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The Settler Killers

(An expanded report of the preliminary hearing for the seven trimmers accused of killing Laytonville pot grower Jeffrey Settler.)

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Criminal defense attorney Albert Kubanis asked, "Is there any difference in your mind between an interview and an interrogation?"

Homicide Detective Luis Espinoza responded: "To me, they're all 'interviews'."

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The preliminary hearing in the gang-murder of Laytonville pot pharmer Jeffery Settler last November got underway last Monday, but most of the first day was taken up with pleas from three of the seven defendants. Zachary Wuester, Gary “Giggles” Fitzgerald, and Said “Richie” Mohamed who each pled to nine years in the state prison for “robbery in concert” with the understanding that they would all have to waive credit for time served up until the date of sentencing, and the stipulation that they would not be labeled as “stabbers” in Mr. Settler’s gruesome murder.

Mr. Fitzgerald took the most time during the pleas, telling the judge that he was suffering from the after-effects of LSD; then he spent a long time in consultation with his lawyer. “Giggles” Fitzgerald has pulled similar stunts in his interviews with the homicide detectives involved in the case and perhaps this is how he earned his picturesque nickname.

When the hearing resumed on Tuesday, Mr. Jesse Wells was absent, having told the jailers that he didn’t feel well. Judge John Behnke ordered he be brought to court anyway, as it had been difficult enough arranging a date when all the lawyers and witnesses could be present. However, after Mr. Wells was brought in he continued to complain of his health to his lawyer, Jan Cole-Wilson of the Office of the Alternate Public Defender, who, after putting her hand on her client’s forehead (presumably to test his temperature, and ascertain if he had a fever), asked the judge for a continuance until Wednesday because her client had not been able to sleep the night before, and was having trouble staying awake.

Detective Luis Espinoza was on the stand, and it looked to be a grueling day as all four of the remaining lawyers would be given opportunity for cross-examination of the deputy-investigators, so Behnke decided to hear from a detective from Ashland, Oregon, out of order, so he could be on his way back to Ashland without waiting another day until Wells was feeling better.

Therefore, Detective Von Stewart was called and told the court how he’d been contacted by Detective Moskey (sic) – meaning the lead investigator, Detective Matt Croskey, who now can’t seem to shake the accidental moniker, which the bailiffs were quick make stick — and was sent a photo line-up which Stewart showed to co-worker of defendant Michael Kane’s, a Mr. Geurts, who made a positive ID of suspect Kane in an Ashland, Oregon parking garage. Kane’s lawyer, Ethan Balogh, then asked Detective Stewart if he’d been told the nature of the case, to which Stewart answered no, and added that he still didn’t know what it was all about. Stewart was then excused and Wells returned to the jail, with the prelim set to resume the next day, Tuesday morning, at 9:30.

It was closer to 10:30 when the hearing resumed, and by noon, the cross-examination by all four defense lawyers had finished, and Detective Espinoza stepped down. Espinoza had interviewed (the current euphemism for police interrogations) former suspect Amanda Weist who told Espinoza she was sleeping in the “Engine Room” with Jeffery Settler and her young son Maddox the night of the robbery and murder. The Engine Room was where the 120 pounds of processed marijuana was stored in plastic tubs (sometimes referred to as bins and totes) and Mr. Wells’s lawyer, Jan Cole-Wilson, spent some time making the point that some of these were stacked along the wall behind the door, which would have prevented the door from swinging all the way back against the wall.

Apparently, 20-something Amanda was on good terms with Gary “Giggles” Fitzgerald, so when Fitzgerald knocked on the door at 4:30 in the morning — to get his dog, he said — she unlocked it and the others forced their way in. Amanda was somehow left outside and could hear her child wailing inside where Settler was being attacked. She went back in and got Maddox and made it to her car, a VW Golf, and Said “Richie” Mohamed, who she remembered still had the gate chain draped around his neck, and threw four pounds of pot in her trunk for her, “so you can feed your kid.” (Lawyers have to be professionally credulous, and this leads defendants to think their minimizations are actually believable.) Amanda’s version of events, minimizing her participation and the amount of dope she took, would later be contradicted by the statements of the others.

