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Seven enter not guilty pleas to murder of Laytonville pot grower

Seven men charged with murder in connection with a 2016 slaying at a Mendocino County marijuana garden entered not guilty pleas Monday in Mendocino County Superior Court.

In addition to murder, the suspects are charged with burglary and robbery and special circumstances in the Nov. 11 slaying of Jeffrey Quinn Settler, 34, at the remote property near Laytonville.

Settler was beaten and stabbed to death in a shed where marijuana was stored, according to Mendocino County sheriff’s authorities.

Most of the suspects had worked for Settler at the cannabis growing operation, they said.

Two of the suspects, Michael Andrew Kane, 24, of Pleasantville, New York, and Gary Blank III, 34, of Garberville, also are charged with personally using a knife during the killing, a possible indicator they are suspected of being the ones who actually killed Settler.

“The district attorney has reviewed a lot of the discovery and may have suspicions in that regard,” said Blank’s defense attorney, Al Kubanis.

Mendocino County Deputy District Attorney Joshua Rosenfeld, who is prosecuting the case, declined comment.

Under the law, all of those who participated in the associated crimes are considered responsible for the killing.

The other defendants are Zachary Ryan Wuester, 24, of Haskell, New Jersey; Gary Lynn Fitzgerald, 23, of Roanoke, Illinois; Abdirahman Mohamed, 28, of San Diego; Jesse Wells, 33, of Laytonville; and Frederick Gaestel, 27, of Clifton, New Jersey.

According to Gaestel’s court-appointed defense attorney Bob Boyd, his client was not at the scene during the assault, but prosecutors believe he supplied a vehicle used in the robbery and murder.

Settler, a father of three, had been growing marijuana at the Laytonville property for about 10 years, family members said.

Sheriff’s officials believe about 100 pounds of marijuana was stolen during the robbery, but it has not been recovered.

Some of the suspects had been evicted from the property days before the killing and there may have been a dispute over payment, authorities have said.

All the suspects fled the crime scene, taking with them a woman, initially thought to be a suspect, and her child.

They were later released. Some suspects gave themselves up while others were captured.

The last to be captured was Blank, who was apprehended in New Jersey last month.

The charges filed against the defendants carry a potential death penalty sentence, but Boyd said he’s heard no such discussion. In any case, “they’re all facing a lot of time,” Boyd said.

After consulting with the seven defense attorneys in the case, Mendocino County Superior Court Judge John Behnke set an Aug. 14 preliminary hearing to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to hold a trial for the defendants on the charges.

It’s unclear whether one trial would be held for all the defendants.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 707-462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter.

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