MENDOCINO CO., 9/24/18 — It has been almost two years since the killing of Jeffrey Settler on his Laytonville cannabis farm, and of the seven suspects initially charged with some involvement in his death, three have accepted plea deals, and four still remain in the Mendocino County jail awaiting trial on charges of homicide and robbery. The trial for the homicide and armed robbery case was previously scheduled to begin in Mendocino County Superior Court on September 17, but jury selection is now set to begin October 1. The proceedings have been delayed, and may be further complicated, by a bill which currently awaits a decision on Governor Jerry Brown’s desk.
Settler, a 35 year old father and cannabis farmer, originally from Lubbock, Texas, was found brutally stabbed to death near his cannabis garden on November 11, 2016. A nearly five month long manhunt ensued for seven suspects, the most of whom had been employed on Settler’s farm and were also accused of a theft of 100 pounds of Settler’s cannabis. Three of the defendants, Zachary Wuester, Gary Fitzgerald, and Abdirahman Said Mohamed, subsequently accepted plea deals in exchange for their testimony, in which they accepted felony charges of forcible robbery in the first degree to serve up to nine years. The remaining defendants, Michael Kane, Frederick Gaestel, Jesse Wells, and Gary Blank, are currently scheduled to go to trial.
However, the trial’s start has been delayed due to uncertainty over the passage of Senate Bill 1437, which would change how an accessory to felony murder, who did not play a role in the killing, can be charged. The law has the support of criminal justice reform groups, but has been opposed by District Attorneys groups. Given the lack of clarity over whether the Governor will sign, Mendocino Superior Court Judge John Behnke, who is overseeing the case, has delayed the proceedings until the end of September, the deadline for the Governor to sign or veto legislation. If he approves it, the door may be open for some of the defendants to argue that they should not be charged with the homicide.
The investigation into Settler’s homicide, as well as the subsequent legal proceedings, have been lengthy and complex. The search for the suspects involved a potential kidnapping of a woman and her child who may have witnessed the killing, although no charges have been brought in that case. The manhunt, which took place across the country during which several suspects turn himself in, took nearly five months, and the legal proceedings up until the current events have taken almost two years. Each defendant has retained a separate attorney, each of whom can take a turn to question witnesses or make an argument, and many of the defendants have accused each other of being the primary ringleader — including accusing defendants that subsequently took a plea deal in exchange for their future testimony. During the preliminary hearing, it became clear that dozens of Laytonville residents may be called to testify about what they saw or knew.
Since the plea deals were accepted, the preliminary hearing held, and as the trial approaches, there have been several developments into the case. One of the defendants, Gary Blank, has been separated from the case of the other three defendants.
In court on September 21, Behnke proposed beginning jury selection while awaiting Brown’s decision, since hundreds of potential jurors would be on call for September 24, although he previously proposed checking on the legislation’s status on a weekly basis. The three defense attorneys for Kane, Gaestel, and Wells, supported the idea, with Jan Cole-Wilson, who represents Wells, noting that the case had received quite a lot of press attention and finding jurors might take some time. She also said she would be unavailable after late October, forcing her client to have a substitute attorney if the trial was not completed. However, Eyster argued against it, stating he was concerned jurors would hold any legislative uncertainty against the prosecution. He added that he had told witnesses, who were “spread far and wide,” they would need to be present by October 1. Behnke ultimately decided to plan jury selection to begin on October 1, with some other pre-trial matters to be heard in the meantime. In court, Cole-Wilson also raised the issue Detective Matthew Croskey, a witness and formerly with the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office’s, who had investigated Settler’s homicide, had been difficult to contact, and suggested he appeared to be acting uncooperatively. Croskey testified for the prosecution at length during the preliminary hearings, as to his investigation and interviews with numerous key witnesses. Cole-Wilson indicated that if another attempt to serve a witness subpoena to Croskey was unsuccessful, she might have to request a warrant for him to appear for the trial. Eyster protested that he was unprepared to address the issue having not been previously aware of it, and the matter was held until the next court proceeding on September 26.
Here’s our complete coverage of Settler’s homicide investigation and legal proceedings.