Federal, state, and county investigation led to the seizure of thousands of unlicensed marijuana plants and hundreds of pounds of processed marijuana last month in what may be the largest marijuana growing bust in Lincoln County’s history.

Five men and one woman of Asian origin were arrested at properties in Jefferson and Whitefield between Jan. 17 and Jan. 30. Two other individuals were later charged after returning to a scene in Whitefield.

Four posted bail and the others remain in custody at Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset.

Lt. Michael Murphy, of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, said his agency was alerted to a number of illegal growing operations from the U.S. Attorney General’s office early in January. Law enforcement has been cracking down on similar operations across the state this year.

“It’s the biggest one I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been here 25 years,” Murphy said of the Lincoln County bust. “We believe they’re linked, and we believe there are others out there.”

The properties were purchased by out-of-state buyers at low prices, largely from foreclosure, according to investigators. Officials believe the processed product is being shipped out of state.

A court affidavit by LCSO Detective Sgt. Ronald Rollins said neighbors of the properties told law enforcement they had noticed suspicious activities there, including cars coming and going quickly at unusual hours, not seeing residents outside, and a strong smell of marijuana. Growers were living in small rooms at the houses otherwise filled with plants.

Two suspects told investigators they came to Maine in recent months to grow marijuana and did not know who their boss was, according to court documents.

The majority of the busts took place in Whitefield. On Jan. 10, law enforcement found 1,014 plants at 34 Clover Lane. A warrant was issued for 61-year-old Xiangming Ye, who fled the scene. Neighbors later called law enforcement to say he had returned to the house, where he was arrested. He faces a Class B charge of cultivating marijuana.

Ye had returned to the Clover Lane address with Hongxia Kuang, 51, of Whitefield and Brooklyn, N.Y., according to Murphy. Ye indicated during questioning that Kuang was involved in the growing operation. Kuang was issued a summons for unlawfully cultivating marijuana, a Class B charge.

“I was told the word has gotten around to these illegal growers and they are scared they will get in trouble,” Rollins said in the affidavit.

On Jan. 17, law enforcement found 738 plants and 40 pounds of processed cannabis at 91 Jefferson Road and arrested 41-year-old Weihuan Liu for alleged unlawful trafficking of marijuana and for cultivating marijuana, both Class B crimes.

The same day, 27 pounds were found at 333 N. Howe Road and Huan Ying Li, 57, was charged with one Class B count of unlawful trafficking of marijuana and a Class C count of criminal conspiracy.

On Jan. 30, 2,294 plants and 40 pounds of processed cannabis were found at 19 Abby Lane. Wan Ting Xiao, 50, and Ding Zhan Liao, 49, were both charged with cultivating marijuana and unlawful trafficking marijuana. The same day, 300 plants were found at 615 Wiscasset Road in Whitefield.

In Jefferson, 820 plants were found at 170 Rockland Road on Jan. 17 and 45-year-old Zhen Zhong Chen was charged with a Class B crime of cultivating marijuana.

The suspects came appeared in court in Wiscasset last week and four posted bail between $1,000 and $3,000. The individuals are due in court again in late March and mid-April.

If found guilty, they face up to five years of incarceration and a $5,000 fine for Class C crimes and up to 10 years served and $20,000 for Class B crimes.

The suspects are represented by different court-appointed attorneys, including Lynn Madison, of Rockland; William Avantaggio, of Damariscotta; Linda Yarmosh, of Boothbay Harbor; and Andrew Emerson, of Brunswick.

Several of those arrested have listed previous addresses in Brooklyn, N.Y. and one in southern California. They spoke little English or none at all, according to court documents. Murphy said Li is a naturalized citizen and he is not sure about the others.

Chen commented “how it was hard to get by and make money” while being transported to the Whitefield fire station for interrogation, LCSO Detective Matthew Ryan said in court documents.

Agencies across the state have busted illegal operations from Cornville to Machias in the last year, seizing thousands of plants and hundreds of pounds of processed cannabis.

Maine’s U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden sent a letter at the end of January asking the U.S. Department of Justice to shut down these operations across the state. The letter states the illegal operations harm legal growing businesses in Maine.

According to U.S. Border Patrol, in August 2023 state law enforcement had located 270 properties they suspected were used for illegal Chinese-owned growing operations worth over $4 billion.

This year, agencies have arrested a handful of other suspects in central Maine including Cornville, Belgrade, China, and Chelsea, seizing thousands of plants.

Murphy believes there are other operations in Lincoln County and his agency is on the lookout for information.

Also involved in the ongoing Lincoln County investigation are the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy, Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, and the U.S. Treasury Department. Cases are being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney General’s Office.

According to the LCSO, the investigation is ongoing and those with information about these operations or others can contact Rollins at 882-7332 or rrollins@lincolnso.me. Tips can also be sent anonymously to 847411 with keyword LTIP.

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