Mendocino County, a land defined by its rugged charm and wide-open spaces, has a criminal underworld suffused with rural poverty, isolation, substance abuse, and the get-rich-quick promises of the cannabis black market.
These conditions too often result in violent crime, and sometimes murder. In 2021, eight homicides occurred in Mendocino County.
Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall sat down with us and reflected on these murders and what they say about criminal trends community-wide.
He characterized this year’s slew of killings as “extremely brutal homicides” in which 50% were associated with illegal cannabis cultivation. Sheriff Kendall noted that 87.5% of this year’s homicide victims were people of color, being either Mexican or Native American.
Reflecting on the disproportionate effect these crimes are having on people of color, Sheriff Kendall said, “With all the questions that keep coming down the pipe about how police disproportionately affect marginalized people, the fact of the matter is these are the people that are victims of crime.” He added, “I am not happy that roughly 25% of Mendocino County’s murdered people are Native American.”
These crimes have an outsized effect on rural communities as compared to urban areas, Sheriff Kendall explained. “In our small towns, we don’t have the clinical detachment and anonymity of the big cities. When we lose someone in our small communities, families, and friends are affected for years.”
Highlighting the importance of family culture and community values, Sheriff Kendall asked, “How many times has the system failed before someone called 911. My deputies can pick up the pieces afterward, but we cannot bring people back.” He spoke towards a future where education and rehabilitation work hand in hand to help the communities both prevent and heal from violent crime.
Overall, Sheriff Kendall expressed pride in his deputies and investigators saying, “We’ve had some successful investigations this year while working with a skeleton crew in our investigations unit.”
Below is, an overview of the eight murders in Mendocino County during 2021.
January 19th, 2021- A Brother Alleged to Have Killed a Brother in a Ukiah Apartment
Jeremiah Luna and his brother Jordan were staying in a Ukiah Laws Avenue Apartment. In the early morning of January 19, law enforcement responded to the apartment and found Jordan suffering from stab wounds. Inside the apartment was Jeremiah who was detained and soon after Jordan passed from his wounds.
A review of the Mendocino County Superior Court documentation of Luna’s case indicates his criminal trial has yet to begin. He pled innocent to all counts and the most recent update indicates Jeremiah Luna’s preliminary hearing will be held on March 3, 2022.
- One Person Dead and One Arrested After a Stabbing on Ukiah’s Laws Avenue
- Ukiah Man Accused of Murdering His Brother in a Laws Avenue Apartment, Says MCSO
April 27th, 2021- Two Men Shot Dead on a Willits Cannabis Farm
What originally began as a “suspicious double missing person case” on a Willits cannabis grow gave way to a double murder as the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office released more information.
47-year-old Willits man Christopher Wayne Gamble was arrested and charged with the murder of Ulises Andrade Atala and Anwar Ayala after their bodies were found on the Willits cannabis farm.
Gamble pled innocent to the charges on May 18, 2021, and in a series of continuances throughout the year. At this point, Gamble’s preliminary hearing is scheduled for January 19, 2022
- Willits Man, Suspected of Double-Homicide and Animal Abuse, Pleads Not Guilty
- Criminal Complaint Reveals Willits Man is Suspected of First-Degree Murder in the Shooting Death of Two Men and Also of Torturing Chickens
- Mendocino Sheriff’s Office Investigating ‘Suspicious Double Missing Persons Case’ on Willits Cannabis Grow
- Willits Man Booked on Suspicion of Murder After Mendocino County Sheriff Deputies Find ‘Deceased Bodies of Two Unidentified Persons’ on Cannabis Grow
July 23rd, 2021- Another Man Dead on a Cannabis Farm on Bell Springs Road
In the early morning of July 23, 2021, deputies responded to the 59000 block of Bell Springs Road after a reporting party heard a series of gunshots and then located an injured man. Deputies learned four to five subjects were on the cannabis farm where the deceased was located and a foot pursuit began after subjects fled the property. At approximately 6:00 a.m., a CHP helicopter crew successfully located a fleeing subject and held them at gunpoint from overhead while ground forces converged taking the subject into custody.
The subject would prove to be 24-year-old Oscar Alvarez Ruiz from Rohnert Park. At the time of his arrest, he stood accused of murder, along with two special allegation charges stemming from the murder charge involving Ruiz’s alleged use of a .40 caliber Glock model 22 handgun to kill a 27-year-old named Edgar Alejandro Becerra-Almaraz.
Ruiz has pled not guilty to the murder charges he faces and his jury trial is expected to begin on January 24, 2022.
- Mendocino Sheriff’s Office Identifies 27-Year-Old Rohnert Park Man as Victim of Bell Springs Homicide
- Rohnert Park Man Booked for Last Week’s Murder on Illegal Laytonville Cannabis Grow
- One Man Dead, Two Subjects Detained, and a Deputy Injured After Early Morning Homicide on Cannabis Farm Near Laytonville
- Mendocino County Sheriff and CHP Investigating Suspected Homicide Outside Laytonville This Morning; Deputy Injured
September 9th, 2021- Covelo Man Accused of Ramming and Killing His Cousin with a Truck
In the early morning of September 4, 2021, MCSO dispatch received reports that an assault and kidnapping had taken place in the Covelo area. Originally, Christopher Bettega and his cousin William Bettega were reportedly victims of the crime, and as deputies responded a “separate call for service regarding a located deceased person was dispatched.”
