Former guest house owner, 73, jailed after allowing ‘professional’ drug gang to run £500,000 cannabis factory from Harrogate properties

A 73-year-old former guest house owner has been jailed for allowing a "professional" drug gang to run a £500,000 cannabis factory in her upmarket properties in Harrogate.

Yoko Banks has been jailed for three-and-a-half years

Yoko Banks rented out her homes for “industrial” cannabis production “in the expectation of significant” profit”, a court heard.

Banks, who owns a string of “highly marketable” properties in some of Harrogate’s most desirable areas, was jailed for three-and-a-half years.

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The drug gang who ran the factory have been jailed for a combined 22 years.

Banks and six gang members appeared for sentencing at Leeds Crown Court on Friday (August 13).

Banks had rented the properties to them through an “unidentified individual who goes by the name of Francesco”, who sub-let the houses to the gang’s ringleader Visar Sellaj, 33, last year.

Sellaj, Kujtim Brahaj, 50, Indrit Brahaj, 27, Bledar Elezaj, 36, Andi Kokaj, 23, and Erblin Elezaj, 31, admitted charges relating to the production and supply of cannabis but only at one property.

Banks, of Harrogate, admitted three counts of being concerned in the supply of cannabis.

Prosecutor Martin Bosomworth said the “professional” gang had invested tens of thousands into the three cannabis factories at Banks’s properties.

The gang dug a trench outside a three-storey Edwardian villa to feed electricity cables to the house to power the cultivation system and bypass the electricity grid.

On one occasion, neighbours spotted the gang digging the ditch underneath a pavement and up the driveway.

When they asked them what they were doing, they were told they were laying cables “for a fast-fibre broadband connection”, the court heard.

Police were called to the five-bedroom villa at about 8.30pm on September 26 last year after reports of a “disturbance” in the street.

Officers found 283 plants in the four growing rooms inside a mock-Tudor house, which was fitted with CCTV cameras. The plants had a potential yield of up to 21 kilos.

Police also found a “large” crossbow and arrows next to the front door.

Mr Bosomworth said the “organised” gang had operated the lighting, electrical and “security” systems remotely through broadband technology.

He told the court they were even able to watch a “live feed” of the drugs bust over the internet.

There were other large grows at two of Banks’s other properties which had the “capability of producing industrial amounts” of highly potent skunk, the court heard.

Mr Bosomworth said that just before the “disturbance” on September 26, two unidentified men turned up at the property in a Citroen van and forced the door open.

Five members of the gang arrived on the scene and chased the van, the court heard.

Following the run-in, the gang went into the property and “made a hasty clearance of such mature cannabis plants as they could find”, the prosecutor said.

They loaded the plants into a rented Transit van which was then driven, along with the Audi, back to London, the court heard.

Police found the remaining 283 plants in the growing rooms and a “large, loaded crossbow” next to the front door.

The Transit van and the Audi were “trapped” on the M1 by police in Hertfordshire and were finally stopped on the M25 just after midnight.

Police found 30kg of “saleable”, harvested cannabis plants inside the van worth about £300,000.

Inside the £26,000 Audi SQ5, which belonged to Sellaj, police found £3,675 cash and an 18-carat-gold Rolex watch worth £28,000.

The total potential yield of the 395 plants was 45 kilos, with a combined value of up to £456,000.

This was in addition to the 30 kilos found in the vans and did not include previous harvest, the court heard.

Although Banks was not involved in the cultivation, she had played a “facilitating” or advisory role in the plot, the court was told.

Banks - who had previous convictions for health-and-safety offences - was due to be paid at least £12,000 a month in rent for the three properties and was also receiving “high” deposits.

Indrit Brahaj, Kokaj, Sellaj and Erblin Elezaj, all admitted being concerned in the production of cannabis and possessing a Class B drug with intent to supply.

Kujtim Brahaj and Bledar Elezaj admitted being concerned in the production of cannabis.

Judge Tom Bayliss QC said the “organised crime group” had “cynically chosen to import a criminal enterprise to Harrogate.”

Sellaj, who had been “directing operations”, was jailed for six years and nine months.

Elizaj was jailed for five years and two months and Indrit Brahaj was jailed for four years and four months.

Kujtim Brahaj and Bledar Elezaj were each jailed for three years for their lesser roles.

Jailing Banks for three-and-a-half years, Mr Bayliss told her: “You have in your time been a successful businesswoman.

“You were, at the time, in some financial difficulties which may explain why you were - a woman in your seventies, a widow with a number of health problems - prepared to get involved with a gang from London.

“You knew that by doing that you were bringing drugs and criminality to Harrogate, a town where you have lived and worked for many years.”

Andi Kokaj, will be sentenced on Monday, August 16.