James Hooper drove a hired van containing 11.7 kilograms of freshly harvested cannabis from Wales to Chivenor in North Devon, where it was due to be picked up by dealers. He left the van in Hawkbridge Road, Chivenor, but police intercepted it before the handover could take place after being alerted to the pungent smell. The drugs were packed into four crisp boxes. Hooper's name was found on the car hire documents along with two addresses. One was his former home near Torrington, North Devon, and the other was a rented house in Pontypridd, South Wales. Police raided the house in Wales and discovered that it had been converted into a sophisticated cannabis growing factory with lights and fans. Hooper vanished without trace after the drugs were seized in August 2017 and remained on the run until he was arrested at Heathrow Airport on June 28 this year as he was about to board a plane to Addis Ababa. He told police he had taken out a business loan with unauthorised lenders who had bullied him into growing the drugs after finding out that he had done it in the past. Hooper, formerly of Sticklepath, Barnstaple, but now living in Grimsby, admitted production of cannabis and possession of the drug with intent to supply. He was jailed for three years and four months by Recorder Mr Roger Harris at Exeter Crown Court. He ordered that £3,335 cash seized at Heathrow should be paid as compensation to the owner of the house in Pontypridd to cover some of the £11,500 damage done to it. The judge told Hooper: "The factors increasing seriousness are clearly your previous conviction. This is not the first time you have come before the courts for producing cannabis. There was also the damage to the property." Miss Rachel Drake, prosecuting, said police were alerted to a strong smell coming from the van, which was left parked in Chivenor on August 8, 2017. They recovered the drugs in four large cardboard boxes and traced the grow site in Birchwood Venue, Treforest, Pontypridd, through the car hire agreement. Owner Deborah Young had leased it to Hooper but had no idea he had stripped it out and turned it into a massive cannabis farm capable of producing the 11.7 kilos which were found in the van. The drugs were worth up to £117,240 if split in street deals or £77,000 if sold in bulk. Hooper's fingerprints and DNA were found on the packing. He told police he was growing the drugs in Wales to pay off a debt to loan sharks who had told him to drive the van to Chivenor and leave the keys nearby. He said he went to lie low in Grimsby to avoid them after they blamed him for the cannabis being seized by the police. He had a previous conviction for growing a crop of cannabis with a potential value of £65,000 at Sticklepath in 2012. On that occasion he claimed he was carrying out botanical research and had no intention of selling it. Miss Rachel Smith, defending, said Hooper had been a successful businessman running his own building business until it folded in the recession. He borrowed money from unofficial lenders without realising they were loan sharks. They demanded repayment earlier than agreed and then forced him to grow the cannabis to satisfy the debt. She said he went to Grimbsy to avoid the lenders rather than the police and was going to Ethiopia because he his wife and three-year-old child live there, and not to flee justice. He had a return ticket and planned to go back to Grimsby, where he had been running a small building business.