In fact, it was pointed out by defendant Gary “Cricket” Blank’s lawyer, Al Kubanis, that Mr. Settler had recently spent a night with the mother of his children in Laytonville, and Amanda may have been in a jealous pique over that untimely off-site assignation.

Kubanis also noted that there had been two or three stops at motels on her way to San Francisco with the other two suspects in her car, Fredrick “Freddy” Gaestel and Zachary “Zack” Wuester – one in Willits, another in Sacramento, a third in San Bruno. Kubanis asked if it wouldn’t be kidnapping if, as Amanda maintained, she and her son had been taken against their will, and Espinoza answered yes.

“Were kidnapping charges ever brought?”

“No,” Espinoza admitted.

“Once Amanda got to the motel in San Bruno she contacted her mother who works for Homeland Security, didn’t she?”

“I don’t remember asking about the motel in San Bruno.”

“Well then, was it at the Hilton Hotel in San Francisco?”

“Yes, she contacted her mother from San Francisco.”

“Did you ask where she got the money for all these motels and other travel expenses?”

“Not that I recall.”

Many locals have so much ready money from the underground economy that questions concerning the source of it all are generally considered indelicate, if not downright rude. Questions about one’s sex life, no matter how pornographic, are open for discussion, but you better not ask me about my filthy lucre, damn it!

After lunch on Wednesday, lead Detective Matt Croskey took the stand, and started answering questions from the prosecutor, Deputy DA Joshua Rosenfeld. Croskey’s suit looked fresh from the cleaners, his tie knotted with military precision, his hair combed meticulously, his posture reflected the martial ideal, his answers were crisp, concise, polite.

By the time he was excused late Thursday afternoon, however, his shoulders were slumped, and as he leaned on his elbows, he swirled the dregs in his water glass monotonously on the stand. His hair was mussed from having run his hand through it absently a few times, he’d tugged his tie loose from his throat with a forefinger, and, though he drank several carafes of water, his voice was hoarse and gravelly, his answers edged with a note of surly impatience. Such are the outward symptoms of one who has undergone the medieval ordeal of cross-examination by four successive criminal defense lawyers in a murder case.

Det. Croskey had interviewed Melissa Wright, a bartender at Wheels Pub in Laytonville, who told him that Fredrick “Freddy” Gaestel had been at the bar the night before the murder and she said she noticed something was wrong, and when she pressed him, he said he was very angry – and so were his friends, to whom he’d loaned his car – angry enough to murder someone who owed them money.

Croskey then interviewed Gaestel himself at the Cottages Motel across the street from Wheels. Freddy told Croskey that he had worked at Mr. Settler’s grow site and that on November 8th, Mr. Geurts had told five of the workers that Settler wanted them off the property, and they were each paid $500. The five included himself, along with Giggles (Fitzgerald), Richie (Mohamed), Cricket (Blank), and Zack (Wuester), all of whom then went to Garberville for a few days “to party.”

Also at the Cottages Motel was Mr. Geurts who worked in some capacity of authority for Settler at the grow site. He told Croskey that he’d been sleeping in the shop, which had two roll-up garage doors and a regular entry door, which Giggles came in through very late that night—when Geurts saw Giggles he asked, “What the fuck are you doing here?”

Giggles reportedly said he was looking for his dog, then blocked Geurts’s path and said, “You don’t want to go out there.”

Somebody else blocked the entry door from the outside, and when Geurts heard Amanda scream, he turned on the lights and opened one of the roll-up doors, flooding the area in light.

Amanda then came up to him “with fear in her eyes” and whispered, “Get the fuck outta here.” Geurts then ran into the woods and watched from there.

Over the course of the winter, as the rest of the suspects were tracked down, Detective Croskey made trips to Oregon, Eureka, Lake Tahoe, San Diego, and New Jersey to interview all seven suspects, along with repeated interviews at the jail on Low Gap Road in Ukiah. What emerged is the following overview.

