Wildest West: My Journey into the Emerald Triangle

  • 19.12.2022

When journalist Sam Anderson heard that a former classmate had been accused of the murder of a cannabis grower in California’s remote Emerald Triangle, he was shocked – and even more by the mayhem and drug-fuelled madness he encountered out there. Here, he explains why he felt compelled to investigate the case for a new Novel podcast, Crooked City: The Emerald Triangle, and what it was like to enter one of the last holdouts of outlaw American life

The Emerald Triangle, in the hills of Northern California. Photograph: Sam Anderson
The Emerald Triangle, in the hills of Northern California. Photograph: Sam Anderson

What is the Emerald Triangle? Apart from being the title of the Novel and Truth.Media podcast series  I host, which will reach its conclusion early in the New Year, the simple answer is that it’s a place: Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity, a triangle of counties in the northern reaches of California, where the mountainous landscape is blanketed by a thick sea of emerald-green pine forests and lush marijuana gardens.

But the Emerald Triangle is as much an idea as it is a location. And the idea it represents is a core archetype in the American mythos: radical freedom from the rule of law. In the US, the Emerald Triangle has earned a reputation as one of the last holdouts of the Wild West, a place where the police don’t go and vigilante justice is commonplace.

That’s pretty much all I knew when a news story came out in the autumn of 2016  that shook my small New Jersey town to the core. Zach Wuester, a young man who I grew up with, was accused of murdering a cannabis farmer called Jeff Settler in the Emerald Triangle. Everyone I knew was shocked. How did this apparently normal kid from our home town wind up involved in a drug-related homicide on the other side of the country?

As I began to research the case, I learned that Settler’s death was just one of dozens of killings that had taken place there in recent years. In fact Humboldt County, just north of Mendocino where Settler lived, has the second-highest homicide rate in California . I suspected that investigating the circumstances might open a portal to a world that I and many others knew little about. And if I could understand what happened to Zach, it might reveal some deeper truths about this place.

So, in the spring of 2019, I set out on a cross-country road trip to northern California to uncover as much of what happened as I could. Little did I know that the journey would descend into a wild, drug-fuelled ride through outlaw country. Or that I would end up crossing paths with hippies, drug dealers, an outlaw motorcycle gang, a psychedelic drug cartel, and dozens of lost and disillusioned young people searching for freedom in the mountains.

Since the Gold Rush of 1849, this region has been nearly ungovernable. The early years of California statehood were marked by fierce violence, largely perpetrated by white settlers against the indigenous population. In few places was the fighting more intense than northern California. Massacres in Round Valley (Mendocino) and Eureka (Humboldt), combined with state-funded genocidal campaigns like Jarboe’s War , took the lives of thousands of indigenous people. Around the turn of the 20th century, timber logging overtook gold mining; many logging businesses operate to the present day.

But the profits from cutting down trees paled in comparison to the green gold that would soon be cultivated: cannabis. The cannabis plant was first introduced to this region in the 1960s during a cultural movement called “Back to the Land” , when hippies from San Francisco and other parts of California moved north in search of a simpler life. In addition to growing vegetables and raising livestock, these farmers planted cannabis seeds smuggled from India and Afghanistan via what became known as the Hash Trail .

What they discovered must have amazed them: the conditions were utterly perfect for growing pot. The summers are hot and dry, and the mountain tops have panoramic sun exposure. Even better, there was plenty of space to hide from the law. By the 1980s, the region was overflowing with marijuana, and the name “Emerald Triangle” became synonymous with high-quality, sun-grown cannabis.

The US government took note, and under president Ronald Regan it attempted to stamp out cannabis as part of the notorious War on Drugs. Helicopter raids, slashing and burning of crops, and loved ones being hauled off to jail remain potent memories for the “OGs” – original growers – who put their freedom at risk to cultivate what they viewed as a harmless medicinal plant.

As marijuana consumption in the United States and elsewhere increased, the demand for high-quality weed attracted thousands of prospective pot growers to the Emerald Triangle. This boom time came to be known as “The Green Rush” . Many of the new arrivals had little concern for legality. The businessmen, dealers, criminals, and fortune-seekers who arrrived had one thing in common: a willingness to trade rugged, isolated mountain living for the chance of making a lot of money. One of those pot farmers was a Texan named Jeffrey Settler.

Settler had grown pot illegally for several seasons before arriving in the small community of Laytonville in Mendocino County in spring 2016. Shortly thereafter, he crossed paths with my old classmate Zach Wuester, employing him as a worker on his farm. Several months later in November, Settler’s body was found in a small shack on the mountain. He had been brutally beaten and his throat was slashed.  The main suspect was none other than Zach.

A historic map of the area
A historic map of the area
Sam Anderson recording in the hills
Sam Anderson recording in the hills

When Settler first began growing weed in the mid-to-late 2000s, high-quality cannabis was selling for over $2,000 a pound – making it easily the most profitable agricultural product in America. And the rapid expansion of pot farms in northern California precipitated a huge demand for labour. Cannabis has to be harvested and trimmed by hand, drawing thousands of itinerant workers – referred to somewhat derisively as “trimmigrants”  – to flock to the region every autumn for the harvest season. Zach was one of these, as were most of the young men who turned out to be involved in Settler’s death.

“Trimming” involves manicuring each marijuana bud with tiny scissors, transforming the hairy leafy plant into the tight, compact nuggets. It’s tedious, difficult work that often involves sitting in a chair for 12 hours a day or more, for several weeks at a time. Why would anyone do it? During the most profitable years, pot farmers like Jeff were paying their trimmers $200 a pound. During the peak of the green rush, a productive trimmer could earn as much as $40,000 each season. Needless to say, all of this money was off the books.

But high reward comes with high risk. It’s common for workers to be kicked off farms without pay or suffer violence and abuse. And because these workers were engaged in an illegal trade, if something goes wrong they have little or no recourse.

Many trimmers have disappeared entirely, never to be seen alive again. The Mendocino County Sheriff's Department currently lists 16 active missing persons cases on their website . And in Humboldt County, there have been 64 homicides that still remain unsolved since 1960 . These numbers are almost surely an undercount; most crimes in the region go unreported.

During my reporting for this podcast, I would discover that the events that took place on Jeff Settler’s pot farm before his death were stranger than fiction. If you imagine what happens when you combine brutal working conditions, excessive drug use and rampant paranoia, you’ll get a sense of how much can go wrong.

As it happens, just days before Settler was killed in late 2016, California voted to legalise recreational cannabis. Many hoped that this would put an end to violence in the Emerald Triangle. Unfortunately, though, the opposite has occurred. In fact, there is more crime in the Emerald Triangle than ever before .

Outlaw marijauna farms continue to supply a thriving black market that serves the many places in the US and UK where pot remains criminalised. Today, there is such an abundance in the US that a glut of cannabis caused the price to crash several years in a row , creating hardship for growers and their workers. And the desperation faced by many in the cannabis industry today continues to fuel the cycles of violence that have been present in the region for more than a century.

For everything that's changed, the Emerald Triangle remains ungovernable: it’s one of the last refuges of true American outlaws.

The first eight parts of Crooked City: The Emerald Triangle are out now; the final episode is released on 2 January 2023

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