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Learn more at revealnews. T he trees towered above them, limbs etched in black against the night sky. He steered his pickup down a narrow path of mud and rocks and parked in front of a trailer. He tried to kiss her. She froze. The woods seemed to crawl with creatures; the ground was slick with rain.

As wilderness pulsed around them, she ran through the possibilities. In the Emerald Triangle, trees are ever present. They peek over small towns and dip into valleys, sheathing this cluster of remote Northern California counties in silence. But the forests also hide secrets, among them young women with stories of sexual abuse and exploitation. Some have spoken out; a handful have pressed charges. Most have confided only in private.

Students from the nearest college, Humboldt State University, return from a summer of trimming marijuana buds with tales of being forced to give their boss a blow job to get paid. During one harvest season, two growers began having sex with their teenage trimmer.

When they feared she would run away, they locked her inside an oversized toolbox with breathing holes. Verifying their stories is as difficult as finding your way through the forest at night, down twisty dirt ro, to one of the backwoods marijuana farms. During months of reporting in the region, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting unearthed dozens of s of sexual exploitation, abuse and trafficking.

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Yet law enforcement repeatedly has failed to investigate abuse and sexual violence in the industry. Instead, officers mostly focus on what they view as the root cause of the problem: the drug trade. In the rural counties of Northern California, marijuana is still a largely underground industry, worth billions.

The of trimmigrants who go missing alone is overwhelming for law enforcement, fueling an epidemic of the lost. InHumboldt County reported missing people, more per capita than any other county in the state.

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When an artist from San Francisco disappeared in the Humboldt County town of Garberville last harvest season, her mother and roommate filed a missing persons report. Months later, she resurfaced to tell her family she had been held against her will on a marijuana farm, drugged and sexually abused.

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She never formally reported her abuse. In addition to women and girls who come of their own volition to trim, others are brought in specifically to provide sex services. Come harvest season, escorts flood these rural areas, drawn to the large population of male growers and laborers who spend months at a time alone on isolated mountain farms.

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Ron Prose, an investigator for the Eureka Police Departmen t, said sex traffickers know law enforcement agencies have little interest in cracking down on them. None of the county agencies surveyed by Reveal have investigators ased to human trafficking. Prose himself is semi-retired; he investigates trafficking cases when he has time. For women, the dangers are due in part to the gender dynamics in the industry.

Growing is a male-dominated field, and many growers prefer to hire female trimmers. Several told Reveal that they believe women are more dexterous, making them more efficient workers. Others are looking for company. Of course, many marijuana farms are responsible operations. Most workers describe good experiences, including excellent pay, food and shelter. Many also welcome the unusual working conditions of an industry long at odds with mainstream culture and the law. Drug use on the job, for instance, is common.

In November, California voters will decide whether to fully legalize recreational marijuana. T hat power imbalance is what ensnared a year-old environmentalist and musician who arrived in one of the mountain towns in the middle of the harvest season looking for trimming work. In Petrolia, Terri — not her real name — found a world apart from her hometown in the Los Angeles Basin. Petrolia sits beneath the King Range mountains at the edge of Humboldt County, hidden behind a curtain of redwoods and Douglas fir trees.

With a population of aboutit has one general store, one bar, no cellphone service and no police. Most locals live in the surrounding mountains, overlooking the forested valley and black sand beaches of the last undeveloped stretch of California known as the Lost Coast. Nearly everyone in Petrolia knows each other. Most Online sex rooms shop Humboldt involved in marijuana growing to some degree. But like other small towns dotting the Emerald Triangle, in the past decade, more and more people have moved in.

Greenhouses have sprung up, enabling industrial-scale marijuana growing. Larger farms have drawn more workers from outside the area. At first, Terri did not have a job. An acquaintance introduced her to Cedar McCulloch-Clow and Emily Herman, a married couple with two children, a horde of chickens and goats, and a bicycle-strewn junkyard.

She also set about working her way into the community. Terri found a couple of trimming jobs, including for Sam Epperson and his partner, Rachel Adair. Terri and three other trimmers sat in a row of swivel office chairs in a wood-paneled trimming shack. Epperson, quiet and bespectacled with Online sex rooms shop Humboldt mop of graying curls, prepared fresh food and drinks for the workers. Every day, he offered them an organic chocolate bar. One night, on the concrete patio of the town bar — the Yellow Rose — Terri met a grower named Kailan Meserve. He was twice her age, tan and muscular, with a swagger and salt-and-pepper hair.

