Marijuana is grown on a family farm in Petrolia, CA, on May 24, 2016. Credit: Andrew Burton for Reveal

Our investigation into sexual abuse and exploitation on pot farms showed how vulnerable workers are to abuse.

Every fall harvest season, seasonal workers known as trimmigrants pour into the Emerald Triangle seeking lucrative jobs trimming marijuana on a pot farm. They wait on the side of the road with cardboard signs until they’re picked up by growers who sometimes blindfold them and drive them hours into the mountains to isolated farms that lack running water and cellphone reception.

It’s no surprise that this can end up badly for some workers. Women have been sexually assaulted, deprived of food and water, or forced to work without pay.

But the system can have consequences for growers, too, something made clear by a murder case unfolding in Mendocino County.

Police are currently looking for five trimmigrants accused of murdering their former employer Jeffrey Quinn Settler, 35, as he slept on his marijuana farm in Laytonville.

The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office said the trimmers – from New Jersey, Illinois and Virginia – intended to rob Settler, but ended up killing him, making off with 100 pounds of trimmed buds.

Even as California prepares to fully regulate the market for recreational weed, this is one consequence of an industry that still largely operates in the black market.

According to the Mendocino Voice, Settler – who had long, wavy hair and a beard – was a father and a Grateful Dead fan. He’d been involved in the illegal trade for years, dating back to at least 2009, when records show he was arrested for felony possession of marijuana with intent to sell in Southern California.

This is the kind of crime many officials say will decrease once legalization and regulation of pot farms under Proposition 64 gets underway. But the black market likely will persist for years to come.

Pot remains illegal under federal and many state laws, and with the price of legal weed expected to drop, many farmers in the Emerald Triangle told us they plan to continue to grow for the black market, where they can make more money.

That’s bad news for workers who are extremely vulnerable to abuse, said Debra Carey, a local advocate in Humboldt County who has helped many trimmigrants over the years. Carey put together a list of safety tips for trimmigrants to prevent them from falling victim to an abusive grower. Among them: agree on pay beforehand, ask if food or water will be provided, find out where you’ll live.

But Carey said she sees the other side, too: In this secretive industry, growers also are vulnerable.

“The first thing they want to do is blindfold you,” Carey said. “They don’t want you to steal their crop and walk or drive out of there, or be working with a group of people that are going to come and steal their crop. You know, they don’t want you to know where you’re going because they may end up in the ground. And if you know where you’re going, you could easily call somebody and come and rob them.”

Debra Carey, an advocate for marijuana trimmer safety in Humboldt County, California, also put together a tip sheet for growers. Credit: Andrew Burton for Reveal

Carey is calling for someone to create an employment office for trimmers to seek work with pre-vetted employers. A grower in Nevada County is putting together a plan for a similar resource for next harvest season. And Carey assembled a tip sheet for growers, too.

“How well do you know this person?” the sheet asks. “Check references and know your workers!”

“Money makes you do desperate things. And desperate people do desperate things,” Carey said.

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

Shoshana Walter

Shoshana Walter is a reporter for Reveal, covering criminal justice. She and reporter Amy Julia Harris exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting. It also won the Knight Award for Public Service, a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting, and an Edward R. Murrow Award, and was a finalist for the Selden Ring, IRE and Livingston Awards. It led to numerous government investigations, two criminal probes and five federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery, labor violations and fraud.

Walter's investigation on America's armed security guard industry revealed how armed guard licenses have been handed out to people with histories of violence, even people barred by courts from owning guns. Walter and reporter Ryan Gabrielson won the 2015 Livingston Award for Young Journalists for national reporting based on the series, which prompted new laws and an overhaul of California’s regulatory system. For her 2016 investigation about the plight of "trimmigrants," marijuana workers in California's Emerald Triangle, Walter embedded herself in illegal mountain grows and farms. There, she encountered an epidemic of sex abuse and human trafficking in the industry – and a criminal justice system focused more on the illegal drugs. The story prompted legislation, a criminal investigation and grass-roots efforts by the community, including the founding of a worker hotline and safe house.

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. Her narrative nonfiction as a local reporter garnered a national Sigma Delta Chi Award and a Gold Medal for Public Service from the Florida Society of News Editors. 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 based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.