A career criminal has been jailed for over four years after police linked him to a large-scale cannabis growing operation after finding pictures of his crops, and of him counting wads of cash, on his mobile phone.
Nigel Barwell, from Coventry, managed an “industrial scale” cannabis growing operation spread across at least five properties, worth an estimated £400,000 a year.
Detectives first linked the 29-year-old to the crime after raiding an address in Willenhall on 26 February last year where 40 cannabis mature plants were found in a single bedroom.
Forensic tests on the flat’s electricity meter - which police said had been tampered with to abstract power for free – revealed Barwell’s fingerprints while his DNA was also recovered from a cigarette butt found in an ashtray.
Police said a raid on another property in the area on the same day “revealed the remnants of a cannabis factory” and further cannabis plants and growing equipment were seized during checks on four other properties.
Barwell had been observed buying hydroponics equipment and more forensics checks on items found in the properties linked him to cannabis production, police said.
On April 10, detectives arrested Barwell from prison in Worcestershire where he was on remand for dangerous driving and ramming several police cars during a pursuit, but he refused to confess to involvement in the cannabis operation.
However, police later found the proof they needed on Barwell’s phone which contained images of rooms “packed with cannabis plants and another of him posing with a large bundle of cash”.
Barwell admitted cultivating cannabis and on Thursday was jailed for four years and six months after appearing in the Birmingham Crown Court.
Investigating officer, Detective Constable Rory Juss, said a drugs expert had told police that Barwell could have made upwards of £400,000 a year from his network of cannabis factories, “and there was evidence in the form of text messages to suggest he was looking to expand his operation”.
Juss continued: “We found thousands of pounds worth of cannabis growing equipment in his garage in Sunnybank Avenue…he was growing cannabis on an industrial scale.
“Barwell is a career criminal, with a long history of offending, and there is little doubt that his drugs empire would be linked to wider criminality impacting on people across Coventry.”
Joss said a Proceeds of Crime Act hearing has been scheduled for later this year where police will look to recover any money or assets Barwell made from his drugs empire.
He said: “We’re determined there will be no drug money left for him to count when he’s eventually released from prison.”
Barwell’s jailing is the latest success for Operation Blue Steel – a concerted clampdown on organised crime and crime families operating in the city.
The operation sees police, the local authority, housing providers, DVLA, probation, the Dept for Work & Pensions and other organisations working together to disrupt gang members and, where possible, press criminal charges.
Two other people – Nicholas Jones and Kyle Burton – were also convicted of helping Barwell manage his drugs factories.
Jones, 22, was arrested returning to his Binley home on March 17 while police were clearing up the “remnants of a recently harvested cannabis crop found in a bedroom”.
And 25-year-old Burton, from Willenhall, admitted acting in a crop maintenance role and after being spotted at one of the raided address in March.
The pair were handed prison terms of three years and 11 months.