EUREKA (KPIX) -- You can make fast money working on a marijuana farm in California. But with fast money comes risk and, sometimes, death.
Cal Fire's Kneeland Helitack Base in Humboldt County is pretty close to the middle of nowhere so, when workers from a nearby pot farm showed up, Battalion Chief Kurt Dernedde knew something was amiss.
"To not have some sort of problem like [running] out of gas or anything, to just walk up to the base doesn't normally happen," he said.
The workers wanted to use the phone but Dernedde says they wouldn't say why. The next day one of the men was back. He'd been found bleeding and terrified.
"He was already in rough shape," said Dernedde.
That man was Fernando Lopez Paz, a migrant laborer from Guatemala. Paz told the firefighters he had just been shot by his boss on a pot farm. Turns out he was the lucky one -- he survived. His co-worker Roberto Juarez Madrid did not.
"This was about as cold-blooded as it gets," said Assistant U.S. Attorney William Frentzen, who prosecuted the case with assistant U.S. Attorney Kimberly Hopkins.
According to court documents, the victims' boss, Mikal Wilde, owned an 800-acre pot farm and had hired the men to help him work it.
"Things were going well. They were living in a travel trailer on one of the sites. Mikal Wilde was bringing them food, they knew it was for a short period of time -- about three months -- and they did their work, woke up early, watered the plants ... everything seemed to be going fine," said Hopkins.
But Hopkins says that at some point Mikal Wilde ran out of money.
"He didn't have diesel to fuel his cars and at that point he took the keys away and wanted them to water the plants by hand," said Hopkins.
That meant hauling water to more than 1500 plants on four distant sites. The workers wanted out.
Instead, Wilde took away their phones and guns, then lay in wait for them outside their trailer and shot them.
Fernando got away. But Wilde tracked Roberto Madrid down a steep hillside and finished him off.
"Based on the forensics Mr. Wilde came up behind him and shot him in the back of the head, execution style," said Hopkins.
"The pressure of trying to get the grow to the point of making money, hanging on to the property and all of these investments, it looks like all of that culminated in him doing the one thing he thought he could or should do was take out the workers," said Frentzen.
"All of that is true, he ran out of money," said Mikal Wilde's attorney Tony Serra. But Serra says there's more to the story. "Just using layman's terms, he snapped," said Serra.
Serra says the situation on the grow had become tense following an armed robbery. The workers wanted guns to protect themselves.
"Pretty soon they were parading around with guns and they, in essence, took charge of the whole thing," Serra said.
He says his client Mikal Wilde felt threatened. "He believed strongly they were capable of violence he believed strongly they had a gun he believed strongly and I share his belief that he saw a gun," said Serra.
But jurors didn't buy that defense. Forensic evidence produced at trial in fact proved the workers were not armed. The judge sentenced Mikal Wilde to life in prison.
Back in Humboldt County, Wilde's 800 acres are under new ownership but the crop remains the same.
Frentzen hopes the murder case will serve as a warning to the hundreds of migrant workers headed up to work on illegal marijuana farms in the emerald triangle this fall.
"We are talking about folks that only a few people knew where they were, that were undocumented. It's hard to find bodies out in the woods of Humboldt County," Frentzen said.
None of the survivors or witnesses in this case was willing to talk to KPIX; Mikal Wilde is now appealing his life sentence with a different attorney.
for more features.