DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, Calif. – Bone-white stretches of salt, leached up from the lifeless soil, lie like a shroud over the high desert where a paranoid Charles Manson holed up after an orgy of murder nearly four decades ago.
Now, as then, few venture into this alkaline wilderness – gold-diggers, outlaws, loners.
But a determined group of outsiders recently made the trek. They were leading forensic investigators searching for new evidence of death – clues pointing to clandestine graves.
Results of just-completed follow-up tests conclude there are two likely clandestine grave sites at Barker Ranch, and one additional site that merits further investigation.
For years, rumors have swirled about other possible Manson family victims – hitchhikers who visited them at the ranch and were not seen again, runaways who drifted into the camp. The jailhouse confessions that helped investigators initially connect the Manson family in the Panamint Mountains to the gruesome killings that terrorized Los Angeles hinted at other deaths. Manson follower Susan Atkins boasted to her cellmate on Nov. 1, 1969, that there were “three people out in the desert that they done in.”
Other stories surfaced.
“We prosecuted Manson and the family for all the murders we could prove. But you know, could he have killed someone else? Possibly. Could another member of the family have killed someone? Sure,” said Steve Kay, a former deputy district attorney.
Last month, equipped with cutting-edge forensic technology, the investigators assembled in the ghost town of Ballarat for a 20-mile ride in all-terrain vehicles to the ranch.
The team included two national lab researchers carrying instruments to detect chemical markers of human decomposition, a police investigator with a cadaver-seeking dog, and an anthropologist armed with a magnetic resonance reader.
Also in the group were a woman whose life was forever marked by the cult’s brutal murder of her pregnant sister, and gold prospector Emmett Harder, once Manson’s closest neighbor.
He had a claim on Manley peak, looming over Barker Ranch, while the Manson family was there in the late 1960s. He shared dinner with the band at times, and gave the men work.
Later, Harder would learn about Manson’s belief the end of the world, which he called “Healter Skelter,” was near and that through murder, he had a role in accelerating that chaotic time.
For the last five miles of the gravel road from Ballarat, the route tilts sharply upward as it enters narrow Goler Wash.
“The family’s plan was to make this impassable – you can see how you could do that here,” said Sgt. Paul Dostie, a police detective and dog handler from the town of Mammoth Lakes.
Barker Ranch was one of several hideouts used by Manson. The Tate-LaBianca killings had been orchestrated from Spahn Ranch, a former Western movie set used on “Bonanza” and “The Lone Ranger.”
It was to Spahn that the killers initially retreated after the 1969 murders of Gary Hinman on July 31; Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Voytek Frykowski, Abigail Folger and Steven Parent on Aug. 9; and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca on Aug. 10.
This was to signal the start of the apocalyptic race war that Manson told his followers would pit blacks against whites. He preached that they would emerge from the desert at the end and rule. But a daybreak raid on Spahn Ranch on Aug. 16 by Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies looking for car thieves netted 26 arrests. Barker Ranch was where Manson withdrew in those last, frenzied days.
“After the murder, my mom became a shell of herself,” said Debra Tate, who was 17 when her sister, actress Sharon Tate, was killed. Her younger sister Patti was 11. Debra Tate’s mother, Doris Tate, emerged from years of depression when she heard that a Manson family member was seeking parole.
She gathered 350,000 signatures, helping keep the murderer in prison. She also lobbied successfully to change state law to ensure the right of victims’ families to make statements at sentencing and parole hearings.
Doris Tate died in 1992; Patti in 2000. Now Debra Tate attends the parole hearings alone. “My mother specifically asked me to carry on. It’s my life.”
She has given herself two tasks, she said: making sure her sister’s killers never go free, and helping other families find the peace that has eluded her.
“If there are bodies here,” she said at the ranch, “we need to find them and send them home.”
Behind the house, Dostie readied his dog, Buster, for the search. “Go find Fred!” Dostie said, releasing the dog on the command that sends him searching for human remains.
