An exploration into the theory that the Zodiac was Manson Family member Bruce Davis
Bruce McGregor Davis was one of eight members of the Manson Family cult sentenced for murder in the early 1970s. Their killing spree ran just four weeks in the summer swelter of 1969, but the legacy and mythology continue these five+ decades later leading to ongoing curiosity about the crimes and perpetrators.
In recent years, one particularly curious thread popping up on on websites like Reddit explore the idea that Manson Family member Bruce Davis may have been the Zodiac Killer, another late ’60s spree murderer who has never been identified by law enforcement, or prosecuted.
Before I examine the possibilities of Davis as the Zodiac, let’s take a short look at his bio:
Born October 5, 1942 in Monroe, Louisiana, Bruce attended college in Tennessee before relocating to California in 1962. He met Charlie with several of the early Manson Family women in the fall of 1967, while hitchhiking. Manson drove by in an old school bus, painted black, and picked Davis up. Bruce was short and stout, with dark hair and a wide jaw. He knew an awful lot about Scientology which sparked a conversation with Charlie on the drive.
Davis had essentially dropped out of society following an incident the year before, and was just wandering around, trying to find himself. The incident in question was an arrest for marijuana possession. He spent ten days in lockup, only to have the charges dismissed. Bruce claimed that he’d been innocent and the experience in jail made him incredibly angry.
“I made a decision that I would never expend the energy to support a system that put me in jail like that.” — Bruce Davis, from his 2014 parole hearing
Predisposed to believe the system was rigged against honest, hard-working men, it’s easy to see why Davis found a kindred soul in Manson. Bruce was with them for a few days on the road. When they let him out of the bus, Charlie and the women told Davis to look them up again later.
In the late winter or early spring of 1968, Davis located the Manson group near Los Angeles. Charlie was trying to make connections in the music and recording industry. Bruce was one of two young men drawn to Manson during this season. He and the other man, Bobby Beausoleil, have acknowledged that they were molested as teens by older men. These traumas made them susceptible to the manipulations of a more experienced, more forceful man like Manson.
And both would later be manipulated by Manson into murder.
Parallels between the Manson Family and the People’s Temple
Charles Manson and Jim Jones had a lot in common
When you scratch past the surface of these younger men in Charlie’s orbit, you find people who were desperate to please this older ‘big brother’ figure. You also see, in Manson, a ‘daddy’ who is willing to indulge the younger men around him. Charlie’s acquiescences to the men included permitting them a freedom to come and go that he never allowed any of the women. Make no mistake, Charlie needed those men as much as he did his female followers. But he knew that key to keeping them was letting them believe they were free.
By the summer of 1968, the Family were living at a large, rundown ranch in Chatsworth. Bruce was not with them, and had returned to Tennessee to visit family. They had ingratiated themselves with property owner George Spahn (including the women and girls being encouraged by Manson to sleep with Spahn) but Charlie realized that they had pushed George too far after the birth of Susan Atkins’ baby (born in early October). So on Halloween, they departed Chatsworth for Death Valley.
That November, Bruce Davis flew from Tennessee to England to study at Church of Scientology headquarters. He remained there until April 25, 1969, when he was booted from the Scientology organization for using drugs. He flew back to Los Angeles and joined the Family briefly (again at Spahn Ranch) before departing for Louisiana days later to collect a small family inheritance.
He was back at Spahn Ranch (the Family returned there in the spring of ’69) before Mother’s Day. Charlie assigned Davis the job of handling stolen credit cards and fake ID’s.
On July 21st, Bruce was one of several people questioned by police about the suspicious death of a 16-year old teen who was known to associate with the Family. Bruce gave police the name “Jack Paul MacMillan”.
Five days later, Bruce drove Bobby Beausoleil, Susan Atkins, and two others to the home of chemist Gary Hinman, a musician who had befriended the Family a year before. Bobby was sent by Charlie to demand money from Hinman. Davis and Danny DeCarlo, a biker who hung out at the ranch, dropped the other three off at Hinman’s home. Bobby was aware that DeCarlo gave Beausoleil a handgun and warned him to use it to intimidate Hinman. Then Bruce and Danny drove away.
