Frustration as year-long investigation into Kettering's bingo hall cannabis factory fails to make a breakthrough

Despite forensic evidence being recovered, the investigation into the huge find was recently closed

By Sam Wildman
Sunday, 14th June 2020, 7:00 am

It's been exactly one year since a huge £2.8m drug farm was found right under our noses at Kettering's former Gala Bingo hall.

On June 14, 2019, reporters from the Northants Telegraph joined 25 officers as they raided the High Street venue and discovered more than 2,000 cannabis plants across two rooms.

But despite a major investigation, that was only filed as closed four weeks ago, nobody has been arrested as none of the forensic evidence recovered matched DNA or details on the force's database.

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Inside the bingo hall cannabis factory. Picture by David Jackson.

Speaking to the Northants Telegraph, Detective Inspector Dave Harley said he was "very frustrated" that they hadn't been able to make a breakthrough despite the factory hiding in plain sight.

He said: "There's been a lot of work done forensically, a lot of work done on phone calls and data but we just haven't been able to identify a suspect once we have gathered that evidence.

"None of it has clarified exactly who is responsible.

"That doesn't mean further down the line that someone won't come into police custody who we can subsequently link to the investigation, but at the minute we just haven't got the evidence we need to identify a suspect and make an arrest."

Officers force their way into the bingo hall. Picture by David Jackson.

The raid - one of Northamptonshire Police's biggest in recent years - started with police and dogs surrounding the front and rear of the supposedly empty venue and breaking through fencing put up by those behind the criminal operation.

Once inside they booted down the doors as mystified shoppers watched on before officers were greeted with the incredible sight of row upon row of plants, covering all four corners of the property, just three weeks away from being harvested and distributed. Over a year the plants would yield drugs with a street value of almost £3m.

The plants were later taken to a secure facility to be incinerated and the sophisticated hydroponics equipment was destroyed.

It was the second cannabis factory found there in four months after urban explorers disturbed one in February and the occupants scarpered, and Det Insp Harley said nobody had been arrested over the earlier find either.

The plants could have yielded drugs worth almost 3m. Picture by David Jackson.

The bingo hall - which closed in 2018 - had been let to a man on a short-term lease but Det Insp Harley said police were satisfied he was not involved.

He said: "We have interviewed the person who had leased the building and we are as satisfied as we can be that he was not responsible for setting it up or that he was involved in setting up that factory."

The second raid attracted national media coverage and was even depicted in a 'Ganja Bingo' Christmas card from fellow High Street shop The Bean Hive.

With nobody found and arrested in either audacious set-up and no forensics matches, police say they have exhausted all available avenues.

Detective Inspector Dave Harley.

But Det Insp Harley said he was pleased they had taken so many drugs off the streets and firmly believes the people responsible will face justice at some point.

He said: "I think anybody involved in this will have lost out financially but the way it was set up suggests they know what they are doing and they are likely to do it again.

"And we will come across them again, so I do think somebody will come to justice, but all of our available lines of enquiry have been exhausted...other information is always coming into our system about similar premises and suspects and that will give us opportunities to detect this further down the line."

The find came after community intelligence with nearby neighbours telling officers they could smell cannabis. Thermal imaging later showed the building to be warm despite supposedly not being in use.

Det Insp Harley, who has been investigating cannabis factories since 1,500 plants were found at three farms in 1999, urged anyone with suspicions to come forward and "not be afraid of being wrong".

He said: "There's clearly money in cannabis and these individuals will go out and set up somewhere else.

The raid was even made into a greetings card. Credit: The Bean Hive

"I wouldn't put it past the individuals responsible to try this again elsewhere but hopefully the information we have will put them off.

"We are really keen for the public to let us know if they see something suspicious, either at a big otherwise empty industrial premises or at houses. We rely on the public informing us of their suspicions and that was how we were alerted to the factory at the Gala Bingo."

Cannabis factories have blighted towns and villages in the north of the county over the past year.

Just a few days before the bingo hall raid an abandoned curry house in Kettering became a grow-house. In December police sniffed out a huge industrial drug farm in Corby. Others were found in Rushden, Higham Ferrers and Wellingborough, but the finds rarely result in prosecutions and convictions.

One of the few recent prosecutions was of Higham Ferrers cannabis gardener Drilon Kopaci, who was jailed for eight months. Northampton Crown Court heard he had been brought into the country illegally and was told to pay back a debt by looking after the plants.

Det Insp Harley believes this may have been what happened at the Gala Bingo factory because cannabis factories "go hand-in-hand with modern slavery".

He added that he didn't think Northamptonshire had a disproportionate problem with cannabis factories appearing up and down the country.

For now the historic former bingo hall, with its art deco frontage and original 2,000-seater auditorium still mainly intact, remains empty although it was listed as an asset of community value after a successful bid by the Kettering Town Centre Partnership group.

It's unlikely criminals will go back for a third attempt, but Det Insp Harley warned them that they will be onto them wherever they go next.

He said: "Because they will try again we will get them. It is difficult, it is frustrating, but we will catch up with them eventually."

Anyone with information about a suspected cannabis factory should call police on 101.

A year-long investigation has failed to make a breakthrough. Picture by David Jackson.