UKIAH, CA, 8/16/17 — A preliminary hearing was held Monday in the trial of the accused killers of Jeffrey Settler, in Mendocino Superior Court, at which three of the defendants accepted plea agreements in exchange for future testimony. The remaining four men still face charges for the murder of Settler, who was beaten and stabbed to death in November, 2016.
Judge John Behnke presided over the preliminary hearing, in which testimony was heard to determine if there is enough evidence to proceed with the trial. The hearing ran long and testimony is being heard today as well. Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office detectives testified about the evidence they have gathered, based on interviews with witnesses and examinations of the scene of the murder. Three of the defendants pled to felony charges of first degree robbery, with a maximum of nine years in prison, for stealing cannabis from Settler at his home, but had the murder charge dropped. The other four defendants are still charged with murder, as well as robbery.
Jeffrey Quinn Settler, a 35 year Laytonville cannabis farmer, was beaten and stabbed to death in the early morning of November 11, 2016 at his farm north of Laytonville. The prosecution claims that the defendants worked on Settler’s farm, in part as trimmers, and attacked him while robbing more than 100 lbs. of weed. The search for the seven defendants resulted in a four month long nationwide manhunt.
Monday morning, as several of Settler’s family members sat clasping hands in the courtroom, defendants Zachary Wuester, Gary Fitzgerald, and Abdirahman Said Mohamed, either pled guilty or no contest and acknowledged their participation in forcibly robbing Settler at his residence. Both Wuester and Fitzgerald entered guilty pleas, and Mohamed pled no contest. The remaining defendants, Michael Kane, Frederick Gaestel, Jesse Wells, and Gary Blank are still facing homicide charges. All seven defendants retained separate attorneys, with the people represented by Mendocino County deputy district attorney Josh Rosenfeld.
Settler, 35, was the father of several young children and a resident of the Laytonville area. He was originally from Lubbock, TX but had lived in Mendocino County for about 15 years, and worked as a cannabis farmer. “I know Jeff is with us right now,” said his younger sister Robin Settler, who described the family’s visit to Settler’s gravesite in Laytonville on Sunday while she stood outside the courtroom.
Settler’s parents and one of his four siblings traveled from Texas to be in court for the hearing. Defendant Michael Kane’s parents were also in the courtroom.
The defendants still facing homicide charges were all found after months on the run. Kane, who turned himself in at the U.S.-Mexico border on January 19 after fleeing to Mexico, is defended by Ethan Balogh; Gaestel who was arrested February 10 in Virginia, is defended by Robert Boyd; Wells who was arrested February 24 in South Lake Tahoe, is defended by Jan Cole-Wilson of the public defender’s office; and Blank, who was arrested March 10 in New Jersey, is defended by Al Kubanis. During the hearing, several of the defendant’s attorneys attempted to assign responsibility for the murder to the other defendants or to intimate that some of the witnesses interviewed had ulterior motives.
Early in the hearing Fitzgerald sat slouched in his seat during questions about his clarity of mind. When quearied as to his understanding of the consequences of taking the plea agreement he paused for a long time, then stated that he had taken a large hit of LSD before turning himself in (many months ago), and was mostly unaware of what was happening. The judge then expressed concern and requested that he take some time to speak with his attorney. After a short conference Fitzgerald returned and explained that he when about his state of mind he’d had a panic attack and felt overwhelmed. Sounding much more cogent, he answered several additional questions from Judge Behnke to confirm his ability to clearly understand the plea agreement before it was accepted by the court.
Sergeant Quincy Cromer, Deputy Jeremy Mason, Deputy Clinton Wient, and Detective Luis Espinoza, who all participated in the investigation, described their interviews with people who had spoken to either Settler or the suspects on the night of the murder or in the days following.
Detective Espinoza related interviews given by Amanda Weist, who told detectives that she had been sleeping in a room with Settler and her young son when the homicide and robbery occurred, and that she had previously been working on the property. Weist told investigators that she feared that she and her son might be harmed if she didn’t obey the defendants, and she that left the scene that night with Wuester in her vehicle. She then traveled with him to meet with other defendants at a different location, later leaving the county in her vehicle.
According to the detective, Weist told officers that she saw a man with a hatchet grappling with Settler — and that she saw several of the defendants at the scene. Police first considered Weist a possible victim of abduction, then a potential suspect, and then a victim of kidnapping during the initial days of investigation — and a BOLO (be on the lookout) was issued for her vehicle during the search for suspects.
Settler’s landlord, who had dinner with Settler on November 11, and was sleeping on a different part of the property during the murder, was the first to report Settler’s death. He called law enforcement on the afternoon of November 11, and later spoke with Sergeant Cromer at the Laytonville Cottages Hotel about the events he witnessed.
Investigators also related information they had gathered in interviews with one woman who had been staying at the Cottages Hotel during the homicide, where some of the suspects were also renting rooms. At the hearing, Deputy Weint, of the MCSO, related that the witness said she had seen several of the defendants engaged in a “meeting” prior to the murder, and spoke with several of them on the night of Settler’s death, both before and after the time the homicide is likely to have occurred. This witness also indicated that there was likely a dispute between some of the defendants and Settler over money from work done at Settler’s cannabis farm. During questioning, defense attorneys implied she had been seeking to protect Wuester in the information she provided during the investigation.
You can read all of our previous coverage of the Settler homicide here.
The hearing was continued to Tuesday, but was then canceled on Tuesday morning because defendant Jesse Wells was ill. The hearing resumed today, Wednesday.
We will be continuing coverage of this hearing, and the trial that follows.
*Correction: The article has been updated to reflect that Settler was originally from Lubbock, TX.
by Kate B. Maxwell, [email protected]