Switched On verdicts revealed

By Edward Gay, Kieran Campbell

Photo / File
Photo / File

The owner and general manager of Switched on Gardener have been found guilty of drugs charges but acquitted on more serious charge of belonging to an organised criminal group.

The jury returned their verdicts today after deliberating for more than 14 hours over three days at Auckland District Court following a nine-week trial.

The company's owner Michael Quinlan, two of his companies and general manager Peter Bennett were found guilty of possessing and supplying equipment to grow cannabis.

But three others - business development manager Ricky Cochrane, distribution manager Andrew Barry Mai and the South Island manager Paul Kenneth Barlow - were acquitted of all charges.

All five men were acquitted on the most serious charge of belonging to an organised criminal group which carries a maximum prison term of 10 years in jail.

Two women in court to support the accused men sighed with relief as those verdicts were read out by the jury forewoman.

Crown prosecutor Gareth Kayes opposed bail for Quinlan and Bennett on the grounds that a prison sentence was "inevitable".

But Judge Gus Andree Wiltens said he would allow the pair out on bail.

"These gentleman will need to get their affairs in order."

They are to be sentenced in February next year.

Outside court, the pair's lawyer Paul Davison QC said the families of Quinlan and Bennett were devastated by the verdicts, despite being acquitted of the most serious charge.

"They defended the charges because they believed they were not guilty and the verdicts are a disappointment to them."

Mr Davison said Quinlan and Bennett would have the Christmas period to "take on board" the verdicts and contemplate their sentences next year.

He said the over-arching message from the jury's verdict was that Switched On Gardener had not operated as a criminal business.

"It's certainly the more serious charge because that has the implications of a business which is being run for the purposes of using criminal activity to exploit profit and it's certainly not what this business was about."

During the trial, the Crown said Switched on Gardener was a "one-stop shop" for cannabis growing equipment. Marijuana was allegedly smoked at the staff Christmas party and some of the 16 shops around the country were hooked up with extractor fans allowing staff to smoke the Class C drug during their breaks.

The Crown also said cannabis was smoked by management at stock-taking sessions.

The prosecution relied on evidence from undercover police officers who posed as customers and spoke to staff at shops around the country. Some were able to buy cannabis plants and ounces of the drug from shop staff.

But Judge Andree Wiltens - who summed up the case on Monday - said the case was not about the workers at the coalface.

"The Crown doesn't say each of the accused supplied the equipment. They are at the higher echelon, they are the managers and the owner. They are not on the shop floor."

He said the Crown's case was that the drug activity went on with the permission of the bosses or with them turning a blind eye.

Even the shop's logo included a marijuana leaf and some of the company's vans had number plates that included "bud one" and "bud freight".

But Judge Andree Wiltens said there were "two sides of the story".

He said Quinlan was effectively retired at the close of the police operation, code-named Operation Lime.

"He doesn't go to the shop on a day-to-day basis. He's more into the Warriors [rugby league team] and good on him."

Judge Andree Wiltens said Bennett told staff there was to be no drugs on site and if they got caught they were on their own.

Cochrane's defence was that he brought the equipment in from overseas but had no say in what was sold in the shops. Mai's lawyer said he was paid only $16 an hour and filled the orders from the individual shops at the company's west Auckland headquarters.

Barlow's lawyer said he was responsible only for the South Island.

Judge Andree Wiltens said the defence case was that the only illegal activity was occurring at the bottom of the business structure, and bosses could not be held responsible.

Many of the Switched on Gardener employees caught up in the undercover operation have pleaded guilty to supplying equipment to grow drugs.

The judge said the defence had also shown that some of the equipment sold at Switched on Gardener shops was also sold at police auctions.

"It's all about the line - what is lawful and what is not."

Judge Andree Wiltens also warned the jurors to ignore their personal views on marijuana laws.

"Some people may not like the fact that possession of cannabis and the consumption of cannabis is against the law, but it is.

"Regardless of whether you might like the fact - it is illegal."

- APNZ

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