The Settler Killers
by Bruce McEwen, August 23, 2017
(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.