The dog bounded away, zigzagging over the terrain. Then he lay down in a depression in the ground, quivering, ears upright. Dostie threw the dog his reward and planted a flag on the site.
Meanwhile, Arpad Vass and Marc Wise, senior researchers from Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, were readying instruments capable of chemically detecting evidence of decades-old human bodies.
“It’s a crude sniffer,” Vass said. “It gives us a quick indication of areas we want to come back to.”
The machine detects fluorinated hydrocarbon compounds, one of about 400 types of volatile organic compounds emitted by bodies during decomposition. The instrument beeped at regular intervals. As it approached the ground, the beeping accelerated until it was a steady stream of sound.
“That’s impressive,” said Wise, a senior researcher at Oak Ridge specializing in environmental analytical chemistry.
Using a 3-foot-long probe, Vass tested soil. “Undisturbed soil isn’t this easy to probe.”
“We need to do an IR,” he said, turning to Wise. He was calling for the next piece of machinery – larger and heavier, but more specific. It could be calibrated to detect different compounds, using technology known as infrared spectroscopy to “read” a particular molecule’s profile.
“We’re getting the highest hits here, where the ground is soft,” said Wise. “There’s definitely something down there,” he said. “We just can’t know yet exactly what until we dig.”
“Or who,” said Vass.
The men gathered three samples of dirt from each area of interest for lab analysis. The group broke for lunch in front of the ranch house where Manson was arrested in October 1969.
Afterward, Daniel Larson took up his part of the investigation. An archaeologist at California State University, Long Beach, Larson has used Ground Penetrating Radar and a magnetometer – an instrument that can peer 12 feet into the ground. At Barker Ranch, he took 5,327 readings of the ground at the suspect site, stopping every 4 inches within a 26-by-20-foot grid. “What I’m looking for is the pit, not the bones,” he explained.
He’ll return later to use the Ground Penetrating Radar. The soil still held some moisture from recent storms, and that could skew the results.
Watching the scientists work, Harder spoke of his memories of the Manson clan – the churlish, armed young men, the pretty girls with blank, doll-like expressions. “I didn’t feel real easy around them. They picked up all kinds of people – hitchhikers and stuff.”
He particularly remembers two teenage runaways who escaped the ranch, then stopped at a nearby mining camp for food. They made it out of the rugged mountains barefoot, Harder said.
They turned themselves in to the California Highway Patrol at the mouth of Anvil Springs Canyon – booked as Stephanie Jean Schram, 17, from Anaheim, and Kathryn Rene Lutesinger, 17, from Los Angeles, on Oct. 10, 1969. “Both females stated that they were attempting to run away from ‘Charlie’ the leader of the ‘family’ and that they were afraid of their lives,” read the CHP report.
The day they turned themselves in, CHP officers headed to Barker Ranch for the first of two car theft raids. On their way, they arrested Gary Milton Tufts and Randy J. Mourglea, whom they found asleep at the mouth of Goler Wash, a sawed-off shotgun between them. They had come from Barker Ranch, CHP said.
When told of the arrests, both girls said they believed the armed men were sent “to stop them from walking away,” according to CHP’s report.
Were others less lucky when they tried to escape?
Vass said that, considering the quantity and the types of markers of human decomposition found, the cadaver dog’s response and the probing exercise, he found enough evidence to warrant further testing at a deeper level and a full-scale excavation, according to the report he issued to law enforcement.
But if a body is found on the Barker Ranch, then what?
The likelihood of a new prosecution appears slim, said Patrick Sequeira, the Los Angeles County deputy district attorney who has been in charge of Manson family parole hearings since Kay’s retirement.
Manson family members in prison are already serving life sentences – the maximum penalty allowed at the time the crimes were committed.
Still, Sequeira did not dismiss the crime scene re-investigators. “I’d love to see them put something together,” he said.