Madison County authorities said Monday they'd successfully confiscated 18,410 marijuana plants worth an estimated $9.2 million over the weekend, but the investigation continued into who was responsible for the large-scale operation.
Madison County Sheriff Travis Neeley said the plants -- which ranged from 2 to 6 feet tall -- were discovered "way back in the woods" Friday by hunters who'd leased the land and were exploring locations to set up deer blinds.
The hunters immediately contacted the owner of the 600 acres of the leased land, and the landowner then called the sheriff's office to report the illegal plants, Neeley said.
"This is the largest [marijuana operation] in this county anyone can remember," he said. "It appears it's been going on for about three years and they've been producing about $9 million a year."
On site, Neeley said, authorities found 13 bags of fertilizer, about 3,000 feet of irrigation piping, a gas-powered pump, a generator and three smaller electric pumps.
"It was a sophisticated setup," he said, adding that the marijuana farm would have been undetectable by air because of the trees it had been planted under.
He said the marijuana grow field was about a half-mile into the woods.
"Hell, stumbling upon it on foot is about the only way you'd be able to find it," Neeley said.
A small campsite was found in the area, along with toothbrushes and holes in the ground with plastic lining, which appeared to be makeshift bathing areas. The sleeping grounds suggested the growers spent a significant time maintaining the operation, Neeley said.
"Any rural county with large farm land is vulnerable to this," he said. "Obviously, it was very fertile [soil] for growing marijuana,"
Brian Risinger, Madison County district attorney, said that, from what he'd gathered, it seemed the planters were not locals.
"The biggest deal about that big of an operation is it's hard to keep something like that a secret, which means to me it's probably someone who's not around this area doing it," he said.
Neeley said investigators will be pursuing any leads that come in and testing physical evidence from the operation for fingerprints or DNA in hopes of discovering those responsible.