A couple hours later, someone called Spahn Ranch to tell Charlie that negotiations weren’t going well. Angered, Charlie had Bruce drive him to Gary’s home.
When Manson and Davis arrived, each carrying a weapon, Bobby had Gary in the living room at gunpoint. Manson’s weapon was a cutlass sword, on loan from the Straight Satans outlaw motorcycle gang (DeCarlo’s group) and within seconds, he demanded money from Hinman. To scare Gary and show Bobby how to take care of the situation, Charlie drew the sword and brought it down on Gary’s face, slicing through his upper left ear, severing it partially from his temple. Blood gushed out and Hinman fell to the floor.
Having drawn blood and brought Gary to his knees, Charlie felt he’d set the example he intended. But deep down, he knew what had to happen next. He had seriously wounded Hinman and if the situation wasn’t dealt with, he would pay the price. Gary would go to the police, Manson knew.
Before leaving the small hillside home, Charlie spoke privately to Bobby. It is believed that Charlie ordered Bobby to finish what he started.
Charlie grabbed the keys to one of Gary’s cars (a Fiat) and he and Davis departed. They also took a set of Hinman’s bagpipes with them.
The women attempted to treat Gary’s wound, stitching up the ear with dental floss. Things might have calmed down, but Gary pled with his captors to take him to a hospital. Beausoleil knew that if Gary got medical attention, he would also report what happened. For that reason, he killed Gary Hinman.
Gary’s body was found two days later, and two days after that, Charlie split town. He told people at the ranch he’d be gone for weeks, maybe even months. But he returned on Friday, August 8th — just four days later.
Meanwhile, Bruce Davis and other members of the Family (including Susan Atkins and Charles ‘Tex’ Watson) were making use of their free time by imbibing in liquid speed. They kept it in a baby food jar, hidden under the porch of one of the ranch buildings.
Charlie returned that Friday to bad news: Bobby had been arrested for Gary’s murder. That night, two of the women also got arrested for using stolen credit cards at a Sears store in the Valley. Manson totally lost his shit that night, and ordered Watson, Atkins and two other women to go kill a bunch of people.
Charlie told Watson that he owed him, for past favors.
He told the women they were going to start Helter Skelter, a race war that he’d been ranting and raving about (ever since listening to the Beatles’ White Album several months before).
His real reason was to create a copycat crime, so that police would believe that Bobby was innocent of Hinman’s murder and release him. That was the only way that Charlie could ensure that Bobby wouldn’t rat him out.
Five people were killed in the early hours of Saturday, August 9th. Davis didn’t join the killers, but by the next day he was aware what had happened. That night, when Charlie gathered the same four killers and two others, Bruce lent Manson gas money for their murderous next mission.
A married couple were killed by members of the Family that night.
Helter Skelter, Night Two
the death of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, told from the perspective of the killers
Two days later, Charlie sent Tex Watson to Death Valley to hide. A couple days after that, he had Bruce drive a couple of the younger teens along with some stolen goods, to where Watson was staying.
Bruce returned to Spahn Ranch just in time for August 16th. The ranch was raided at dawn by law enforcement investigating reports of auto theft and other crimes. Bruce was among those arrested, but the group was released days later on an administrative error.
Charlie believed that a ranch hand, Donald Jerome Shea (known as Shorty) had been snitching to police. After the Family came back to Spahn Ranch, he ordered several people to kill Shea.
Shea’s killers included Bruce Davis and Tex Watson.
“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.” — Bruce Davis, from his 2014 parole hearing
The story is that nearly every member of the Family played a role in tormenting, torturing, killing, burying Donald Jerome Shea — or disposing of evidence.
A week later, the Family again fled to Death Valley. It wouldn’t be long before Charlie would be planning murder again. He asked Catherine Gillies, whose family had a property not far away, to go kill her grandmother and hasten her inheritance. She agreed, and left with two men but they got a flat tire and had to turn back. Davis may have been one of the men with her.
Charlie also asked Davis to intercede when two teenage girls (Barbara Hoyt and Sherry Cooper) ran away. Davis and Family member Steve Grogan (another Shea killer) drove back to L.A. to search for the girls, but luckily did not find them.
