Arrested for Arson, Charged with Murder

An act of arson helped solve the Manson Family murders.

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The following was excerpted from The Manson Family: More to the Story —

On September 18th, Manson was riding his dune buggy near the Hunter Mountain campsite and discovered two very large holes dug in the dirt path he was using, obviously with some kind of earth-moving equipment. He was furious, thinking that someone was trying to prevent him from leaving Barker Ranch or damage his dune buggies. He was driving into Death Valley National Monument on unsanctioned land and indeed, the park service was trying to prevent whoever was desecrating the property.

Charlie soon found the culprit: an earthmover called a Michigan Freeloader, owned by the Park Service. The Family hastened their own demise the following day by committing arson, a spectacularly stupid act. It led to their arrests within weeks.

…“They stripped it of useful parts, poured gasoline over it, and set it on fire, an act of willful vandalism that had predictable consequences. Park rangers… found tire tracks leading to the smoldering metal hulk; they determined that the car driven by the firebugs was a Toyota four-wheel drive. When the rangers asked locals if they’d recently seen such a car, they heard from several that a bunch of hippies living in the area drove a red Toyota four-wheeler… The rangers began searching for the hippies.

Two days later, park ranger Dick Powell was on patrol when he saw a red Toyota four-wheel-drive in the distance; Tex and several women were out on a ride. Tex managed to scurry off into the brush, but Powell questioned the girls before letting them go. He recorded the Toyota’s license plate number. Back at the ranger station, Powell discovered that the license wasn’t registered to the Toyota. Park Service officials notified the California Highway Patrol, and plans were discussed to send a joint team into the desert to find the car and those who were using it.”[1]

…On the 22nd, some of the women drove the Toyota into Hall Canyon near Ballarat. They were exploring the area’s mines and waterfalls but encountered a park ranger and a CHP officer, who wrote down their license plate number. The men weren’t able to look it up that day, as they didn’t have a working radio. But shortly thereafter, they discovered that the license was registered to a ’42 Dodge belonging to Gayle Beausoleil {Massman} — Bobby’s ex-girlfriend.

…On the 24th, Park ranger Powell and an Inyo County sheriff’s officer named Dennis Cox began looking for the hippies they encountered in Hall Canyon two days before. Some miners in the area told them the girls had split. But park rangers and other officers started asking questions around Ballarat. Everyone there had either heard of or seen the crazy barefoot hippies and were happy to tell the officers to check out Barker Ranch.

Five days later, the arson investigation led police to the Family.

“Park ranger Powell and California highway patrolman James Pursell drove out to Barker Ranch on September 29. Though they didn’t know whether they’d find the red Toyota four-wheel-drive there, they knew that hippies were living on the property. But Charlie had almost everyone in the Family out searching for the bottomless pit, and the officers found only two young women. They gave vague answers to questions, and there was no sign of the vehicle. Frustrated, Powell and Pursell headed back out into the desert. Not far behind Barker Ranch they passed a truck driven by Paul Crockett, with Brooks Poston in the passenger seat. The officers flagged down Crockett and asked him and Poston if they knew anything about some hippies who drove a red Toyota. It was the opportunity Crockett had been waiting for. He and Poston poured out descriptions of a crazy leader named Charlie and his drugged-out followers, how these weirdos had sex orgies and weapons and Charlie had them all believing that he was the Second Coming of Christ. The Family… talked about killing people and evidentially they had. The officers needed to catch them because they were dangerous… Powell and Pursell decided to check out the immediate area around Barker Ranch anyway. In a deep draw behind the property they found seven young women, most of them naked… Pursell and Powell attempted to question the women but, as with the two girls they’d interrogated on the ranch, they received only vague, nonsensical responses. With no valid reason to arrest the seven women, the officers reluctantly let them go. But they continued their sweep of the area and came upon two vehicles concealed beneath tarps. One was a dune buggy, and the other was a red Toyota four-wheel-drive. The vehicles both had gun scabbards welded to their frames, and there was a rifle in each scabbard. The lawmen wrote down the vehicle identification numbers and rushed back to ranger headquarters to check their registrations. Before they left, they removed several engine parts from the Toyota to disable it.”[2]

The officers confirmed that both vehicles were stolen. Members of the National Park Service, the California Highway Patrol and the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office coordinated efforts to raid Barker Ranch.

…On September 30th, police sent up spotter planes to scope out Barker Ranch and the surrounding area. The Family were deep in hiding however and were unaware they were being surveilled. Those final days of September were very tense, very unhappy for Charlie’s followers. By that point, most knew about the murders that summer. But they were trapped, and they knew it.

They were awake by night, sleeping by day, heavily armed and guarded. Charlie, back from L.A., was furious about Watson’s disappearance. He spent countless hours preaching about Helter Skelter, warning everyone that the shit was coming down. During one of his late-night tirades, Kitty fell asleep. She was five months pregnant and miserable. Manson punched her several times in the face as punishment.

