Deadly toll from marijuana violence grows in Sebastopol as Californians face vote
One week after three people were gunned down at a rural Sebastopol home during a marijuana deal that left two dead and one seriously wounded, Sonoma County Sheriff’s officials have offered almost no new information about the case with an unknown gunman or gunmen still at large.
The deadly shooting echoes the troubling eruption, played out time and again on the North Coast, of violence among people involved with one of the region’s most lucrative crops.
Sheriff’s officials have repeatedly declined to elaborate on what they know about how much pot and cash were at play when the group gathered Oct. 15 at the Highway 116 South property in the Hessel area southeast of Sebastopol. They are still searching for a killer, who left behind a small mature marijuana garden and an unspecified amount of processed pot.
“We won’t give those intimate details,” Sgt. Spencer Crum said about the case. “Only the killer or someone in the house at the time of the killing should know that. We don’t want a false or tainted confession in the future.”
On Saturday morning, the Sheriff’s Office released several photographs showing a man that investigators say was tied to the incident but not a suspect at this point. They asked for help in identifying the man and a woman seen with him in the aftermath of the crime.
The shooting occurred less than a month before California voters will decide whether to legalize recreational use of marijuana for adults. Legalization’s impact on crime is a key concern for both supporters and opponents of Proposition 64, the measure that will go before California voters next month. Some supporters say it would bring a black market industry out of the shadows, allowing regulated commerce that could make the industry safer.
At the same time, law enforcement groups, many of whom oppose legalization, have warned against a ‘‘yes’’ vote that they fear would bring more marijuana business to the state, expanding ties to unsanctioned markets elsewhere.
The specter of past violence continues to factor heavily in the debate.
Seven of 26 people murdered in Sonoma County since 2013 died during marijuana deals. Saturday’s shooting was the deadliest pot robbery since 2013, when three men were gunned down when a partner double-crossed them at a Forestville home.
In the Sebastopol slaying last week, former Cloverdale teacher Nathan Proto, 36, was shot at his home alongside two of his friends, including John Jessie Mariana, 28, of Guerneville, who died three days later from his injuries. The other victim, a 23-year-old woman who was shot in the head, is expected to survive.
Proto, who tended a marijuana garden where he lived, was a familiar face in the cannabis community, said Tawnie Logan, Sonoma County Growers Alliance’s executive director. Proto was not a member of the group.
“This hit close to home for quite a number of people,” said Logan. “The response is outrage, rage and fear. Then, ‘We have to address this.’ ”
The alliance opposes Proposition 64 because its members believe it’s written to favor big companies and disadvantage small-scale farmers.
But regulations now in the works for medical cannabis — approved by voters in 1996 but largely ungoverned since — are essential to bringing people into the legal market and boosting public safety, Logan said.