The search of a Waterville Road home in Skowhegan on Friday results in the discovery and seizure of more than 4,500 cannabis plants, cash and other items, and the arrest of three people on trafficking charges. Photo courtesy of the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office

SKOWHEGAN — Three people were arrested and nearly 5,000 plants were seized as authorities busted an illegal marijuana growing operation Friday, according to the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office.

Ying Xia Liao, 54; Xi Qiang Zhao, 56; and Yao Bin Cheng, 41, all of the Brooklyn borough of New York City, were arrested Friday morning after a search warrant was executed at a residence on Waterville Road, Sheriff Dale Lancaster said.

The growing operation was one of the largest busted so far, Lancaster said, as authorities confiscated 4,760 cannabis plants in various stages of growth as well as thousands of dollars in suspected proceeds.

“It was a substantial growth operation,” Lancaster said Friday. “This search warrant is a continuation of the (investigation into the) illegal grows that are occurring in this county. These are all aggregates of a larger investigation that we’re looking into.”

Liao, Zhao and Cheng were all being held at the Somerset County Jail in East Madison.

All three were charged with illegal marijuana cultivation and trafficking in scheduled drugs, both of which are felonies. Bail for each was set at $10,000, according to a Somerset Jail booking sergeant.

Lancaster said those arrested may have been living at the residence, saying that the home appeared to have sparse living quarters” but declining to comment further, citing the ongoing investigation.

The Skowhegan Fire Department and code enforcement officer were notified of various building code violations at the residence, according to a release from the Somerset Sheriff’s Office.

“We observed what we believe to be possibly black mold, as well as electrical issues and possible (Department of Environmental Protection) violations,” Lancaster said.


Sheriff’s deputies also seized other “illicit drug related articles” and a 2022 Toyota Tacoma, according to a release from the Sheriff’s Office.

“Whenever we seize property, we believe we can make a correlation between the criminal activity and the vehicles or assets used,” Lancaster said Friday.

Agents from the Department of Homeland Security and Drug Enforcement Agency aided in the bust, Lancaster said, along with the Waterville Police Department. The investigation into the residence was also assisted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Maine Office of Cannabis Policy and the Somerset and Kennebec County District Attorney’s Offices, Lancaster said.

Friday’s raid was the third the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office has conducted in just over a week, after “a lengthy investigation into illegal marijuana cultivation activities” in Madison resulted in the seizure of cannabis plants on Feb. 22 and Tuesday on Foss and East Madison roads.

Nearly two dozen similar illegal marijuana operations have been busted across the state in recent months. Officials have speculated there could be as many as 400 such operations statewide.

In late January, Maine’s congressional delegation asked the U.S. Department of Justice to take action against such operations, citing a report that the operations could be worth more than $4 billion.

“My intent is to eradicate illegal marijuana grows in Somerset County,” Lancaster said.

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