The Huge Cannabis Farm and Four Slaves Hidden Inside a Nuclear Bunker
February 23, 2017:
The streets of Chilmark, a small, centuries-old picture-postcard village, surrounded by fields and woodland, 95 miles west of London are quiet, as usual. In summer, sun warms the distinctive yellow Chilmark stone of the quaint cottages which line the narrow lanes but this February day the weather is cloudy and damp. The village’s only pub, The Black Dog, will be opening for lunch in a few hours. South of Chilmark, on the narrow road leading to the larger village of Tisbury, a figure comes wandering into view. If approached, the young man would have an incredible tale to tell: he has been held prisoner along with three other ‘gardeners’ in a former nuclear bunker on the edge of Chilmark and forced to grow cannabis. Last night the bunker was raided by police but he made his escape through an air shaft. Having walked for a mile or so, he now finds himself in the middle of the English countryside with no idea what to do.
The film and TV super-fan turned cannabis farmer
The idea of settling up a cannabis growing operation in a former Ministry of Defence nuclear bunker in rural Wiltshire came to Martin Fillery after he wrote a screenplay about cannabis production. In his early 40s but looking younger with receding dirty blond hair, a thin mouth, cold blue-grey eyes and a metal bar through his left eyebrow, turning to screenwriting and then to large-scale cannabis farming seems to have been a new direction for Fillery, a musician who published on Soundcloud and an avid collector of film and TV memorabilia. Fillery owned an impressive collection worth an estimated one million pounds, including a full-sized Iron Man model, a Stormtrooper suit, and several vehicles including the Blues Brothers’ Bluesmobile. He ran a business where he rented these out.
Fillery’s collection made the news in 2013 when he sold off his 4.8m (16ft) tall, £10,000 (14,000 USD) replica of the All-Terrain Scout Transport vehicle from Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi. In news stories from that time, he was photographed surrounded by large film and TV props outside his detached home near the popular tourist destination of Bath. Earlier, in 2004, he had built a replica of the DMC DeLorean from Back to the Future. He also owned the actual BMW 6-series ‘hovercar’ seen in Back to the Future II.
At the time he hatched his cannabis growing scheme, Fillery was not a Chilmark local but lived in a large detached home in an idyllic setting on the outskirts of the town of Bridgewater two counties and 50 miles away in Somerset. Fillery leased the Chilmark bunker in 2013 and used it to store some of his vast and valuable collection of TV and film memorabilia and replicas.
In the 1980s, the threat of nuclear war was very real. The British government needed somewhere its leaders and employees could safely shelter in the event of a nuclear strike on England. The bunker which later became Fillery’s cannabis farm was built at RAF Chilmark in the mid-1980s as an RGHQ (Regional General Headquarters) to be used in case of nuclear war and was designed to be impenetrable. It was shut down in 1992 and sold by the Ministry of Defence in 1997, eventually being leased by Fillery in 2013.
‘The bunker’ was in fact a sprawling underground complex designed to house and provide workspace for 150 civil servants to ‘keep Britain going’ after a nuclear attack. The bunker complex comprised more than 20 rooms, split over two floors, with each floor approximately 61m (200ft) long and 20m (70ft) wide.
When Fillery took over the bunker he would have found plumbed-in toilets, blast-proof metal doors and even a room set up to be a BBC radio studio.
Spending around £140,000 (195,000 USD), Fillery converted the bunker into a large-scale cannabis farm. Twenty rooms of the bunker complex were used to grow and dry plants and one white-washed windowless room was used as accommodation for four enslaved ‘gardeners’ who lived in the bunker and tended to the crop 24 hours a day.
It’s not clear how Fillery knew the two accomplices in his cannabis farming scheme: Plamen Nguyen and Ross Winter. Fillery had the ‘leading role’ in the operation. Winter provided transport whilst Nguyen was a ‘liaison’ for the Vietnamese ‘gardeners’ trapped in the bunker to tend to the cannabis plants. Nguyen was in his mid-20s with sleepy green eyes, a cupid’s bow mouth and a scar across his left eyebrow. Nguyen lived in the city of Bristol, 40 miles from Chilmark, in a smart new housing development where small apartments sell for over £200,000 (278,000 USD). Winter was in his late 20s with slicked-back dirty blond hair, blue-grey eyes and a frown line between his eyebrows. Winters lived in a large semi-detached house worth over a quarter of a million pounds on the outskirts of Bristol.
Professional electricians were brought in to wire up an illegal connection to the mains supply and Fillery and his accomplices stole £650,000 (over 900,000 USD) worth of electricity from a nearby pylon to power the hundreds of lights and fans the farm needed. A borehole was drilled to pipe in fresh water. It was a sophisticated set up capable of producing a cannabis crop every six weeks, and with the potential to produce about two million pounds’ worth of cannabis per year. The farm was operational for about three years.
