Federal officials are looking to seize four Maine properties that housed allegedly illegal cannabis growing operations, marking the latest step in a crackdown on such grows in rural Maine that authorities say might be connected to Chinese crime organizations.

The four properties that federal authorities want to take through forfeiture are in China, Corinna, Cornville and Machias, according to civil complaints filed May 9 at U.S. District Court in Bangor. Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Lizotte confirmed the office had only filed the four complaints as of Thursday.

Federal officials are looking to seize four Maine properties that housed allegedly illegal cannabis growing operations, including this house at 368 West Ridge Road in Cornville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Local, state and federal law enforcement agencies have shut down more than 40 illegal cannabis grows in recent months in Maine, Darcie N. McElwee, U.S. attorney for the District of Maine, said in a statement earlier this month. Officials said they believe they have identified about 100 illegal marijuana growing operations in Maine, most of them in rural areas in the central part of the state.

The operations might be tied to organized, transnational crime organizations, but there is no evidence they are linked to human trafficking or illegal immigration, McElwee said. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says it is investigating illegal growing operations in at least 20 states.

While investigations reported in recent months have been criminal cases, with some leading to arrests, the move to take the four properties is a civil action.

Maine law allows for forfeiture only in criminal cases, and property related to many violations of cannabis law is not eligible for forfeiture.

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But under federal law, no criminal conviction is required for the government to file for forfeiture of properties “derived from or used to commit an offense,” according to the Department of Justice. Instead, the government is required to prove in court by a preponderance of evidence that the property was linked to criminal activity.

In the case of the property at 368 West Ridge Road in Cornville, for example, records provided by Central Maine Power Co. show high power usage “consistent with large-scale marijuana cultivation,” according to court records. Power is used for cultivation equipment, including artificial lighting, heat pumps, distribution fans, air conditioners and humidifiers.

The Somerset County Sheriff’s Office also found evidence of a growing operation throughout the home, and seized more than 90 pounds of processed marijuana and more than 700 plants, according to the complaint.

The owner, Yuling Mei, “knowingly used and maintained for the purpose of manufacturing and distributing marijuana,” according to the federal filing. The operation had not been licensed to grow marijuana by the Maine Office of Cannabis Policy.

Similar evidence was presented by federal attorneys in court filings for the properties in China, Corinna and Machias.

Lizotte, the assistant U.S. attorney listed on the filings, said he could not comment on why the U.S. attorney’s office identified these four properties, rather than others allegedly housing illegal grows, as candidates for forfeiture, citing the ongoing investigation across Maine.

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“This is a process that is ongoing,” Lizotte said, adding that the office is continuing to assess other properties for forfeiture.

Lizotte said the U.S. attorney’s office generally considers several factors, including the owner’s interest in the property, which could include whether the property was bought outright or via a mortgage.

The property needs to be in good enough condition, too, so that someone might be able to use it, Lizotte said. Some properties where law enforcement agencies have executed search warrants have had code violations and mold issues.

“The properties at issue in the forfeiture complaints do have potential resale value based on their condition,” Lizotte said.

The owners of the properties were issued notices of the complaints and can contest the forfeiture complaints in federal court. If they do not challenge the forfeiture complaints, Lizotte said, the U.S. attorney’s office would initiate a default process in court to proceed with the effort to seize each property.

The timeline for the forfeiture process varies, Lizotte said.

If the properties are ultimately forfeited, the U.S. Marshals Service would aim to “dispose” of the property, according to court filings.

The Marshals Service sells forfeited and seized assets, including real estate, commercial businesses, cash, financial instruments, vehicles, jewelry, art, antiques, collectibles, vessels and aircraft, according to its website. Proceeds go back to fund the operation of the Marshals Service’s asset forfeiture program, compensate victims and support various law enforcement efforts.

In some cases, officials said, forfeited assets are transferred to state, local and nonprofit organizations.

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