Convicted drug dealer spared prison after Lancashire Police discover cannabis farm hidden in double garage

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A convicted drug dealer turned the garage of his swish home into a cannabis factory after he was released from a 10-year prison sentence.

Paul Lawler was growing plants with a street value of £44,000 when police raided his detached executive house in Banks near Tarleton.

Officers also found a haul of designer clothing and almost £3,500 in cash when they searched the four-bed property.

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Lawler denied any of it was his, telling police he had been renting the house to a tenant.

Preston Crown Court was told the 47-year-old was on licence from prison for drug trafficking when the cannabis was discovered in May 2021 and had since been recalled to serve a further 16 months.

But this week he was spared an immediate return to jail when Judge Richard Archer decided to give him a chance with a suspended sentence. He warned him that if he committed another offence in the next two years he would find himself back behind bars.

“The choice is very much yours,” he said.

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Lawler, who was jailed back in 2013 for his part in the drugs empire of feared Liverpool gangsters Peter and Stephen Clarke, pleaded guilty to cultivating cannabis and abstracting electricity when appeared before Judge Archer.

Paul Lawler, 47, was previously sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2014 after Preston Crown Court heard he was a trusted member of a gang headed by feared Merseyside gangsters Peter and Stephen ClarkePaul Lawler, 47, was previously sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2014 after Preston Crown Court heard he was a trusted member of a gang headed by feared Merseyside gangsters Peter and Stephen Clarke
Paul Lawler, 47, was previously sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2014 after Preston Crown Court heard he was a trusted member of a gang headed by feared Merseyside gangsters Peter and Stephen Clarke | Lancashire Police

Barrister Charlotte Phillips told the court that police with a search warrant swooped on an address in Westerdale Drive, Banks which was in the process of being renovated. Lawler answered the front door and allowed the officers in.

They noticed a strong smell of cannabis and found an elaborate cultivation set-up in the house’s double garage, with heat lamps, lights, fans and transformers.

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The windows were boarded up and the power supply had been bypassed to extract electricity illegally. Engineers from Electricity North West had to be called in to make the property safe.

During the house search a significant quantity of cash was found under a duvet and a large haul of designer items were also found.

When questioned Lawler told them he was just the landlord of the property and had been renting it out to a man called Stephen Craig. Police could find no record of a man of that name locally.

“My only crime is my naivety”

Lawler denied he himself lived at the property and had only just visited that day for the first time in months because the "tenant" had fallen behind with his rent. He had no knowledge of the cannabis, or the cash and property.

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But police discovered a photograph of him on his mobile phone watching TV in one of the bedrooms and forensic officers found his fingerprints on a piece of drug paraphernalia in the garage.

Lawler told them: “My only crime is my naivety.”

Ms Phillips told the judge there were 89 cannabis plants in the garage, estimated to produce 4,406 grammes of the drug with a street value of £44,060.

Preston Crown CourtPreston Crown Court
Preston Crown Court | Contributed

Lawler’s lawyer urged Judge Archer to draw back from passing an immediate prison sentence saying his client had suffered from mental health issues and had been engaging with solicitors and the probation service.

Handing down a two-year prison sentence suspended for two years, Judge Archer said Lawler’s role in the cannabis factory was a “significant” one.

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The operation in his garage had been “a relatively sophisticated set-up.”

“It was an operation that you obviously knew what it was capable of producing. You had an important function in it and you must have expected a significant cash return. That would have netted you over £44,000.”

A total of 89 plants, with an estimated street value of £44,000 were found. Electricity North West visited the property and confirmed the electricity had been bypassed before carry out the work to make it safeA total of 89 plants, with an estimated street value of £44,000 were found. Electricity North West visited the property and confirmed the electricity had been bypassed before carry out the work to make it safe
A total of 89 plants, with an estimated street value of £44,000 were found. Electricity North West visited the property and confirmed the electricity had been bypassed before carry out the work to make it safe | Getty Images

But he pointed to a long delay in getting the case to court and therefore said: “Had you been dealt with at the time it would have been an immediate custodial sentence.”

He said he would suspend the sentence and would not attach any conditions to it because Lawler had been working voluntarily with mental health agencies.

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But he warned him: “You will be brought back to court if you breach it. You will send yourself to prison if you do. The choice is very much yours.”

The judge ordered the confiscation and destruction of the cannabis and drugs paraphernalia seized in the operation. The designer clothing and cash would also be forfeited.