New details emerge in killing of Laytonville pot grower

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New details emerged Tuesday about the death of a Mendocino County pot grower who was viciously attacked, allegedly by workers hired to trim his valuable crop, during a robbery that sharpened tensions between residents of the Emerald Triangle and the seasonal “trimmigrants” who flood the region during harvest.

Mendocino County sheriff’s detectives are looking for five people they suspect were involved in the death and robbery of Jeffrey Quinn Settler, 35. Settler had hired the five out‑of‑state residents to trim marijuana plants at his Laytonville pot field, and they worked for him within days leading to the slaying, according to sheriff’s officials.

Detectives suspect the trimmers surprised Settler during the night as he slept in a shed on the property, which also housed the marijuana. He died early Friday and was found later that day by a worker also staying at the remote property, officials said.

Sheriff’s officials have released little information about the killing, including whether a weapon was found, other than to say Settler was “violently assaulted.” But a law enforcement source Monday said the man was beaten and stabbed, suffering defensive wounds as well as more lethal injuries as he fought back during the attack. Sheriff’s Lt. Shannon Barney declined to confirm the report.

An autopsy was conducted Monday afternoon but the results weren’t released.

Detectives believe the suspects — four men and one woman from New Jersey, Illinois and Virginia — took about 100 pounds of processed marijuana and left the area. Law enforcement agencies nationwide have been given their identities and alerted to watch for them.

The worker who found the body walked several miles into Laytonville to report the death, Barney said. Deputies were called at 3:40 p.m. Friday to the property north of Laytonville, in the 49000 block of North Highway 101. The property is about 5 miles down a dirt road west of the highway.

They found an unsophisticated growing operation, including a shed, some tents and the pot field, with the body inside the shed.

Other people also had worked for Settler on the commercial grow and were able to help detectives with information, Barney said.

Detectives have an arrest warrant for Zachary Ryan Wuester, 24, of Haskell, N.J., suspecting him of murder and robbery.

“We have information he is one of the involved parties. We think the others were with him as well,” Barney said.

The other suspects are Frederick Gaestel, 27, of Clifton, N.J.; Gary Blank III of Elgin, Ill.; Gary Lynn Fitzgerald, 23, of Roanoke, Ill.; and Amanda Weist, 26, of Fairfax, Va., according to sheriff’s officials.

The homicide is a major topic in rural Laytonville.

“He’s (Settler) a local here. It is being discussed around downtown. People are concerned about it although they (the suspects) are believed to be out of the area,” said Rick Davis, a paramedic for Laytonville’s fire department.

“Everybody is talking about it, but we’re not getting much information,” said Kaye Kuykendall, owner of Laytonville’s Boomers Saloon.

The five trimmers were part of the annual influx into marijuana country at harvest time when seasonal workers are needed to trim the plants.

Known as “trimmigrants,” the growing numbers coming from across the nation and abroad for jobs has been a growing problem in numerous Mendocino communities including Laytonville. Many people don’t end up with jobs and expand homeless issues for the mostly rural communities, according to residents and law enforcement officials.

“It’s not only us. Willits, Garberville, all have major issues with the influx of trimmigants,” Davis said.

In Laytonville, local residents had put together a sort of behavior brochure and passed them out to people “basically saying you’re a guest in our community. We expect you guys to be respectful and take care of the community,” Davis said.

“They’re hiring these trimmigrants to come up here, helping them out, giving them a job and they turn around and are getting killed,” Davis said.

Detectives suspect the five left the property in two cars, including a blue, four‑door 2017 Volkswagen Golf sedan with a Virginia license plate of VHR5611.

Officials are asking anyone with information about the car or the suspects to contact detectives at 707‑463‑4421 or 707-234‑2100.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707-521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@rossmannreport.

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