Sunshine Johnston tends to cannabis plants at her farm in Redcrest, Calif., in the Emerald Triangle. Credit: Sarah Rice for Reveal

The four brothers ran through the night, stumbling over tree roots and rocks, bruised and panicked. Finally, they spotted a house.

The residents inside would soon learn the backstory of the men at their doorstep: They had been kidnapped and forced to work for months on a massive marijuana farm in the high Sierra. They lived in a squalid hut, toiled long hours and were scarcely fed, according to police. When they complained, they were beaten. Finally, in July, one brother overheard a suspect ask the boss if he could kill them. “When they’re done with the marijuana harvest,” the boss reportedly answered. That night, the men fled.

Last month, the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office raided the farm, destroyed 23,000 marijuana plants and arrested two women on human trafficking charges. They are still looking for two other suspects.

News of the case broke just weeks after Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting published an investigation into sex abuse and trafficking on marijuana farms. In the Emerald Triangle, we found a pattern: Local law enforcement either ignored or failed to thoroughly investigate human trafficking cases.

So how was the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office, a small agency of about 65 sworn officers, able to pull off such a complex investigation? What could law enforcement agencies in the heart of pot country learn from them?

They treated the victims as victims.

Drug task forces in the Emerald Triangle regularly encounter undocumented immigrants during raids of marijuana farms. A few years ago, Humboldt County deputies raided a farm and discovered two workers they suspected were trafficking victims. But instead of helping the men, deputies arrested them for marijuana cultivation. After the two were convicted, they were deported.

In the Calaveras case, the victims were cooperative and had injuries to prove they had been victimized, an asset in any criminal investigation. But although the workers might have been undocumented immigrants, detectives treated the injured brothers first and foremost as victims, prioritizing their medical care and providing them with services.

Capt. Jim Macedo said just because someone may appear to be breaking the law – by working on an illegal marijuana farm, for example – that does not relieve his agency of the responsibility to investigate, even during marijuana raids. While some workers are uncooperative, such investigations have twice led deputies to trafficking victims.

Detectives never asked the brothers for their immigration status.

That helped the detectives establish trust, and aided the long-term investigation.

“The fact they are in the country illegally or legally doesn’t change the facts of what happened to them,” Macedo said, adding that detectives told them they “were not there to investigate their immigration status.”

“If we start bringing up their immigration status, they’ll tend to think they’ll be mistreated or the fact that they’re in the country illegally will negate the fact they were a victim of the crime,” he added.

By reassuring the victims, detectives ensured their cooperation. That strategy not only benefited the workers but led detectives to the bigger fish.

They made it a priority.

Agencies in pot country are overwhelmed by crime, but Reveal found they’ve also impeded their own investigations by funneling the most resources into drug investigations. Although each county has a drug task force with designated officers and funding, for example, there are no full-time human trafficking investigators in the Emerald Triangle. It’s the same in Calaveras County.

“We don’t have a human trafficking unit like the attorney general’s office and other agencies have,” Macedo said.

Detectives could have resolved the Calaveras case quickly as an assault, or simply made an arrest for marijuana cultivation. But once they talked with the victims, they realized they were dealing with something bigger. They understood the investigation would take some time, and they decided to prioritize it, putting other cases on hold. So far the case has taken about two months.

Human trafficking cases have not received the same level of priority in the Emerald Triangle. In one Mendocino County case detailed in our investigation, detectives detained an alleged victim of trafficking for hours, accused her of filing a complaint to get her immigration papers, and put her in a room with the grower she accused of abuse – ostensibly to elicit his confession. Through independent investigation, Reveal discovered the grower may have had a pattern of trafficking and abusing women. But detectives never took the time to track down and interview other potential victims. Instead, they arrested him for marijuana cultivation and released him within 20 minutes.

They collaborated.

Understaffed agencies need to reach out for help when they can, said former FBI agent Eddie Freyer, the author of California’s mandatory training on trafficking for law enforcement officers.

“These agencies are myopic in their thinking, and they don’t think of the bigger picture.” If an agency cannot tackle a trafficking case, Freyer said law enforcement should call the FBI or the state’s human trafficking task force. “Reach out to your federal partners, reach out to the local task forces.”

Calaveras county detectives took that approach once they realized their human trafficking case stretched into other counties. Ultimately, help came from three local law enforcement agencies, the FBI, the Bureau of Land Management and Cal Fire. Macedo said the resources were well spent, to prevent suspects from targeting other victims.

“They tend to go on and do that to other people,” he said. “I think that’s why it’s important.”

They offered victims services.

Macedo said a Spanish-English translator helped police communicate with the victims, while a victim services organization provided emergency shelter, food and counseling. The help came quickly, thanks in part to a pre-existing relationship. Macedo said he meets with advocates regularly, something advocates in the Emerald Triangle told Reveal they would like to see occur more often.

Advocates have special insight into sex and human trafficking because victims routinely seek help from local service providers, even when they don’t file a report with law enforcement, said Brenda Bishop, the director of Humboldt Domestic Violence Services. Police could learn more about the prevalence of the issue and how to build trust with the community from advocates who work directly with victims.

I don’t think in our county law enforcement is very much educated in the trafficking of people,” said Teresa Borjun, an advocate at Project Sanctuary in Mendocino County. Just stopping them or arresting them for cultivation; you need to go in further.”

Shoshana Walter can be reached at Follow her on Twitter: @shoeshine.

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Shoshana Walter was a senior reporter and producer at Reveal, covering the criminal justice and child welfare systems. She's working on a book for Simon & Schuster about the failures of our country's addiction treatment system. At Reveal, she reported on exploitative drug rehab programs that require participants to work without pay, armed security guards, and sex abuse and trafficking in the marijuana industry. Her reporting has prompted new laws, numerous class-action lawsuits and government investigations. Her stories have been named finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, Selden Ring and National Magazine Awards. She has also been honored with the Livingston Award for National Reporting, the IRE medal, the Edward R. Murrow award, the Knight Award for Public Service, a Loeb Award and Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting. Her Reveal podcast, "American Rehab," was named one of the best podcasts of the year by The New Yorker and The Atlantic and prompted a congressional investigation.

Walter began her career as a police reporter for The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida, and previously covered violent crime and the politics of policing in Oakland, California, for The Bay Citizen. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has been a Dart Center Ochberg fellow for journalism and trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim fellow in criminal justice journalism. She is a fellow with the Watchdog Writers Group at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and is based in Oakland, California.