According to The Guardian, Fillery and Winter visited the bunker during the night most weeks “to bring in supplies for the workers and take away harvested crops. Their visits lasted from several minutes to seven hours, during which time they kept both the bunker door and the outer gates locked.”
Living full-time in the bunker were four Vietnamese ‘gardeners’: two men aged 37 and 19, a teenager aged only 15, and another male of unknown age. They worked in the tropical temperatures needed for the plants to grow, had no access to daylight, and limited access to fresh air.
Sleeping together in one windowless room on mattresses on the floor they had a fully stocked kitchen, with food and water supplies to last weeks, and a large flat-screen TV for entertainment, but little else. Their few clothes were strung up on a line across one wall and rubbish and belongings littered the floor of their bedroom. The had use of the bathrooms installed in the 1980s when the bunker was built.
In early 2017 presumably they did not know that the bunker was being watched. Police had been tipped off by dog walkers who had noticed a strange smell. Following a month of covert surveillance via CCTV police were about to conduct a midnight raid.
On a damp and cloudy February night police staked out the bunker until Fillery, Nguyen and Winter arrived. With the knowledge that the bunker was almost completely impenetrable, officers had waited outside for Fillery and co. and then detained them, using their keys to gain entry.
When they raided the bunker, the police found three of the four Vietnamese ‘gardeners’ locked behind a five-inch door strong enough to withstand a nuclear blast-wave. In what must have been a surreal moment, police also stumbled across several full-sized Daleks inside the bunker, part of Fillery’s collection.
Police found over 4,400 cannabis plants, as well as 6,500 ‘used’ plants. About 20kg of harvested and dried cannabis was also found with a value of around £99,000 (138,000 USD).
It took the police more than ten days to clear out the site.
Fillery, Nguyen and Winter were immediately arrested on suspicion of cannabis production and human trafficking offences.
The three ‘gardeners’ found at the bunker were arrested on suspicion of cannabis production and transported 30 miles north to Melksham Police Station. They were released the next day without being charged. However, police immediately contacted immigration officials and the three men were re-arrested for immigration offences, along with the fourth ‘gardener’ who had been found wandering the country lane leading away from the bunker.
Were they slaves?
In the opinion of Detective Inspector Paul Franklin, who helped uncover the bunker, the ‘gardeners’ were enslaved: “It was slavery…There’s no doubt. They weren’t there by choice. They were trafficked from Vietnam, they were placed there and told to work.” Franklin continued: “We told them they were victims, we offered them a way out and we asked them to make statements. They all refused.” The ‘gardener’ who had managed to escape through the air-vent was found with over £1,000 (about 1,400 USD) on him. Because of this, and because he had managed to get out of the bunker despite the locked doors, proving that the men had been kept locked up as slaves became harder. Especially as, likely due to threats to their families back in Vietnam, all of the men refused to talk.
On Saturday 25 Feb 2017, Fillery, Nguyen and Winter appeared in court in Swindon, Wiltshire charged with conspiring to hold another person in slavery/servitude, and with conspiracy to produce cannabis and abstracting electricity without authority.
The trio appeared in court again in June 2017 to plead guilty to conspiracy to produce class B drugs and abstracting electricity. The slavery charges were dropped due to a lack of evidence.
Detective Inspector Simon Pope, who led the later stages of the investigation, later said of the ‘gardeners’ used by the trio: “These people are in fear… I would have really liked to have attempted to get a prosecution under the modern-day slavery offences because they were being exploited.”
The trio’s sentencing took place on August 11 2017. Fillery received an eight-year sentence for conspiracy to produce cannabis, abstracting electricity and money laundering.
Fillery’s one-million-pound collection of film and TV memorabilia, much of which had been bought with proceeds from his cannabis farm, was later auctioned off with the money going to the UK Government. Items auctioned included the Stormtrooper suit and a life-size model of the Terminator’s skeleton. Collectors from across Europe headed to Belfast, Northern Island for the auction but in the end, it raised only £340,000 (473,000 USD). Amongst the items auctioned off was a replica Batboat from the 1960s Batman TV show which sold for £15,000 (20,000 USD).
Nguyen and Winter were both jailed for five years for conspiracy to produce class B drugs and abstracting electricity.
The sentencing was presided over by Judge Keith Cutler, a veteran judge called to the bar in 1972 and once, in a bizarre mix-up, asked to serve as a juror for a trial where he was presiding. Judge Cutler told the trio: “Each of you has played a part in what amounts to one of the most serious crimes that this area has seen for a long while…Chilmark is essentially an English village, (a) picture-book beauty.”
By the time of the trio’s sentencing, three of the ‘gardeners’ had been deported from the UK, and the fourth was appealing their deportation order after having claimed asylum.
Thanks for reading! This story forms part of the ‘Weirdshire’ series — strange, incredible but true stories from the county of Wiltshire, England.