They killed The Most Interesting Man in the World

The Manson Family killed a stuntman because they thought he was a snitch

There were a lot of colorful characters living at Spahn Ranch in the summer of 1969. Ranch hand Larry, who was incontinent. Randy Starr, a rodeo trick cowboy with a lame arm. Blind George Spahn, the 79-year old owner of the property. And of course, the members of the Manson Family: dangerous ex-con Charlie, who believed that black people and white people were about to battle each other a global war while he hid under Death Valley in a crystal cavern; Tex Watson a former frat boy from Texas, now sniffing speed from a baby food jar and robbing other drug dealers; Sexy Sadie Mae Glutz (true name Susan Atkins) who performed fellatio on her 9-month old son; and former homecoming princess Leslie Van Houten who believed that she was a 10-inch high fairy.

But quite possibly the most interesting person there that summer was none other than Donald Jerome Shea.

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Donald Jerome Shea

Shea was a stuntman, bar bouncer, elephant trainer, vibrator salesman, and wanna-be actor. At 6’4” he had an unlikely nickname: Shorty. Shorty was pipe-dreamer who worked at Spahn as a ranch hand, between other pursuits.

Donald Jerome Shea was born September 18, 1933 in Medford, Massachusetts. His father John was born to Irish immigrants. John and his wife Elizabeth had five sons — Donald was right in the middle.

Shorty joined the Air Force in December 1954. He served two years and then moved to Los Angeles after his service.

In 1959, Shorty married a young woman named Phyllis Gaston. But the following May, a 15-year old girl named Judith Ellen Lawson delivered a baby boy in Texas named Roy William Shea. Shorty didn’t stick around to deal with the fallback and sadly, just three months later, Roy died of a brain hemorrhage. Some think he was killed by Judith in what we call today shaken-baby-syndrome.

Shorty then met Sandra Suzanne Adams. Sandra was 15-years old when she became pregnant by Shorty, twelve years her senior. Their baby girl Elizabeth was born on February 21st, 1961, and the couple were married the same day. Talk about a shotgun wedding! They had two more daughters, Karen and Melody, over the next few years before splitting up.

Shorty seemed to have no sense of responsibility when it came to his children. During the 1960s, he had quite a chaotic professional life, including the odd jobs listed at the top. His acting and stunt credits include a 1969 film called “The Fabulous Bastard from Chicago” which currently boasts a stunning 4.2 star rating at IMDb.

He was living hand-to-mouth, taking odd jobs, borrowing money from friends and employers (although always paying them back, one later testified). His cousin Lee was living with her husband Randy Starr (the stunt rider with the lame arm) at Spahn Ranch. She offered to help Shorty get work there.

Spahn Ranch was a 500-acre property in Chatsworth. It used to be a popular backlot for television and film studios, during the heyday of the Westerns but by the late ’60s, owner George Spahn was blind and frail and in debt to the IRS. He couldn’t even afford to pay his hired help, although he provided some with a free place to live, like Randy and Lee.

Shorty got a job as a ranch hand at Spahn’s, plus a free place to bunk although it was meager. He also seems to have gotten some of his film work while staying at Spahn Ranch, although the quality of films being shot there had declined significantly.

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Shorty Shea

Shorty would come and go from Spahn Ranch, in between his more ambitious attempts at fame. It was a place to land, when you had nowhere else to go.

He came back to the ranch in the summer of 1969 and discovered a group of what appeared to be hippies living there, taking advantage of old George, smoking pot and dropping acid and having orgies. Their ‘guru’ was a 34-year old ex convict named Charles Manson and Shorty just knew that Charlie was bad news.

To offset his financial woes, George Spahn decided to sell part of his property to Frank Retz, a neighbor. He then made arrangements to sell even more of the acreage to Retz on one condition: his neighbor needed to get those dirty thieving hippies off his land.