The “incident,” as it is being called in the euphemistic vernacular of the courthouse, happened a few days after Californians voted to legalize recreational marijuana last November. In fact, the same day as the vote, November 8th, Mr. Settler had told his foreman, Mr. Geurtz, to pay $500 each to Zachary “Zack” Wuester, Gary “Cricket” Blank, Fred “Freddy” Gestel, Said “Richie” Mohamed, and Gary “Giggles” Fitzgerald and tell them to get off the property.

The five went to Garberville, partied hearty until the money was gone then went back to get what they felt they were owed. They all pretty much agreed on this point.

During this time, the summer of 2016, the news was rife with stories of growers’ abuses, sobering revelations about how wealthy growers were abusing low-level workers, especially young women, forcing them to be sex slaves and that sort of thing, so it was not all that shocking to discover that a young single mom like Amanda Wiest had come to Settler’s grow, and shortly afterwards her boyfriend was sent packing and Weist was soon sleeping with Mr. Settler, while his children and their mother were (perhaps seething over the arrangement) living at the Cottage Motel in Laytonville.

So these five guys came back on November 10th and were drinking at Wheels Pub – a trimmer’s bar; only growers frequent Boomer’s Bar – and they hatched their scheme to go up to Settler’s grow and – well, it depended on who you asked. Some wanted to give Settler a good ass-kicking, others wanted bloodshed. Gary “Cricket” Blank was especially pissed-off. He would end up by his own admission doing at least “ten percent” of the stabbing orgy Jeff Settler died from.

Strange, but it wasn’t really fight.

Strangely, although Michael Kane had never worked on Settler’s pot pharm or had any wages coming. he did “90%” of the stabbing, according to “Cricket.”

They all played the part of the innocent dupe when they told their own stories to Detective Croskey, but the cross-referencing of the other statements put the lie to all these sadly homespun alibis.

For instance, Richie Mohamed said all he did was go along to get some of his old clothes back, and while the others were putting the boots, fists, knives and hatchets to Settler, he was in the kitchen making himself a hot-dog. The others, however, all placed him as the one who had used the bolt cutters to cut the lock and open the gate, then joined the team of four who took up ambush positions on either side of the door, while Giggles Fitzgerald went up and made that initial knock.

They sent Giggles to go knock because he was on favorable terms with Amanda. She recognized his voice and opened the door. Then, with two on each side, all four, Richie Mohamed included, rushed in and overpowered Settler, all four of them falling on him — each version of the story leaves the teller out of this part! — except this Mr. Geurta who, having been forewarned by Amanda to run for his life, went into the nearby woods and watched the robbery-murder from the cover of the trees.

It was about 4:30 in the morning, pitch black, except that when Geurts – who was sleeping in the nearby garage – heard Amanda scream, he flipped on a light and opened a garage door, flooding the area in light and “freezing” everybody in the scene.

Only one of the seven suspects wasn’t at the scene during the “incident” and that was Freddy Gaestel, who stayed at the Wheels Pub and gave the killers his car, along with arming Kane with a Fiskers hatchet out of his trunk.

Michael Kane, according to one version, used this instrument to hit the back of Settler’s head saying, “You piece of shit!” and then the other four fell on him kicking, punching, stabbing until, as the others were loading up the marijuana, Michael Kane, delivering the coup de grace, drove the blade of a knife into Jeffery Settler’s throat.

The long and grueling cross-examination, especially protracted by Kane’s lawyer Ethan Balogh, of course put a lot of doubt on the assertions by the others that Kane was “the heavy,” and that they themselves didn’t take any of the marijuana – honest! They had only gone up there at four in the morning to get some odd article of clothing or two they’d inadvertently left behind after being kicked off the grow November 8th. “Oh no, X or Y had nothing to do with the beating and stabbing, no-no, that was all Kane’s handy-work, not us, honest, we’re just peace-loving hippy kids out for a good time.”

