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Drug kingpin facing prison

By Whitstable Times  |  Posted: July 21, 2011

ART dealer John Read is facing a long spell behind bars after a jury decided he was the mastermind behind a multi-million pound drugs ring.

Read, 54, of Marine Parade, Whitstable thought he was in the clear despite police smashing their way into his drugs factories. But a paper trail of forged documents led back to his desk.

His gang was producing cannabis in three farms including one hidden in a warehouse behind Whitstable's Tesco store, Canterbury Crown Court heard.

The illegal business was busted by undercover cops on Operation Nursery, one of Kent Police's biggest anti-drugs operations.

On Wednesday after 10 hours of deliberation a jury unanimously found Read guilty on six charges of conspiring to produce cannabis and perverting the course of justice.

His friend and business partner Roger Coombs, 70, of Crawley, Sussex, was cleared of three conspiracy charges but found guilty of perverting the course of justice.

Four Vietnamese teenage boys – two as young as 13 – had been found guilty of producing cannabis at sites at Higher Shelvin Farm, Canterbury, the Tesco site and Coombe Valley Road, Dover.

The court heard Read used his gallery Art Tank in Tankerton Road, Whitstable, and a graphic design business as cover for his crooked activities.

Rent for the drugs factories passed through the gallery which never seemed to make any sales.

The court heard graphic designer Coombs only became a director because Read was blacklisted by Companies House.

Coombs went to Tankerton Road once a month to bank money and sign cheques. Read ran the business.

The first police raid took place at a barn at Higher Shelvin Farm, Canterbury where cannabis plants worth £1 million were uncovered.

Acting on a tip-off, detectives then swooped on the site of a former Renault car dealership in Coombe Valley Road, Dover.

Inside they found the walls had been pulled down and discovered a consignment of cannabis plants also worth £1 million about to be harvested.

They were being tended to by two Vietnamese boy gardeners aged 13 and 14, who lived in a small office with a shrine and cooker, and never went out.

The rest of the premises were being converted into a bigger farm.

Documents found there led detectives to the Whitstable site, a former photographic studio rented from Tesco.

The raid on that property unearthed drugs worth a further £1 million plus lighting equipment and pumps which could produce several crops a year.

Detective Constable Dave Godden said: "There is no doubt this was a professional operation.

"Closing down these three factories has saved a lot of misery in the UK."

The court heard Read used Coombs as a shield for his shady activities, making him sign company cheques or paying in cash to the bank believing it was from picture sales.

During the trial Read claimed a Vietnamese woman bought four pictures painted by local artist Ron Chadwick.

This was news to Mr Chadwick who is still in possession of two of them. He sold the other two himself.

Coombs told detectives he thought he was being "stitched up" by Read

He had signed documents making him the leaseholder of the former Renault showroom, even though he never set foot in the place.

Judge Peter Gower warned Read he faced a substantial prison sentence.

Read was remanded in custody until August 15 while Coombs was bailed for probation reports. The trial had taken five weeks.

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