The Mystery Man in the Manson Family

Just who was William Rex Cole aka Bill Vance?

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Mystery Man William Rex Cole

Several members of the Manson Family, an anti-establishment commune and cult of the late 1960s, committed murder at the request of their leader, Charles Manson, an ex-convict and sex trafficker. But some of the killers were never prosecuted for their crimes, and seem to have disappeared. This is the story of one of those killers.

Charles Manson was released from prison in March 1967, and spent the rest of that year bouncing around the West Coast — San Francisco, the southwestern desert, Los Angeles. By 1968, he was based in LA with a growing group of young people, as he attempted to launch a music career. Many of the women who followed Manson were trafficked, exploited and manipulated.

After a retreat to Death Valley in late 1968, Manson came back to Los Angeles singularly focused on his recording career. But he had amassed a following of (up to then) at least two dozen members of his so-called Family. Charlie decided to rent a home for most of his followers to live.

He found a house on Gresham Street in the Canoga Park area of Los Angeles. The house was a two-story home painted canary yellow, that the Family nicknamed the ‘Yellow Submarine’.

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The Yellow Submarine house in Canoga Park

Charlie rented the house with help from an old buddy of his, a fellow ex-con. In most publications, that man was referred to as ‘Bill Vance’, but his true name was possibly William Rex Cole. Cole and Manson met somewhere in the system and reconnected in late ’68. Cole was perhaps a decade older than Charlie, super shady and had multiple aliases (Bill Vance being just one of them).

Charlie saw use for Cole. In his ‘autobiography’ he said, “In the past, I hadn’t sought the company of my old convict friends except for a select few who I liked putting on the dog for. Now I became less selective… I even made a few phone calls to some of the money-making thieves I knew. With fifteen or twenty young lovelies in my household, getting a few thieves to lend a helping hand wasn’t a problem at all. The best part was, with all the willing and skilled help I came up with, I didn’t have to be at the scene of the crime.” — Charles Manson quoted in Manson: In His Own Words as told to Nuel Emmons ©1986 Grove Press

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One of Cole’s three (!!!) driver’s licenses: this one made out to the name of “William Joseph Vance” which was actually the name of someone loosely connected to Spahn Ranch

Former Family member Paul Watkins wrote, “One of the new breed was Bill Vance (David Lee Hamic), an ex-con and friend of Charlie’s who had recently been released from prison. Through Bill, we got access to the Gresham Street house. Bill was a hulking six-footer in his 40s, with short brown hair, brown eyes, and a battered face. His nose looked like a disjointed mountain range. He’d done time with Charlie for robbery and assault, among other things… Bill hit it off with Ella right away, and Charlie used this liaison to his own advantage. Within a week after our arrival, Bill had arranged for Sadie, Ella, Stephanie, Katie, and Mary to work as topless dancers at clubs in the Valley. To buy vehicles and outfit them properly, we needed money. The girls went to work willingly.”My Life with Charles Manson by Paul Watkins with Guillermo Soledad ©1979 Bantam Books

It is this author’s contention that Cole was likely also a pimp and sex trafficker, like Manson. We know that several women came into the Family through previous connections with Cole (or Vance) including Patricia Baldwin and Diane Von Ahn.

We know little about Cole’s activities during the spring and early summer of 1969, except that he had a role as an extra in the film “Linda and Abilene”, filmed at Spahn Ranch in June 1969.

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A still of Bill Cole aka Bill Vance from the movie “Linda and Abilene”

After the late July murder of musician Gary Hinman, Cole left Spahn Ranch. He and Ella Jo Bailey fled, but not before asking Patricia ‘Katie’ Krenwinkel to join them. Katie told them no. She was afraid of what Charlie would do to her if she tried to leave him. The Tate/LaBianca murders occurred on August 9/10th. Katie participated in both of those sets of murders.

Six days later, Spahn Ranch was raided on suspicion of auto theft charges as well as other crimes. Two days later, the Family were released due to an administrative error with the warrant.

Bill Cole returned to Spahn Ranch, sometime between the raid and August 25th. Cole and Vern Plumlee (an AWOL Vientman vet) drove to Portland, Oregon that week, bringing a woman named Diane Von Ahn back with them. Vance, Plumlee, Von Ahn and a man known as Ed Bailey (perhaps ‘Larry Bailey’, true name Lawrence Giddings) rented a house in Burbank.