But more than one version makes it clear they were all in on the heist that netted at least 120 pounds of processed bud (valued at what these days? At least $60,000 locally), and that they sold 60 pounds of it to a broker in Redway known as The Magic Hat – which would have left all seven with lots of ready cash for traveling expenses, depending on the fairness of the sharing in the spoils, and plenty of extra pounds of bud to sell elsewhere – where of course, they would get much higher prices than they could ever hope to find locally.

The prelim ended Thursday afternoon to give the lawyers for the four remaining defendants time to sort through the various versions of events and come up with a cogent, convincing and credible theory of their respective clients’ role. They were given three weeks and the hearing was set to resume on the third Friday in September.


  1. Nate Collins August 23, 2017

    No one likes to identify with murderers but the absolute douchebaggery( I don’t know for example creepy statutory rapist coupled with rabid grimey capitalist) of some grower bosses can clearly lead a group of “peace loving hippies” aka desperate and addicted lumpens to commit group murder/robbery with a fiskers hatchet. Oh yeah you better believe they stole the pot After that shit was processed!!

    • Misty Settler September 8, 2017

      My brother was not a capitalist, rapist or douchebag. He was beautiful, fair, kind and my best friend since I was a year old. These scum robbed him of his life’s work, his dream, and me of the person I have and will always love the most in this world. I am haunted by so many beautiful memories that once brought joy to my heart. Now I find tears and screams when I remember each thing and it tears my soul apart. He was going to take my mom, afflicted with alzheimers, to a doctor. He was going to build a house for me and my two children. He wanted to take his neice and nephew to disneyland and build them a tree house. They killed a man for a seed he spent his whole life to promote and breed. He was a teacher and a healer yet they labeled him a dealer.

  2. Alix February 10, 2018

    You have many facts wrong.Jeff was my best friend, more like my brother. I was there 3 days prior to te murder, and was supposed to be there that night (thankfully Jeff didn’t send me the gas $ I needed to be there).
    For one, Kane absolutely worked for Jeff, as a caretaker of one of the gardens (there were about 3-5 seperate gardens, with seperate caretakers). He had left the property several months earlier with Zach (during the middle of the grow, before harvest).
    Secondly, Amanda was not some innocent girl who was taken advantage of in any way. She amd her boyfriend had a very shaky on and off relationship, and were bound to break up. I felt she was flirting with both MY boyfriend AND Jeff before she broke up with her boyfriend at the time, so it was no surprise to discover she was sleeping with Jeff during the murder. Jeff and his partner (mother of his children) had an open relationship. He deeply loved her, and I’m sure Amanda was jealous.
    In addition, there was no “kitchen” for anyone to be innocently “making hotdogs” during the murder, as the giant shed with the weed was the same exact area of the propane camping stove (it was a makeshift food prep area).
    There are so many things I want to say, and I feel I need to contact the authorities to give a detailed interview, because so much of this is simply false.
    Jeff was an amazing person who had finally landed his dream property that year. Anyone involved in the industry knows how expensive and physically demanding the growing industry is. It is not “easy money”, and any grower will tell you that November is the worst month of all; tensions are running so high because you have invested all of your money into the garden, you are likely broke and waiting for your return on investment to come to fruition, and anything thay can go wrong (mold, bugs, rot, rain, robbery, busts, etc), can decimate your entire crop for the year. It us likerally the “make or break” time of the year. These inexperienced and unprofessional workers had no idea how strapped Jeff was for cash (he was sitting on the weed, not a pile of money), and was going to pay them as soon as he started to sell it. I know first-hand that Jeff was broke because I would have been there that very day, had he wired me the measley $1700 he owed me for work the last week.
    He called me the day before he died, told me how much he loved me, his babies’ momma, and our close friends, and was going to focus on bringing our extended “family” prosperity and work, rather than giving random strangers the opportunity to work for him. He had such a big heart, and would often take traveling kids under his wing (from music festivals or concerts) and give them food, shelter, and jobs. Unfortunately, he extended his open-hearted nature to the wrong crowd, who didnt know or understand him, and didnt know the logistics of the industry (remember, November is the breaking point month, from “stretched too thin/broke”, to finally getting paid).
    Those dirtbags took an extremely brilliant, generous, entrepreneurial father, brother, partner, and friend, from this world. They will never amount to half the man he was. I hope they rot in jail and watch the world from behind bars, move on without them.

