Though the Humboldt County-centered, true-crime documentary Murder Mountain was first released by Fusion, it saw a surge in popularity after dropping on Netflix in late December. The six-episode series takes its name from Alderpoint, a small, census-designated area of Humboldt County that has earned itself the grim, alliterative nickname with salacious tales of mystery and murder. In Murder Mountain, filmmakers show the halcyon “hippie paradise” days of early cannabis farmers juxtaposed against a modern Humboldt where more people go missing annually than any other county in California. An unresolved murder, alleged outlaw culture, a group of vigilantes, and gritty missing posters are the sometimes overly dramatic hooks of the series. However, viewers will also find heroes in long-time farmers trying to secure permits to legally grow cannabis, as well as community members dedicated to finding justice for the missing and the dead.
The narrative has been cause for controversy, with rebuttals coming from the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, Humboldt County residents, and the filmmakers themselves. But if there’s one thing parties can agree on, it’s that Humboldt County ought to be a place where farmers can equitably make a safe and legal living. We spoke to filmmakers and subjects to get a fuller picture of “Murder Mountain” and what happens next.
Murder Mountain was directed by Joshua Zeman and produced by media company Lightbox, co-founded by cousins Simon and Jonathan Chinn. Jonathan Chinn tells High Times that they were first drawn to the county’s missing persons statistics, as well as its long-standing ties to cannabis—an industry that finally, at least in California, might offer a legal way to earn a living.
“From a storytelling point of view, it was kind of a perfect storm,” Chinn said. “All these missing people [and] a community that had a rich history. The origination story of the [cannabis] industry up there is pretty fascinating, and we were going to be there literally during the transition from black to white market.”
Just how bad is the missing persons epidemic in Humboldt County? In early 2018, The North Coast Journal found that an average of 717 people per 100,000 residents were reported missing per year between 2000 and 2016, compared to an average of 384 people throughout the rest of the state. The investigation also pointed out that some people are inadvertently reported missing more than once, some are discovered to have gone voluntarily missing, and many reappear shortly after the report is made. Rebekah Martinez, a 22-year-old California woman listed as missing in that same article, was quickly located by a tipster. Where was she? Starring as a contestant on The Bachelor. Martinez had indeed gone to Humboldt County to decompress, but a lack of cell service had prevented her from getting ahold of her worried mother or law enforcement.
For those who are so fortunate to be found alive, the lack of cell service, the remoteness of the area, and the constant influx of naive, car-less “trimmigants” hoping to work for strangers are all key reasons why, according to Murder Mountain. Plus, many people feel uncomfortable reporting suspicious or illegal activity to law enforcement.
“There’s absolutely a tradition of people up on the mountain not wanting to come forward and it makes sense,” Chinn said. “They’re like, ‘what do you do?’ ‘Well, I grow marijuana.’ ‘Oh, well, do you have a permit?’ You can understand why, in a community that has historically been engaged in a criminal activity, probably the last place you’d want to walk into is a police station.”
It’s a common issue in other black market or legally gray industries, too. The deeper underground an industry is pushed by persecution or prosecution, the more unsafe it becomes for the most vulnerable of its participants.
Soon after arriving in Humboldt, filmmakers were captivated by the story of Garret Rodriguez, a 29-year-old San Diego man whose father reported him missing in 2013. Rodriguez had told his father he was going to Humboldt County to work in the cannabis industry and, specifically, he was going to a place called ‘Murder Mountain.’
In the early 1980s, James “Michael Bear” and Suzan “Bear” Carson murdered at least three people along the West Coast. Their second victim, Clark Stephens, worked with the couple on a cannabis farm in Alderpoint. The Carsons are a big part of how ‘Murder Mountain’ got its name. So is the disappearance of Bobby Tennison, a father of four who went missing after going up to Alderpoint to work a freelance construction gig in 2009, and so is Rodriguez. A 2013 Huffington Post article on ‘Murder Mountain’ referenced long-time homesteaders who complained that the so-called Green Rush had attracted hustlers out for easy money, who brought with them hard drugs and transients.
Several months after Rodriguez disappeared, a group of eight vigilantes known as the Alderpoint 8 confronted the man they believed to be responsible at gunpoint. He would ultimately lead them to where Rodriguez’s body had been buried, but no one has been arrested. A confession at gunpoint could be considered coercion. Witnesses have been obfuscated or killed. Rodriguez was shot, but the murder weapon hasn’t been found. While many people are convinced they know who the killer is, officially, Rodriguez’s murder remains unsolved.