Several times in June, July and early August, Retz spoke to Spahn about the Family in the presence of Lynette Fromme, aka Squeaky. Squeaky was always by George’s side. She made him breakfast every morning. She reported his conversations to Charlie. She even had sex with the 79-year old. George is the one who gave Lyn her nickname — after he groped her thigh one time and she squeaked a giggle in response.

Retz wanted to hire a night watchman for Spahn Ranch and someone recommended Shorty for the job. Shea spoke to Retz and concurred that Charlie and his group needed to leave. A few days later, he showed up at Spahn’s with his new bride. Shorty had married Magdalene Stokes, a black barmaid and stripper, in Vegas on July 1st. This did not sit well with racist Manson, not to mention that he already had a beef with the stuntman:

“Charlie didn’t like him because he was always drinking and he thought he was a slob. He was always talking about messing with the girls… It was kind of subtle at first, the way he voiced his dislike and disapproval of the man.” — Manson Family Killer Steve Grogan 1981, from his Parole Hearing

Shorty was excited to show off his bride. Manson was shocked that Shea had the audacity to bring a black person to Spahn Ranch, and other Family members were just as unfriendly.

Donald Shea and Magdalene Stokes on their wedding day

On July 28th, members of the Family committed their first murder (chemist and musician Gary Hinman). Ten days later, the victims at Cielo Drive (including Sharon Tate) were killed, and the next night, another couple (the LaBiancas) were murdered.

On August 16th, Spahn Ranch was raided by multiple law enforcement agencies on charges of auto theft. The Family were all arrested, but then released two days later on a technicality. A week later, police showed up at Spahn Ranch and arrested Charlie for smoking what appeared to be a marijuana joint (it was actually just a hand-rolled cigarette). Charlie was held for a couple days, and then again released.

He was sure that Shorty Shea was a snitch, telling tales to the cops in order to get the Family off Spahn Ranch.

A man named either Bill Cole or Bill Vance had been associating with the Family since early that year. Manson claimed that the two met while both were serving time, a few years back. Cole/Vance is a bit of a mystery. He left Spahn Ranch with Family member Ella Jo Bailey after Hinman’s death, but returned a few weeks later.

During mid-August, Cole and two other male Family members were driving around San Fernando Valley, holding up gas stations. They used Lee Starr’s pickup truck, without her permission. She 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 Lee’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.

Lee 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. Lee believes this contributed to her cousin’s brutal murder just a few days later. And to this day, she wishes to God she could have fired that gun and killed Manson before he destroyed so many lives.

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Shorty Shea

The following is an excerpt from The Manson Family: More to the Story

Upon his return to Spahn Ranch following the ‘joint’ arrest, Manson was livid and let everyone know who he thought was to blame — Shorty Shea. His dislike of the ranch hand was already well known. “He would bring it up in conversation around dinner…” Steve Grogan recounted at his 1981 parole hearing. “Over a period it grew worse until we were raided by the police, where everything we had was taken… all our tools and cars and all the possessions that we had accumulated. And plus the children were taken, too. Everybody was arrested on the ranch. In fact the only person who was left was George Spahn and he was blind. We spent three days in jail and we were released. We didn’t get back none of our property. The pink slips were confiscated, along with our property, to four or five dune buggies that we couldn’t get back from them. The children were put into foster homes. What it really did was make everybody really upset at this guy, because I was led to believe that he was doing it to get us evicted off the ranch, to get us thrown off the ranch. That was the only place we had to stay at the time.”[1]

…(Shorty’s) marriage to Magdalene was short lived — only a few weeks. Stokes-Shea later testified that she last saw her husband on August 16th (the day of the raid) when they separated. They had quarreled over his inability to find work. That evening, he called her from the ranch and said he was going to stay there for a while… The next day, Magdalene noted that Shorty’s suitcases and a foot locker had been removed from the hotel where they had been staying together.

Between August 27th and September 1st when she had not heard from her estranged husband, Mrs. Shea called… Spahn Ranch, trying to find Shorty. A woman answered the ranch phone each time. Once, the woman told Magdalene that Shorty went to San Francisco.

