Emily Rothman of Florida throws her pack into a truck that will take her to a friend’s pot farm in Garberville, Calif. She said all the women she knows have been warned of things to watch out for when coming to the area for work. (Sarah Rice, Reveal)

Whispers of sexual abuse and trafficking in the Emerald Triangle’s secretive pot gardens

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This story was produced by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at revealnews.org/podcast.


The trees towered above them, limbs etched in black against the night sky. He steered his pickup down a narrow path of mud and rocks and parked in front of a trailer. He tried to kiss her. She froze.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I have to get up early,” she said.

He began groping her body.

“Don’t you have a wife?” she asked.

The woods seemed to crawl with creatures; the ground was slick with rain. As wilderness pulsed around them, she ran through the possibilities.

If she fled, would she find her way out? If she fought back, would he hurt her?

Would anyone hear her if she screamed?

***

In the Emerald Triangle, trees are ever present. They peek over small towns and dip into valleys, sheathing this cluster of remote Northern California counties in silence.

For decades, the ancient forests here have provided cover for the nation’s largest marijuana-growing industry, shielding pot farmers from convention, outsiders and law enforcement.

But the forests also hide secrets, among them young women with stories of sexual abuse and exploitation. Some have spoken out; a handful have pressed charges. Most have confided only in private.

Students from the nearest college, Humboldt State University, return from a summer of trimming marijuana buds with tales of being forced to give their boss a blow job to get paid. Other “trimmigrants,” who typically work during the June-to-November harvest, recount offers of higher wages to trim topless.

During one harvest season, two growers began having sex with their teenage trimmer. When they feared she would run away, they locked her inside an oversized toolbox with breathing holes.

Contact with law enforcement is rare and, female trimmigrants say, rarely satisfying.

Verifying their stories is as difficult as finding your way through the forest at night, down twisty dirt roads, to one of the backwoods marijuana farms. During months of reporting in the region, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting unearthed dozens of accounts of sexual exploitation, abuse and trafficking. Victims’ advocates say the problem is far larger and, with every harvest, continues to grow.

“Women believe they are getting hired for trimming work, and then they’re drugged and raped,” said Maryann Hayes Mariani, a coordinator for the North Coast Rape Crisis Team. “Everybody looks at (the region) like it’s the Land of Oz. I’m just so tired of pretending like it’s not happening here.”

Yet law enforcement repeatedly has failed to investigate abuse and sexual violence in the industry. Instead, officers mostly focus on what they view as the root cause of the problem: the drug trade.

In the rural counties of Northern California, marijuana is still a largely underground industry, worth billions. Last year, legal California sales alone were valued at $2.7 billion, according to The ArcView Group, a marijuana market research firm. Sales are projected to balloon to $6.4 billion by 2020 if marijuana is legalized for recreational use. It’s big business, drawing busloads of job seekers.

Ads for trimmers are tacked to a bulletin board in Garberville, Calif. Female trimmers often pair up, even form trimming collectives, counting on safety in numbers. (Sarah Rice, Reveal)
Ads for trimmers are tacked to a bulletin board in Garberville, Calif. Female trimmers often pair up, even form trimming collectives, counting on safety in numbers. (Sarah Rice, Reveal)

The number of trimmigrants who go missing alone is overwhelming for law enforcement, fueling an epidemic of the lost. In 2015, Humboldt County reported 352 missing people, more per capita than any other county in the state.

When an artist from San Francisco disappeared in the Humboldt County town of Garberville last harvest season, her mother and roommate filed a missing persons report. Months later, she resurfaced to tell her family she had been held against her will on a marijuana farm, drugged and sexually abused. She never formally reported her abuse.

But at the time of her disappearance, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office had labeled her a “voluntary missing adult.” They flagged the case as a low priority.

“Many people come to Humboldt each year to work on the marijuana farms,” the deputy who took the report told her roommate in an email. “So far she is falling into the same category as many others have.”

In addition to women and girls who come of their own volition to trim, others are brought in specifically to provide sex services. Come harvest season, escorts flood these rural areas, drawn to the large population of male growers and laborers who spend months at a time alone on isolated mountain farms.

Ron Prose, an investigator for the Eureka Police Department, said sex traffickers know law enforcement agencies have little interest in cracking down on them. None of the county agencies surveyed by Reveal have investigators assigned to human trafficking. Prose himself is semi-retired; he investigates trafficking cases when he has time.

The table in the trim room on a cannabis farm in Redcrest, Calif., on Monday, October 19, 2015. (Sarah Rice, Reveal)
The table in the trim room on a cannabis farm in Redcrest, Calif., on Monday, October 19, 2015. (Sarah Rice, Reveal)

For women, the dangers are due in part to the gender dynamics in the industry. Growing is a male-dominated field, and many growers prefer to hire female trimmers. Several told Reveal that they believe women are more dexterous, making them more efficient workers. Others are looking for company.

“Some of these younger guys don’t have regular relationships because they’re out in the hills growing weed, but they still want a girl,” Prose said. “It sounds kind of crude, but they seek female companionship.”

Of course, many marijuana farms are responsible operations. Most workers describe good experiences, including excellent pay, food and shelter. Many also welcome the unusual working conditions of an industry long at odds with mainstream culture and the law. Drug use on the job, for instance, is common.

In November, California voters will decide whether to fully legalize recreational marijuana. But such use remains illegal under federal and most state laws, and the culture of silence is so embedded in the state’s industry – the nation’s top black market supplier – it seems unlikely that legalization alone will dramatically alter the landscape for women toiling deep in the Emerald Triangle.