Cole, Plumlee and new Family member John Philip Haught aka Zero were driving around San Fernando Valley that August, holding up gas stations. They used the pickup truck of Windy Bucklee (the wife of a ranch hand at Spahn’s, not her true name) without her permission. Bucklee was pulled over by police after an APB was issued on the vehicle and thankfully, proved she was at work during commission of the crimes. But when she realized what happened, she tore into Bill. Cole said something to Manson, who showed up at Bucklee’s house and punched her so hard that he broke her jaw. She had a gun in her hand at the time and tried to shoot him, but it failed to go off.

Bucklee was in the hospital for several days and visited there by her cousin, Shorty Shea. With her jaw wired shut and a face purple with bruises, she was unable to explain what happened, but her roommate told Shorty what Charlie did. Bucklee believes this contributed to her cousin’s brutal murder just a few days later. And to this day, Bucklee wishes to God she could have fired that gun and killed Manson before he destroyed so many lives.

A few days later, members of the Manson Family murdered Bucklee’s cousin, Donald Jerome ‘Shorty’ Shea.

Shorty was approached by Charles ‘Tex’ Watson, Steve ‘Clem’ Grogan and Bruce Davis to join them for a short ride. Shorty got in the driver’s seat, and the four pulled away from Spahn Ranch just up the road. There, Watson told Shea to stop, that he needed to find something in the brush. While Shea was parking the car, Watson pulled out a knife.

Grogan then hit the ranch hand in the head with a wrench, while Watson stabbed him. At that time, a second vehicle pulled up. Charles Manson, Bill Cole and Larry Giddings stepped out of the car.

We don’t know exactly who killed Shorty. The men who were later convicted of Shea’s murder (Davis and Grogan) claim that they don’t remember Charlie stabbing him. But Davis remembered Cole taking part in the slaughter:

“I look around and there’s Bill Vance {William Rex Cole}, Tex Watson, Steve Grogan, with bloody knives and they’d been through this.” — Bruce Davis, from his 2007 parole hearing

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A police description of Cole shows that he was 6'2", 175 pounds and had at least two tattoos. The date of his birth is likely not accurate as he was supposed to be older than Manson, born in 1934.

Charles ‘Tex’ Watson was also not charged with the murder of Shorty Shea, although he was found guilty of the Tate/LaBianca murders and is serving life in prison.

Charlie himself said, “The DA, caught up in his theory of ‘Helter Skelter’ and obsessed with making the world believe I was a satanic pied piper, overlooked many participants, accessories, and conspirators. Someplace out there in that society he protects so well, he has left several killers to prowl the streets.” — Charles Manson quoted in Manson: In His Own Words as told to Nuel Emmons ©1986 Grove Press

After the murder of Shea, the Family again fled to Death Valley. While the Tate/LaBianca and Hinman murders were not openly discussed, Shea’s death was. It was a warning against snitches: Charlie believed Shorty was the one running his mouth to police and leading to the August 16th auto theft raid.

But could Bill Cole/Vance have been that police informant?!

We know that somebody at Spahn Ranch was definitely talking to police. Warrant information from the August 16th raid includes the following language:

Your affiant desires to keep the identity of the said informant secret and confidential because your affiant believes that the disclosure of the said informant’s identity would endanger the informant’s safety and well-being, to wit: Informants have been killed or seriously injured in the past when they have provided police officers with information pertaining to unlawful activity.

Your affiant desires to keep the identity of the said informant secret and confidential because your affiant believes that the disclosure of the said informant’s identity would destroy and tend to impair the said informant’s future usefulness and effectiveness to law enforcement officers engaged in investigating and uncovering illegal criminal activity.

Your affiant states that the said confidential reliable informant did speak with personal knowledge when imparting the informant hereinafter set forth, unless and except where specifically stated to be otherwise.

Bill Cole had a record. This author could find no information on this man using any of his alleged names (Bill Vance, William Rex Cole, Joseph Randall Vance, Duane Shwarm, David Lee Hamic, Billy Vansicki, Bill Van Sickle, etc) so I can’t find his felony records either. Someone in the Family later said that Cole had served at Brushy Mountain State Prison in Tennessee and there, had won a lightweight boxing competition.

