Here we are again!

Thanks to the hit Netflix series Murder Mountain, the only love Humboldt County gets from the internet these days is a gruesome fascination with our missing persons, of which, we are told, we have the state’s highest rate.

“The six-part series will delve into the 717 per 100,000 people who go missing in Humboldt County each year … In addition to the hundreds of people that go missing each year, North California Redwood country is also home to the Emerald Triangle, which is famous for its huge cannabis growth,” says LADBible.

“Humboldt County also has the highest rate of missing persons cases in the state, which is how it has become ground zero for danger in the marijuana industry,” says Inside Edition.

“More people go missing in Northern California’s Humboldt County, a stunning, verdant enclave of mountains, rivers, and redwood trees, than anywhere in the state,” says the Daily Beast. “Fliers dot the sides of movie theaters, corner groceries, and telephone poles, bearing smiling faces and similar pleas: ‘Have you seen me?’” 

Those fliers exist, and the weed industry exists, and people have been killed by other people in the weed industry, but the main thrust of this – that Humboldters go missing by the hundreds – is nonsense. It’s bullshit. It’s a bullshit golem brought to life by the electric wish for it to be true, because if it were true it would make for a really creepy story.

What makes the bullshit possible is the confusion – the intentional or ignorant confusion, on the part of the story merchants – of two senses of the term “missing.” Imagine you’re headed out the door in the morning and suddenly you notice that your car keys are missing. What do you do? You go back inside and look for them. Your keys have been misplaced. Now imagine instead that you head out the door and notice that your car is missing. What do you do? You call the police. Your car has disappeared. It has been taken from you. The first case is an annoyance; the second is a crisis.

It’s the same sort of thing with what we’re calling “missing persons,” or “missing persons cases.” A “missing persons case” can refer to one of two things. On the one hand, a “missing persons case,” in the popular imagination, is when someone has definitively fallen off the face of the Earth. Despite exhaustive efforts over an extended period of time, the person cannot be found. On the other hand, and in a more technical sense, a “missing persons case” is something that is opened anytime someone can’t find someone else and asks the police to help them.

These are very different things. When we talk about “missing persons cases” in the technical sense, we’re talking about a whole grab bag of different types of cases – runaway kids, spouses splitting the scene, hikers getting turned around on the trail, college students or trimmigrants not returning their mom’s phone calls, suicides, overdoses, people going off the grid, or any other instance in which you might imagine someone calling the cops for help because they can’t find someone. But when we talk about a “missing persons case” as lay people, we’re imagining victims of violence whose perpetrators have covered their tracks.

There are people who have been temporarily misplaced, and there are people who have disappeared. The trick for anyone trying to sell a spooky story about the “missing persons rate” in Humboldt County is to confuse and conflate these two senses of the phrase “missing persons case” in the mind of their audience. These stories have to do this because:

  • Cases of people who have been disappeared are very scary and troubling, but there is no evidence whatsoever that Humboldt County has the highest rate of such cases in California, and
  • Humboldt does have the highest rate of people misplaced – cases of someone asking the cops to help them find someone else – but there is no evidence whatsoever that any but the usual minuscule number of such cases are actually scary or troubling, from the public’s perspective.

Thus, in Murder Mountain, Humboldt’s state-highest rate of people misplaced is illustrated through the story of the murder of Garret Rodriguez, a person disappeared, despite the fact that murder is almost certainly the least likely cause of a missing persons case report handled by Humboldt County police. Thus The Sun, following Murder Mountain’s lead, posits that our “highest missing person’s [sic] rate in the state” likely has something to do with the “black market cannabis farms where dozens of naive weed smokers have been kidnapped and murdered [double sic].” Thus this vlogging aficionado of mysteries and true crime thrillers looks to our “startling number of missing people” – over 700 per 100,000 residents per year, according to the accompanying graphic; nearly one percent of our total population annually! – and adumbrates the theme with a few more well-reported cases of violence. And etc., etc. Only very rarely, and then only in deeply buried footnotes, does anyone selling such a story bother to distinguish between gruesome murders and the more humdrum reality of missing persons cases: In all but the smallest number of instances, the “missing persons case” was a momentary scare at worst.