  3. Ashley February 13, 2018

    I am his “babies mama” Ashley and I can tell u workers were paid out months earlier when they were let go… They had been invited back to trim when we had some cute Canadian trimmer girls and they were expected to be paid for their trimming last. Amanda is a lame women mother and person I had confided in her something arbitrary and she ran to Jeff and portrayed my words out of context and basically is a snake in the grass as she was also pulling credit card scams allegedly against other young people on tour the summer previous. He was only hooking up with her because she was dumb and easy I suppose he was too caught up in the harvest to notice her coniving villainous nature. He was in love with me and our beautiful boys and we were planning on going on a nice long vacation in a couple weeks. These horrible lame people left me broke and alone with no husband as we were engaged and more importantly my children without a father. What kind of monsters could do such a thing? Strangly enough the owner said Jeff himself went to get the keys to the gate from the property owner early that morning so he probably let them in to party and crash. I took this people to festivals let them celebrate my oldest sons birthday as well as cooked for them grocery shopped for them. I miss Jeff and my boys miss their father. I am left without a home vehicle and in debt to local hardware and dirt businesses. For shame to them all I just can’t believe Amanda gets out of trouble because mommy is important and has money. So pathetic. And on top of it all I had been allowed to leave my Chevy pick up on property which was stolen by a man named Howard and sold to someone in town which I am currently looking for to try to reason with as that seems like the right way to handle the situation. What a long strange trip its been

  4. E February 15, 2018

    I worked for Jeff and this entire thing is crap, I don’t think he deserved to be killed, but he wasn’t innocent himself, he was a cheat a liar and a rip off.

    • Misty Dawn Settler July 7, 2018

      He was not perfect. Neither are any of you and neither am I. He wasn’t a rip off. Sometimes numbers are not alwayds in our favor or what we hope or thought they might be. He was fair. He was an asshole sometimes just like any of us are and he was also beautiful and brillian in others just as we each are the same. He was highly hard working and moral. Above all else, he tried. He wanted to help. He wanted to heal. He wanted to make the world a better place and he taught and strove for love, gentleness, kindness and understanding. For every time something did not go right and someone has something ugly to say about my brother I guarantee that there is somebody out there exceedingly grateful who things did work out for and have the most beautiful things to say about him. I don’t care either way right now. I will tell you this much, I would do anything to have him here even at his worst. I would be more than appreciative to have him here yelling at me right now. I wish he could. Who cares really whether he was a good or bad guy? What does that have to do with their actions? What does that have to do with making the choice to commit murder and choose life for someone? There is nothing that he could have done that has anything to do with the choices of those that chose to end his life. Just because someone else acts wrongly does not mean that I should. It doesn’t matter what he did, they chose to act wrongly and that is on them. I’d like to thank them for not giving anyone else a choice as to whether they wanted him around or not. I’m pretty pissed I will never see my brother again. I’m sure his children won’t miss him. I have nothing nice to say any further so I will just quote my brother as so many of his friends have since his passing. In the words of Jeff Settler, “Thank you! I love you! Thank you! I love you! Thank you! I love you!” and as he would want me to do I will forgive you because it’s the right thing to do and I will not let their actions misguide me.

    • Sonny September 30, 2018

      So! It doesn’t give anyone the right to kill!

  5. Sonny September 30, 2018

    A murderer is no big a sinner than a liar, thief, robber, etc. Everyone is born with sin, I just want to know why people like this, think the world owes them!?!
    My husband and I are farmers in Mendocino, and we won’t hire Strangers! IDGAF! Outsiders are not welcome at our property. We have boobie traps, dogs, and firecrackers! We also have never held onto our product,for even a day! That poor Mr Settler! He should’ve known better than to hold onto product! Once ours is trimmed, it’s gone! Everyone gets paid, and we have no problems. When we have nothing more to do, we’re alone till spring. Easy.
    I love being clean green certified organic licensed farm!

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