Could Cole/Vance have been let out of prison to surveille the Manson Family and report back to law enforcement? Actually, considering the late summer 1969 robberies he was involved with, it seems unlikely that he would jeopardize any deal with police that gave him freedom. It’s doubtful that he was the informant.

In Death Valley, the heat was on (literally and figuratively). Charlie was desperate to keep control on his Family and supplies were running low. Cappy (true name Catherine Gillies) offered to kill her own grandmother so she could inherit another Death Valley property, but was thwarted by a flat tire on her vehicle. Meanwhile, the Family hastened their demise by committing arson on a large piece of earth-moving equipment. Death Valley National Park police began arranging for another raid.

Charlie and Bill Cole left for Los Angeles, to find more food and supplies. While they were gone, the place where they were staying (Barker Ranch) in Death Valley was raided. Someone found Charlie back in LA and told him about the arrests. He came back to Death Valley, intending to pay bail, and was arrested along with a few other stragglers including Cole.

By November, most of the killers were in jails (on charges unrelated to the Tate/LaBianca murders) but investigators would soon learn who was responsible for the most shocking crime spree in Los Angeles history.

Early that month, several Family members were staying at a house in Venice Beach. They included Cappy, Bruce, Susan ‘Country Sue’ Bartell, Patricia ‘Little Patty’ Baldwin, Bill Cole and Zero (John Haught). Allegedly, Zero committed suicide playing Russian Roulette that November day, but many believe that someone killed him. The gun was wiped clean, but traces of Davis’ prints were later found on it.

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Zero’s death certificate. Ruled a suicide, it may have been murder.

After Manson’s murder trial, Bill Cole was living in western Missouri with Baldwin, Family member Claudia Leigh Smith and a young man from Simi Valley, California. They were running an organic farm and Cole was registered as a minister for an organization called ‘Youth-for-Life’ which promoted a philosophy of ‘total acceptance of all churches and beliefs with no prejudice at all’. A reporter for the local paper came out to interview them, talking with Smith and Weaver. After the first of four articles appeared about the farm, local law officials received a phone call from Hinman investigators Whitely and Guenther.

It was alleged that the Family recorded audio tapes where they reenacted Hinman’s murder and that Cole had left California with those recordings. Whiteley and Guenther were looking for those recordings, which did not ever turn up.

In August, Patricia Baldwin suffered an emotional breakdown at the farm. Investigators had been snooping around and it is claimed that Little Patty burned down a building.

Bill Cole contacted Cottage’s parents, who came to the farm and took their daughter to a mental health facility. Soon, the other occupants of the farm (including Cole) also fled the scene.

Other remnants left behind when Cole, Smith and the others departed included a hospital bracelet belonging to a ‘Linda Baldwin’ who gave birth a few months before to a child named Dawn. ‘Linda’ was an alias used by Claudia Smith. It is unclear if baby Dawn was fathered by Cole or someone else.

After Cole and Claudia Smith left Nubian Farms, they returned to California and were married in Ventura County. From there, they may have moved back to Missouri since I found evidence of Smith (under her more recent married name) living in that state.

Cole didn’t give interviews or testimony during the trials. He wasn’t supporting his sisters and brothers, crawling around like a nincompoop on the pavement outside the L.A. County Courthouse. He wasn’t at Spahn Ranch, reminiscing over the Family’s glory days in the film Manson. He didn’t show up on Geraldo’s special in the ’80s or give his reminiscences during the round of tabloid interviews that coincided with the 40th anniversary or Manson’s recent demise. Instead, he disappeared and kept off the radar, probably for good reason.

Who exactly was Bill Cole, or Bill Vance, or David Lee Hamic, or whatever his true name was? That remains a mystery — one that may be very difficult at this time to solve.

We believe that his date of birth was April 17, year unknown and that he was born in Kingston, Missouri. He was supposed to be a couple years older than Manson, perhaps born between 1929–1933. But genealogical searches have unveiled no evidence and we are left with a ghost — a ghost who may have committed murder on behalf of the Manson Family and walked away without paying the price.

Learn more about the Manson Family and their crimes by visiting MansonFamily.net

Written by

Author of the “More to the Story” true crime nonfiction series. https://www.mansonfamily.net/

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