Investigators believe at least three people used money wired from China to pay for some of the homes to build a complex, illegal marijuana organization and ship pot to the East Coast.
Federal agents are looking for two men suspected of leading an international crime operation using hundreds of thousands of dollars wired to the U.S. from China for growing massive amounts of illegal marijuana in 17 homes across Puget Sound, authorities announced Friday.
The search follows the arrest of a Seattle woman, 37-year-old Xiamin Huang, who investigators say partnered with the men — her husband and his brother — to use money from China to create a sophisticated growing organization, U.S. Attorney Annette L. Hayes said. Huang and the men, named Qifeng Li and Qiwei Li, have been charged with crimes of conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana.
In a news release Friday, Hayes said the trio grew pot in the Pacific Northwest to ship to the New York City area “to take advantage of black market prices.” Investigators believe a commercial property in New Jersey was also involved in their crimes.
The raids and arrest come after a push by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions for authorities to reconsider pot policies on a wide scale nationwide, though it is unclear if or to what extent the investigation is part of that broad scheme.
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Using search warrants Wednesday, agents seized more than 3,000 marijuana plants at the homes in the cities of Seattle, Burien, Kent, Tacoma and Renton the attorney’s office said. They also recovered business records and special equipment, such as water tanks and lights, for growing marijuana.
“Large wire transfers of funds” from the People’s Republic of China paid for some of the homes, the release says. Agents are still investigating the money’s source.
Beyond the home searches, investigators analyzed evidence including emails, bank account information and “unusually high” electric bills to make their case, the attorney’s office said. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration and Department of Homeland Security are leading the probe.
The suspects allegedly made payments of more than $37,000 for electricity in a three-month period at one property alone and used cash to avoid bank reporting, according to a complaint outlining the authorities case against Huang, Qifeng Li and Qiwei Li. Other people may have had a hand in the alleged crimes, too.
Among other points in the complaint to substantiate the criminal charges, law-enforcement officers at one point followed Qiwei Li driving a Mercedes-Benz from a home to a parking lot in Renton, where they say he handed two large boxes to a man, who then drove to a post office to ship the packages to Brooklyn, New York.
Authorities determined Huang to be a flight risk, or someone who they believe may leave the U.S. before a trial or bail hearing, and took her into custody. No further information on Qifeng Li and Qiwei Li was immediately available.
Hundreds of federal and local law-enforcement agents conducted a similar seize across roughly 100 Northern California houses purchased with wired money by a Chinese-based crime organization last month. It is unknown whether or not that series of events is connected to the Puget Sound investigation.
Information from The Associated Press contributed to this report.