July 31 2014 Latest news:
Thursday, October 18, 2012
A Norfolk couple jetted off to Kenya to dish out money made from their cannabis factory to villagers and charities.
Michael Foster, 62, and Susan Cooper, 63, who lived in Norwich, pocketed hundreds of thousands of pounds during the sophisticated six year operation - but used much of the £400,000 of their ill-gotten money to help locals in the Kenyan village where they were regular visitors.
Described in court as the “most unusual cannabis growing case of its type” - the couple paid for life-saving surgery, bought computers for a local eye hospital and secured schooling for poor children.
But they were living a double life, selling kilos of cannabis, grown at their farmhouse in Little Sutton, Lincs, and another site in Terrington St Clement, to a drugs baron.
Lincoln Crown Court heard on Monday that the couple were caught after a police raid at Home House Farm, Little Sutton, in June 2010.
The couple moved to Garrett Court off Sprowston Road in Norwich while police investigated the finances and operation of the cannabis farm.
Jon Dee, prosecuting, said: “It perhaps can be best summed up by Mr Foster who told police in his own words during his interview that this started off as a hobby and turned into a business.”
The pair, who were jailed for three years, were only caught when a police officer pursuing a burglar near the couple’s home in Little Sutton recognised the distinctive cannabis smell coming from the property.
Mr Dee said: “At the time this couple were completely off the police radar. They were caught completely by chance.”
When the officer knocked on the farmhouse door Mrs Cooper answered. Inside police found 159 cannabis plants with an estimated street value of around £20,000.
Two of the buildings had been converted into a growing room and drying room.
Officers also recovered £20,000 in £1,000 bundles from a carrier bag.
Mr Dee added: “This was a professional and commercial set up.”
A note from a man called “Jess” found in the farmhouse led police to search a second property linked to the couple in Terrington St Clement.
“It gave the impression of being cleared in a hurry after the balloon had gone up in Long Sutton,” Mr Dee said.
“There was plenty of evidence of cannabis plant growing. Windows had been boarded up, there was a false partition and the impression of the plant pots was still on the floor.”
Investigations showed the annual electricity bill for the Little Sutton farmhouse had risen by £2,000 which the couple explained by claiming to run a pottery business with a kiln.
Bank statements showed around £300,000 had been paid into the couple’s joint account over the six year period between 2004 and 2010. A further £100,000 had gone through an account held in Mrs Cooper’s maiden name.
Mr Dee added: “The Crown accept some of the money will not have come from drug dealing, at some point the home of Mrs Cooper’s mother was sold, but not all the money would have been paid in and £400,000 represents a fair assessment.”
When finally caught in June 2010 Mrs Cooper “apologised profusely” for being unable to answer police questions.
Mr Foster admitted regularly selling wholesale deals of around £1,500 to one buyer who he was introduced to through a loan shark.
Gareth Wheetman, mitigating for Foster, said the couple did not use the cash for lavish living. “The very fact they were repeatedly flying off to Kenya in itself required money,” Mr Wheetman explained.
“But the evidence demonstrates much of the money was being put to charitable and good use.
“While in Kenya they bought a computer for a local eye hospital, paid for children to be put through school and paid for a life saving operation on a man’s gangrenous leg.”
Chris Milligan, mitigating for Cooper, said: “Susan Cooper is a good person who has done a bad thing.
“There is another side to her - she has been a good mother, wife and partner to Mr Foster.”
Cooper had also offered care, to locals in the village near Mombasa where they regularly stayed.
“When a young adult called Wilson got a gangrenous infection in his leg he was given two days to live. She paid for that treatment,” Mr Milligan added.
The pair admitted four charges of producing cannabis and a single offence of possessing criminal cash between March 2004 and June 2010.
Passing sentence Judge Sean Morris said he accepted they were a previously respectable couple of “positive good character”.
But Judge Morris told Foster his own cannabis habit may have led to the psychosis which contributed to his crimes.
“Cannabis does that, it is a dangerous drug too often belittled,” Judge Morris told the couple.
“You were growing it on a significant scale, jetting off to Kenya on it.
“I have seen the pictures of your property, it was a pleasant place to live.
“When police raided it there was £20,000 in a carrier bag.
“Lots of money was going into your bank accounts, over a number of years hundreds of thousands went into your account.
“I am sure you were doing good things in Kenya with your drugs money, whether that was to appease your consciences I can only speculate.”