In October, Charlie and several others committed arson in the desert — the burning of a piece of heavy earth-moving equipment belonging to the Park Service. They were arrested just a couple weeks later, including Bruce.
Investigators spoke to the pregnant girlfriend of Bobby Beausoleil while she was at the jail in Independence, transporting her back to Los Angeles to question her about what she knew of the Hinman murder. She implicated Susan Atkins, who was also picked up and brought to L.A., to Sybil Brand Jail for Women. Susan spilled the beans about Gary’s murder, although she didn’t mention that Bruce Davis had driven the killers there, or that he had shown up with Manson and witnessed Charlie’s wounding of the victim.
Later that month, another member of the Family told police about the murder of Shorty Shea. She named Davis among the other suspects and admitted that most of the women helped cover up the ranch hand’s murder.
That November, Bruce Davis and several other Family members were staying at a friend’s rented house in Venice Beach. One of the members, John Phillip Haught (aka Zero) allegedly committed suicide playing Russian Roulette. But when police arrived, they found that the gun was wiped clean, but traces of Davis’ prints were later found on it.
Charles Manson was indicted and tried for the Tate/LaBianca murders and later, for the Hinman/Shea deaths. Susan Atkins and two other women were found guilty of the Tate/LaBianca murders, along with Tex Watson. Bruce Davis and Steve Grogan were found guilty of the Hinman/Shea murders, along with Atkins and Beausoleil.
But after Zero’s death in early November, Bruce flew back to London. He was there three weeks, and the day he returned to California, another mysterious death occurred: Joel Pugh, the former boyfriend of Family member Sandra Good.
“He was lying on his back, unclothed except for a sheet over his lower body, his throat slit twice, slash marks on both wrists, and two bloody razor blades nearby… Mr. Pugh had checked into the room on October 27, accompanied by an unknown young woman who had left after three weeks. His room was on the ground floor and could be entered and exited through a window. No fingerprints were taken, and the case was listed as a suicide and closed.” — The Family by Ed Sanders ©2002 Thunder’s Mouth Press
The suspicion that Bruce might have killed Pugh seems unlikely (unless Joel had been dead a couple of days before the discovery of his body). Davis departed for the states hours before Joel’s body was found.
On February 24, 1970, Bruce Davis was arrested in Bakersfield using a false ID to buy weapons. He was sentenced to a couple weeks in jail, and was released on March 15th. A month later, he married Family member Nancy ‘Brenda’ Pittman in Nevada, signing the marriage certificate as “Mark Rollins Grant”. This was a marriage of convenience to prevent either from testifying at Bobby’s upcoming trial.
Bruce and Brenda spent ten months on the run, finally turning themselves in on December 2nd — at Manson’s orders.
“That was my first good decision in a long time — I suppose my first step toward rehabilitation… I didn’t realize the implications of it. I just knew that I couldn’t live on the run. Being an outlaw is not as romantic as it’s cracked up to be. It certainly wasn’t for me.” — Bruce Davis, from his 2014 parole hearing
In November, 1971, Manson, Bruce and Steve Grogan were tried for their roles in the Shea and Hinman murders. Manson (who had already been convicted of the Tate/LaBianca murders) received a second death sentence for Hinman/Shea. Davis also was sentenced to death but the California Supreme Court soon (temporarily) abolished the death sentence, converting his sentence to life in prison — with the possibility of parole. He was initially sent to San Quentin, later to Folsom Prison near Sacramento, and now he is serving at the Center for Men’s Corrections in San Luis Obispo.
But let’s go back to those dates I just cited. We know where Davis was during the following periods:
June to November 1968: In Tennessee with family
November 1968-April 25, 1969: In Tennessee or London at Scientology Headquarters. Not in California during these months.
***David Faraday and Betty Jensen were killed by the Zodiac Killer on December 20, 1968 in Benicia, California. Davis was confirmed in London on this date.
April 26, 1969 and for several days: Back at Spahn Ranch
Late April to late May 1969: With Family in Louisiana
Late May-early October 1969: at Spahn Ranch (including verifiably on July 21st)
***Michael Mageau and Darlene Ferrin were shot by the Zodiac Killer on July 4, 1969 in Vallejo, California. Darlene died as a result of her injuries. Mageau survived, though badly wounded. We cannot confirm where Davis was on the 4th although it is believed that he was seen at Spahn Ranch, nearly 400 miles south of where Mageau/Ferrin were attacked.