“There’s a lot of wilderness here, and dirt roads and acres of forest,” said Amy Benitez, a victims’ advocate in Humboldt County. “There’s a lot of nooks and crannies you can hide in. You add this criminal element to it, where there’s money, and there’s just more ways that you can abuse power and control.”

***

Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014

That power imbalance is what ensnared a 22-year-old environmentalist and musician who arrived in one of the mountain towns in the middle of the 2014 harvest season looking for trimming work. In Petrolia, Terri – not her real name – found a world apart from her hometown in the Los Angeles Basin.

Petrolia sits beneath the King Range mountains at the edge of Humboldt County, hidden behind a curtain of redwoods and Douglas fir trees. With a population of about 400, it has one general store, one bar, no cellphone service and no police. It’s about two hours down crumbling cliffside roads to the nearest highway. Most locals live in the surrounding mountains, overlooking the forested valley and black sand beaches of the last undeveloped stretch of California known as the Lost Coast.

“I like to think of Petrolia as this little town hanging off the edge of the world,” said Jenoa Briar-Bonpane, a former resident who became Terri’s therapist. “At night, you’ve never seen so many stars.”

Nearly everyone in Petrolia knows each other. Most are involved in marijuana growing to some degree. But like other small towns dotting the Emerald Triangle, in the past decade, more and more people have moved in. Greenhouses have sprung up, enabling industrial-scale marijuana growing. Larger farms have drawn more workers from outside the area.

At first, Terri did not have a job. An acquaintance introduced her to Cedar McCulloch-Clow and Emily Herman, a married couple with two children, a horde of chickens and goats, and a bicycle-strewn junkyard. Terri set up a tent in the couple’s yard, plunked down her violin and camping gear and began looking for work.

She also set about working her way into the community. She went to the weekly farmers market at the community center and ran and biked in the annual Rye and Tide, a 7 1/2-mile race that begins with a swig of whiskey outside the town bar.

Terri found a couple of trimming jobs, including for Sam Epperson and his partner, Rachel Adair. Their operation was far smaller than the region’s newer marijuana fields – known as grows – and had a vegetable garden and turkey coop.

Terri and three other trimmers sat in a row of swivel office chairs in a wood-paneled trimming shack. They wore aprons to keep from tracking loose leaves into the house and carefully tallied the weight of their work – they would be paid $200 a pound – with pencil and paper.

In this posed photograph, marijuana buds are displayed on a table where marijuana is usually trimmed by immigrant workers, in Petrolia, CA, on May 24, 2016. (Andrew Burton, Reveal)
In this posed photograph, marijuana buds are displayed on a table where marijuana is usually trimmed by immigrant workers, in Petrolia, CA, on May 24, 2016. (Andrew Burton, Reveal)

Epperson, quiet and bespectacled with a mop of graying curls, prepared fresh food and drinks for the workers. Every day, he offered them an organic chocolate bar.

One night, on the concrete patio of the town bar – the Yellow Rose – Terri met a grower named Kailan Meserve. He was twice her age, tan and muscular, with a swagger and salt-and-pepper hair. Meserve mentioned he needed trimmers and bought her a beer. A friend of Terri’s, Katie Finnegan, went inside to buy another drink. When Finnegan returned, Terri had disappeared.

Inside, the bar is a bright, airy space with pristine off-white walls and a polished beige floor – a contrast with its often grungy clientele. One side of the bar is lined with light metal cafe tables, the other with pool tables and arcade games. The darkest part of the bar is to the left of the dartboard, a long dim hallway to the single-stall women’s restroom.

About 45 minutes after Finnegan lost track of Terri, court records show she found her unconscious in that bathroom, her pants around her ankles. Terri appeared to have fallen and hit the sink on her way down.

Terri remembered almost nothing about the night. She was concerned something had happened with Meserve. But back on the grow, Epperson and Adair put her at ease: Meserve was a captain of the volunteer fire department, the son of a prominent local environmental activist and politician. Meserve, they said, was married with toddler twins.

“He’s a good guy,” Epperson recalled telling her.

The couple still had work for Terri, but on their small-scale grow, the harvest wouldn’t last long. They encouraged her to take up Meserve on his offer of a trimming job.

That was advice Epperson now says he deeply regrets.

***

Conservative ranchers and loggers dominated the small population of the Emerald Triangle when hippies began arriving en masse in the late 1960s. They were a diverse bunch, from tree-sitting activists to disillusioned Vietnam veterans.

Kailan Meserve’s father came to Humboldt County as part of the “back to the land” movement. His first home was a teepee on the Mattole River. Later, he built a house in Petrolia, where he, his wife and children lived on wind and solar power, grew produce and raised their own goats, cows and chickens.

At first, marijuana was a recreational drug, grown mostly for personal use. It didn’t stay that way for long. Growers realized they could better support themselves and their families by selling pot on the black market. The climate was ideal, the woods and mountains isolated enough to conceal the illicit crop. The American-grown marijuana industry was born.

Sunshine Johnston with some of her cannabis plants at her farm in Redcrest, Calif., on Monday, October 19, 2015. (Sarah Rice, Reveal)
Sunshine Johnston with some of her cannabis plants at her farm in Redcrest, Calif., on Monday, October 19, 2015. (Sarah Rice, Reveal)

From the outset, the children of these growers had more difficulties than their parents. The Summer of Love was over. Across the community, alcohol and drug abuse was rampant. So was law enforcement.

