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Men found in attic above cannabis farm claimed they were ‘watering the plants’

Three men were found hiding in the attic of an abandoned pub which had been transformed into a huge cannabis farm.

Police paid a visit to The Tricorn in Palacefields, Runcorn after receiving reports of a group of men breaking into the property using a back gate on January 9, according to the Liverpool Echo.

Upon entering the Grade-II listed building, officers discovered 343 cannabis plants and growing equipment across three rooms, with indications that a further two rooms were being prepped to also produce the Class B drug.

Gerald Baxter, prosecuting at a trial of issue hearing last month, said authorities found Erjoni Ramaj, 24, of no fixed address; Tafil Ramaj, 24, of Balcombe Road, Horley, Surrey; and Alensio Rucaj, now 21, of High Street, Kettering, Northamptonshire in the loft of the derelict building.

A car registered to Tafil Ramaj was found nearby.

Mr Baxter said the plants were a metre tall, had a potential yield of between 9.5kg and 28.5kg, and were worth between £38,000 and £200,000 in wholesale terms, or from £112,000 to £336,000 in “street value”.

All three suspects later pleaded guilty to producing cannabis, but disputed the prosecution case that they had played a significant role.

Tafil Ramaj, 24, of Balcombe Road, Horley, was caught hiding in the loft with two other men.

They now face being deported in the New Year.

They issued pleas on the basis they had travelled up from London that day, with the Ramaj cousins claiming they had been sent to water the plants and Rucaj to set up some equipment.

They said they had only been at The Tricorn for up to 20 minutes when officers from Cheshire Police arrived.

Police uncovered a cannabis farm at the vacant Tricorn pub on Stonebarn Lane in Palacefields, Runcorn.
Police uncovered a cannabis farm at the vacant Tricorn pub on Stonebarn Lane in Palacefields, Runcorn.

Chester Crown Court heard the men had agreed to carry out some work to pay off a debt to someone called “Tony” who helped them enter the UK illegally to flee what a judge called “difficult circumstances” in their home country of Albania.

Summarising the prosecution case at a trial of issue over whether the men played significant or minor roles in running the drug, Mr Baxter said: “The Crown doesn’t accept that the defendants travelled all the way from London to Runcorn in order to water cannabis plants – that’s certainly what Erjoni Ramaj and Tafil Ramaj say, or to carry out a day’s manual labour as Rucaj says.

Erjoni Ramaj, 24, of Balcombe Road, Horley, has been jailed.
Erjoni Ramaj, 24, of Balcombe Road, Horley, has been jailed.

“The Crown doesn’t accept that they had not done any work previously on that cannabis farm.”

Simon Christie, acting for Tafil Ramaj, Michael Scholes for Erjoni Ramaj, and Jonathan Turner, for Alensio Rucaj, challenged this.

Mr Scholes led the opposition to the prosecution case when the case concluded on Friday, telling Chester Crown Court that phone evidence recovered by the police showed no conversations relating to drugs and that no automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) evidence had been produced to prove any other trips to Runcorn had taken place.

Cannabis was found growing in three rooms of the pub with signs of two further room conversions taking place.
Cannabis was found growing in three rooms of the pub with signs of two further room conversions taking place.

He said: “There were a number of opportunities for the Crown to have produced evidence to undermine the assertions contained in the basis of plea.

“No enquiry has been made to establish whether there’s any forensic connection between my client, and I believe the same applies to the two other defendants.”

To the prosecution’s allegation that the men played a “much wider role” than having arrived on that day to tend the farm as “merely being gardeners”, Mr Scholes said: “Where is the evidence to suggest that’s so?”.

The defendants had no previous convictions.

Recorder Mark Ainsworth, presiding, said the defendants’ involvement fell between the two sets of prosecution and defence claims.

He said: “It seems to me, when it’s described as between the two, that was probably right.”

Recorder Ainsworth sentenced each defendant to two years in prison.

Alensio Rucaj, 21, of High Street, Kettering, Northamptonshire.
Alensio Rucaj, 21, of High Street, Kettering, Northamptonshire.

He said he didn’t believe that “three men would travel such a long distance to water the plants and leave”, but said there wasn’t any evidence to indicate any previous involvement.

In his trial of issue ruling on Friday, he said: “I accept as I’ve indicated that they had only been on the premises for a very short time when the police arrived.

“The evidence in respect of that is clear.

“First of all there’s the absence of evidence to the contrary.

“Text messages between the three men didn’t include reference to drugs.

“There’s no forensic evidence to link the men with the premises such as fingerprints and there’s no evidence whether be cell site or ANPR to indicate the men have travelled to Runcorn prior to January 9.

“Then you have the evidence from the police themselves, that they had been called to the scene that morning on the basis two or three men were trying to break into the premises which would suggest they were just arriving.

“I accept when the police arrested these men they hadn’t been there for a significant period of time.”

The court heard the Ramaj cousins and Rucaj are due to be released in January, having already served nine months on remand.

They are then likely to be deported, pending Proceeds of Crime Act proceedings are dropped due to their absence of available assets beyond Tafil Ramaj’s Toyota Avensis, weighed against the public interest.




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