Nestled among thick Redwood trees nearly 300 miles north of San Francisco is one of the most prolific cannabis producing regions in the United States: Humboldt County. Long known for its cultivation of the plant, Humboldt is one-third of the famed “Emerald Triangle” of Northern California (Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity Counties), which together comprise the largest cannabis-producing region in the United States. For decades, the thick cover of trees and seemingly endless rural terrain has made Humboldt an ideal place to covertly grow marijuana. The same conditions make the county an ideal place to disappear. But only Alderpoint, an sleepy area in southern Humboldt, has been given the nickname “Murder Mountain.”
The sinister moniker originated with a serial-killer couple who inhabited the area in the early 1980s, James and Suzan Carson, who were later charged with the murders of three individuals. The couple fled to Alderpoint after their first murder in San Francisco, and later claimed to be “warriors” in a “holy war against witches.” Even after their 1983 capture, the name stuck — perhaps because so many people continue to go missing in Alderpoint and the surrounding Humboldt County. In February 2018, North Coast Journal reported that 717 people per 100,000 go missing in Humboldt County every year. This striking number — the highest in the state — is what initially prompted documentary filmmaker Josh Zeman (The Killing Season, Cropsey) and production company Lightbox to assemble a team for a nine-month exploration of the tension between the burgeoning white- and historically black-market cannabis industry in the county. The result is a six-part series Murder Mountain, now on Netflix.
The show begins with an investigation into the 2013 disappearance of 29-year-old Garret Rodriguez, who went missing in Humboldt within a year of arriving to join the highly profitable black-market marijuana trade. While Garrett’s body was found and his death deemed a homicide, Zeman says the high missing person numbers that initially caught his attention aren’t always the result of something nefarious. In a phone interview with Rolling Stone, Zeman explains that the rural, lush county naturally attracts people who want to lay low and keep to themselves. “A lot of people go missing [in Humboldt], but a lot of people are also found,” he says. The county is and always has been, Zeman says, “a place where people love to go off the grid.”
What Zeman discovered over the course of the nine months that his team was in Humboldt was a much more compelling story, of which missing persons were just one part.
In the early 1970s, veterans returning from Vietnam sought refuge in the wooded hills of Humboldt where they could lay low and treat their PTSD with cannabis. Humboldt’s prolific cannabis production has resulted in several decades of fierce tension between law enforcement and cannabis growers. In the 1980s, federal and state law enforcement joined forces to implement the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, or “CAMP,” effectively turning parts of Northern California into a war zone. Black helicopters full of armed National Guard troops and drug cops descended on Humboldt with orders to destroy any cannabis crops they could find. They hauled entire families out of their homes at gunpoint, ransacked homes without warrants, and disrupted what had largely been a peaceful community.
Zeman dedicates nearly all of Murder Mountain’s second episode to Humboldt’s history of cannabis cultivation and the community’s clashes with law enforcement. This history helps to explain how the disappearance and murder of someone like 29-year-old Garret Rodriguez could go unsolved, or how this part of Humboldt has, as Zeman says, been “tragically turned into a war zone by the federal government’s inability to legalize weed.”
Ironically, it was the passage of California’s Prop 64 in 2016 (legalization of adult use of recreational use of marijuana) that has thrust Humboldt into renewed turmoil. County and state taxes, state permit applications and consultants can total hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, forcing mom and pop growers to either close their businesses or remain in the black market.
Much of that black market grow happens on “the Mountain,” where the illegal trade isn’t limited to cannabis but is increasingly seeing the sale of other drugs like meth and heroin.
“We know marijuana isn’t a gateway drug,” Zeman says, “but the illegal production and sale of marijuana can beget the illegal production and sale of other things. If, for example, a drug trafficking organization decides it’s going to set up an illegal grow in Humboldt, they can then use those same drug trafficking pathways for other illegal things, be it other drugs or sex trafficking.”
The remoteness of Murder Mountain — in addition to its fraught history with law enforcement and this influx of black market activity — is what makes it so challenging to get to the bottom of something like Garrett Rodriguez’s murder. According to Zeman, if you ask the residents of Alderpoint, they’ll tell you that the police had plenty of information to make an arrest of the alleged killer but didn’t care because Garrett was involved in illegal activities. If you ask law enforcement, they’ll say they’re under-resourced for the large area they have to cover and need more than hearsay to make an arrest. The truth — as it seems to so often be on Murder Mountain — most likely exists somewhere between the two.
“Humboldt law enforcement has taken a lot of heat [in the wake of the show] and I think that’s unfortunate,” Zeman says. “I think they were really brave in trying to expose the underbelly of Humboldt, not in a fascist way but because they really care about it.” Zeman believes that both local law enforcement and the “outlaws” feel like “cannon fodder in a larger political war.” Until either legalization or decriminalization happens at the federal level, it’s hard to see that changing. If there’s any hope of the two sides working together, Zeman says it’s that they “both really love Humboldt County.”
In the meantime legal growers have banded together to create the True Humboldt Brand, a collective of over 200 small farmers hoping to hold their own against larger corporate interests. It’s the positive developments like these that Zeman wishes he’d had more time to focus on in the series.
“The goal of the series is to show the harm done by cannabis prohibition and, unfortunately, the way to get people to notice is to focus on the negative aspects,” he says. “But once we shine the light and can disinfect the more negative parts, Humboldt County really will be an incredible tourist destination. It will be the Napa County of cannabis. Legal farmers are the ones who are making that happen. It takes incredible bravery to move into the white market after decades of being silent and in the shadows. But that’s what they’re doing.”