A JUDGE told a gang who came to Burnley to raid a £240,000 cannabis factory set up by other criminals to 'grow a brain' after they were caught red-handed.

Russell Coope, 26, Giovanni Maccioni, 38, Ian Batey, 50, and James Strain, 26, claimed they had just stumbled upon the drugs factory at the former McBrides factory on Ruskin Street, Burnley.

They said they were carrying out their 'civic duties' by taking the plants to hand them in, Burnley Crown Court heard.

But the judge sentencing them said she didn't believe a word of it.

The court heard the gang of four travelled from Bradford, West Yorkshire, in a convoy of three vans and were found with more than 160 cannabis plants when stopped by police.

Strain, who is already serving 30 months behind bars and is due for release in August, was given six months in jail.

His accomplices each got 12 months in prison, suspended for a year.

Joseph Allman, prosecuting, said at 3.15am, on April 15, last year, police were making their way to the area of Colne Road, Burnley, to a report of men acting suspiciously around a van.

They came across a convoy of three vans, one with a piece of wood across the rear window.

They followed it and at the junction of Active Way and Church Street, the convoy split and two vans went a separate way.

One of the vans was pulled over, Batey was the driver and Coope and Maccioni were in the front seat.

In the back of the van were 94 cannabis plants.

Mr Allman said the second van went into Yorkshire Street and was followed by a second group of officers.

It was stopped, an officer approached it, but it was driven away.

It was abandoned shortly after and Strain and another man got out and ran away.

Both were caught after a short chase. Officers discovered 68 cannabis plants in the van.

Police then went to McBrides and found the cannabis farm, where more than 400 plants were still growing.

Sentencing, Judge Beverley Lunt said the case was 'absolutely bizarre.' She said: "Don't think for a minute I believe that you stumbled into this, in your three vans in a convoy and happened, as one does, across a cannabis farm in a disused factory.

"You heard of it, decided to come, get in and steal some cannabis plants. But for the prompt action of the police on hearing about people behaving suspiciously, you might have got away with it.

"You have stolen from criminals, probably bigger criminals than you four will ever be. As a result of what you did a cannabis factory has been shut down, but you don't get a prize for it."

Judge Lunt, who said the men had made a 'really stupid decision' added it was not suggested they were going to supply the drug and it was for their own use.

She said: "Will the four of you grow a brain between you and not act like that again ?"

Coope, of Sheldon Ridge; Maccioni, of Fearnville Drive, Laisterdyke; Batey, of Radnor Street, and Strain, of Allen Court, Birkenshaw, admitted burglary and possessing cannabis.

Speaking at the time, Det Sgt Mark Gillbrand said the factory has been a very large and complex set-up, with several small growing rooms using expensive filters.