The threat of raids constantly loomed over the Meserve household, threatening to pull the family apart. According to Meserve’s sister, Amy, their parents began using cocaine and alcohol and exploded into constant fights.

“It just got really crazy,” she recalled. “Kailan pretty much raised us.”

When federal Operation Green Sweep touched down in Petrolia in 1990, soldiers flew helicopters overhead and officers confronted families in their homes with M16 rifles. Children learned to lie about the reality of their lives.

“I still have PTSD,” said Sam Epperson, who grew up on a marijuana farm in eastern Humboldt County. “I can hear choppers flying from miles away.”

With law enforcement crackdowns came higher black market prices and greater risks. To protect their crops from theft, many farmers began to carry guns and booby-trap their properties. Residents dealt with crime themselves, avoiding law enforcement whenever possible.

In 1996, California became the first state in the country to legalize medical marijuana. But the law failed to limit the amount of marijuana that could be grown, and law enforcement had no way to determine which plants were cultivated for medical purposes or for profit. Crime and black market growing in the Emerald Triangle soared, including by growers with connections to organized crime, vastly eclipsing local law enforcement’s efforts to stop it.

Lt. Wayne Hanson of the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office put it simply: “We lost the drug war many years ago.”

The turmoil prompted some of the children to leave. Kailan Meserve was among the many who stayed. He became a stonemason, specializing in fireplaces, and grew pot on the side.

The “green rush” hit Petrolia in 2010. With California voters considering full legalization, new growers poured into town hoping to get rich. The hippie haven was about to go mainstream.

The law did not pass, but according to friends, Meserve decided that if anyone was going to make money peddling pot, it was going to be him.

“He viewed himself as having that hometown advantage,” Cedar McCulloch-Clow said.

Locals noticed the change. At a party a few years ago, therapist Jenoa Briar-Bonpane recalls looking over the edge of a mountain ridge and spotting two new grow operations below. “Where did those come from?” she wondered. Someone said they belonged to Meserve, and he became the talk of the party.

“There was a sense of, ‘Wow, he’s really blowing things up,’ ” Briar-Bonpane said.

As a big employer in town, and a local, Meserve enjoyed a trust not afforded to outsiders, including a freedom from consequences, according to friends. He’d always had a brash demeanor and a reputation for hitting on women – even after he married in 2001. Over time, those who knew him said he seemed to sink deeper into drugs and alcohol. He was convicted three times for driving under the influence, according to court records, and got into a car crash that seriously injured him and his wife.

He “got a little big for his britches,” Amy Meserve said, “and lost his filter completely.”

None of it seemed to slow down Meserve. His business expanded, and the trimmigrants who showed up in Petrolia looking for work were thankful for it.

***

Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014

Terri saw Kailan Meserve again at a pingpong tournament. It was a fundraiser for the fire department, and staff said Meserve was one of the few entrusted with a key to the community center. He and Sam Epperson had set up the tables.

Meserve offered to buy Terri drinks several times, according to investigators – and each time, she declined. Around 10 p.m., he asked if she had to time to talk, she recalled, “to clear things up.” He offered to give her a ride home. It was rainy, and without sidewalks and streetlights, a walk home in Petrolia could be treacherous. She agreed. She figured she might also ask him about a job.

The Mattel Valley Community Center is seen in Petrolia, CA, on May 24, 2016. (Andrew Burton, Reveal)
The Mattel Valley Community Center is seen in Petrolia, CA, on May 24, 2016. (Andrew Burton, Reveal)

Terri was staying about 2 miles from the community center. But Meserve went the opposite direction, turning right toward a dark mass of trees.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“I just want to show you where my property is,” she remembers him saying.

Terri started to get a “weird feeling,” according to court records. She told him she had to get up early. He ignored her and continued down the road, turning right again at a metal gate and entering a narrow dirt path into a thicket of towering eucalyptus. Finally, they came to a trailer and stopped. He tried to kiss her. She froze.

“What are you doing?” she asked. “Don’t you have a wife?”

Her mind spun through the possibilities. Could she find her way back if she ran? Would he chase her? Hurt her? Would anyone hear her if she screamed?

It was happening so fast and she could hardly see. Everything outside the beam of the headlights was flooded in black.

Terri declined to be interviewed for this story, but she encouraged friends and community members to open up and gave permission for her therapist, Briar-Bonpane, to speak as well.

“Taking her to a place that was dark, forested, unknown to her,” Briar-Bonpane said, “it’s the most terrifying situation for a woman who’s with a scary man.”

Meserve asked her to go inside. Terri climbed out of the truck and walked into the trailer. She remembers a small kitchen and a bedroom with a bare mattress. Over the next few hours, according to records, Meserve repeatedly penetrated her and forced her to perform oral sex until she gagged.

He held down her arms and at one point throttled her neck. When she began gasping for air, he told her she was “weak and couldn’t take it.” She didn’t scream. The more violent he was, she’d later tell the investigators, the more excited he seemed to become.

“I’m going to make you my bitch,” she recalls him saying, according to court records. He threatened to kill her, freeze her body and throw her to the animals if he ever found out she had slept with anyone else.

***

Many trimmigrants begin their journey about two hours southeast of Petrolia, in a small strip of a town at the hub of California’s outdoor growing economy. Garberville is surrounded on all sides by mountains of towering redwoods and lined with the kinds of businesses sustained by disposable income, including a spa and a motorcycle dealership. Next door, in Redway, there’s even a pet salon.

