Tests suggest possible new Manson grave sites

Sunday, March 16, 2008

DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, Calif. -- Bone-white stretches of salt, leached up from the lifeless soil, lay like a shroud over the high desert where a paranoid Charles Manson holed up after an orgy of murder nearly four decades ago.

A determined group of outsiders recently led forensic investigators searching for new evidence of death -- clues pointing to possible decades-old clandestine graves.

And the results of just-completed follow-up tests suggest bodies could indeed be lying beneath the parched ground. The test findings -- described in detail to The Associated Press, which had accompanied the site search -- conclude there are two likely grave sites at Barker Ranch, and one additional site that merits further investigation.

Next step, the ad hoc investigators urge: Dig.

For years, rumors have swirled about other possible Manson family victims: hitchhikers who visited the ranch and were not seen again, runaways who drifted into the camp then fell out of favor.

The same jailhouse confessions that helped investigators initially connect the band of misfits living in the Panamint Mountains with the gruesome killings that terrorized Los Angeles hinted at other deaths. Manson follower Susan Atkins boasted to her cellmate Nov. 1, 1969, that there were "three people out in the desert that they done in." Other stories surfaced. In the absence of bodies, they were forgotten.

"We prosecuted Manson and the family for all the murders we could prove. But you know, could he have killed someone else? Possibly. Could another member of the family have killed someone? Sure," said Steve Kay, a former deputy district attorney.

Last month the investigators assembled in the ghost town of Ballarat for a 20-mile ride in all-terrain vehicles to the ranch.

The team included two national lab researchers carrying instruments to detect chemical markers of human decomposition, a police investigator with a cadaver-seeking dog, and an anthropologist armed with a magnetic resonance reader.

Also in the group were victim Sharon Tate's sister and a gold prospector who was once Manson's closest neighbor.

Prospector Emmett Harder guided the expedition.

He had a claim on Manley peak, one of the jagged points looming over Barker Ranch, while the Manson family camped there in the late 1960s. He shared dinner with the band at times and gave the men work.

During one of these visits he heard Manson say, "We're not hippies; we're here to get away from the troubles of the world."

Later, Harder would learn more about the cult leader's belief that the end of the world was near -- and Manson's conviction that through murder, he had a role to play in accelerating it.

For the last five miles of the gravel road from Ballarat, the route tilts sharply upward as it enters narrow Goler Wash.

"The family's plan was to make this impassable -- you can see how you could do that here," said Sgt. Paul Dostie, a police detective and dog handler, pointing to the boulders that protrude from the canyon walls. Any of them could be rolled into the wash, blocking passage.

Barker Ranch was one of several hideouts used by the Manson family.

The killings that launched the cult into national newspapers had been orchestrated from Spahn Ranch. The killers retreated to Spahn after the 1969 murders of Gary Hinman on July 31; Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Voytek Frykowski, Abigail Folger and Steven Parent on Aug. 9; and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca on Aug. 10.

This was to signal the start of the apocalyptic race war Manson told his followers would pit blacks against whites. He preached they would emerge at the end and rule over the survivors.

Barker Ranch was where Manson withdrew in those last days.

About 100 yards behind the house, Dostie readied his trained dog, Buster, for the search.

"Go find Fred!" Dostie said, releasing the dog on the command that sends him searching for human remains.

The dog bounded away. Then he lay down in a depression in the ground, quivering, ears upright. Buster looked at his trainer and emitted a high-pitched whine.

"He's alerting," Dostie said, planting a flag on the site.

Meanwhile, Arpad Vass and Marc Wise, senior researchers from Tennessee's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, were readying the first of the instruments they'd brought. It was a hand-held device shaped like a gun.

The machine detects fluorinated hydrocarbon compounds, one of the approximately 400 types of volatile organic compounds emitted by human bodies during decomposition. Focusing on these compounds is important because Vass believes they're formed as the fluoride added to urban drinking water is released after death.

Their presence helps differentiate a human bone from bones from wild animals, explained Vass.

The instrument beeped at regular intervals. As it approached the ground, the beeping accelerated until it was a steady stream of sound.

"That's impressive," Wise said. Vass agreed.

Using a thin, 3-foot long probe, Vass tested the soil in the area.

"Undisturbed soil isn't this easy to probe," he said.

"We need to do an IR," he said, turning to Wise.

He was calling for the next piece of machinery. It could be calibrated to detect different compounds, using technology known as infrared spectroscopy to "read" a particular molecule's profile.

"We're getting the highest hits here, where the ground is soft," Wise said. "There's definitely something down there," he said. "We just can't know yet exactly what until we dig."

The men crouched close to the ground, gathering three samples of dirt from each area of interest for further analysis. Vass said considering the quantity and types of markers of human decomposition found, the cadaver dog's response and the probing exercise, he found enough evidence to warrant further testing and a full-scale excavation at Barker Ranch, according to the report he issued to law enforcement.

But if a body is found on the ranch, then what?

The likelihood of a new prosecution appears slim. Locating remains would be just the first step, said Patrick Sequeira, the Los Angeles County deputy district attorney in charge of the Manson family parole hearings since Kay's retirement.

"You have to tie them to someone who has disappeared, and there were a lot of people floating in and out of the family environment who were runaways, or hiding out," he said.

Then investigators would have to find out who killed them, where, and who could testify, he said.

The Manson family members currently in prison are already serving life sentences -- the maximum penalty allowed at the time the crimes were committed.

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