When deputies arrived on the scene, they found William Bettega deceased in the roadway realizing the initial reports of an assault and kidnapping were not the whole story. Investigators quickly determined he had been killed by being struck by a vehicle. Combing for clues, a deputy found a vehicle in a creek drainage nearby with indications that it had struck a pedestrian. Christopher Bettega was determined to be the primary driver of that vehicle.
Christopher Bettega has pled not guilty to all counts and is scheduled to have his preliminary hearing on December 28, 2021.
September 13th, 2021- A Minnesota Man Allegedly Stabbed His Half-Brother to Death and Dumped Him in the Ocean Off Westport
Close to midnight on September 12, 2021, deputies were dispatched to Westport along the Mendocino County coast regarding a man named Mark Schwinghammer sending a “threatening text” to family members in the area. Also, it was reported that a man named Timothy Sweet “wandered away from the residence.”
Around 11:55 p.m., deputies contacted Schwinghammer who said his half-brother, Timothy Sweet, was missing after going to the beach to “collect mussels”. Checking out the nearby beach, deputies spotted Sweet’s deceased body at the base of a rocky cliff and partially submerged in water. With assistance from nearby fire departments, Sweet’s body was extricated from the water, and deputies determined that he “died as a result of a homicide.”
Revealed by the documents we requested from MCSO, we can now confirm Sweet was stabbed to death.
Schwinghammer stands accused of felony murder with special circumstances including doing it for financial gain and committing the murder “by means of lying in wait. His preliminary hearing is scheduled for January 27, 2022
- Minnesota Man Booked for Murder After Authorities Find His Half-Brother Dead in the Westport Surf, Says MCSO
September 16th, 2021- A Shooting Outside a Covelo Bar Leaves One Dead
Near midnight on September 16, 2021, shots rang out near Covelo’s Buckhorn Bar when a man was struck with a bullet and suspects fled the scene. Two were identified as suspects, Dino Michael Blackbear and Carina Amanda Carrillo, and both were sought in the following days and described as being “armed and dangerous.”
It would not be until two days later that Blackbear was apprehended by deputies in Fort Bragg where he had been since the evening of the 17th. That evening he was in a vehicle pursuit, foot bailed, and successfully eluded law enforcement for the following approximately 24 hours.
Charged with murder and a slew of special allegations including the use of a firearm to commit murder and being a habitual criminal, Blackbear has pled not guilty. His preliminary hearing is set for December 30, 2021.
- [UPDATE: In Custody] Law Enforcement Converging on Fort Bragg’s Hansen Road After Covelo Homicide Suspect Spotted
- Covelo Homicide Suspect Remains At Large After Spotted Last Night in Fort Bragg
- [UPDATE Midnight] Fort Bragg Residents Sheltering-in-Place as Deputies Search for Covelo Homicide Suspect After Vehicle Pursuit Gave Way to Foot Chase
- Late Night Shooting at a Covelo Bar Leaves One Dead and Authorities Searching for Two ‘Armed and Dangerous’ Suspects
- Law Enforcement and Medical Personnel Responding to Reports of a Man Shot in the Neck at Covelo’s Buckhorn Bar
October 3rd, 2021- A Mexican National Found Murdered in the Trunk of a Car Alongside a Covelo Road
On October 3, 2021, a game warden noticed a vehicle abandoned along Mendocino Pass Road, northeast of Covelo, and decided to investigate. Inside the trunk of that car, the game warded would discover a body in a significant state of decomposition.
Investigators were able to determine that the body was 51-year-old Marco Antonio Barrera Beltran, a Mexican National. Sheriff Kendall described the investigation into Barrera’s homicide as “time-consuming” because of its complexity and described the crime as a “body dump type of murder.”
First confirmed via information gained by MendoFever, Beltran was shot to death.
On October 14, 2021, MCSO investigators served a search warrant on a Covelo home along Henderson Lane. Captain Greg Van Patten told us the search was connected to “the homicide in Covelo involving the deceased male in the trunk of the vehicle.”
As of this article, no suspects have been arrested for this crime.
- Detectives Investigating Covelo Home Thought to be Connected with the Killing of Man Found in an Abandoned Vehicle
- Body Found Decomposing in Abandoned Vehicle Northeast of Covelo Identified as Mexican National
- Authorities Determine Decomposed Body Found in Vehicle Northeast of Covelo was a Murdered Man From ‘Out of the Area’
- Decomposing Body Found in Abandoned Vehicle by Game Warden, Says MCSO
- Dead Body Found in Trunk of Car Northeast of Covelo
If you know anything about any of these crimes, please contact the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office Tip-Line (707-234-2100) or the WeTip anonymous crime reporting hotline (800-782-7463).
And, as always, with due respect to the victims of the circumstances described, it must be stated that the charges described have not been proven in a court of law. In accordance with the legal principle of the presumption of innocence, any individual(s) described should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.