Come harvest season, trimmigrants arrive from all over the country and world – college students and artists, working professionals and tourists, homeless hippies and other wanderers. Without connections, they crowd the sidewalks as though on the floor of an auction house, jockeying for jobs with homemade signs. Others camp along the river or in the woods until they find work or try to meet potential employers by frequenting local bars or volunteering at one of the area’s many marijuana-funded nonprofits.

With marijuana fetching black market prices, they expect wages far higher than typical migrant farmworkers – as much as $300 a day, depending on how fast they work. A successful season can fund months of travel, and the experience itself can be an adventure, harkening back to the drug-infused journeys of Grateful Dead fans.

“A lot of cocaine, a lot of Ecstasy, a lot of meth, a lot of heroin,” said Terri’s former employer Rachel Adair. “It’s like a big party.”

But trimmigrants also stumble into a treacherous landscape, both on and off the job. Many locals despise their presence, the trash, the carousing on sidewalks – and the negative impact on tourism. Members of a Garberville group called Locals on Patrol take photographs, check identification and tell people to move on. Anti-trimmigrant bumper stickers have proliferated. “No Work Here, Keep Moving,” they read.

Trimmigrants also serve at the mercy of their bosses, who are themselves vulnerable to the risks of operating in the black market – ranging from robberies to law enforcement stings. As a result, some growers prefer to keep trimmers in the dark about where they are working. Workers and advocates say growers sometimes blindfold trimmers before driving to plots deep in the mountains, locations so remote that they often lack cell service and public transportation.

When conflicts arise, trimmigrants may find themselves fired without pay. Even those who complete the job might never get paid.

At 38 years old, Amy Jarose is among the most experienced trimmigrants. One time, she was working on a farm in the mountains when, she said, the grower began to pressure her for blow jobs and sex. She immediately left on foot, without pay.

“You hitchhike,” Jarose said. “You pack up your bags and hit the road and hope to God a really good person will pick you up.”

Growers often target women for trimming jobs; male trimmers told Reveal they repeatedly were passed up or let go to make room for female workers.

In Craigslist ads, aspiring female trimmers sometimes include photos of themselves in bikinis or low-cut tops, exploiting the demand for female workers. (Shoshana Walter, Reveal)
In Craigslist ads, aspiring female trimmers sometimes include photos of themselves in bikinis or low-cut tops, exploiting the demand for female workers. (Shoshana Walter, Reveal)

Some women exploit the demand. On Craigslist during the last harvest season, aspiring trimmers posted photos of themselves in bikinis or low-cut tops, accompanied by winking emoticons. One advertisement, offering “Oriental female trimmers,” included the phone number of a sensual massage parlor in Los Angeles. On a community bulletin board in downtown Garberville, a pink lace garter belt adorned one ad, while another read, “We love to cook … and much more.”

Deanna Hirschi once worked as a trimmer but said she soon realized she could earn more by offering sex for pay. She met growers at motels in Garberville or sometimes hours into the mountains.

“The guys on the hills pay $500 an hour,” she said, three or four times the amount she might get in a city. “They’re stuck up on a hill and they come down from the hill for one day, and they’ve got hundreds of thousands of dollars in their pocket.”

The demand for female companionship has contributed to sex trafficking in these rural areas from all over the country and world, including from Mexico and Eastern Europe, according to social service providers and victims.

One local trafficking survivor, who goes by the name Elle Snow, started a nonprofit organization to spread awareness in Humboldt County called Game Over. To measure the demand, she posted fake escort advertisements on the classified ad website Backpage.

Within two months, Snow said, she had accumulated calls and text messages from 437 phone numbers. Many came from southern Humboldt – where Garberville and Petrolia are located – an indication to Snow that many of the potential clients were involved in the marijuana industry.

“Traffickers call Humboldt County not just green for the weed, but green for the bitches,” she said, referring to the money traffickers can make selling women and sex.

Many trimmers welcome the attention, but others do not. Women pair up, even form trimming collectives, counting on safety in numbers.

Paige Radcliff and Emma Less came last season for trimming work, hoping to make enough to fund their own future harvest. During nearly 14-hour days, the two listened to Israeli folk music and bent over plastic tubs in their laps, rotating the buds with the tips of their fingers as they clipped off the stems and curly bits of leaf. “Give it a little haircut,” Radcliff said again and again, until they had piled up 6 pounds of smooth round nuggets and their fingers were coated in potent, sticky brown resin.

“If a girl comes here on her own, I wouldn’t recommend it,” Less said. Prior to finding this job, they encountered growers who hit on them – and they simply walked away.

Radcliff agreed. “Unless you can super defend yourself, or you just give off a super-intimidating vibe where dudes are scared of you.”

“Like a truck driver.”

Or a pirate.

“Exactly, just come across as, like, super peg leg.”

“Think about it,” Less said, over the steady snip of her scissors. “None of this is monitored. No one knows you’re here, not here. It’s easy for people to go missing. It’s easy for people to take advantage.”

***

Monday, Nov. 10, 2014

Terri showed up for work in a daze the morning after she was assaulted in the forest. Bruises covered her chest and the back of her head. As she picked up her clippers, her boss remembers, she began to cry. She told Rachel Adair that “something inappropriate” had happened with Kailan Meserve and that she was scared.

Adair – an emergency room nurse and midwife – sent Terri to Jenoa Briar-Bonpane, a therapist and friend. Terri told the therapist the rest of the story.