On October 3rd, Brooks and Paul Crockett went to Independence to talk with County deputy sheriff Don Ward. They told him everything about Manson and the Family, including Charlie’s theory of Helter Skelter.

…In a desperate attempt to secure food and supplies, Charlie and Bill Cole left Barker Ranch on October 8th for Los Angeles. Manson sent Bruce and a couple others to Vegas to get supplies, but he had to make sure they had enough.

At 4:00am on Friday, October 10th… law enforcement converged around Barker Ranch. They included the California Highway Patrol, the Inyo County Sheriff’s office and the National Park Service. Park Ranger Dick Powell’s wife also was there, to help with the children.

…Mrs. Powell took the infants to a waiting vehicle, where they were rushed to a local clinic for examination. The women at Myers Ranch showed their scorn by peeing on the ground in front of the arresting officers and talking gibberish (code) to one another. The ten women, along with Clem (true name Steve Grogan), Hugh (Hugh Rockie Todd, 15-years old) and Soupspoon (Robert Ivan Lane, a Vietnam veteran), were cuffed and transported to the jail in nearby Independence.

…Someone made a call and found Manson. As Charlie later related, “One of the kids phoned from jail and caught me at Spahn’s. When he first mentioned he was phoning from jail, I had that sinking sensation — but after being told that the charges were auto theft, possession of firearms and other petty charges, I wasn’t alarmed, just irritated at the police for continually fucking with us.”[3]

On October 12th, police were still at Barker Ranch looking for evidence.

“I stuck around L.A. for another day gathering supplies and looking for money,” Charlie said, “then headed back to the Barker place wondering what it was going to take to get the kids out of jail. From the phone conversation, we weren’t suspected of anything other than the charges mentioned. The murders had happened over two months ago, and even with Bobby in jail for Hinman’s death, the cops hadn’t questioned any of us… I was even thinking that perhaps in my paranoia I had been a little too heavy on everyone in the last few weeks. Maybe I had gone overboard on stressing the need to be ready to defend ourselves.”[4]

He continued, “I got back to the ranch in the late afternoon. Several kids who had escaped the bust were still in the area. When they saw me, they all came out of hiding and joined me in the house. By the time the sun had gone down, about eight or ten of us had been in the house for a couple of hours, and we had lit a candle for light. They were busy telling me what had happened, and I was deep in thought… All of a sudden, up jumped the devil. ‘Freeze! Hands up! All right, now one at a time, back out the door,’ shouted the officer who had thrown the door open. I dropped to the floor as soon as I heard the first word and bellied it into the bathroom… The only refuge possible was a small cabinet beneath the wash basin. Somehow, I managed to squeeze inside that cabinet and get the door shut. I was so cramped it was almost a relief when about ten minutes later the door was opened and a voice said, ‘All right you, out of there.’ It seems that when I had closed the door some strands of my hair were visible. Had it not been for that hair sticking out, the officer later stated that he would not have looked in that cabinet because it seemed too small to hide in.”[5]

Charles Milles Manson, 34-years of age, was arrested on charges of arson, of possessing stolen vehicles and weapons. His emergence from that little cupboard was his last breath of free air forever.

…All of the men arrested on the 12th (including Manson…) had been in Los Angeles or Vegas on the days prior. Squeaky (Lynette Fromme) and Sue Bartell were the last to arrive at Barker Ranch from Spahn, just in time to get thrown in the clink.

…At the jail, the Family behaved very strangely. Ed Sanders wrote, “the brave girls would raise their dresses in the exercise yard. Manson would utter coyote yips and his disciples would yip in return. Once… they asked for peanut butter and honey for a purification rite, whatever that meant.”[6]

  • The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©2019 Swann Publications (including the following quotes: [1,2] Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn ©2013 Simon & Schuster; [3,4,5] Charles Manson quoted in Manson: In His Own Words as told to Nuel Emmons ©1986 Grove Press; [6] The Family by Ed Sanders ©2002 Thunder’s Mouth Press
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Photographs of the raid in Death Valley

Kitty (Lutesinger, the pregnant girlfriend of Bobby Beausoleil, who was in jail for the Hinman killing) was fed up with Charlie’s abuse. She was the only member of the Family not charged in those October 1969 raids, and the investigators for Hinman wanted to question her. She soon named Susan Atkins as a co-conspirator in the Hinman killing, inadvertently linking Atkins to the Tate/LaBianca murders.

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Susan Atkins (center) with two other members of the Manson Family ride through Death Valley in a dune buggy

But if the Family hadn’t been jailed on those arson charges, it may have been several more months before police finally solved the gruesome ‘Helter Skelter’ murders of 1969.

Learn more about the Manson Family and their crimes by visiting

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Author of the “More to the Story” true crime nonfiction series.

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