For decades, they have come from all over the US and the world, dreadlocked and clean-cut, hitch-hiking and driving, desperate to reach a famed oasis behind the ‘redwood curtain’ in northern
And then there’s the other name: ‘Murder Mountain.’
The place is, officially, Humboldt County, a deeply forested and darkly beautiful rural outpost 270 miles north of San Francisco. It began drawing members of the counter-culture in the 1970s, people eager to live a free existence unbound by societal convention amidst the mountains and the expanse of a largely unpopulated corner of the American West Coast. They began growing their own weed and then capitalizing upon the product, selling cannabis and turning it into a cottage industry which financed regional infrastructure and essentially formed the basis of the community.
Humboldt County, today, supplies a disproportionate amount of the American marijuana trade at an estimated 60 to 80 percent.
It also has a disproportionate amount of missing people.
According to new Netflix docuseries Murder Mountain, the region has seen 230 active missing persons cases since 1975. Some of them disappeared voluntarily, determined to go off-grid and never be found. Others remain a mystery. And fewer, the true unfortunates, are dead, murdered in an outlaw county where locals freeze out law enforcement and vigilantism replaces it.
Scroll down for video
Humboldt County, located about 270 miles north of San Francisco, is a rural, mountainous region behind the ‘redwood curtain’ that offers perfect conditions – and cover – for both legal and illegal marijuana production
The area has also earned the nickname Murder Mountain; hundreds of people have disappeared in the area since the 1970s, including San Diego native Garret Rodriguez, who was reported missing in 2013 after traveling north to work
Flocks of ‘trimmigrants’ travel to Humboldt County to make fast cash working on marijuana farms, and many have disappeared in unexplained circumstances over the years; missing posters litter the region, and authorities warn of trafficking, abuse and other hazards. There have been 230 active missing persons cases dating back to 1975, according to new Netflix docuseries Murder Mountain
Humboldt County has produced the majority of US marijuana since the 1970s, when the land drew members of the counter-culture looking for freedom amidst the mountains and sparsely unpopulated expanse
Rodriguez, who loved to surf and fish, was 29 when he vanished in 2013
The story of one of those victims, a 29-year-old killed in 2013 named Garret Rodriguez, forms the basis of the new Netflix docuseries, which explores not only his disappearance and death but the larger implications of both legal and illegal marijuana production in the area. The six-episode documentary – which first aired on Fusion – paints a picture of a region founded on values of peace and love which was overtaken by opportunists and criminal elements, the upshot being an escalation in violence and sinister activity.
It also highlights the salt-of-the-earth values of many long-time residents, mothers and fathers who banded together to investigate the disappearance of Rodriguez and return him to his family.
The San Diego native, who loved to fish and surf and was fiercely close with his father, first went up to Humboldt in an attempt to make fast money as a ‘trimmigrant,’ one of the vagrant workers employed by the plentiful marijuana farms. That work is the major draw for the itinerants who turn up in Humboldt, particularly to the areas of Garberville and Alderpoint, where they arrive only to be snapped up by eager farmers.
And there are inherent dangers. The region is so remote that cell phone service is scatty or non-existent, and trimmigrants are taken in by total strangers who may or may not treat them well. Stories abound of women asked to work topless, and local officials warn of trafficking, abuse and other hazards.
For an industry harvesting a notoriously mellow drug, the business dealings around Humboldt have become cutthroat – but it wasn’t always that way.
Up until the 1990s, when medical marijuana was legalized, the marijuana growers remained mostly as they had been in the Seventies, committed to cannabis, the community and their lifestyle. Alongside them was the legitimate timber industry, fishing and ranchers, according to the documentary. But the legalization prompted a ‘green rush,’ bringing thousands of opportunists to the area.
Sheriff William Honsal, speaking in the series, describes the 4,000 square miles of jurisdiction with 15,000 illegal growers.
‘It is unbelievable,’ he says. ‘Greed has fueled this industry, and that greed will continue to push people into violence and to cutting their bottom line whenever they can. This is not the hippie marijuana industry anymore.
‘You are taking your life in your own hands if you go up to these areas and you work for one of these unpermitted growers.’
His words are echoed by one illegal grower, identified in the series only as Austin, who claims to have previously worked in Utah as a campaign manager and lobbyist.
‘Since arriving here, I’ve been shot at; I’ve been beaten; I’ve been kidnapped three times, had a gun shoved in my mouth, tied to a chair, kicked down a flight of stairs, hunted ruthlessly through town,’ he says.
Despite the dangers, however, he adds: ‘I don’t think I’ll ever leave. I love it here.’
Local historian Nick Angeloff, speaking in the documentary, says: ‘Any underground industry has its seedy side; that’s why they call it the underground. You have people coming here with this idealistic view that they’re going to make some money for the entire year by trimming marijuana … they’re putting themselves at huge risk.