“This is a predator,” Briar-Bonpane recalls thinking. She had treated child sex abuse and rape victims for years, but she was especially struck by how calculating Meserve sounded. “He must be stopped.”

A week later, some of Terri’s former employers called for a meeting, inviting town elders, the local doctor and friends. On a crisp November morning, about a dozen people joined Terri in the home near where she had pitched her tent. They gathered in a somber circle around a heavy oak dining table.

Cedar McCulloch-Clow, 38, with perpetual dirt under his fingernails and a baseball cap on his head, recalls feeling conflicted about the meeting. He had become friends with Terri during her many nights camping on their property. But he also had known Meserve since he was 15.

The room was tense and quiet, except for the sounds of children playing down the hall. Adair remembers wanting to ensure, first and foremost, that Terri was safe. Dr. Dick Scheinman was adamant that they call the police. Most others wanted to find an alternate solution.

Greg Smith, whose family has long grown marijuana, was among the town elders there. “There’s a lot of people who grow pot, and they have a resistance to calling the law,” he said later. “It’s kind of the Wild West in some ways.”

The ideas came in quick succession and were rejected just as quickly. Bring Meserve before a community tribunal. Send a large contingent of men to his doorstep. Gather Petrolia’s population of elderly women and have them chase after him with their shoes.

Smith decided to pay Meserve a visit at home. He urged him to admit he had a problem, show remorse and enroll in therapy and drug and alcohol treatment. Meserve refused, he said, describing the night in the trailer as consensual. Next, Smith approached Fire Chief Travis Howe about kicking Meserve out of the volunteer fire department.

That’s when the group learned this wasn’t the first time Meserve had been accused of rape. A year earlier, a young woman was visiting a friend of Meserve’s. After a night of partying at the Yellow Rose bar, the 31-year-old woman said, Meserve came into her room while she was sleeping and forced himself on her. When he couldn’t maintain an erection, he left, but soon came back and tried again.

The woman never filed a police report, and only a few people in town knew. Howe was one of them.

Howe said he had confronted Meserve, who told him it was consensual. “He messed up terribly, cheating on his wife,” Howe said. “He needed to get spanked.” When Meserve promised to do better, Howe kept him on as a fire captain.

Now the group realized Terri’s experience was not an isolated incident. It was a pattern of behavior.

One week had passed since Terri’s assault. She had expressed little interest in contacting law enforcement. But the group thought something had to be done for the safety of other women.

They asked her to take a step many rape victims dread: Would she call the police?

***

For victims of sexual assault, the answer often lies beneath layers of fear and shame. Rape usually goes unreported, but trimmigrants face particular pressure to avoid law enforcement. Calling police may rule out future jobs in the industry, especially if that contact alerts police to an illegal grow.

“Hell no, you don’t call the cops on anybody for anything if you want to work in Humboldt,” said Karen Bejcek, a trimmigrant who usually lives in a teepee in Siskiyou County when she’s not trimming.

Other conditions in pot country prevent victims from seeking any kind of help. Trimmigrants often lack the local connections or even the know-how to successfully navigate their way out of the wild, wooded terrain.

Because many work on illegal grows, they suspect law enforcement won’t do anything anyway. And because the industry attracts a young and transient workforce, victims ­– who may come with their own troubled histories – do not always recognize they are being abused.

Khaled Mourra, of Mexico, left, and Mayssan Charafeddine, of Montreal, look for a ride in Garberville, Calif., on Thursday, October 1, 2015. (Sarah Rice, Reveal)
Khaled Mourra, of Mexico, left, and Mayssan Charafeddine, of Montreal, look for a ride in Garberville, Calif., on Thursday, October 1, 2015. (Sarah Rice, Reveal)

One teen from Humboldt County said she started working for a local grower when she was 12. He gave her methamphetamine to speed up her trimming work, she said, and passed her around to pay off his debts.

“If you’re tweaking, you’re good,” she said, touting her trimming prowess. “I did, like, a couple pounds in like one night.”

The girl eventually ran away, reaching a youth homeless shelter in the county seat of Eureka, only to discover that pimps were using it as a hunting ground. At 14, she said, she became their recruiter.

She wasn’t the only one. At least two other shelter residents said men used them to recruit other teens, according to a report later submitted to the state Department of Social Services. The shelter’s executive director, Patt Sweeney, said he was aware teens in the program had been trafficked for sex.

“We’ve made reports to law enforcement,” he said. “It’s just very hard to prosecute.”

In exchange for alcohol and marijuana, the girl brought other teens to parties at local motels, where they were given drugs and alcohol and had sex, sometimes by force. She said the parties drew growers and gang members involved in marijuana distribution. Because she brought girls, she said she was never assaulted – and the music and dancing could be fun. But she doesn’t remember much.

“I was always drunk,” she said with a shrug. “And then we’d just go buy more drugs.”

Many of the girls she met at the shelter and parties also traveled south to trim on marijuana farms. Once there, she said, some found they were expected to do more than trim.

The sales pitch to young girls is common in pot country, according to Leah Gee, the director of a group home in Eureka that housed the girl. “They’ll give you weed, alcohol and food, and all you have to do is trim.”

Leah Gee, the director of a group home that helps women who have been sexually exploited, poses for a portrait in her home in Eureka, CA, on May 12, 2016. (Andrew Burton, Reveal)
Leah Gee, the director of a group home that helps women who have been sexually exploited, poses for a portrait in her home in Eureka, CA, on May 12, 2016. (Andrew Burton, Reveal)

In 2013, federal prosecutors said two growers picked up a 15-year-old runaway in Hollywood and took her to their farm in Lake County, near Humboldt. They directed her to trim marijuana and have sex with them, sometimes while chained to a metal rack.

