Fifth man charged over ‘skunk’ cannabis find

General shot of cannabis plants
General shot of cannabis plants

A Chinese man accused of involvement in an international cannabis smuggling operation has been refused bail.

Standing in the dock of Newtownards Magistrates’ Court alongside an interpreter, 37-year-old chef Wenjie He confirmed that he understood the four charges against him.

He, whose address was given as no fixed abode in Belfast, is accused of importing cannabis to an address at Dunleath Drive in Ballywalter, conspiring with four co-accused to supply class B cannabis, possessing the ‘skunk’ with intent to supply and transferring criminal property, all of which are alleged to have occurred on various dates between January 1 last year and March 26 this year.

Last week four other men, unemployed 29-year-old Jianwen Chen, from Pine Way in Belfast, Jiazhu Cia, 30, unemployed from Dunleath Drive in Ballywalter, 32-year-old chef Wei Zou, from Beechwood Avenue in Bangor, and kitchen worker Yong He, 33, of no fixed address in Belfast, stood in the same dock where they were all jointly charged with conspiring together on dates between January 1 last year and March 24 this year to supply cannabis to others.

Cia, He and Zou were also jointly charged with transferring criminal property, Cia and He are charged with possessing criminal property and Zou faces a further charge of converting criminal property.

In addition, Zou is accused of importing cannabis to his Beechwood Avenue home while He and Cia are charged with importing cannabis to Cia’s home at Dunleath Drive on March 24.

The charges arise after officers from Organised Crime Branch recovered £800,000 of super strength cannabis known as ‘skunk’ along with cash during searches in Belfast, Greenisland, Bangor, Newtownards and Ballywalter.

Along with the five men, two women were also arrested but they were granted police bail pending further inquiries.

Eight others have also been held in Italy following raids in the Prato and Bologna areas.

Married father-of-two He was arrested in Birmingham before being brought to Northern Ireland for questioning.

The PSNI has described those who have been arrested as “significant members of a crime gang” and it is understood that the gang has successfully smuggled large amounts of herbal ‘skunk’ cannabis from Italy.

In a major breakthrough for the international policing operation on Tuesday, PSNI officers seized a haul of skunk worth an estimated £800,000, along with an undisclosed sum of cash, during 10 planned searches.

He’s solicitor applied for bail during Saturday’s court hearing but a PSNI detective said police were opposed to his release amid fears that he would flee the country, reoffend to recoup the significant financial loss or interfere with the investigation.

Earlier last week the officer described the case as a “proactive investigation into a South East Asian organised crime gang”, outlining how police were aware that since the start of last year, 16 packages had been sent to NI from Italy through a courier and posted to various addresses in the Province including two in the Bangor area which Zou was allegedly directly associated with.

One package containing 10 kilos of herbal cannabis had been intercepted and the officer claimed police suspected the other 15 all contained similar quantities, giving an estimated street value of around £3.2 million of cannabis.

He also revealed that police in Italy had raided three large cannabis factories containing 8,500 cannabis plants, which, according to NI values, would be worth in excess of £4 million.

“This investigation is still ongoing and it’s obviously a very complex investigation involving Italian police, ourselves and the National Crime Agency,” said the officer.

He’s solicitor submitted that he was unlikely to flee as he had family ties and had been living in the Solihull area of Birmingham for the last 13 years.

District Judge Mark Hamill disagreed, however, telling the solicitor he was “persuaded” that He did present a considerable risk of flight and of interfering with the investigation.

Refusing the bail application, the judge remanded He into custody to appear again, along with his co-accused, on April 10 via video link.