In an overgrown embankment near the coast of Wales in the U.K., two abandoned railroad tunnels lie unnoticed. But when the local police receive a tip-off about some sinister goings-on, they probably had no idea about the magnitude of what they were about to discover.
This story concerns the Faenol Tunnels, which are located on the Menai Business Park near Bangor in north Wales. Once a part of the Bangor-to-Caernarfon railway, they were abandoned when the line closed in 1972.
For nearly 40 years, in fact, the tunnels sat empty. Then, at some point in 2009 or 2010, a director of the estate that owns the tunnels encountered builder Gerald Davies at a local event.
As a result of this meeting, Davies and the director struck up a deal: in return for cheap rent, the builder could use the tunnels to establish a mushroom-growing business. Indeed, Davies later partnered with building designer Kenneth John Vincent to launch Menai Mushrooms.
The goal of the business? Well, the pair planned to use the underground space to grow chestnut and shiitake mushrooms. They even reached an agreement with a nearby mushroom aficionado, who was happy to share his expert knowledge.
Surprisingly, the expert estimated that, with proper attention, the business could bring in as much as $200,000 a year. To achieve such a figure, however, the businessmen decided to take a slightly unconventional route.
And by “unconventional,” we actually mean “illegal.” For, in 2012, Welsh police received a tip-off: apparently it wasn’t just mushrooms being grown in the Faenol Tunnels. Indeed, when the cops arrived there on May 9 to investigate, what they discovered proved to be one of the region’s most elaborate criminal operations.
First, officers had to penetrate two sets of metal doors and a steel gate to gain access to the tunnels. This, by itself, must have seemed like extreme safety precautions to protect a humble mushroom farm.
Then, hidden in the floor of a portable building, they discovered a secret trapdoor. And when the officers ventured through the door, they discovered just why the tunnels had been so heavily protected.
At the end of a passageway were five big rooms. Their purpose? The illegal cultivation of cannabis plants. Stunningly, the extent of the stock in one room was estimated to be worth almost $300,000.
Police further estimated that the illicit operation could have netted its owners upwards of $2 million a year. Moreover, experts believe that it was one of the most sophisticated ventures of its kind ever discovered in North Wales.
It was certainly substantial. After all, trees had been cut back and an abandoned road had been brought back into use. Plus, almost 45 tons of aggregate was used to line the floors of the tunnels. Inside, meanwhile, elaborate ventilation and electrical systems were installed.
What’s more, the hidden part of the tunnels, which was broken up into 11 sections, stretched for more than 200 feet. There was even a staff room complete with a TV and a microwave.
Nothing had seemingly been overlooked. For example, an extraction system helped the operation go undetected by filtering out cannabis’ distinctive smell. Furthermore, almost 90 specialist lights delivered energy to the growing plants, while 11 fans prevented the facility from overheating.
“The officer in the case described the set up as one of the best he had encountered in 22 years of service as a drugs officer,” prosecutor Gareth Preston told WalesOnline. “The simple fact is that this is one of the best designed and constructed commercial operations that North Wales Police have ever encountered.”
Indeed, police found a total of 1,207 cannabis plants within the Faenol Tunnels, which could have accommodated around 1,600 more. Such yields would have netted Davies and Vincent a small fortune.
After the raid, police apprehended Vincent in his vehicle on a road near the tunnels. He was in possession of the keys to the facility, along with notes describing the details of the build.
Police also soon caught up with Davies and two other men accused of working in the tunnels – Philip Bigley and Christopher McIntyre. Consequently, on December 3, 2012, the four men stood in the dock at Mold Crown Court.
At the trial, Vincent and Davies admitted to crimes of “producing cannabis and conspiring to supply a class B drug.” Their defense rested on the claim that Menai Mushrooms had been a legitimate business and that they had been persuaded to launch an illicit enterprise after others had seen the tunnels’ cannabis-growing potential.
Both were sentenced to three years and four months in prison. Bigley and McIntyre, who were believed to have gotten involved to settle drug debts, were each sentenced to a year inside. However, officials suspected that the brains behind the operation, thought to be a group of criminals from Liverpool, were still at large.