In interviews with police after a raid of the farm, the girl described the sex with one of the men as consensual. Sex with the other grower was “not as consensual.”

But she was not free to leave: To keep her from fleeing, the men put her inside an oversized metal toolbox with breathing holes for several days, according to court records, using a garden hose to clean out her waste. The men also shocked the girl with a cattle prod and told her she would be shot by neighbors if she attempted to leave, an employee later told police.

Local prosecutors charged the men with human trafficking, the first case of its kind in the county. But when federal authorities took over the case, the trafficking charge was dropped. The men are expected to plead guilty later this year on charges of illegal marijuana cultivation and employing a minor in a drug operation.

***

Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014

A deputy sheriff from Humboldt County, Michael Hass, had Terri recount the entire story of her assault over the phone before telling her she had to come in person to make a report – a nearly two-hour drive. The community group that had encouraged her to report made the arrangements. Jenoa Briar-Bonpane went along.

When they arrived at the county sheriff’s office in Eureka, they walked through the metal detector, down a beige cinder-block hallway to a dimly lit window in the waiting room, Briar-Bonpane recalls. They told the receptionist they were there to see Hass.

After several minutes passed, Hass swung open the door, barely making eye contact with Terri. He told her to follow him, but barred Briar-Bonpane from joining her. She told him it was common practice for an advocate to accompany a sexual assault victim to make a report. According to Briar-Bonpane, Hass refused.

Asked about the account, Hass said he did not know that Briar-Bonpane was an advocate and he objected to the many complaints the sheriff’s office later received about his work.

“There were the same complaints that we weren’t taking it seriously and the investigation wasn’t up to the people of Petrolia’s standards,” he said. “From my standpoint, it got handled very seriously.”

Terri agreed to make the report anyway. Hass took her into an empty room and pushed a typed statement based on her telephone account in front of her, Briar-Bonpane said. Terri signed it, and five minutes later, they returned to the waiting room.

“Can you tell us when you’re going to pick him up?” Briar-Bonpane remembers asking, referring to Kailan Meserve.

To file her report, Terri was told she had to come in person. It turned out the same trip was not required of Meserve, Briar-Bonpane said. To her surprise, Hass told her deputies already had interviewed Meserve in Petrolia. Meserve had told them the same story he had told others: The night in the trailer was consensual.

Reveal could not find any record that the deputies ever searched the trailer, and Meserve’s sister, Amy, confirmed that they never did.

“No one in town seems concerned about him,” Hass said, according to Briar-Bonpane. “We’re not going to arrest him. There’s no evidence.”

The news left the group back in Petrolia shocked – and Terri terrified. While she moved from home to home and finally to a motel outside of town, the group began to deluge the sheriff’s office with emails and phone calls. Terri’s friend Katie Finnegan took a day off work to file a complaint with the office about its handling of the case. Residents sent letters to the district attorney, complaining about Hass and urging that Meserve be prosecuted.

“Please do not let this go without a thorough investigation and arrest,” Dick Scheinman, the town doctor, wrote to then-District Attorney Paul Gallegos in December 2014.

A month passed, and he emailed again: “i am not a legal beagle and am not trying to tell you how to do your job, but i feel it is most important for you to try your hardest to find out what happened.”

Meanwhile, Meserve remained in Petrolia. “I am very concerned about the safety of women in the Mattole Valley while he is present there,” Briar-Bonpane wrote to newly elected District Attorney Maggie Fleming in March 2015. “Young boys/men in the valley are watching and learning about whether or not you can sexually assault women without consequences.”

Word of Terri’s allegations reached the woman who had said Meserve raped her the year before. She felt nauseous, then angry. She blamed herself for not reporting it, “because maybe she could have prevented it from happening to the other girl,” an investigator later wrote. About a month after Terri visited Hass, the second victim decided to report her rape. Records show Hass told her to call the district attorney’s office.

The case landed on the desk of Kyla Baxley, the district attorney’s investigator responsible for child abuse and sexual assault cases. She has a reputation for being thorough, going beyond the case information filed by local law enforcement. In 2014, Baxley gathered evidence that allowed the district attorney’s office to prosecute its first human trafficking case.

Time and again, Baxley had seen victims in Humboldt County “not met with the respect they deserve,” she told Reveal. In the Petrolia case, she said, both victims felt blown off by the sheriff’s office.

“It was already a big step for her to take, for her to report it,” she said of Terri. “I was really frustrated, honestly. I felt awful for the poor thing.”

Baxley immediately launched her investigation, making plans to meet Terri in person. She brought in community advocates to support Terri as she shared her story yet again.

“I tried to show her there were a lot of people who supported her and wanted to hear her truth,” Baxley said.

On April 14, 2015, prosecutors filed charges against Meserve for raping both women. Two weeks later, he surrendered.

***

As the marijuana industry has grown and the trimmigrant population with it, service providers have encountered increasing numbers of human trafficking victims. Humboldt Domestic Violence Services answered more than 2,000 crisis calls last year, an increase of about 80 percent in four years. Executive Director Brenda Bishop attributed the increase to a surge in sexual abuse and trafficking on marijuana grows.