Val ‘Buzz’ Rodriguez, right, and his son, Garret, were fiercely close before the younger Rodriguez traveled to Humboldt County in 2012. His father reported him missing shortly thereafter, when Garret’s phone calls home stopped without explanation
Humboldt County, its history and marijuana production, are featured in new Netflix documentary Murder Mountain, which focuses the story on the disappearance of Rodriguez
Local historian Nick Angeloff, speaking in the documentary, says: ‘You have people coming here with this idealistic view that they’re going to make some money for the entire year by trimming marijuana … they’re putting themselves at huge risk. And you could end up dead in a ravine. And it has happened, and it is happening, and that’s where we need to focus our law enforcement efforts. We need to figure out how to make this industry more safe for the people who are involved in it, and I think legalization will provide that in the end’
‘And you could end up dead in a ravine. And it has happened, and it is happening, and that’s where we need to focus our law enforcement efforts. We need to figure out how to make this industry more safe for the people who are involved in it, and I think legalization will provide that in the end,’ he adds, referring to the full-scale state legalization of weed which took effect on January 1, 2018 in California.
People’s experiences in Humboldt, especially that of trimmigrants, locals say, depend on the types with whom they associate. Rodriguez seemed initially to thrive, despite the misgivings of his friends and family; he ended up managing a farm, and he made friends easily. He called his father, Val, every two weeks or so for long chats; the elder Rodriguez had purchased land in Mexico near the water, a perfect spot for surfing, and told his son that the plot was for him. All the young man needed to do was save enough money to build a house – hence the trip to Humboldt.
Humboldt County, in northern California, attracts workers from all over the US and the world looking to cash in on the region’s rampant marijuana production
Then the phone calls stopped, and Garret disappeared. His father reported him missing in early 2013, but he felt local law enforcement did not take the issue seriously enough. Eventually the family hired private investigators and set up a tip line – and, unbeknownst to them, various locals also took up the mantle and became determined to find out what happened to the good-natured young surfer.
The effort began with two longtime mountain residents and best friends, LaDonna Avera and Cherie Lynch, who has since passed away. They’d seen Rodriguez’s truck being driven by someone else, so they started asking questions, and soon rumors began circulating that a local man had been bragging about killing the surfer.
‘Cherie, she went to this one person and she said, “How come Garret’s truck showed up”…. And this guy said, “Oh, you mean the dead boy?” Avera says in the docuseries.
‘”The dead boy”,’ she later adds. ‘At that point, we didn’t know he was dead for sure – but when that was said, that pretty much closed it, right there.’
Many residents are self-sufficient, independent and armed – both legally and illegally – and there is a frequent reluctance to engage with authorities, even during investigations into violence, robbery and murder
One illegal grower in the documentary, identified only as Austin, says he previously worked as a campaign manager and lobbyist in Utah. He says: ‘The peace and love thing probably went out with the Seventies. It’s all about the power of the dollar, pretty much everybody for themselves. If somebody does them wrong, you need to get them back. ‘It’s the last vestige of the Wild West’
One man interviewed in the docuseries describes a ‘surreal Mad Max scenario’ in Humboldt County, where the terrain, trees and emphasis on self-reliance make it difficult to track down many people who’ve disappeared – many of whom do not want to be found
More and more residents began getting angry that, not only had Rodriguez been killed, another local – known to be volatile – was bragging about it. The situation came to a head on Thanksgiving 2013, when a group decided to confront the alleged killer and demand that he bring them to the body.
Eight men, the majority in masks, drove out to the man’s home, kneecapped him and pistol-whipped him, convincing him that they would kill him, too. He ended up confessing and leading them to Rodriguez’s body on a nearby ranch before they dropped off the alleged killer at a hospital rather than letting him bleed out in the wild.
The authorities were subsequently alerted to the location of Rodriguez’s body, and his family finally got closure. They cremated his remains and spread the ashes in his beloved Pacific Ocean.
The alleged killer, however, has never faced justice. He was treated in the hospital, questioned by authorities about his injuries and released – only to disappear. Local law enforcement, according to the documentary, became more interested in learning the identities of the vigilantes – men who came to be known as the Alderpoint Eight – and the situation began to devolve.
Sheriff William Honsal describes 4,000 square miles of jurisdiction in the docuseries with 15,000 illegal growers
Three of the men – fixtures of stability and well-regarded on the mountain – ended up dying violent deaths themselves, unrelated to the Rodriguez murder and further perpetuating the folklore of ‘Murder Mountain’. Only one resident, a neighbour and Vietnam veteran named John Reilly who followed the Eight as they passed his cabin to confront the alleged killer and also says he heard the confession, has expressed willingness to go on the record, in court, to testify against him, according to the documentary.
The killer is never named in the docuseries, which presents the motive for the murder as the suspect’s unwillingness to pay Rodriguez money he was owed. There was also a witness to the killing, according to the series, though he is left unidentified, as well.