…The week before the raid, Frank Retz saw Charlie throw a knife at Shea, with the knife tip hitting a door right in front of where Shorty had been walking. Retz was scared… It was the last time Frank saw Shorty.

…On August 26th, the day after Manson returned to Spahn Ranch, Shorty flagged Ruby Pearl down as she was driving up in her car. It was morning. He asked Ruby if he could stay at her house that night. She noted that he seemed anxious. She told him that there was no place in her house to stay, but he could sleep in a shed near her house. He declined that offer. Pearl testified that, as she continued driving, she saw another car suddenly appear and several members of the Family stepped out of the vehicle. They included Manson, Tex (given name Charles) Watson, Steve Grogan and Bruce Davis. She watched as they approached Shorty, but she kept driving.

MANSON: I was pissed; someone at the ranch had to be snitching. The cops hardly knew about the outlaw shacks, much less when I was going to be in one of them. And when Stephanie and I had gone in there, we weren’t smoking, and I damn sure didn’t have anything on me. When the police lab ran a check on the roach, it wasn’t even grass, so whoever had tried to set me up had blown it. We were cut loose… I left the police station feeling I was above ever getting nailed for anything and having it stick. I was chesty about that, but the snitch had to be found and got rid of. After the big raid I knew that whoever was going to the police knew nothing about the bad shit. And at no time did I think any of the kids in our circle would call the cops. It had to be one of the ranch hands. Juan Flynn was into all of our games. John Swartz enjoyed all the fringe benefits that came his way. My attention then focused on Shorty Shea. Shea was a frustrated movie actor waiting for his chance to become the next Hopalong Cassidy. He’d liked us well enough when we first moved in at Spahn’s, but in recent months he’d had a lot of differences with us. Since old George was thinking of selling the ranch, Shorty was kissing a lot of ass with the people who were thinking of buying. He and I already had a confrontation about how much longer we would be there. He told me, “It’s all over for you, Charlie, when the new owners take over. They’ve already told me they don’t want you and that gang to be here.” I answered by saying, “Shorty, you know what? You got no call to be playing policeman with us. And if you keep on trying to be the fuzz, you’ll wish you had minded your own business instead of sticking your head someplace where it doesn’t belong.” Walking away from me, he said, “We’ll see about that, Charlie. You might tell some of those kids what to do, but not me. I know how to handle you.” Leaving the Malibu station for the second time, I had no doubt about Shorty being the snitch. I shared my conclusion with several of the kids. They didn’t need convincing, for while I was locked up, Shorty had been bad-mouthing me, telling the kids, “Charlie’s bad news. If you stick with him, you’re going to end up in jail… Get away from him.”[2]

STEVE GROGAN: Well, that morning I was awakened by Charles Manson and still, you know, half asleep, told me to get to the car and handed me like a pipe wrench. Told me to hit Shorty in the back of the head as soon as Tex gave me the go ahead or gave me the signal. At that point Tex and I entered the back seat behind… Shea, and Tex was on his right hand side. We proceeded down Santa Susana Pass toward San Fernando Valley. And about a quarter mile down from the ranch there was like a turnoff where cars, you know like rest area. And Tex mentioned that he had some parts over there that he had to get, pick up before he went to the store. He {Shea} was taking us down to an auto mechanic place to change some auto parts in. So actually we were like hitching a ride with him… I was sitting behind the driver. Then we pulled off the road. Tex got out. The car was still in gear. I think he {Shea} just had his foot on the break, and they got out and they looked around the bushes like he was looking for some parts.”[3]

BRUCE DAVIS: Mr. Shea was driving. Watson tells him ‘pull over’. He hesitates.[4]

GROGAN: I was supposed to hit this guy in the back of the head… Tex was urging me, you know, come on hit this guy. I kept hesitating. He {Watson} pulled out a knife that he had. I guess that’s what finally, you know, put me over the edge.[5]

DAVIS: Watson stabs him. He pulls the car over. Grogan hits him in the head. I stayed in the car. I was petrified… I stayed in the car. Manson pulled up in the car behind me..[6]