Other organizations have noticed a problem, too, including the Eureka Police Department. In a survey of about 200 local homeless people, Police Chief Andrew Mills said his department discovered many were former trimmigrants who had been forced to work on marijuana farms without pay, including women who reported being required to perform sex acts.

Despite evidence of a growing problem, law enforcement has put few resources into investigations of trafficking and sexual exploitation. Instead, police have conducted stings targeting prostitutes and sometimes their pimps. And the Eureka police chief recently posed as a grower online to attract trimmers, only to warn them not to come.

One reason is that, in this spread-out rural region, there are not enough detectives to go around. In Humboldt County, the sheriff’s office is so overtaxed that many deputies are responsible for investigating crimes – a job typically left to detectives – in addition to responding to 911 calls.

“We have a detective bureau to handle the bad of the bad crimes, and they can’t even keep up with that. So our deputies are more like detectives,” Lt. Wayne Hanson said. “It’s triage.”

A Humboldt native with a bushy gray mustache, Hanson has raided marijuana farms for more than two decades. On the walls of his office are framed photographs and news clips, including one from the day after voters legalized medical marijuana in 1996. In the photograph, Hanson – with a dark brown mustache – stands next to towering piles of marijuana plants.

“This was a warehouse in downtown Eureka, where people were growing marijuana for money. That’s why marijuana is grown – for money, not for medical reasons,” Hanson said. “People are greedy.”

Hanson and other local law enforcement officials see the greed that has amplified California’s marijuana industry as a common denominator in violent and organized crimes. Hanson said many grows also cause environmental damage. As a result, marijuana has remained a high priority for them, even as federal and state authorities have pulled back.

Richard Mansfield trims cannabis on his daughter's farm in Redcrest, Calif., on Monday, October 19, 2015. (Sarah Rice, Reveal)
Richard Mansfield trims cannabis on his daughter’s farm in Redcrest, Calif., on Monday, October 19, 2015. (Sarah Rice, Reveal)

Marijuana raids also have become a large source of revenue for local law enforcement agencies. During raids, officers have confiscated not just harvests, but also money, guns and even farming equipment.

Humboldt County law enforcement agencies made 100 seizures of property and funds last year, including from farmers who had legal permission to grow. The value of the assets totaled more than $2 million – more per capita than was pulled from the state’s 15 most populous counties combined, state data shows. Mendocino County’s marijuana eradication team receives a finder’s fee from a pool of seized funds for every case it initiates, in addition to a nearly 50 percent cut of any confiscated funds.

The result is tantamount to tunnel vision, said Kyla Baxley, the district attorney’s office investigator. “They’re going in to eradicate marijuana, and they would probably tell you nothing else is happening but the drugs.”

That perspective seems to pervade law enforcement agencies across the Emerald Triangle.

In 2014, the year Terri arrived in Petrolia, a young Mexican woman arrived in nearby Mendocino County, ready to start the restaurant job she was promised. Instead, a grower – Baldemar Alvarez – put her to work on several marijuana farms, she said, and forced her to cook, clean his house and have sex with him.

The woman said Alvarez, twice her age, called her a prostitute and said she belonged to him until she reimbursed him for hiring a coyote to bring her into the country illegally. He stoked her fear, telling her she’d get lost in the woods and a bear would feast on her body if she fled.

“All the time, I had fear,” said Carmen (not her real name). “Fear, thinking, ‘If the police catch me, they’re going to arrest me. They’re not going to let me explain, they’re not going to believe me.’ ”

Eventually, Carmen persuaded Alvarez to take her to the doctor for stomach pains, she said. Once there, a nurse-midwife told her she was pregnant, and Carmen shared her story of abuse. When she returned to Alvarez, she left her address behind.

Mendocino County sheriff’s deputies picked up Carmen and the grower a few days later. Carmen was relieved. But at the station, things changed. A detective asked her whether she had made the claims just to get immigration documents, she said. Victims of sexual assault are eligible for a special kind of visa, known as a U-visa. Trafficking victims are eligible for a T-visa.

Carmen’s abuse allegations are documented in police dispatch records, a restraining order and other documents, but the full extent of the investigation is unclear. The detective involved did not respond to interview requests, and the sheriff’s office declined to provide a copy of its investigation, saying it was not yet complete.

Underscoring the he-said, she-said obstacles for law enforcement, Alvarez told Reveal that Carmen fabricated the story to get immigration papers. He told detectives he had planned to marry her. Even though she hasn’t paid him back for her illegal border crossing, he said, he has sent her money on a couple of occasions for the baby.

“This was a big misunderstanding; she’s a backstabber is what I call it,” he said, denying he had abused her or anyone else.

But another woman who had a relationship with the grower and gave birth to one of his children said he repeatedly has brought women, including herself, into the United States from Mexico and abused them. Investigators never contacted her, she said.

As the sun began to rise the morning after deputies took Carmen into custody, she said the detective told her that he had one last request. He put her in a room with Alvarez and had her confront him, to get him to confess. It didn’t work.

“Unfortunately, at this time, we do not have any evidence to detain him,” she recalled the detective saying. “Everything you say, he denies.”

Deputies charged Alvarez with felony marijuana cultivation in August 2014, his third arrest for the offense in three years. Jail records show he bailed out within 20 minutes. The prosecutor never took the case to court.

***

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The case against Kailan Meserve was unprecedented – the first time a marijuana grower in Humboldt County had been charged with raping a trimmigrant. In Petrolia, it had created a rift, causing many to question the trust they had placed in the community. Yet outside Petrolia, it captured little attention.

