Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Mendocino County Sees Eight Murders in 2021- Half of the Killings Were Connected to the Black Market Cannabis Industry

The known suspects of this year’s homicides in Mendocino County [From Left to Right]: Jeremiah Luna, Christopher Gamble, Oscar Ruiz, Christopher Bettega, Michael Schwinghammer, Dino Blackbear [Mugshots from the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Booking Logs]

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.”

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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, accused of stabbing his brother to death 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.

Original Coverage:

April 27th, 2021- Two Men Shot Dead on a Willits Cannabis Farm

Christopher Gamble, accused of killing to men on a Willits cannabis grow

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

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Original Coverage:

July 23rd, 2021- Another Man Dead on a Cannabis Farm on Bell Springs Road

Oscar Ruiz, accused of shooting another man on a Bell Springs cannabis grow

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. 

Original Coverage

September 9th, 2021- Covelo Man Accused of Ramming and Killing His Cousin with a Truck 

Christopher Bettega, accused of ramming his cousin with his vehicle and killing him

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

Mark Schwinghammer, accused of stabbing his half-brother to death and dumping him in the surf off of 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.”

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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

Original Coverage

September 16th, 2021- A Shooting Outside a Covelo Bar Leaves One Dead

Dino Michael Blackbear , accused of killing a man outside of Covelo’s Buckhorn Bar after firing off shots

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.

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.

Original Coverage

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.

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  1. It appears that there are more cannabis related murders now then when cannabis was illegal , or the bodies are being discovered more frequently then back in the years before legal cannabis.

  2. Excellent reporting on a bad situation that will only grow worse until cannabis is no longer economically viable in Mendocino County. As to murders that are not dope related, Mendocino County has always been a refuge for dark dreamers with violent, narcissistic inclinations, unbalanced intelligence and weak inhibitions.

  3. This along with all the fetty overdoses makes my head and heart hurt……I have lost a good 25 to 30 maybe more ppl I’ve known over the years not just in mendo but in Lake co as well SMH I can’t even wrap my head around why is it taking so many so fast..I hate everything that hurts other ppl ….I pray for better days but there isn’t a day that has gone by it seems well let me say honestly a week that I hear About A new death maybe 2 it’s to the point where I don’t even talk to anybody any more cause they either dead or all on fetty or black it’s gross ……and kills me to see ppl in that state I get pissed I can’t help them..

    • Sophia
      If he was charged by the DA then no one or organization can be successfuly sued for repeating/publishing that fact.
      No reputable lawyer would touch that case.

      Did you notice the very last paragraph of the article?

  4. FYI 90% of all “white market” cannabis grows are still selling to the black market. Everybody knows this around here. There is criminal activity going on with both sides of the game. Obviously the real hot spots in the county for crime and murder are around Covelo and Laytonville areas. Pretty quite most other places in the county. Let’s not demonize all the “black market” cannabis growers please. I have three neighbors on my road that are growing the evil black market cannabis. Two elder women in their 70’s and one elder man in his 80’s. These people have been around here for decades. They are great neighbors and community members. Please don’t stereo-type us all with these losers who suck at life. Matt Kendall loves to post pictures of cash, pounds and guns, showing us all how dangerous and bad the black market is in this county. These are extreme cases. 99% of people around here are great folks and good members of the community.

    • There are 92000 residents in the county.

      If these 8 murders were just 1% of the black market growers then that would suggest 800 black market growers in the county.

      County of Mendo gov thinks there are several thousand black market sites….most with multiple or many people involved.
      So that’s maybe less than 1/10%-1/2% of black.market growers involved in known murders.

      Math trumps the stretching done with hype and feelings.
      Math says the 99% or greater statement stands.

  5. JLT
    Basic arithmetic and the know how to use it makes me a nerd?
    Having enough knowledge to work from facts and reality rather than feelings and reactivity makes me nerd?

    Then thank you bully, you have a low bar for stooping to name calling…grow up.
    Stick and stones and such…
    Meet me on the playground after school?

    If you like all your technology (toys and electricity and fuel and cars/trucks and heaters and air conditioning and roads and bridges and and and etc etc etc) and medical treatment and most of your jobs, then thank a nerd.

    Without us there would be little industry to speak of and most of the bullies, like jlt, would still be cracking heads just to eat and create offspring.

    Would you rather govern by the whims of the mob minded idiots or be governed only by bullies and murderers?

Join the Conversation

Matt LaFever
Matt LaFeverhttps://mendofever.com/
I like to think of myself as a reporter for the Average Joe. Journalism has become a craft defined largely by city dwellers on America's coasts. It’s time to take it back. I have been an Emerald Triangle resident since 2006 and this is year ten in Mendocino County. Please, email me at matthewplafever@gmail.com if you know a story that needs to be told.

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