Local murder rate worse than it looks


Paul Mann
Mad River Union

EUREKA –  Humboldt County’s homicide rate, nearly twice as bad as California’s, is even worse than official records show, according to Sheriff Mike Downey.

The 30-year-plus veteran of local law enforcement blames Humboldt’s spreading drug abscess and the deadly organized crime inseparable from it.

Sheriff Mike Downey

Sheriff Mike Downey

In an interview in his office, Downey assessed the new homicide figures published July 1 by the California Department of Justice. The figures document Humboldt’s 2015 homicide rate at 8.9 per 100,000 (12 total), almost double the state’s 4.8 and worse than all but three of the state’s 58 counties.

Capping that, Humboldt’s 2014 toll, 16 homicides, was the worst in at least 30 years.

Those figures don’t tell the whole story by any means, the sheriff cautioned. For decades, an incalculable number of Humboldt murders has gone unreported because of what he calls the “cloak and secrecy” nature of the county’s multi-billion dollar marijuana and hard drug underground.

The hidden part of the story is a meta-narrative of the North Coast’s marijuana killing fields, which have become a multi-generational phenomenon, widely ignored and denied. Arrests go hand-in-hand with the seizure of weapons, ammunition, explosive devices and bomb-making materials, as well as bales of cash.

Backstairs, field workers and traffickers just disappear, never to be heard of again. “People who work for organized crime run afoul of their bosses in some way and end up getting murdered,” Downey says. “We hear stories quite often of people being taken into the woods to work on a certain grow for a period of time. An argument breaks out and one person winds up dead or severely injured.”

Inevitably, therefore, official statistics understate how acute Humboldt’s murder rate is.

Buttressing the clandestine disappearances “in the woods” and trackless wilderness are frequent and undisclosed hospital accounts, telltales of the underworld. “We get reports all the time [of patients] who have been beaten up, shot, stabbed, you name it,” Downey elaborated. “And they’ll tell you, ‘Oh, I shot myself accidentally’ or ‘No, I’m not saying anything’ or ‘I don’t know what happened.’ This happens a lot.”

The criminal nature of the county’s entrenched and lucrative drug industrial complex starts with the unshakable marijuana culture, Downey asserted. “I’m not going to say that all of our homicides are related to marijuana, but I will say there is a direct connection and correlation between the marijuana industry and the methamphetamine/heroin trade.”

Humboldt’s massive number of marijuana grows – as many as 8,400, possibly more – are an immensely powerful catalyst for drug trafficking of all kinds.

The sheriff made these points in an in-depth interview:    

• Home invasions multiply and the victims are often traffickers themselves. Even if they are not killed by the invaders, they often refuse to reveal what was stolen – more marijuana, plus drugs and cash – for fear of reprisals and losing their livelihoods. That makes police work all the harder.

• Local heroin trafficking remains at epidemic levels. “We’re seizing more and more heroin each year,” said Downey. Given the grand monetary stakes, “We have people out there who will [resort] to whatever means they can to protect whatever cash supply or cash source they have,” including murder.

On July 5, the Eureka Police Department confiscated 16 pounds of processed marijuana, plus small amounts of meth and heroin.

Together, those drugs form Humboldt’s ruinous triangle of social and environmental destruction (Union, March 16). The relatively new wave of synthetic drugs is compounding the plague and threatens children and teens, who are in danger of becoming the next generations of abusers, addicts and criminals.

Downey zeroed in on the deep entrenchment of drug corruption. In recent years, Eureka has become a regular distribution hub for heroin because of a strategic shift in transportation corridors.

He explained, “I-5 used to be the main thoroughfare for the transportation of drugs up and down the state and on up to Oregon and Washington. But since interdiction has reached the level it has, [producers and traffickers] are looking for alternative routes. [U.S. Highway] 101 has become an alternative distribution route, north, south and east. Eureka has become a place where we have more and more [heroin], not only passing through but [staying] here to be distributed.”

The sheriff is adamant that legalizing recreational marijuana consumption, as proposed on the November ballot’s Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, will prove useless in stemming the illegal trade.     

“I don’t think it will help at all because the black market won’t go away,” he said disdainfully. “We have 49 other states it can be distributed to and believe me, Humboldt County dope goes all over the nation and to different parts of the world. So there’s always going to be a black market and there’s always going to be a violent component to that.”

The day Downey met with a reporter, July 6, the Sheriff’s Office and other agencies seized more than 11,000 marijuana plants east of Rio Dell. They recovered evidence of chemical pesticides and rodenticides and of water diversion from Atwell Creek, adding to Humboldt’s metastasizing environmental destruction.

Underscoring the near futility of legalization, Downey decried the fiasco that has dogged medical marijuana for nearly two decades. Although voters approved California’s Medical Use of Marijuana Initiative in the 1996 November election, he said, “We’re still trying to figure out how to deal with 215. I told a recent state sheriffs meeting that it’s very ironic and very sad to think it is almost 20 years later and we are being told by our legislators – now that they’ve finally gotten their heads out of the sand – ‘It’s going to take another 10 years to fully implement it’.”

The sheriff exclaimed, “Thirty years for a voter initiative to come to fruition?! I think that’s unacceptable.”

Supporters of Proposition 64’s sweeping legalization framework concede that some 10 years will be needed to put it into working order if voters approve it. The Union published a detailed breakdown of the measure’s provisions in its Jan. 27 edition.

Although 14 states have made medical marijuana legal over the years, scientists, doctors, think tanks and federal drug agencies issue repeated warnings that  legalization has been premature, dangerously so. Scientific research of the plant’s genetic makeup and physiological impacts is in its infancy.

The PBS News Hour reported recently that geneticists have sequenced 600 strains of marijuana to date. It contains more than 400 chemicals, including 80 cannabinoids.

A great deal of scientific research lies ahead because the plant’s genetic makeup, chemical compounds and their physiological effects remain a mystery. PBS reported, “Scientists are not sure how [the compounds] may interact with each other to provide some medical benefit. They are trying to understand if isolating the compounds works or if there is a so-called entourage effect.”

That means figuring out if one or another compound has medicinal properties or whether the compounds may help only in an interactive combination that is not yet understood.

Worse, health officials warn that no cannabis user knows what she/he is ingesting. Environmental scientists warn that many federally restricted pesticides are found at grow sites, including at least one, Furadan, that can be fatal to humans.

Many grows, like the one near Rio Dell, are contaminated by a toxic stew of poisons used illegally and promiscuously. Businesses and consumers are in the dark about the health risks, which limited research to date shows are substantial and of particular concern to medical marijuana patients (Union, March 16).

Downey emphasized the point. Big-time growers are not interested in the medical marijuana market, he noted. Even if they were, “You don’t know what you’re getting. That has always amazed me about consumers. Marijuana can be full of all kinds of carcinogens, pesticides, herbicides.”


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