L.A.'s Pop Culture Detectives
Danny Boy O'Connor and Knocko of Delta Bravo
Photo by Brooks Ayola
Danny Boy O'Connor, the former rap star, and Knocko Nolan, a current police detective, are prowling the Spahn Ranch, looking for a cave where the Manson Family once posed for a picture.
The two men are on a trail in Chatsworth just south of the 118 freeway, a spot where hundreds of Westerns were shot, including The Lone Ranger. Today it's most famous as the home of the Manson Family at the time of the Tate-LaBianca murders. The cult leader and his followers had been permitted to live rent-free among the old movie sets, which were mostly façades, in exchange for helping with upkeep. From there they set out to commit the murders that terrified L.A. in the summer of 1969.
Months later, while Manson and some of his "girls" were standing trial for the murders, Life photographer Vernon Merritt III captured iconic images of the remaining members of the family living on the ranch. The location for which O'Connor and Nolan are searching was the backdrop to a classic shot from that issue, depicting nine members of the family gathered under a cavelike overhang.
On this October Saturday, the Santa Ana winds are whipping sand and the fire flags are red. As the two men get their bearings, a pair of deer suddenly materializes, runs up an embankment and disappears.
"It interests me," O'Connor says with a smile, pushing branches out of his way, "because it's one of those stories you hear about as a kid. ... It's like being in hell and seeing where Satan used to sit."
Nolan, 39, and O'Connor, 44, are L.A. residents, both born in New York. They initially connected over Facebook and a shared passion for place-hacking -- a sort of urban exploration in which participants explore off-the-grid locations without engaging in vandalism or theft, taking only photographs.
The cave visit is part of their larger project, Delta Bravo Urban Exploration Team. What started as a hobby has turned into a business: When they're not working their full-time gigs, O'Connor and Nolan scour cities for forgotten cultural landmarks, photographing disappearing and forgotten locations with ties to film, television, music and true crime. They juxtapose their modern-day photos with older images, discussing their findings with experts on their podcast/television show on TradioV, a Hollywood Broadcast Network.
They started off searching in their backyard, Los Angeles, but their wanderlust has grown: They have dreams of visiting the childhood backyards of Larry Bird and Mickey Mantle, or even the abandoned Star Wars sets in the Tunisian desert. Eventually, they hope to produce a larger television show.
Meanwhile, they feel they are documenting pieces of history that are overlooked and deemed insignificant, before they are paved over by developers and lost forever -- even the strangest places. Like the one-time home of Charles Manson.
"We all have a weird fascination with things we're not supposed to," O'Connor says. "We're not supposed to like Spahn Ranch because a man named Charles Manson came down here?"
See also: Top 10 Weirdest Stores in L.A.
Along the path, rock formations are in the shape of arrows, and O'Connor follows the rocks and reaches the hovel. It's an unassuming location, but chiseled into a rock in front of the overhang are the words "Manson Family Cave." The sun shines through the trees, the birds sing and a meditative calm overtakes the area. It's difficult to imagine this was the spot where Charles Manson devised one of L.A.'s most heinous murder sprees in a bungled attempt to spark a race war.
L.A.'s good looks, the duo has found, can be deceiving.
"California crime is totally different than New York crime," says Nolan, who would know -- a former NYPD officer, he's now a police detective in the Los Angeles area, although he won't specify which department for fear of upsetting his employer. L.A. crime is "more sinister, more covert -- not in your face. ... It's all about that façade. Everything is perfect, but when you sweep away that layer of dust, it's anything but."
O'Connor and Nolan's work has inspired chapters in Chicago, Boston and New York. But in L.A., where historical locations frequently are paved over for development, documenting history takes on added importance. "We lose these places," O'Connor says, staring at the cave.
It's somewhat odd to see O'Connor, a former member of House of Pain, the rap group famous for "Jump Around," with a detective in the woods.
"I have a checkered past," he admits. "Growing up I had a healthy distrust or aversion to cops. I was more toward the gangster shit. I learn a lot from [Nolan]. ... He brings his detective to this."
But O'Connor's path feels organic to him. Since House of Pain ran its course (Everlast went on to a solo career, and his DJ joined Limp Bizkit), O'Connor has been searching for something. "I have a God-shaped hole in my heart," O'Connor says. "Delta Bravo fills it."
He adds, "Drinking and using were my solutions back in the day. After House of Pain was done, I didn't know what to do with myself. I'm not really a rapper. I'm a hype man. Being a hype man is like being a backup dancer ... It took me 10 years of downward spiral and being in and out of sobriety to appreciate these kind of things. These are simple things."
After Spahn Ranch, O'Connor and Nolan drive a couple miles into Box Canyon, an area they call "a castaway of society." It's where Manson stayed for a few days before settling at Spahn Ranch.
Box Canyon feels vaguely apocalyptic. A plastic pig with wings is impaled on a pole; tractors are rusting on the grass; a Mack truck trailer has been torn apart and serves as storage. "We feel like we're kids again," O'Connor says. "It's Stand By Me shit."
They stop at the former home of the Fountain of the World, a cult founded by Krishna Venta, a man who told his followers that he was Jesus. In 1958 two former members were reported to have detonated 20 sticks of dynamite as retribution for Venta sleeping with their wives. What's left of the cult is a welcome sign with the words "He who enters upon this enters upon holy ground."
"I'm gathering experiences," O'Connor says as he approaches the home. "I had a Ferrari; I had a fucking V12 Mercedes. You can lose those things. They get old. These are things you can't lose. ... I collect these now."
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