that those criminals have so far “managed to avoid detection”.
“I am satisfied you had no influence on those who recruited you and brought you to Egremont and told you what to do.”
Recorder Shaw jailed Nguyen for 46 weeks, Tran for 39 weeks and Vo for 46 weeks.
They were all also each ordered to pay a £156 victim surcharge.