In the wake of Murder Mountain, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office found themselves inundated with inquiries from viewers who also wanted justice for Rodriguez. In response, HCSO issued a statement calling Murder Mountain “one side of a highly sensationalized story,” and emphasized that they could not bring a case against someone on “hearsay” alone. The statement also corroborated a point made in the documentary: some residents remain reluctant or unwilling to talk to law enforcement.
Bonnie Taylor, Garrett Rodriguez’s aunt, fired back, saying she felt the series’ depiction was accurate and it was “clear to me that [HCSO] only sought to discredit the documentary because it exposes their incompetence in the case.”
Chinn said he has nothing but respect for the HCSO, but stands by the series.
“I guess the decision they made was to sort of write it off as a Hollywood fantasy,” Chinn said. “But I don’t think that aligns with what a lot of other people in Humboldt are saying which is, ‘yeah, we’ve got a real problem here, in that there is not enough trust between law enforcement and the growing community and that needs to improve if the county is going to move in the direction that I think everybody wants.’”
Other characters the documentary followed offer a key dichotomy: those cannabis farmers who want to be legal and those who either can’t afford it or who prefer “outlaw culture.” One grower, identified only as ‘Austin,’ wants nothing to do with a legal operation. He engages in risky behavior and deals with legal and other troubles because of it.
Meanwhile, Marion Collamer is a voice of reason in the documentary. She came to Humboldt 20 years ago to work on a farm and has never left. She now raises her family with her husband, Greg, whom she met as a trimmigrant and later married. She said as soon as legal growing was an option, they jumped on it. The alternative, she said, is “a horrible way to live.”
Collamer said she initially agreed to be in the series to talk about cannabis legalization and how it was affecting Humboldt’s OGs and was surprised at the show’s true-crime focus. And while she felt like the representation of law enforcement, Humboldt’s OG growers, and the plight of small farmers was accurate, she wants people to know Humboldt isn’t a scary place. For one thing, Humboldt is big: it’s the second largest county in California, and her own farm is over a three-hour drive from Alderpoint.
“There’s one part [in the film] where this guy is saying there’s a dark energy here,” Collamer said. “There’s not a dark energy here. The Humboldt that I know is light and beautiful, and this county has given so many people so much. Yes, there are old-school farms and outlaws, but there are also a lot of people who are trying to bring new technology and the latest laws and the latest packaging—anything we can do to make our county able to fight with the Coke and Pepsis of weed that are coming in.”
In one scene in Murder Mountain, residents speak at a council meeting about the struggle of small farmers trying to become legal. Collamer says the tears and frustration captured by cameras were real. She personally believes that legalization should offer different standards for different tiers so that small farmers can get a break. To weather the storm until then, Collamer is a founding farmer with The Humboldt Sun Growers Guild and the brand True Humboldt, which is comprised of sun-grown cannabis from farms all over the area. This way, small farms can band together and hopefully stay afloat despite the high costs of legalization.
Collamer also disagrees with a quote from Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal suggesting that there’s nothing about Humboldt County that makes it a good place to grow cannabis except that its remote woodiness makes it easy to hide.
“That’s one hundred percent wrong,” Collamer said. “It is the land, the terroir, the pollinates—Humboldt County is more than just a place where weed is grown; it’s a place where it’s part of the culture and people are very passionate about making it work here.”
Further, Collamer hopes that the series doesn’t dissuade anyone curious about the area or industry from visiting.
“I would encourage anyone who was shocked or scared by Murder Mountain to come here and find out for themselves,” Collamer said. “I came here and never left. There is something special here.”
In early February, KFMB News 8 in San Diego used court records to identify the man confronted by the Alderpoint 8, something the documentary did not do. (As Chinn noted, “People are innocent until proven guilty in this country, and we believe in that.”) Humboldt County’s District Attorney has thus far opted not to file criminal charges, but all is not lost for Rodriguez’s family. The investigation remains open, and there may be some hope in an alleged accomplice who could provide witness testimony and in some of the statements provided by interview subjects in Murder Mountain. Rodriguez’s family is currently accepting donations via GoFundMe to continue to pay private investigators to stay on the case, a cost they have already shouldered themselves for six years.
Chinn said that while there is no agenda to make a sequel, they do feel as though they know what happened to Rodriguez and would be interested in returning to Humboldt if the case were to move forward.
“My desire would be that the Humboldt County law enforcement takes another look at this case and if they do, and it moves forward, and we have an opportunity to pick up the story and try to bring it to a more satisfying conclusion for the family, we’d love to do it,” Chinn said. “But we have no plans right now to do that. It’s really up to the family members and law enforcement to figure out the next step.”
If anything, filmmakers hope that Murder Mountain leads to further discussion. And, judging from the response, it’s certainly done that.
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Originally appeared in: https://hightimes.com/culture/inside-murder-mountain-documentary-everyone-talking-about/