Authorities, however, have all of the information, and the family and locals interviewed in the episodes express serious frustration that no one has been arrested for Rodriguez’s murder in the ‘Wild West,’ in the county described by one local as ‘surreal Mad Max’ territory.
But those very same authorities have hit back defiantly since the Netflix release, issuing a strong and lengthy statement about Murder Mountain and the situations depicted.
‘To those of you who have seen this series, please understand that you heard one side of a highly sensationalized story. The Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office did not provide this film crew with any pertinent facts or evidence regarding this case because it is an open investigation. As a matter of standard operating procedure, we will not jeopardize the prosecution of a case because of the media pressure or desire to run a story. By relying on unofficial and biased sources, the producers of this series presented information that was not credible nor could be used in a court of law.’
The statement goes on to preach about hearsay and probable cause – outlining reasons why charges have not yet been filed – before appearing to raise other motivations for the Alderpoint Eight taking initiative.
Rodriguez went up to Murder Mountain to work on marijuana farms in an attempt to make fast cash so he could finance a house on a plot of land in Mexico his father had bought for him
The family of Rodriguez, pictured, felt local law enforcement was not taking the missing person case seriously enough and employed private investigators to attempt to find out what happened to the avid surfer
‘Greed has fueled this industry, and that greed will continue to push people into violence and to cutting their bottom line whenever they can,’ Sheriff Honsal says in the documentary. ‘This is not the hippie marijuana industry anymore. You are taking your life in your own hands if you go up to these areas and you work for one of these unpermitted growers’
Locals began investigating the disappearance of Rodriguez themselves after seeing his truck, pictured, being driven by someone else; soon rumors began circulating that a resident had been bragging about killing the 29-year-old
‘One unique quality about the Alderpoint/Rancho Sequoia community, otherwise referred to as “Murder Mountain” by the series, is that many residents do not like deputies in the area asking questions,’ the sheriff’s office said. ‘They often do not want to speak with deputies, even though it may help us to solve a criminal investigation involving one of their acquaintances. This makes investigating crimes and securing witnesses to testify in court very difficult. However, this too does not deter us from conducting investigations in this area.
‘In specific reference to the Garret Rodriguez case, during the time when Garret Rodriguez was reported missing, the Sheriff’s Office served many search warrants in the Alderpoint/Rancho Sequoia area for illegal cannabis growing operations. We believe that this increased pressure on the community is what caused the vigilantism, because the community wanted the Sheriff’s Office to stop looking for Rodriguez and leave the area.’
The sheriff’s office complained: ‘The original plotline of this series, as presented to the Sheriff’s Office upon consideration of our participation, was to examine the changes in the county as a result of marijuana legalization, highlight the challenges of law enforcement in rural jurisdictions, and present a historic comparison of the county’s “green rush” and timber rushes.’
And, while the Rodriguez murder serves as the focal point of the docuseries, the changes brought by that legalization are presented clearly. Longtime growers complain that new requirements and taxes are making it nearly impossible to legitimatize their operations and putting family enterprises out of business. There’s still more money in staying illegal, according to many. And everyone interviewed, almost to a person, agrees that the historical violence on Murder Mountain is simply increasing.
The first indication anyone had that Rodriguez was dead came when locals began asking around and one man referred to him as ‘the dead boy.’ ‘When that was said, that pretty much closed it, right there,’ long-time resident LaDonna Avera says in the docuseries
A group of Murder Mountain residents, who became known as the Alderpoint Eight, banded together on Thanksgiving night in 2013 and confronted the braggart and alleged killer, kneecapping and pistol-whipping him until he led them to the location of the body, shown in a reenactment in the docuseries
The docuseries also focuses on changes the area has undergone since the legalization of medical marijuana in the 1990s and the full legalization of cannabis last year. One long-time grower says: ‘We’re seeing more people robbing each other, neighbors robbing each other, workers robbing their employers, because people aren’t making as much money and they want a grandiose piece of the pie’
‘The peace and love thing probably went out with the Seventies,’ says Austin, the remarkably articulate illegal grower. ‘It’s all about the power of the dollar, pretty much everybody for themselves. If somebody does them wrong, you need to get them back.
‘It’s the last vestige of the Wild West.’
Many hope that legalization will bring more tourism and interest in the area, with one grower even dreaming of a day when visitors can come to his family farm for marijuana and jam and a historical lesson about the growing operations over the decades. But meth and tweakers have encroached upon the area, and long-term residents lament a time with the community was smaller, tight-knit and thriving, when everybody knew everybody.
‘We’re seeing more people robbing each other, neighbors robbing each other, workers robbing their employers, because people aren’t making as much money and they want a grandiose piece of the pie,’ says longtime grower Cyrus Allen.
LaDonna Avera, who cries on screen thinking about Rodriguez, even though she didn’t know him personally, sums it up: ‘Living up here … you’d better be tough. Let me tell you.’