The pioneer in this clickbait-and-switch game was, sad to say, our own, local North Coast Journal, which last year published a story called “The Humboldt 35: Why does Humboldt County have the highest rate of missing persons reports in the state?” The headline and the cover image illustrate the method. “The Humboldt 35,” whose photos were tiled across the cover, were people who have disappeared over a period of the last few decades; the “highest rate of missing persons in the state” part of the headline referred, though you would never guess it, not to those 35 disappeared people but to the thousands and thousands and thousands of temporarily misplaced people over a roughly similar period of time. The Journal’s story flipped frictionlessly back and forth between these two distinct things – the terrible personal stories, the scary-seeming data – whenever one or the other effect was required, and it didn’t really bother to distinguish that they were talking about two distinct things, if they even possessed enough acuity to understand that they were doing so.

What’s worse, the Journal presented data selectively in order to play up the creepiest assumptions that readers had been primed to make. For instance: It downloaded its historical data about missing persons cases, in the “misplaced” person sense, from a web page belonging to the California Department of Justice. From that it concluded, correctly, that Humboldt has the highest rate of missing persons reports filed in the state. But the data about the resolution of the great majority of those cases was and is available on that same page; strangely enough, the Journal never bothered to present that data to its readers. If it had, it would have demonstrated that Humboldt County law enforcement clears up its missing persons reports at an even faster rate, compared to the rest of the state, than it acquires them in the first place – in other words, we have by far the highest rate of missing persons cases per capita that turn out to be big nothingburgers. The vast majority are only temporarily frightening for those involved. They are misplaced keys. They don’t constitute a public crisis. Once in a great while someone dies in the woods, generally of natural causes, and when that person doesn’t make it home at their appointed hour someone calls the sheriff’s office and asks for help finding them. That doesn’t constitute a public crisis either.

But the Journal dug in its heels even after the Outpost pointed all this out, and also after a substantial number of the “Humboldt 35” – the paper’s best tally of actual disappeared people – turned out to be flimsier cases of missingness than it had supposed. Several of them were known to have been lost at sea, one went missing elsewhere, one was living in Eureka, one was starring in a major network reality television show. Yet the Journal stood by the thrust of its reporting – that something really dark is shadowing Humboldt County, even if we can’t quite put a name to it – and the paper stands by it still.

Thus was Murder Mountain born, and with it all the happy horseshit that has followed in Murder Mountain’s wake. As Rolling Stone recently wrote:

In February 2018, North Coast Journal reported that 717 people per 100,000 go missing in Humboldt County every year. This striking number — the highest in the state — is what initially prompted documentary filmmaker Josh Zeman (The Killing Season, Cropsey) and production company Lightbox to assemble a team for a nine-month exploration of the tension between the burgeoning white- and historically black-market cannabis industry in the county.

Naturally, though, the NCJ pooh-poohs its Netflix progeny even as it clings to its own discredited series of stories. In the latest issue, News Editor Thad Greenson charges that Murder Mountain “fails to offer any deep analysis” of the high rate of Humboldt County missing persons reports that he himself has no deep analysis of – never has the paper put forward any theory about why so many people here ask the cops to help them find other people, other than the prodding hint right there in the title (“the Humboldt 35”) that maybe they were murdered (which they demonstrably were not, not that you’d know that from the NCJ) – but which Greenson nevertheless, despite all evidence to the contrary, despite the paper’s original story having fallen apart in countless ways since, considers “alarming.”

And with balls of brass, Greenson tries to elevate himself above the sensationalistic hokum of the last few weeks so that he, a Serious Journalist, might look down his nose upon it from his higher plane:

As the news editor of the Journal, I’m keenly aware that journalism is based on trust. If you catch me playing fast and loose with the basic facts of a story, how are you going to trust that I haven’t left out crucial information?

Crucial information … like whether or not all those people belonging to that state-highest rate of “missing persons” you’re talking about have been found safe and sound? Or at what rates? Good grief!

Anyway: Last year’s journalism awards cycle is nearly at an end, so the Journal, without jeopardizing its current chances, might any day now launch an investigation into whether or not being 1) rural, 2) mountainous, 3) forested, 4) cursed with shitty backwoods cell service and 5) fairly built on a rebel, off-the-grid ethos might in some way contribute to our high per-capita rate of people calling local law enforcement agencies to help them find people they can’t find themselves. Stay tuned! Just don’t expect the true-crime vloggers and documentarians and British tabloids to update.

To sum up: Humboldt County may have lots of problems, but mass disappearances a la the Argentinan junta are definitely not among them. Go back and read the case in more detail, with charts and everything, at this link.