GROGAN: I just hit the guy… the blow stunned him but it didn’t knock him out. And he jumped to the passenger side of the seat. That was, the car door was already open and exited through there. The blow knocked him forward so he hit the steering wheel and surprised him and jumped out the side and I had to reach over the seat and get in the driver’s seat to stop the car, because the way it was parked there was an embankment, you know, like cul de sac ditch. And the car ran — drove into the ditch. So, meantime I’m jumping over the seat trying to put the brakes on, put the car in gear, stop the motor, he had already been stabbed. I imagine Tex did. I didn’t actually see him stab him. My head was turned, you know… he was laying on the ground and semi-unconscious state. He was already going or something. And at that point Manson arrived on the scene with another person.[7]

DAVIS: I’m standing there and he’d been stabbed several times and Manson handed me a machete, said cut his head off. I couldn’t do that. And so he handed me a knife and he said well, you better do something. I’ll tell you what I did: I took the bayonet. It was about this big. It come off a Mauser rifle. Mr. Shea was at my left. He was bent over… I reached out and I cut him right across the shoulder. I cut him with this knife. I cut Mr. Shea with an upward stroke, cut him on his right side, shoulder, somewhere between his armpit and his clavicle right here, and I looked around as if I hope you’re happy, threw down the knife and left. And that was a shock. Boy this knife was sharp. It laid him open. I don’t know if he was dead or not. [8]

GROGAN: {Manson} might have slashed him. I don’t recall if he stabbed him… Couple minutes after that he was dead and I was told to take him, drag him into some bushes that were further from the highway, cover him up ’til night, come back at night and bury him. And the others left so I came back at night and buried him [9]

DAVIS: They buried Shorty’s body. And, of course, we held the position we don’t even know he’s dead. [10]

GROGAN: He {Manson} told me to say that we had mutilated the body… this statement would bring more fear to the people rather than just stab the guy the way we did.[11]

MANSON: 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.[12]

  • The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©2019 Swann Publications (including the following quotes: [1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11] Steve Grogan, from his 1981 parole hearing; [2, 12] Charles Manson quoted in Manson: In His Own Words as told to Nuel Emmons ©1986 Grove Press; [3] Steve Grogan, from his 1981 Parole Hearing; [4,6,10] Bruce Davis, from his 2010 parole hearing; [8] Bruce Davis, from his 2014 parole hearing

On September 1st, Magdalene Shea reported her husband missing to the police. Several officers went to Spahn Ranch to investigate, and spoke to Spahn’s forewoman Ruby Pearl. She later confirmed to prosecutors that she suspected the Manson Family had killed him.

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The day after Grogan buried Shea’s body, it was dug up and reburied in another location not far from Spahn Ranch. The women drove Shorty’s car to Canoga Park, abandoning it there. When police found the vehicle several months later, they discovered Bruce Grogan’s palm print on it.

Charles Manson, Steve Grogan and Bruce Davis were convicted in 1971 of first degree murder for the death of Shea. Tex Watson was never charged for that murder, nor were Bill Cole and Lawrence Giddings, who are both also suspected of taking part of Shorty’s death.

In 1975, while serving at Vacaville State Prison, Steve Grogan married and fathered two sons. Later, he served at the Deuel Vocational Institute in Tracy, California. In 1981, after he was shivved by a fellow inmate, Grogan agreed to inform authorities of the burial site of Shorty’s body in hopes of gaining an early release. Shea’s remains were located in 1987.

Grogan was freed from prison the following year — the only member of the Manson Family convicted of murder to go free, so far.

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Donald ‘Shorty’ Shea’s remains were laid to rest in a city grave, the modern equivalent of a pauper’s grave. He is buried at Angeles Abbey Memorial Park in Compton, Los Angeles

Donald Jerome ‘Shorty’ Shea was the inspiration for Brad Pitt’s character, Cliff Booth, in the film Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood. He also just might have been The Most Interesting Man in the World.

You can learn more by visiting

You can also read more about Steve Grogan here:

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

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