By Stephanie Barry | firstname.lastname@example.org
SAVOY — When Eversource workers were dispatched for a safety check at 72 Jackson Road in this rural town in the Berkshires, they encountered something unexpected: a $3 million marijuana grow operation, police say.
The property had been logging $10,000 monthly electricity bills, said a spokesman for the Massachusetts State Police. Utility workers traveled to the property on July 29 and were met by a man who said he didn’t speak English, refused access to the house and stuffed an envelope full on $100 bills into one of the worker’s front pockets, according to police records.
“The Eversource employee attempted to give the money back to Yebin Mai, who pushed the lineman’s hand away. At that point the crew decided to leave the power on, leave the property, and request police presence as they felt there was a potential conflict with the resident,” said David Procopio, spokesman for the state police.
Mai left the property with two other men in a white pickup truck with New York license plates, though they were briefly detained by troopers. They gave the envelope stuffed with several hundred dollars back to Mai, reports state. Troopers detected a whiff of fresh grown marijuana in the air, Procopio said. They obtained a search warrant two days later and eventually found nearly 3,600 marijuana plants inside with an estimated street value of $3 million.
Mai, of Staten Island, New York, and the owner of the home, Bin Huang, 32, of Brooklyn, New York, were arrested Wednesday and charged with marijuana trafficking when they attempted to return to the secluded home set on 14 acres of land. They have been held on $100,000 bail, police said.
The same week, agents with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration arrested two Chinese nationals at a warehouse in Monson, where they allegedly found 1,100 marijuana plants — plus 3,000 more at four residential properties in that town and neighboring Palmer.
Weiqing Li, 41, and Li Qin Li, 49, were charged with manufacturing marijuana and processing marijuana with intent to distribute in U.S. District Court. Weiqing Li told agents he had traveled to Massachusetts from Chicago for the sole purpose of growing marijuana.
During a detention hearing before a federal magistrate judge on Thursday, his attorney, Charles Dolan, said Weiqing Li was a “dupe,” and a low-level player in a larger-scale marijuana trafficking ring.
“Mr. Li is an extremely minor player in this whole thing … I might say maybe, I don’t know what the translation would be in Chinese … but, a dupe,” Dolan told U.S. Magistrate Judge Katherine Robertson.
Federal prosecutors lost a bid for Weiqing Li to be held behind bars pending trial. Assistant U.S. Attorney Catherine Curley argued the strength of the government’s case was strong, and Li had “strong ties” to China.
“Mr. Li later admitted he was at the warehouse to grow marijuana. He had come to Massachusetts around February of this year for the purpose of growing marijuana,” Curley said.
News reports from across the country suggest a trend of Chinese nationals setting up grow operations in rural towns where property values are generally low, with murky financing. Police and federal agents have conducted raids in Washington, California, Colorado and now Massachusetts — all states that have legalized marijuana sales but under strictly controlled state and municipal guidelines and for licensed operators.
The federal government, however, still considers marijuana illegal but in many cases lets states regulate the drug on their own, with police only sweeping in on larger scale operations.
In the Monson-Palmer investigation, agents raided five properties including four residential properties in Monson and Palmer: 32 Main St. and 36 Main St. in Monson, and 4026 Pleasant St. and 1036 Central St. in Palmer. All five were purchased at once by BG Real Estate Inc., whose sole officer is listed as Yu Xiang Liu, according to corporate records filed with the state. He lists his address as 32 Main St. in Monson, and has not been charged in the case.
The Savoy property was purchased for $200,000 in cash in November of 2017, according to state police. A town of about 700 residents, Savoy is dominated by state forests and protected land. Troopers said plywood covered the interior of the building’s windows. Each entrance had a surveillance camera perched above it, troopers with the Cheshire barracks observed.
The Monson properties are located along a well-traveled stretch of Route 32 populated by farmland, businesses, historic homes, a country club and a trailer park. The residential properties are not exactly run-down, but overgrown with foliage.
About two miles west of those homes is the warehouse — a squat, one story white building with an expired town license on the door that says its owner is Yin Guo Wang, a construction supervisor.
During Thursday’s hearing in federal court, Curley told the judge she did not believe Weiqing Li had any ownership interest in any of the properties but told investigators he had been asked by “people higher up than him” to provide his identification and social security number to open the warehouse.
Dolan said Li has no prior criminal record and came to the U.S. in 2011. He has a wife and two sons in Chicago; the couple opened a restaurant that failed in 2019, and he worked at a Chinese restaurant until late February when the pandemic forced it to close its doors.
It is unclear what his connections were to Massachusetts. Robertson freed Weiqing Li on a $5,000 bond, revoked his passport and sent him back to Chicago with his family to await the resolution of his case. Li Qin Li also was released on bail.
Mai and Huang, the defendants in the Savoy case, are scheduled to be arraigned in North Adams District Court on Aug. 7.
Authorities say both the federal and state investigations are ongoing.