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“[Manson] considered himself a self-styled evangelist. He was carrying on about the ‘Book of Revelations,’” remembers Harder, author of These Canyons are Full of Ghosts: The Last of the Death Valley Prospectors.
One day, Harder drove Manson and his followers to Harder’s home in Devore, where “Charlie played the guitar” for Harder’s wife, and “[“Tex”] Watson was pretty sullen.” Eerily, Harder recalls, Manson made a call to actress Doris Day’s son, Terry Melcher, who was living at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon — the ill-fated house where Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski later moved, and where Tate was viciously slain. “[Manson] explained to us that Melcher was going to arrange [Manson’s] musical tour of Europe,” Harder says. “Manson hoped to be “a big movie star.”
Although dozens of missing persons reports were filed in California during the time Manson frequented Death Valley, none has been linked to him. But that hasn’t quelled the avid theorizing.
Manson’s prosecutor, former Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi, says Family members boasted that they’d “offed” 35 people in the desert. He believes “the family murdered people and buried bodies in the desert, but we don’t know if it’s [at] Barker Ranch.”
To untangle the mystery, according to Bugliosi, an investigator would need, at the very least, to identify families of long-missing young people who were in the area — and that “won’t be an easy thing to put together.”
Former hooker Virginia Graham, one of Bugliosi’s witnesses during the 1971 Manson trial, today insists that Manson Family member Susan Atkins bragged to her about killing people at Barker Ranch. Graham, author of The Joy of Hooking (renamed Look Who is Sleeping in my Bed: Madames, Mansions, Murder and Manson) met Atkins while both were jailed at Sybil Brand Institute for Women in November 1969. “Are there bodies up there? Absolutely beyond a shadow of a doubt,” Graham, now 75, tells Weekly. “She told the truth about everything else. Why wouldn’t this be part of it? It wasn’t said to impress.”
Harder himself says two Manson girls told him five people were killed at the ranch, and “they had no reason to lie to me.” One girl, he was told, went for a walk with Manson and Watson — and never returned.
But skeptics abound, including former Los Angeles County Sheriff Department Sgt. Bill Gleason, who has compiled a list of people who vanished during that time, culled from California Department of Justice data. Ten missing people fit the physical criteria: young white men or women. But they don’t fit the social profile of runaways. One missing girl “was working in an office,” says Gleason. “People hanging out with Manson were voluntarily running away.”
The chance of bodies at Barker Ranch? “I just don’t get that feeling. It is my policeman’s intuition.”
Manson’s right-hand man, Tex Watson, who became an ordained minister inside Mule Creek State Prison, where he is serving a life sentence, declared on his Web site, aboundinglove.org, that he didn’t kill anyone at Barker Ranch.
But Harder laughs, “Is he going to say, ‘We murdered these people?’”
The doubts and denials haven’t stamped down the global media’s interest. Carma Roper, public relations officer with the Inyo County Sheriff’s department, says almost 50 reporters have called in recent days, all wanting “a sound bite.” (While the Weekly was chatting with a dispatcher, three media calls were on hold.) Old-time prospector Harder says he’s been interviewed by People, Fox News Channel, Associated Press and CNN.
Until now, says historian Baldino, “[Barker Ranch] has never been high on people’s lists when they come to Death Valley.”
But today, blockades have appeared on local roads, as residents do something brand-new for them: try to keep visitors out.