Meserve mentioned he needed trimmers and bought her a beer. When Finnegan returned, Terri had disappeared. Inside, the bar is a bright, airy space with pristine off-white walls and a polished beige floor — a contrast with its often grungy clientele. One side of the bar is lined with light metal cafe tables, the other with pool tables and arcade games.

About 45 minutes after Finnegan lost track of Terri, court records show she found her unconscious in that bathroom, her pants around her ankles. Terri appeared to have fallen and hit the sink on her way down. Terri remembered almost nothing about the night. She was concerned something had happened with Meserve.

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But back on the grow, Epperson and Adair put her at ease: Meserve was a captain of the volunteer fire department, the son of a prominent local environmental activist and politician. Meserve, they said, was married with toddler twins. They encouraged her to take up Meserve on his offer of a trimming job. C onservative ranchers and loggers Online sex rooms shop Humboldt the small population of the Emerald Triangle when hippies began arriving en masse in the late s. They were a diverse bunch, from tree-sitting activists to disillusioned Vietnam veterans.

His first home was a teepee on the Mattole River. Later, he built a house in Petrolia, where he, his wife and children lived on wind and solar power, grew produce and raised their own goats, cows and chickens. At first, marijuana was a recreational drug, grown mostly for personal use. Growers realized they could better support themselves and their families by selling pot on the black market. The climate was ideal, the woods and mountains isolated enough to conceal the illicit crop. The American-grown marijuana industry was born.

From the outset, the children of these growers had more difficulties than their parents. The Summer of Love was over. Across the community, alcohol and drug abuse was rampant. So was law enforcement. The threat of raids constantly loomed over the Meserve household, threatening to pull the family apart. When federal Operation Green Sweep touched down in Petrolia insoldiers flew helicopters overhead and officers confronted families in their homes with M16 rifles.

Children learned to lie about the reality of their lives. With law enforcement crackdowns came higher black market prices and greater risks. To protect their crops from theft, many farmers began to carry guns and booby-trap their properties. Residents dealt with crime themselves, avoiding law enforcement whenever possible. InCalifornia became the first state in the country to legalize medical marijuana. But the law failed to limit the amount of marijuana that could be grown, and law enforcement had no way to determine which plants were cultivated for medical purposes or for profit.

The turmoil prompted some of the children to leave. Kailan Meserve was among the many who stayed. He became a stonemason, specializing in fireplaces, and grew pot on the side. With California voters considering full legalizationnew growers poured into town hoping to get rich. The hippie haven was about to go mainstream. The law did not pass, but according to friends, Meserve decided that if anyone was going to make money peddling pot, it was going to be him. Locals noticed the change. At a party a few years ago, therapist Jenoa Briar-Bonpane recalls looking over the edge of a mountain ridge and spotting two new grow operations below.

Someone said they belonged to Meserve, and he became the talk of the party. As a big employer in town, and a local, Meserve enjoyed a trust not afforded to outsiders, including a freedom from consequences, according to friends.

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Over time, those who knew him said he seemed to sink deeper into drugs and alcohol. He was convicted three times for driving under the influence, according to court records, and got into a car crash that seriously injured him and his wife. None of it seemed to slow down Meserve. His business expanded, and the trimmigrants who showed up in Petrolia looking for work were thankful for it. T erri saw Kailan Meserve again at a pingpong tournament.

He was one of the few entrusted with a key to the community center and had set up the tables. Meserve offered to buy Terri drinks several times, according to investigators — and each time, she declined. Around 10 p. It was rainy, and without sidewalks and streetlights, a walk home in Petrolia could be treacherous. She agreed. She figured she might also ask him about a job.

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Terri was staying about 2 miles from the community center. But Meserve went the opposite direction, turning right toward a dark mass of trees. She told him she had to get up early. He ignored her and continued down the road, turning right again at a metal gate and entering a narrow dirt path into a thicket of towering eucalyptus.

Finally, they came to a trailer and stopped. Her mind spun through the possibilities. Could she find her way back if she ran? Would he chase her? Hurt her? Would anyone hear her if she screamed? It was happening so fast and she could hardly see. Everything outside the beam of the headlights was flooded in black.

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In Secretive Marijuana Industry, Whispers of Abuse and Trafficking