Aside from a local blog, no media outlets covered Meserve’s arrest.

Kailan Meserve of Petrolia, Calif., shown in his mugshot. He was sentenced to 23 years in prison. (Courtesy of the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office)
Kailan Meserve of Petrolia, Calif., shown in his mugshot. He was sentenced to 23 years in prison. (Courtesy of the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office)

He remained in jail briefly while the prosecutor’s office argued against allowing him to post his $2 million bail. Investigator Kyla Baxley had seen large greenhouses on several of Meserve’s properties and argued that his income had been derived illegally from the cultivation of marijuana. In the end, Meserve’s family and friends pooled funds, and he was released.

Over the next year, he enrolled in treatment for alcohol abuse, according to court records. Facebook photos show he and his family also enjoyed a Disney vacation.

Sam Epperson fell into a deep depression. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was responsible for Terri climbing into Meserve’s truck that night. With harvest season over, Terri had left Petrolia.

Finally, on April 4, 2016, the trial date arrived. Meserve sat next to his lawyer in a courtroom in downtown Eureka, dressed in a button-down shirt and slacks. Terri had returned to take the stand.

“Is this your first time testifying in court? How do you feel about being here?” prosecutor Brie Bennett asked.

“OK,” Terri replied.

She described the night in detail. The feeling of panic, the sexual acts, the violence. She answered questions from the defense attorney about her sex life in Petrolia and a shoplifting conviction from years ago. At one point, her voice began to crack, and she wiped tears from behind her black-framed glasses. Her voice grew faint.

The judge leaned over. “Please speak up,” he said.

The other victim described waking up the morning after the assault, crying and sore. She told her friend she had to go, according to court records, and began the long drive back to San Francisco, making stops to throw up along the way.

On the stand, Meserve denied having a drug problem and called his encounters with Terri and the other woman consensual. Everyone was drunk, he said. No one ever told him to stop.

“Did she say she wanted to go to the trailer?” the prosecutor asked about Terri.

“She never said she didn’t,” Meserve responded.

From her seat in the courtroom, Meserve’s sister, Amy, remembers watching an image take shape that she did not recognize.

“He’s being portrayed like some monster,” she said later. “Obviously, he did not think he was raping anyone. I just don’t think he did. That’s not who he is, that’s not what he’s capable of. I just know if they would have said no or stop or anything, he would have stopped.”

While Meserve’s family attended the trial, most of the group that had supported Terri remained behind in Petrolia. It was a far distance to travel, but it also was painful to watch. Many believed it had been a mistake to contact law enforcement.

“I am friends with his sister and his dad and his mom,” said longtime local grower Greg Smith. “It feels like we’re carrying a big weight on our chest.”

The town of Petrolia, CA, which is known for it's marijuana production and proximity to the Lost Coast of California, is seen on May 24, 2016. (Andrew Burton, Reveal)
The town of Petrolia, CA, which is known for it’s marijuana production and proximity to the Lost Coast of California, is seen on May 24, 2016. (Andrew Burton, Reveal)

The community of Petrolia was changing, but residents weren’t sure it was for the better. California Gov. Jerry Brown had signed a package of laws that would further regulate the medical marijuana industry, beginning with state-issued licenses in 2018. Many Humboldt County growers have refused to participate. They would not sign up for county permits, the first step toward legal compliance.

To complicate matters, under the new regulations, counties can ban growing altogether, and many have, preserving a highly profitable black market. Competition is increasing, and prices are likely to drop.

In this new future, it seemed, small farmers would struggle financially. Success would mean going big or continuing to sell on the black market. Before his arrest, Meserve had found that success growing marijuana, accruing land, money and power. But some wondered, at what cost?

On April 19, a jury found Meserve guilty of 15 felony counts, including rape and false imprisonment. His wife began to cry as deputies handcuffed him and took him into custody.

When the news reached Petrolia, many in the group that had supported Terri felt deflated instead of relieved. They knew the conviction meant Meserve could end up spending the rest of his life in prison. Smith and Epperson agreed to write letters to the judge urging a lenient sentence.

“I would rather have rehabilitation than punishment,” Smith said. “Some people think it’s impossible with him, but I don’t know. I just have hope that people can change.”

On July 28, the Meserve family and their supporters filed into the courtroom. Meserve’s mother, sister and wife cried as he stood motionless, awaiting the judge’s sentence. Each read from a prepared statement.

“These charges are extreme and overboard,” said his father, David. “These charges are from an enthusiasm for prosecuting people in the marijuana industry.”

“Kailan wants to start an AA group in Petrolia,” said Monica, his wife. “He wants to give back.”

Terri was not there. An advocate read a statement from the second victim.

“Every morsel of self-confidence has left me,” she read. “Humboldt is my home, and I cannot bring myself to visit my friends or family there.”

The judge sentenced Meserve to 23 years in prison.

An ad that starts off by saying "We are two beautiful friends from Spain and Germany looking for work," on a bulletin board in downtown Garberville, Calif., on Thursday, October 1, 2015. (Sarah Rice, Reveal)
An ad that starts off by saying “We are two beautiful friends from Spain and Germany looking for work,” on a bulletin board in downtown Garberville, Calif., on Thursday, October 1, 2015. (Sarah Rice, Reveal)

He did not make a statement in court that day. Through his family, he declined to comment for this story. Terri has since moved out of state.

And, as the harvest season swings into full gear, a new crop of trimmigrants is streaming north, thumbs out, pointing toward the thickly forested mountains of the Emerald Triangle.