PANAMINT SPRINGS, Calif. — A posse of Inyo County sheriff’s investigators and forensic experts this morning began digging for human remains at a remote ranch in Death Valley National Park once used as a hangout for the notorious Charles Manson family.
Armed with ground-penetrating radar, spades and a cadaver dog named Buster, the 20-member group’s mission was to wring every fact they could out of the sandy soil at the ranch where Manson and his followers holed up in 1969 after the massacre of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and six others.
Of particular interest today were two sites where cadaver dogs and analyses of soil samples produced mixed but somewhat encouraging results that could possibly support lingering rumors that bodies may be buried at Barker Ranch. The collection of sheds and a rock-and-plaster ranch house are five miles up a rugged black rock canyon at the park’s southwestern boundary.
Inyo County Sheriff Bill Lutze has said a total of five sites may be excavated over the next few days amid temperatures forecast to hover near 110 degrees. Sheriff’s authorities were expected to provide reporters with a progress report later today.
In the meantime, Rock Novak, proprietor of a country store in the forlorn ghost town of Ballorat, had his hands full this morning. His tiny store had become a gathering place for reporters and satellite trucks. Surveying the growing number of journalists, he shook his head and said, “My, my, we got CNN, we got Fox, we got newspaper reporters, all kinds of stuff going on today. I’m starting to get a little nervous.”
Wild-eyed career criminal Manson directed the gruesome forays that resulted in the massacre of Tate, three friends and a teenager at her Benedict Canyon home, and the slaying of a couple in Los Feliz the next night.
A member of the Manson family later suggested that there were bodies buried at Barker Ranch.
The ongoing Barker Ranch investigation has involved forensics experts from the Utah attorney general’s office, the private laboratory Evident Inc. of Virginia, an archaeologist from Cal State Long Beach and members of the Anthropology Research Facility at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, otherwise known as the “Body Farm.”
Locals predicted that investigators might unearth ancient Indian graves. Some park rangers speculated that if human remains are discovered at the ranch, they may be connected to a separate Death Valley mystery: the 1996 disappearance of four German tourists — architect Egbert Rimkus, 34, his girlfriend, Cornelia Meyer, 28, his 10-year-old son Georg Weber, and Meyer’s son Max, 4.
In the late 1960s, the Manson gang roamed the barren Death Valley landscape in dune buggies and prepared for “Helter Skelter,” a race war Manson was trying to spark. The phrase was taken from a Beatles song, which Manson believed was encoded with predictions that the conflict would destroy modern civilization. Manson and his followers planned to survive by living in a tunnel, then emerge as leaders of some new world order.
Manson was arrested by law enforcement authorities who discovered him hiding beneath a sink in the ranch house five miles up Goler Wash, a narrow rocky canyon that is home to chuckwalla lizards and wild burros and must be traversed via a teeth-rattling serpentine dirt road.
After months of frustration investigating the 1969 murders, detectives got their break when Manson follower Susan Denise Atkins, who was being held at the Sybil Brand Institute in East Los Angeles on separate murder charges, talked to another prisoner who conveyed incriminating information to authorities.
In 1970 and 1971, Manson, Atkins, Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel and Tex Watson were tried for murder. All were found guilty and sentenced to death. The sentences were commuted to life imprisonment when the state Supreme Court abolished the death penalty.
Their petitions for parole have been repeatedly denied.
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