July 26, 1969: driving (twice) from Spahn Ranch to Gary Hinmans’ home and back again
August 9th, August 16th and August 26/27th: at Spahn Ranch among other dates
September to October 11, 1969: in Death Valley and Los Angeles
***Bryan Hartnell and Cecilia Shepard were stabbed by the Zodiac at Lake Berryessa in Napa, California. Hartnell survived. Shepard died from her injuries. Davis was likely in Death Valley at this time, but his precise locations during these dates are unverifiable.
***October 11, 1969: Paul Stine shot and killed in San Francisco. Bruce Davis was in Las Vegas during this day, and returned to Death Valley with the rest of the Family early the following day. He could not have made the trip from Vegas to San Francisco to Death Valley in this short amount of time.
October 12th: Davis Arrested in Death Valley
November 6: In Venice during the ‘suicide’ of John Haught
Mid-late November: In London
February 24 1970: Arrested in Bakersfield
Late February 1970: in court
Late February — March 15, 1970: in jail
April 20, 1970: In Nevada with Nancy Pitman
December 2, 1970: Turned himself in to law enforcement
October to November 1971: On trial for the Hinman and Shea murders.
April 21, 1972 to Present: In prison
***There are suspected Zodiac killings that take place after Davis’ incarceration although they have not been conclusively ruled by law enforcement as attributable to the notorious Zodiac killer.
There have also been numerous letters sent between 1972 and 2007 that claim they are from the Zodiac. Davis would have been incarcerated during this time, and his letters would have been sent from his prison unless he had an accomplice. The Zodiac is known for committing his crimes alone.
Homicide investigation teams have never named Davis a person of interest in their Zodiac cases. This author feels that if they suspected a member of the notorious Manson Family were in any way involved in their crimes, police would have spoken up.
The largest piece of evidence that seems to support Davis NOT being the Zodiac is the dates. He just couldn’t have been in all of those places, at those times. Additionally, the description or profile of the Zodiac also points away from Davis.
The Zodiac is believed to be motivated by an extreme case of rage. Bruce Davis committed his capital crimes at the order of Manson, not out of personal animosity for the victims.
The Zodiac was known for being a skilled marksman, highly trained with guns. Davis would have been around guns during his time at Spahn Ranch, and he held a gun when Charlie slashed Gary Hinman with the cutlass sword, but we have no evidence of Bruce Davis ever firing a gun and certainly not possessing the kind of skill associated with Zodiac.
“I had never had a pistol in my life before. I’d shot a pistol, but I’d never had one. I didn’t ever own one.” — Bruce Davis at his 2019 parole hearing
The Zodiac was described (by witnesses and surviving victims) as perhaps 5'8" and up to 200 pounds or larger. Bruce Davis gained weight during his first couple years in prison — perhaps weighing as much as 200 pounds (although I doubt this) but again, this is while he was incarcerated and clearly not involved in the Zodiac killings. His height was around 5'8" at the time but the shoe size (based on prints found at the crime scenes) was decidedly smaller than the Zodiac.
Witnesses to the San Francisco murder claimed the killer was in his early 40s. Davis was 27 in 1969. They also said the suspect wore glasses. Davis was not known to wear glasses as a young man. Several described Zodiac as ‘barrel-chested’. Davis was of slight build. Witnesses described the suspect as having dark blond or light brown hair. Davis had dark brown, almost black hair. The killer was clean-shaven. Bruce wore his hair long, and usually had facial hair.
Many of the law enforcement agencies investigating the Zodiac believe that the killer had served in the military. Davis had no association with the armed services.
So I don’t know where this suspicion rose, about Davis possibly being the Zodiac but I think we can pretty well debunk this.
Bruce Davis has served in prison since 1972. He has been recommended for parole several times including this year (2020). California Governor Gavin Newsom will decide if Davis (who is now 78 and in poor health) is eligible for release.
H. Allegra Lansing is the author of The Manson Family: More to the Story (published 2019 from Swann Publications). You can learn more about the Family and their crimes by visiting MansonFamily.net.