IN THE FALL OF 1969, the Inyo County Sheriff’s department and other law enforcement agencies descended upon a dilapidated house known as Barker Ranch in the Panamint Mountains of Death Valley. They were out to crack the case of a destroyed $40,000 bulldozer, and their suspects were a ragtag group of hippies — strangers who’d recently moved in.
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The Barker Ranch, circa 1940
From the book These Canyons are Full of Ghosts: The Last of the Death Valley Prospectors. By Emmett Harder
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Charles Manson and Carl Ruona
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What they had unknowingly stumbled across instead were the people later accused of being among the most sensational murderers in history, 24 members of a hippie cult known as the “Manson Family.” They discovered Charles Manson himself, cowering inside a cabinet under a sink in the bathroom. “His hair was sticking out of the cabinet,” remembers former Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Bill Gleason, who was there to ID them for the local cops, having arrested several of the trouble-making clan at a previous hangout, Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth.
Manson had preached of an apocalyptic race war he said was predicted in the Beatles song “Helter Skelter.” His followers believed they would eventually control the United States — if they performed grisly murders for Manson. To that end, about two months earlier, they had murdered seven people and were suspected in two other slayings. The dead included pregnant actress Sharon Tate, and wealthy Los Feliz hills grocer Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary.
“[Manson] was thinking that the world was coming to an end, and the only safe place was Death Valley,” Gleason says.
Today, May 20, about four decades later, law enforcement agencies and scientists, shadowed at a distance by a small army of local and international reporters, descended on Barker Ranch. Tools in hand, they began to dig up the dry soil in hopes of getting to the bottom of a persistent rumor that murder victims are buried there.
In a desolate wilderness of windswept vistas and rough, dirt roads, Barker Ranch sits hours from the closest town, accessible only by four-wheel drive. The locals are bemused by the sudden interest, perhaps wondering if “the dig” will be a dud, something like Geraldo Rivera’s 1996 investigation into “the mystery of Al Capone’s vault.”
Kathleen New, executive director of the chamber of commerce in picturesque Lone Pine — the meet-up spot for investigators involved in the dig — scoffed, “We don’t care.” The desk clerk at Panamint Springs Resort Spa suggests that any bones found will be long-dead Indians. “People are saying it is a publicity thing,” she sniffs.
Phones at the tiny Inyo County dispatcher’s office are backed up with calls from People and CNN. But locals would rather see the big-city reporters write about their beloved Devil’s Hole pupfish, an endangered and ancient species. “We don’t understand what’s causing their demise,” says Death Valley National Park historian Terry Baldino. “The males are gorgeous iridescent blue.”
The pupfish will have to wait. Manson took center stage in April after the Associated Press wrote about Mammoth Lakes detective Paul Dostie’s search for alleged mystery graves at Barker Ranch. Dostie’s interest was piqued in 1998, when an Inyo County deputy told him the sheriff had dug up the ranch after a former Manson Family member told an author that bodies were buried there.
That dig, 10 years ago, turned up zilch. But Dostie trained and used his own “cadaver” dog, Buster, to sniff the site in February 2007, and Buster “alerted” on four different patches of soil. That attracted the curiosity of forensic scientists at the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research facility, who in April took soil samples seeking evidence of human bones.
A few weeks ago, Inyo County Sheriff Bill Lutze found “no consistent response from the dogs that searched, and no conclusive findings from the soil samplings.” Lutze concluded that “the only way to determine once and for all whether there are bodies buried at Barker Ranch from the time of the Manson Family is to proceed with limited excavation.”
MANSON’S FINAL HIDEOUT, Barker Ranch was built in 1940 by retired Los Angeles Police Detective Bluch Thomason and his wife, who hoped to mine gold to supplement their retirement. No records have been found to indicate how successful they were, but historian Terry Baldino says the Thomasons lived there until Bluch died. In 1956, the property was sold to James and Arlene Barker, who lived on it for about 10 years before leaving the remote ranch in the mid-’60s.
In the fall of 1968, Mrs. Barker allowed Manson and his followers to move in, one year before they committed the sensational Tate-LaBianca murders. Long before the killings, prospector Emmett Harder remembers meeting the young hippies while mining for gold near Barker Ranch. He tells Weekly he gave Manson tips on prospecting, and even shared his food.
“[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.